When George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber began their professional partnership with Minick in l924, they found each other at the height of their individual and flourishing careers. Ferber had won the Pulitzer Prize for So Big and was in the midst of writing Show Boat. Kaufman’s tremendous output as a playwright had included co-authoring Merton of the Movies and Beggar on Horseback (both with Marc Connelly), The Butter and Egg Man, and the enormously successful The Coconuts, starring the Marx Brothers. But it was together that they put together some of the finest theatre of this century–including The Royal Family.
George S. Kaufman
George S. Kaufman, playwright, screenwriter, director, and producer of stage plays, was known as “the great collaborator.” His collaborative efforts won him the Pulitzer Prize twice. Of Thee I Sing, written with Morris Ryskind, George Gershwin, and Ira Gershwin, became the first musical ever to win the Pulitzer Prize. You Can’t Take It with You, which he wrote with Moss Hart, earned him his second Pulitzer Prize.
Kaufman was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1889. He moved with his family, first to Paterson, New Jersey, and then to New York City where he began earning a living as a wholesale ribbon salesman, after a few months of fruitless law-study.
His contributions of quips and humorous verse to the notable newspaper columnist Franklin P. Adams led to his being guided by Adams into a job writing a column of his own, and this in turn led to his becoming drama editor of the New York Times. Adams and Kaufman were leaders in the clique called the Algonquin Roundtable (of which Patrick Dennis’s Auntie Mame was fictitiously said to have been an ornamental member).
As drama editor of the Times, Kaufman was at the busiest crossroads of the theatrical world, and he soon began to tinker with writing plays of his own. The first two were failures, in 1918 and 1919, but he achieved a smash hit with his third try, Dulcy. Here again he was indebted to Adams, since the play was based on a fictitious character named Dulcinea who frequently appeared in Adams’s column.
Dulcy was written in collaboration with Marc Connelly. The Kaufman and Connelly partnership, thus established, resulted in seven more plays by 1924, five of them hits, making them the greatest playwriting team of the time.
From then on, Kaufman was America’s most collaborating playwright. With sixteen different partners he achieved a tremendous output that was a major contribution to American theatrical history. He had a hand in writing forty-four plays and musicals. He directed twenty-two of these, plus sixteen written by others.
Inasmuch as an extraordinary proportion of these attractions were big hits (18 of those he wrote ran more than 200 performances on Broadway) his prodigious activity made him a big fortune—put him among the biggest money-makers in the history of the American theatre, and certainly left a heritage in the American theatre that will not soon be forgotten.
At the time of Kaufman’s death in June 1961, Moss Hart, who had collaborated with him on eight plays, said at his funeral: “No history of these forty years in the American theatre can be written without George S. Kaufman’s name and influence on it looming large and clear.”
Edna Ferber was born in 1885 in Kalamazoo, Michigan, but she was raised in Appleton, Wisconsin. Her tremendous creative output began at age seventeen, when, following graduation from high school, she took a reporting job on the Appleton Daily Crescent; and she soon advanced to the Milwaukee Journal and the Chicago Tribune.
She discarded her first novel because she didn’t think it was good enough; however her mother retrieved it and had it published as Dawn O’Hara in 1911. From then on, Ferber was one of America’s most popular and esteemed authors.
Perhaps her greatest gift was her enormous sense of curiosity: ideas for many of her novels and stories came from snatches of conversation that happened to catch her interest. “I have never been on the Mississippi or in the deep South,” she once said. “I wrote Show Boat [which is set in the South]. I know nothing of farms or farming, which forms the background of So Big [which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1925]. I wrote Cimarron after spending just ten days in Oklahoma.” She spent more time in Texas, and her novel, Giant, about that state and its citizens infuriated the Texas populace. Yet, it sold five million copies and became one of the motion picture industry’s classic films, starring Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean.
Although Kaufman was generally gloomy and morose, Ferber was just the opposite, sunny and happy. For example, at one point in her career she rented the New York City penthouse of Ivar Kreuger, Sweden’s match-king. Upon moving into the apartment, she discovered to her delight that Kreuger’s various fruit trees on the terrace actually bore fruit. She promptly picked the fruit, jellied and bottled it, and joyfully sent the delicacies to her friends under the label: “Edna Ferber Farm Products, Park Avenue, New York.”
Ferber had written several stage works prior to the beginning of her association with Kaufman in 1924, most of historic interest only; among them Our Mrs. McChestney, The Eldest, and $1200 a Year.
Her death in 1968, at age 83, followed a long illness.
The Kaufman-Ferber Partnership
Kaufman and Ferber’s collaborative relationship began after Kaufman read Ferber’s short story, “Old Man Minick.” Kaufman insisted that there was a play in it, and the pair sat down and collaborated on it–the first of many plays that they were to write together over a period stretching from 1924 to 1948. Minick was subsequently produced at the Booth Theatre, New York, in September of 1924.
The Kaufman-Ferber association resulted in a list of popular successes that brought both individuals fame and fortune: including The Royal Family (1927),Dinner at Eight (1932), Stage Door (1939), The Land Is Bright (1941), andBravo! (1948).