Performances

April 2004

 

Matched Wits, Kindred Spirits

 

By Rob Kendt

 

ItŐs tempting to assume that Edna Ferber, lifelong spinster and author of such ripe Americana as Showboat, Cimarron and Giant, was the one who supplied the sentiment, while it was George S. Kaufman, screwball comic craftsman par excellence, who provided the crackling repartee to the duoŐs series of Broadway hits (Dinner at Eight, Stage Door, and The Royal Family). She brought the warmth, in other words, he the wit.

 

As critic Robert Garland wrote in a review of their last collaboration, a minor comedy called Bravo!, which closed after 44 performances: ŇMiss Ferber, a romantic sentimentalist, and Mr. Kaufman, BroadwayŐs brightest wise guy, are continually at oddsÉ She dearly loves to play with unhomed... unhappy paper dolls of two dimensions. He, on the other hand, dearly loves to knock them down.Ó

 

But that shorthand sketch isnŐt entirely fair. Indeed, it wasnŐt just FerberŐs success as a popular novelist and short story writer that first attracted Broadway hit-maker Kaufman to her as a potential collaborator in 1923.

 

What piqued his interest, as much as anything, were reports that reached him of FerberŐs barbed wit. Especially endearing to Kaufman, apparently, were a pair of her priceless retorts. The first was addressed to no less a personage than Noel Coward, who had the poor judgment to disparage a tailored suit she wore by saying, ŇYou look almost like a man.Ó FerberŐs unperturbed reply: ŇSo do you.Ó

 

The other cherished Ferberism was a letter to New Yorker editor Harold Ross, whose film critic had implied that Ferber was to blame for a mediocre screen adaptation of one of her books. ŇWill you kindly inform the moron who runs your motion picture department," she wrote coolly, "that I did not write the movie entitled Classified? Also inform him that Moses did not write the motion picture entitled The Ten Commandments."

 

For her part, Ferber was attracted as much by KaufmanŐs theatrical acuity and success--heŐd had a series of hits, co-written with Marc Connelly, and as a director of other writersŐ work he was practically a box-office brand name--as by his assiduous discipline and punctuality as a collaborator. A compulsive and prolific writer herself, Ferber recognized in Kaufman a kindred spirit, or at least a like-minded pro.

 

When they wrote together, typically at FerberŐs Central Park West apartment, Kaufman would arrive for their 11 a.m. writing sessions just as her clock was ringing the first of 11 chimes, fastidiously dressed, while she was at her typewriter, a crisp blank page at the ready.

 

Their first collaboration, on an adaptation of her short story ŇOld Man Minick,Ó went so swimmingly that they completed the first draft in less than three weeks. And even when the writing was more arduous, as it was in the seven months they spent writing their first smash hit, The Royal Family, the result was distinguished by its polish and tightness of construction: Apart from a third-act speech added during previews, the version of Royal Family they turned over to producer Jed Harris in 1927 was staged exactly as written.

 

Not that this marriage of true minds was all sweetness and light. The two quarreled constantly, if good-naturedly, as they worked, and for all of KaufmanŐs devotion to writing, once in the room he was far from a poised, calm professional.

 

Ferber described the ŇmechanicsÓ of their collaboration in her autobiography, A Peculiar Treasure: ŇShaved, brushed, pressed, shined, Kaufman appears at eleven sharp, wearing (among other things) one of his inexhaustible collection of quiet rich ties. I sit at the typewriter; George stalksÉ George jiggles the curtain cord; plays tunes with a pencil on his cheek which he maddeningly stretches taut into a drum by poking it out with his tongue; he does a few eccentric dance steps; wanders into the next room; ties and unties his shoestringsÉ If there is a couch in the room--any room--he stretches out on it.Ó

 

Kaufman also had the habit, in the midst of his restless wanderings around her apartment, of absent-mindedly examining every piece of paper on her desk, script page or not, as if trolling randomly for inspiration. The practice drove Ferber to such distraction that she once sent herself a telegram and left it out on her desk, knowing heŐd come across it. When he turned it over and read its message--ŇGeorgie Kaufman is an old snooperÓ--he was momentarily amused but blissfully unshaken from his habit.

 

The two writers had much in common. Separated by just five years--Ferber was the elder--both were smart, secular Jews from industrious families who had turned their talents first to journalism. But while Ferber found her greatest success, and lifelong career, in her work as a novelist of the American landscape, Kaufman was a consummate man of the New York theatre, and a serial collaborator whose only solo play was The Butter and the Egg Man. He wrote hits with Marc Connelly (Merton of the Movies), Morrie Ryskind (the Marx Brothers vehicles The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers), Ring Lardner (June Moon), and most famously with fellow all-around theatrical giant Moss Hart (Once in a Lifetime, Merrily We Roll Along, You CanŐt Take It With You and The Man Who Came to Dinner).

 

A notoriously gloomy, self-deprecating man who went through marriages and affairs as prolifically as co-writers, Kaufman was never short of ideas or of confidence, though he appears to have been the sort of social creature who thrived as much on the validation of othersŐ confidence in him as on the competitive drive of fighting for his point of view with like-minded peers.

 

In Ferber he found a particularly lively and stubborn sparring partner. A perpetually upbeat and self-admittedly stage-struck bon vivant who privately nursed her own insecurities (she had a nose job long before they were common practice--and Al Hirschfeld, in his caricature of the Algonquin Round Table wits, wickedly drew her without a nose), Ferber provided the original germ for all their collaborations.

 

Still, it was Kaufman who initiated the partnership by suggesting there was a play in her short story ŇOld Man Minick.Ó She was skeptical and had to be wooed into working on it. Their next collaboration, The Royal Family, was a thinly veiled portrait of the Barrymore acting dynasty--an idea suggested by Ferber, who had been impressed by the regal Ethel Barrymore when the star appeared in FerberŐs first play, an adaptation of her popular Mrs. McChesney stories, in 1915. Kaufman and Ferber would later insist that the play wasnŐt really about the Barrymores, apart from the character of Tony Cavendish, who was clearly modeled on the roguish John Barrymore. But no one bought this disclaimer, least of all Ethel Barrymore, who explored the possibility of a lawsuit to stop production, and whose relationship with both authors was thereafter consistently chilly.

 

The hard feelings apparently werenŐt shared by all the Barrymores, since both John and Lionel appeared in Kaufman and FerberŐs next hit, Dinner at Eight (1932). A satire of the social aspirations and machinations that attend a typical New York dinner party, the play was a pet idea of FerberŐs for years. Though Kaufman shared her distaste for senseless social gatherings, in this case it was he who had to be won over; he couldnŐt see how all the dinner guestsŐ stories could successfully be crammed into a workable play. But Ferber eventually wore him down, pointing to the success of the similarly constructed Grand Hotel. The play was a huge success for them both. So was the catty 1936 backstager Stage Door, about a boarding house for actresses. None of their later collaborations reached the heights of these three theatrical jewels. And all their work together--apart from an ill-conceived 1941 drama, The Land Is Bright--shared a fascination with larger-than-life theatrical and social figures.

 

If there is some justice in the shorthand critical impression of what Ferber and Kaufman each brought to their joint efforts, it may be here, in their differing perspectives on glittering backstage world that was their perennial subject. Ferber was incurably smitten with this world, which had treated her so well: The musical Show Boat, which was based on her novel and on which she consulted closely, and The Royal Family opened the same week in 1927, to unanimously ecstatic reviews. For Kaufman, who divided his time between the boisterous trenches of the theatre trade and the lonely craft of the writer, the fascination with show business as a comic subject had as much compulsion as affection in it.

 

Indeed, itŐs been well reported that Ferber was in love with Kaufman, possibly for the rest of her unmarried life, and that Kaufman, though he had his share of extramarital dalliances, didnŐt return the feeling. Is it this bittersweet tension that infuses their work, and sets it apart from the Swiss-watch comic perfection of KaufmanŐs plays with Hart?

 

A good way to imagine the yin and yang of their collaboration is to counterpose a pair of self-revealing quotes. Ferber once wrote: ŇI think that in order to write really well and convincingly, one must be somewhat poisoned by emotion.Ó For his part, Kaufman handily dismissed his own talent thus: ŇWhen I come to write that book on playwriting--which I never will--the first twenty-six chapters will be concerned with How to Pick a Collaborator. Because I donŐt mind telling you thatŐs where I excel.Ó