Regarded as one of the wittiest women in New York during the 1930s and 1940s, Beatrice Kaufman edited important works of modernist poetry and fiction, published short stories of her own in the New Yorker, and saw several of her plays produced on Broadway.
She was born Beatrice Bakrow in Rochester, New York, on January 20, 1895, to businessman Julius and Sarah (Adler) Bakrow. She had two brothers, Leonard and Julian. Although few direct references to her Jewishness found their way into Kaufman’s later editorial work and writings, her early life fits the description of upper-middle-class German Jews who thought of themselves as liberal, modern, and forward-looking.
She was one of only a few Jewish women admitted to Wellesley College in 1913. Perhaps she disliked it, for she transferred to her hometown’s University of Rochester, where she studied in 1914 and 1915. On March 15, 1917, she married George S. Kaufman, who was just getting his start as a journalist. The couple moved to Manhattan, where George Kaufman’s plays secured them a place at the famous Algonquin Round Table (along with Alexander Woollcott, Edna Ferber, Harold Ross, and Dorothy Parker, among others). The Kaufmans developed a reputation for their sophistication and their tempestuous relationship.
In 1918, Beatrice Kaufman began what was to be a long and successful career in editing when she became assistant to the press agent for the Talmadge sisters. A short time later, she was hired as a reader by the publisher Al Woods. She earned her most influential post in 1920, when she became the head of the editorial department for the maverick publishing company Boni & Liveright, which introduced to the publishing world the practices of giving authors large advances and using direct advertising to increase book sales. During her five years at Boni & Liveright, Kaufman solicited and edited works by many of the most important modernist poets, novelists, and playwrights, including T.S. Eliot, Djuna Barnes, William Faulkner, e.e. cummings, John Steinbeck, George S. Kaufman, and Eugene O’Neill. Her enthusiasm for Ernest Hemingway’s first book, In Our Time, helped to overcome publisher Horace Liveright’s initial objections to it. In the 1930s, Kaufman went on to other editorial positions, serving as eastern story editor for Samuel Goldwyn and as fiction editor for Harper’s Bazaar and the Viking Press. When the bombastic theater critic and Kaufman’s close friend Alexander Woollcott died in 1943, Kaufman and Joseph Hennessey brought out an edition of his letters for the Viking Press.
While she made her name as an editor, Kaufman also wrote and published short stories in the New Yorker and plays that were produced on Broadway. In the guise of light, descriptive sketches, her short stories describe the frustration of middle-class women at their husbands’ condescension and at the drudgery of their child-rearing responsibilities. Kaufman also wrote two plays, Divided by Three (with Margaret Leech) and The White-Haired Boy, both of which were produced. The former, about a woman whose ties to her husband, son, and lover result in her splitting herself into three, was called “gaily sophisticated” but “overdrawn” by the New Yorker.
As her wry observations in her story “The Social Bridge Game” attest, Kaufman was an avid bridge player, as well as an occasional member of the Thanatopsis Inside Straight and Literary Club, a group of mainly men in the Algonquin circle who gathered to play a weekly poker game. She was also a member of the Dramatists Guild and the Seeing Eye, an organization for training dogs to lead the blind.
Kaufman died at age fifty-one on October 6, 1945, at her Park Avenue home. She was survived by her husband and their daughter, Anne Kaufman Booth. Her life demonstrated that a perceptive, ironic, and acculturated Jewish woman could become a valuable contributor to New York’s literary subculture. She was influential in shaping American taste and culture in the early twentieth century.
SELECTED WORKS BY BEATRICE KAUFMAN
Divided by Three, with Margaret Leech (1928);
“Every Twenty-Four Hours.” New Yorker (July 14, 1928): 59–62;
The Letters of Alexander Woollcott, edited with Joseph Hennessey (1944);
“The Phone Call.” New Yorker (June 1, 1929): 48–49;
“The Social Bridge Game.” New Yorker (November 24, 1928): 60–64;
“Tea with the Grownups.” New Yorker (April 27, 1929): 83–85.
Dardis, Thomas. Firebrand: The Life of Horace Liveright. New York: Random House, 1995.
Review of Divided by Three, by Beatrice Kaufman with Margaret Leech. New Yorker (October 20, 1934): 30–34.
“Beatrice Kaufman, Story Editor, Dies.” NYTimes, October 7, 1945, 44:3.
Wilson, Edmund. “The Letters of Alexander Woollcott.” New Yorker (July 29, 1944): 61–62.
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How to cite this page
Galchinsky, Michael. "Beatrice Kaufman." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on August 11, 2020) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/kaufman-beatrice>.