Elaine May broke down barriers for women in comedy, first as half of the celebrated comic duo Nichols and May, then as one of the few women writer/directors in Hollywood. The daughter of Yiddish theater star Jack Berlin, May made her stage debut at age three. She married Marvin May at sixteen and divorced him a year later, then hitchhiked to Chicago in the early 1950s, where she joined the Compass Players in 1955 and met Mike Nichols, a fellow troupe member. From 1960–1961 the pair performed brilliant improv as An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May, with May playing roles ranging from the stereotypical Jewish mother to more traditionally masculine personae like a scientist or psychiatrist. May went on to act in movies such as 1967’s Enter Laughing, write and direct the 1969 off–Broadway hit Adaptation, and direct movies such as 1972’s The Heartbreak Kid. She co–wrote the celebrated films Heaven Can Wait in 1978 and Tootsie in 1982, and wrote the screenplay for 1998’s Primary Colors. She brought an improv sensibility to her directing, encouraging actors to play with the material over multiple takes. May and Nichols reconnected in 1980 and went on to collaborate on The Birdcage in 1996.
How to cite this page
Jewish Women's Archive. "Elaine May." (Viewed on March 8, 2021) <https://jwa.org/people/may-elaine>.