Steinbeck and Kaufman at Cherchez La Farm, p. 2
After his return, Steinbeck was hauled by Annie Laurie Williams to her country home in Connecticut, where she ordered him to work on the play, what with rehearsals two weeks away. Williams told Steinbeck's biographer, Jackson J. Benson, that the novelist procrastinated -- making coffee, poking around in the yard, playing with the neighbor's children -- all the while insisting, "...I don't know how to write a play." Williams, who understood the format for composing theatrical scripts, helped Steinbeck with some of the technical aspects involving notations for entrances, exits, and set changes. Carol typed the pages on Williams' typewriter. But with time running out it became clear to Williams that Kaufman, celebrated as a "play doctor," had to be called in -- and soon. Steinbeck and Kaufman met for the first time at the Music Box Theater at 239 West 45th Street. Kaufman, taciturn and avuncular, was one inch over six feet, thin despite a sweet tooth, with a preference for dark suits, and a pompadour that rose high on his head. Despite his non-athletic physique, his glasses, and large nose, Kaufman seemed to attract women and was notorious for his extracurricular sex life. Steinbeck, too, was a tall man, but burly and rugged, self-conscious about his bulbous nose, big ears, and craggy complexion. He always maintained that he was a one-woman man. Except when he was drinking, Steinbeck was reserved in much the same way as Kaufman -- shy, in fact. Annie Laurie Williams said that when she introduced the two men they sat self-consciously on the theater's steps, not speaking. Williams decided that to get them to talk she would walk off and leave them alone. "When I came back, they were talking. But that was the only way I could do it, because as long as I was there, John would look at me and Kaufman would look at me, so I just got out of the way."
With the ice broken, Kaufman invited John and Carol to Cherchez La Farm, where on August 23 Steinbeck (describing his location as "somewhere in Pennsylvania") wrote to Lawrence Clark Powell, a librarian and Steinbeck's first bibliographer. "Doing some play work down here and in a couple of weeks we'll start home. I'm thoroughly tired of moving around. It's out of my system for some time."
click to enlarge Photo of Steinbeck by Beatrice Kaufman 1937, courtesy Michener Art Museum
It seems certain that Steinbeck's stay at Cherchez La Farm was a serious one, unlike the manic visits of Kaufman's pal, the semi-illiterate but wildly funny Harpo Marx, who would clown outrageously around the pool (the story goes that Harpo, covered in ketchup, once burst into the Kaufman living room where two serious-minded Quakers were being entertained, and proceeded to rant about not being able to kill enough cats for dinner). Beatrice took photos of most the guests at the farm and pasted them into scrapbooks -- which much later were given to the Library of Congress by the Kaufmans' daughter, Anne Kaufman Schneider. Photocopies of three snapshots originally in one of the scrapbooks show a husky John Steinbeck, cigarette in his hand, dressed in a checked short-sleeved shirt, on the lawn between the main house and the pool. In one of the shots John is seen playing with a dog.
click to enlarge Photo of Steinbeck by Beatrice Kaufman 1937, courtesy Michener Art Museum
On the same pages are photos of a grinning, masculine, Harpo Marx in a bathing suit. (The Library of Congress says the photographs of Steinbeck are missing from the scrapbook.) The degree that Kaufman shaped the play remains an open question, although Kaufman insisted that his role was primarily that of a carpenter, and that it was only the second act that needed what he called "fresh intervention." On the other hand, Steinbeck later wrote to Kaufman, calling it, "your play," and saying that "there is a curious gap between the thing in your hand and the thing set down and you've jumped that gap."When the two men returned to Manhattan to cast the drama, Kaufman expected Steinbeck to remain through the early rehearsals, but it was clear that the Californian was uneasy in the New York theater milieu. Kaufman, who initially wanted the temperamental Victor McLaglen for the role of Lennie, settled on Broderick Crawford. Wallace Ford was cast as George, with Will Geer as Slim, and Claire Luce (not to be confused with Clare Boothe Luce, author of The Women) as Curley's wife. On the eve of rehearsals, Steinbeck, Kaufman, Harris, and Donald Oenslager, designer of the play's sets and lighting, met in Harris' office on the second floor of the Music Box Theater. Oenslager said there was a detailed discussion of the production. Then, Steinbeck shocked the others at the gathering. According to Oenslager, "...Steinbeck rose and said that he felt all was in good hands and that his presence was no longer needed; whereupon he departed for California."
Steinbeck purchased a Chevrolet, and he and Carol set off toward the West Coast via Route 66, the highway that was to play a major role in the author's forthcoming The Grapes of Wrath. A stunned Kaufman proceeded to stage the play alone, and during a two-week trial run in Boston had, in addition to Of Mice and Men, two other plays running simultaneously in the New England city, Stage Door and You Can't Take it With You. What's more, Kaufman and Hart's I'd Rather Be Right, after tryouts in Boston and Baltimore, opened in New York on November 3, giving Kaufman a mere twenty days to refine Of Mice and Men before its debut. Kaufman -- as owner of fifty percent of the production -- had much at stake.
The director fully expected Steinbeck to return for the opening. Instead, John remained in Los Gatos when Of Mice and Men made its debut on November 23, 1937. While Steinbeck was absent on opening night he stayed by the phone at a neighbor's home to await news of the audience's reaction. Covici wired after every act. Annie Laurie Williams, Mavis McIntosh, and Elizabeth Otis phoned to report joyously that the opening was a success. The following day, Steinbeck wrote the three saying doubtfully, "A wire from Kaufman says it seems pretty good but he can't tell me how good. I mean a good first night reaction doesn't mean that it won't close pretty soon, does it?" Nevertheless, Steinbeck was optimistic enough to announce that, on the basis of the first night, he planned to buy a new typewriter.
He had reason for optimism. The play was an unqualified success, running 207 performances, moving to London in April 1939 (with John Mills and Niall MacGinnis as George and Lennie). Critic Brooks Atkinson called the Broadway production a masterpiece of the New York stage. Edith Isaacs maintained that Kaufman "added a perfect piece of direction, with exactly the pace, the movement, the emotional crescendo, and the pauses that enrich the action." Playwright James Forbes told Kaufman, "...since Henry Miller you are the only director that knows a goddam thing about bringing out the playwright's intentions, but in Of Mice and Men you have surpassed yourself."
click to enlarge George S. Kaufman, drawing by Ben Solowey, 1900-1978
From Los Gatos, Steinbeck wrote to Kaufman, "As the reviews come in it becomes more and more apparent that you have done a great job... It's a strange kind of humbling luck we have. Carol and I have talked of it a number of times. That we -- obscure people out of a place no one ever heard of -- should have our play directed and produced by the greatest director of our time -- will not bear too close inspection for fear we may catch the gods of fortune at work and catching them, anger them so they hate us... It doesn't matter a damn whether this show runs a long time. It came to life for one night anyway, and really to life, and that's more than anyone has any right to hope."
To Kaufman's chagrin, Steinbeck never returned to see the play, nor was he present when New York's drama critics awarded the production their highest accolade, citing "its direct force and perception in handling a theme deeply rooted in American life." The drama was also selected by critic Burns Mantle for inclusion in The Best Plays of 1937-1938. In the anthology Mantle wrote, "Of Mice and Men startled its first-night audience into upright sitting positions and such emotional quivers as no other Broadway audience had enjoyed since Jeanne Eagels cussed out a psalm-singing clergyman in Rain. No other spoken text had been as freely profane as this one since What Price Glory? was a success, and no other drama had offered so thrilling a dramatic climax as was discovered in the concluding tragedy of the Steinbeck story...There were auditors who recoiled from its ruddy boldness, and were free spoken in their resentment. But the greater number accepted and approved the drama for its obvious sincerities and its appealing exposure of the tragedy that is found in human loneliness."
Before the play went on a road tour, Steinbeck, now at work on what was to become The Grapes of Wrath, confessed to Annie Laurie Williams that he was afraid that Kaufman was angry with him for "what he must think is a lack of interest. It isn't. But I had this new book on my soul." Kaufman may have been angry for another reason, a malicious rumor, blatantly false, that Steinbeck had characterized Kaufman as a "wiseacre New York Jew." For the road show, Kaufman toned down some of the language of Of Mice and Men so as not to offend less-than-sophisticated middle America. Much later, Steinbeck's third wife, Elaine, said that her husband always regretted not traveling East to see the play. "He didn't realize until it was too late that he had made a mistake -- a practical mistake in not being closer to the production where he could have learned something, and also a mistake in depriving himself, needlessly, of something that would have been pleasurable."
Following his divorce from his first wife, Steinbeck in September 1941 moved permanently to New York, and two years later married actress-singer Gwyn Conger in what was to be an ill-fated union. About the time of Steinbeck's third marriage (to Elaine Anderson Scott), he ran into Kaufman at Steinbeck's favorite hangout, the "21" Club (Steinbeck once described the restaurant as being about $40 away from home). According to Howard Teichman, Kaufman's friend and sometime collaborator (The Solid Gold Cadillac), the author said to the playwright, "George, you haven't spoken to me in twelve years." Kaufman replied, "Then it's about time. How about dinner next Tuesday?" From that time, until Kaufman's death, the two men saw each other socially, the tensions created by Steinbeck's lack of involvement in the play at least partially overcome. Playwright Arthur Miller recalled meeting Steinbeck at Kaufman's New York home where Steinbeck apologized profusely for telling Miller -- who was involved in a dispute with the film director Elia Kazan over the issue of betrayal during the political witch hunts of the fifties -- that Miller was better suited to writing and directing than to politics. Miller, brushing off the apology, said of the more conservative Steinbeck, "His sensitivity must have been driving him crazy."Beatrice Kaufman died in New York unexpectedly of a cerebral hemorrhage on October 6, 1945. She was fifty-one. Although Kaufman was emotionally devastated, he returned to work directing a dark, death-dealing play called The Next Half Hour, a failure that ran for only eight performances. Less than four years after Beatrice's death, the fifty-nine-year-old widower married again, to a British actress, Leueen McGrath, thirty-five, who was appearing in the Broadway production of Robert Morley's London success Edward, My Son. Kaufman and Leueen were wed before a Doylestown justice of the peace, Jenks H. Watson (who was also a local car dealer), at Cherchez La Farm on May 26, 1949. The marriage lasted eight years, ending in divorce in 1957. In the interim, the couple decided to buy a house in London, prompting Kaufman to put the farm up for sale at auction before 350 people in 1953. The property went for $71,700, with Dr. Bradford Green of Buckingham purchasing twenty-nine acres, including the mansion, out buildings, and pool, for $45,000. Another twenty-two acres were sold for $18,000 to a neighbor, Henry D. Paxon, and the rest auctioned off in smaller units to Walter S. Repp of Philadelphia and George E. Hamilton of New Hope. On October 31, 1953, all the antiques, furnishings, and art that Beatrice had lovingly acquired for the farm were sold at auction in more than 400 lots. Kaufman may have been indifferent about the sale. It was said that his single favorite possession was a drawing of Mark Twain, signed by Twain.
Asked to write his own epitaph some years before his death, Kaufman came up with, "Over My Dead Body." Kaufman labored in the theater almost to the end, dying in New York on June 21, 1961, after a series of strokes. Moss Hart (who was to die a mere six months later) delivered the eulogy, telling the mourners that he could almost see George, peering down over the rims of his glasses, and saying of the tribute, "It needs cutting." Steinbeck, who won Pulitzer and Nobel prizes before following Kaufman to the grave seven years after George's death, has rightfully taken his place among the twentieth century's literary luminaries. But the creator of Of Mice and Men insisted to writer Abe Burrows and others that the play's success was entirely due to George S. Kaufman (and, no doubt, to Steinbeck's brief stay at Cherchez La Farm). "He made it easy for me," Steinbeck said of Kaufman. "I didn't realize that little things in writing made such a difference, and George taught it to me for the first time in my life. I couldn't have done Of Mice and Men without him."
click to enlarge Barley Sheaf Farm today. Photo by Don Swaim
Bradford Green sold Barley Sheaf Farm to Don and Ann Mills in 1974. Mills, a New York perfumer, opened the farm as a bed and breakfast four years later. A Swiss-American couple, Peter and Veronika Suess (who had studied innkeeping in Maine), acquired the property in 1994. The original asking price by the Mills was $1,550,000. The farm is still meticulously maintained as a B&B. There are no outside locks on the doors. The Suess family proudly boasts on their website that the farm was once the estate of George S. Kaufman (although they were unaware of Steinbeck's connection). The barn has been remodeled into two guest suites, a conference room, and an apartment for the Suess family.
Sheep still roam the grounds and honeybees continue to work the hives -- and, in a room with flowered wallpaper, one might easily imagine the ghosts of George S. Kaufman and John Steinbeck -- toiling studiously on Of Mice and Men.
ADDENDUMA group dedicated to historic preservation is trying to place the farm at which Steinbeck and George S. Kaufman polished Of Mice and Men on the National Register of Historic Landmarks. The sprawling farm was put up for sale by Peter and Veronika Suess with an asking price of $3,295,000. The new owner, Christine Soderman, took possession in July 2004. During renovations in October of that year, a fire damaged all three floors of a wooden addition to the historic main building. Three firefighters were treated for exhaustion. Soderman, who first tried to extinguish the fire with a garden hose, said, "It's a very sad day for my family. Thank God it is not more serious."
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My appreciation to the Bucks County Historical Society, Mercer Museum and Library, and the James A. Michener Art Museum.
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This article first appeared in "Steinbeck Studies," publication of
The Center for Steinbeck Studies
San Jose State University, San Jose, California
© Steinbeck Studies 2001
The Steinbeck Centennial Year 2002--Reflections and Highlights
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Email: Don Swaim