Steinbeck and Kaufman at Cherchez La Farm The Story of John Steinbeck's Odyssey to Bucks County, PA
by Don Swaim
George S. Kaufman and his neighbor Moss Hart -- each casually dressed for the country -- are engrossed as they compose their stage play The Man Who Came to Dinner. [photo below] It's 1939. The somber Kaufman is seated behind an enormous manual typewriter, while the younger Hart stands pensively to the side, a cigarette in a holder at his lips. The two are working in a room, flowered wallpaper behind them, at Kaufman's fifty-nine acre rural home, dubbed Cherchez La Farm (in reality Barley Sheaf Farm), in the hamlet of Holicong, Pennsylvania, roughly equidistant between the regional art and entertainment center of New Hope and the winding streets of Doylestown, the Bucks County seat. Kaufman and Hart have based their comedy on the persona of the expansive, formidable New Yorker writer Alexander Woollcott who, after a weekend at Hart's own Bucks County home, Fair View Farm, wrote in the guest book, "This is to certify that I had one of the most unpleasant times I ever spent." When Hart moaned to Kaufman about the misery he would have faced if Woollcott had broken a leg and had been forced to stay at Fair View Farm for the summer, mutual inspiration hit the men like a twin thunderclap, and the two playwrights buckled down to compose what would become one of America's most successful farces. This image of Kaufman and Hart is in a photograph among the archives of the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown.
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Photo by Maynard Clark. Courtesy Michener Art Museum
Another snapshot taken two years earlier might have shown a similar scene, only with John Steinbeck, cigarette in his fingers, standing pensively near a dour -- although non-threatening -- Kaufman as the two polished the theatrical version Of Mice and Men, based on Steinbeck's powerful short novel. It was Kaufman's wife, Beatrice, who started the chain of events that eventually brought the two men together. Kaufman was forty-eight in 1937, an established man of the Broadway stage, wealthy (thanks to the shrewd strategy of investing in his own plays), and a charter member of the Algonquin Hotel Round Table. Steinbeck was thirty-five, and although of modest means, was basking in the critical and popular success of the 186-page novel that the writer characterized as a "play-novelette." Steinbeck's stay in Bucks County was a short one, but the results culminated in a significant boost to the Californian's career, for the stage play of Of Mice and Men won the Drama Critics Circle Best Play of Year Award, and led to a triumphant film version (directed by Lewis Milestone, screenplay by Eugene Solow, with the added benefit of a musical score by Aaron Copland). Thus, the reading public was receptive to Steinbeck's next major work, the book considered to be his masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath. Kaufman also was to solidify his reputation, and proceed to direct My Sister Eileen, Guys and Dolls, and The Solid Gold Cadillac.
Kaufman had always worked best with collaborators, among whom were Marc Connelly, Herman J. Mankiewicz, Edna Ferber, Morrie Ryskind, Dorothy Parker, Ring Lardner, Alexander Woollcott -- even Kaufman's second wife, Leueen. Steinbeck's relationship with Kaufman proved to be more complicated than their single, short team effort would suggest, and misunderstandings led to a long estrangement between the two.
George Kaufman was born (without the middle initial he late gave himself) on November 16, 1889, to a middle class family in Pittsburgh, where the future playwright and director wrote stories and plays for his high school literary magazine before entering law school at Western University of Pennsylvania (now the University of Pittsburgh). After pleurisy forced him to abandon his single effort at higher education, Kaufman worked at a number of jobs as a typist, clerk, and salesman. In New Jersey, where he labored for a ribbon company, he sent humorous essays to the Passaic Herald, then to popular columnist Franklin P. Adams (who went by the initials FPA), first at the New York Mail, later at the New York Tribune. Kaufman's first piece was published by Adams in his "The Coning Tower" in the fall of 1909. It was FPA who got Kaufman a spot as a drama reporter for the Tribune, and who was instrumental in landing his protege a job as a columnist for the Washington Times. Kaufman lost that position when the publisher observed the young writer's Semitic features and demanded, "Who is that Jew in my composing room?" Kaufman returned to New York to work at the Mail, then rejoined Adams at the Tribune, and later went to The New York Times, where he headed the drama department until 1930. By the time he met Steinbeck, Kaufman had either co-written and/or directed a succession of hit plays, musicals, and films, including Merton of the Movies, Beggar on Horseback, The Royal Family, June Moon, Once in a Lifetime, Strike Up the Band, The Front Page and, for the Marx Brothers, The Coconuts, Animal Crackers, and A Night at the Opera. Still to come would be The Band Wagon, Of Thee I Sing, You Can't Take it With You, Merrily We Roll Along, Stage Door, My Sister Eileen, and Romanoff and Juliet.
Despite his quiet demeanor, Kaufman -- sometimes described as "The Wit's Wit" -- became a sedate ringleader of the group known as the Algonquin Hotel Round Table, in part the inspired creation of a publicity agent named Murdock Pemberton, who engineered a luncheon for Woollcott in the hopes of planting a story in the critic's influential theatrical column in the Times. The corpulent Woollcott relished the attention and soon brought to subsequent luncheons his cronies, who included Kaufman, FPA, Robert Benchley, Heywood Broun, Marc Connelly, Harpo Marx, Dorothy Parker, and others who came and went, but all leaving behind the puns and quips that are still quoted as though they were new.
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Algonquin Round Table by William Auerbach-Levy 1889-1964 (Kaufman lower right)
By this time, Kaufman had married Beatrice Bakrow of Buffalo, New York. While the two were said to be mismatched sexually, their relationship lasted for twenty-eight years until her sudden death. It was Beatrice -- as well as a California sex scandal of sorts -- that led Kaufman to Cherchez La Farm, and ultimately to his collaboration with Steinbeck.
Biographer Scott Meredith, the literary agent, wrote that after a miscarriage, Beatrice renounced sexual relations with her husband (their daughter Anne was adopted), and each took other lovers from time to time. Kaufman became involved with the young actress Mary Astor, whose diary surfaced as part of a custody battle with her ex-husband in 1936. In the diary, Astor wrote of her romantic liaison with Kaufman, "...it is beautiful, glorious... I can't top it with anything in my experience." To duck a subpoena, Kaufman, who was staying at the Garden of Allah Hotel in Hollywood, stealthily slipped out of California by hiding in a laundry truck, which spirited him under cover of darkness to the railroad station. Safely back in New York, Kaufman admitted to a reporter that his escape from California may have been undignified, but that he thought the public would be glad to get rid of him. Beatrice, insisting that George was in love with her no matter what, decided that it was time to partially abandon the glare of unwelcome publicity in New York for a more serene and cloistered environment.
Visiting her childhood friend Dorothy Michael Pratt in Bucks County, fewer than 100 miles to the west, Beatrice learned that a nearby country estate, Barley Sheaf Farm, owned by Mrs. Juliana Force, director of New York's Whitney Museum and widow of Dr. W. D. Force, was up for sale. Reportedly, Beatrice phoned her husband in Manhattan to insist that he would love it, that no one was around, that there was no social life, only quiet country people who minded their own business. Despite his protests, Kaufman reluctantly took the train from Pennsylvania Station to examine the farm for himself, and, won over, told his wife the place was hers if she wanted it. Winding country roads, covered bridges, quaint stone farm houses, charming villages, and dramatic vistas of the Delaware River added to property's attraction. The purchase of the farm was big news in the local newspaper, the Intelligencer of Doylestown. On September 24, 1936, reporter W. Lester Trauch wrote, "Bucks County's literary colony, which includes Pearl S. Buck and Dorothy Parker, will add to its brilliant list of newcomers Mr. and Mrs. George S. Kaufman..."
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Barley Sheaf Farm, Holicong, PA (Cherchez La Farm)
photo by Don Swaim
Originally, the Lenni Lenape Indians hunted on the land, managing to survive until 1775 when the last of the natives, about forty in number, fled westward to escape "war and rum." An Indian legend has it that if a tribesman dropped a barley sheaf into a pool known as the Konkey Spring, that same leaf would mysteriously resurface at Ingham Spring near Aquetong, three miles away. The Indians not withstanding, William Penn, who was awarded Pennsylvania and Delaware by the crown to settle a £16,000 debt to his father, granted 500 acres of land to one George Jackman in 1681. Apparently, Jackman failed to develop the property, which twenty years later was passed on to a physician, James Streater. In 1714 the land was sold to a yeoman, E. Rinsey. The Barley Sheaf Farm's original structure was built in the 1740s. During the ownership of Juliana Force, an ice house was made into a caretaker's cottage, and a swimming pool and a small pond were added to the property. A woodshed, corn crib, various storage buildings, and a greenhouse also came into being. Across a circular gravel drive from the main house was a big gray barn on a stone foundation. The barn contained horse stalls and an addition which Juliana Force used as a studio.
The Kaufmans signed an agreement to buy the farm for $45,000 on September 25, 1936. Set at the end of a long, tree-lined drive far back from the busy highway, it looks today much as it did in Kaufman's day. The handsome three-story fieldstone main house went through at least three additions over two centuries, giving it a rambling look, and creating a rather peculiar, almost whimsical, distribution of rooms. The playwright dubbed his new home Cherchez La Farm, which means "I Can't Find the Farm" or "Dear Home: The Farm," depending on the translation. Biographer Malcolm Goldstein described the layout of the Kaufman home this way. "On the second floor were master bedrooms for Kaufman and Beatrice, each with its private bath, a dressing room for Beatrice and a study for Kaufman, and two servants' rooms and bath. On the third floor were Anne's bedroom and bath and two guest rooms with a bath." Kaufman pumped an estimated $100,000 into renovations on the old home, including a new kitchen, a theme he explored in his comedy George Washington Slept Here, which ran for 173 performances in New York before being filmed with Jack Benny as the star in 1942. Kaufman was said to have been indifferent about food, but he used his new kitchen to good advantage making fudge, which he craved.
The year Kaufman moved to Cherchez La Farm, Steinbeck had completed In Dubious Battle, was writing a series about migrant workers ("The Harvest Gypsies") for the San Francisco News, and was putting the finishing touches on Of Mice and Men. He was living in Pacific Grove, California (the setting for Cannery Row), where he wrote to his friend Lewis Paul, "Finished my new little book and sent it off a week and a half ago and of course have heard nothing from it. I don't know whether it is any good or not." Later in the year he wrote to his friend George Albee that Of Mice and Men "...is disliked by some and liked by some. Covici [his editor] likes it anyway. It is a tricky little thing designed to teach me how to write for the theater." Corresponding with Wilbur Needham, a book critic for the Los Angeles Times, Steinbeck said, "I don't know whether I am capable of writing for the theater. I just have to learn." The novel, which became a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, was published in March 1937, and Steinbeck was overwhelmed by its success, writing to Pascal Covici in amazement that 117,000 copies of Of Mice and Men had been sold. "That's a hell of a lot of books." Steinbeck and his wife Carol planned to celebrate the book's publication by sailing to Europe.
On October 4, 1936, the Intelligencer headlined, "Kaufman Joins Literary Back-to-Soil Move; Gets Historic Farm With Magic Well in Bucks."
click to enlarge Doylestown Intelligencer Oct. 4, 1936, courtesy Spruance Library
The story went on to say that, "It's beginning to look as if the Algonquin Hotel, capital seat of New York's sophisticates, has moved, bag and baggage, to Bucks County." By the time the Kaufmans and their two servants (one a chauffeur since Kaufman did not drive) were ensconced at Cherchez La Farm, Bucks County had already become a magnet and a haven for writers, composers, and artists.
Novelist Josephine Herbst (the Trexler Family Trilogy) and her husband, writer John Herrmann, discovered that the area was a tranquil place for creative activity. As a young author, John Cheever saw Herbst's Erwinna farm as a sort of personal pied-a-terre, and speculated living there one day. Socialist Michael Gold, editor of The Masses, sold his farm in Erwinna to humorist S. J. Perelman and his brother-in-law, novelist Nathanael West. Alvah Bessie, novelist and screenwriter (later one of the Hollywood Ten imprisoned for defying Congress during the communist witch hunts), visited his ex-wife and sons in Bucks County off-and-on after serving in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in Spain. Margaret Widdemer, now mostly forgotten, was in the midst of a writing career that would result in more than thirty books of fiction and poetry.
Kaufman's younger collaborator, Moss Hart, was so taken with the area that he and his wife, singer-actress Kitty Carlisle, bought eighty-seven acres near the Kaufmans on Aquetong Road.
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Dorothy Parker and her husband Alan Campbell purchased a 111-acre farm, Fox House, in Pipersville. Nobel Prize winner Pearl Buck and her husband, Richard J. Walsh, president of the John Day publishing company, bought the 400-acre Green Hills Farm in Perkasie for a mere $4,100. Jean Toomer, who figured in the Harlem Renaissance, abandoned his literary career and attempted to establish a spiritual institute in Doylestown.
Anthropologist Margaret Meade and future Pulitzer Prize winner James A. Michener were graduates of Doylestown High School (in 1962 Michener ran for a House seat as a Democrat in Bucks County's Eighth Congressional District but lost decisively). Later, other artists joined the migration. Eric Mowbray Knight (Lassie Come-Home) was a neighbor of Fred Finklehoffe (Meet Me in St. Louis) in Springtown. Pulitzer Prize-winner James Gould Cozzens (Guard of Honor) lived in nearby Lambertville, New Jersey. Upstream from Lambertville, in Stockton, lived Paul Gallico (The Snow Goose) and JP Miller (Days of Wine and Roses). Arthur Koestler (Darkness at Noon) resided on an island in the Delaware River north of New Hope, a community that also drew Budd Schulberg (What Makes Sammy Run?), Edmund Schiddel (The Devil in Bucks County), Millen Brand (screenplay for The Snake Pit), and Patricia Highsmith (Strangers on a Train). Katherine Anne Porter wrote Ship of Fools at the Inn of the Sorrel Horse [The Waterwheel] just outside of Doylestown. Also in Doylestown was John Wexley (The Last Mile). In Erwinna lived Daniel Fuchs (the Williamsburg Trilogy) and Joseph Scrank (screenplay for Cabin in the Sky). Lester Cohen (screenplay for Of Human Bondage) lived in Carversville.
Even before the triumph of Oklahoma! Oscar Hammerstein II raised Angus cattle on his forty acre Highland Farms near Doylestown. (Hammerstein had an even more direct link with Steinbeck. The librettist co-produced, with Richard Rodgers, Steinbeck's play Burning Bright in 1950, and wrote the book for the musical Pipe Dream, based on Steinbeck's novel Sweet Thursday in 1955.) Hammerstein's protege (and sometime babysitter), Stephen Sondheim, studied at the Quaker George School in Newtown, twelve miles to the south.
In their studio in Solebury, Stan and Jan Berenstain added to their bestselling illustrated Berenstain Bears books for children. [Stan Berenstain died in 2005.] Mystery writer Lawrence Block owned an art gallery in New Hope in the 1970s. At his home in Buckingham Township, Pulitzer Prize winner Jonathan Weiner writes easy-to-read books about science. Also in Bucks County are novelist and musician James McBride [The Color of Water, Miracle at St. Anna] and Bram Stoker Award-winning author Jonathan Maberry [Pine Deep Trilogy].
Much of the rural nature that attracted these artists has been vandalized by irresponsible, uncontrolled growth, resulting in strip malls, homogeneous housing developments, and a planned six-lane highway that will slash across Bucks County like a scar across the face, destroying homes and open land. [Update: highway plans were downgraded to a two-lane "parkway."]
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Bucks County Playhouse, New Hope
photo by Don Swaim
Although Kaufman, while keeping rented quarters in Manhattan as a kind of lifeline, adapted readily to provincial living, he was annoyed by the view from his train window on the trip from New York to Trenton, the nearest station to his area of Bucks County. In an essay in The New Yorker titled "Does Newark Have to be Where It Is?" Kaufman complained that as his train left Penn Station, it emerged from the tunnel under the Hudson River into New Jersey, and the first thing he saw was a rusting auto graveyard -- and Newark. Tongue-in-cheek, Kaufman pronounced his fervent hope that Newark be moved elsewhere. Life Magazine featured a photo essay on the star-studded house parties at Barley Sheaf Farm in its edition of September 6, 1937. On the weekend of Life's photoshoot the guests included Hart, Harpo and Susan Marx, Broadway producer Max Gordon, Lillian Hellman, and lyricist Howard Dietz and his wife. One winter, Kaufman, annoyed by the many guests downstairs, emerged from his study and stalked into the living room, where he flung the screen from the fireplace and began jumping on it. "First time on any screen," he proclaimed. Kaufman was a skilled bridge player (he wrote the introduction to a book written by bridge pro Charles Goren), but his outdoor passion was croquet, and a single match at Cherchez La Farm would sometimes last well into the night.
Beatrice Kaufman, now the East Coast representative of Samuel Goldwyn Pictures, read Of Mice and Men with growing excitement. She had been sent the galley proofs by Annie Laurie Williams, the dramatic agent associated with Steinbeck's literary agents, McIntosh and Otis. Williams had hoped that Beatrice would recommend the book to Goldwyn as a film. Instead, within ten days after publication, Beatrice -- always vigilant for hot properties -- pranced down the stairs, galleys in hand, to tell Kaufman she had discovered something that he had to tie up. The story, a brooding tragedy involving an itinerant farm worker, George, and his mentally impaired pal, Lennie, was not the usual Kaufman material of light comedy and fast-paced musicals, but he immediately saw its theatrical possibilities. Despite its compact length, the novel's depth is profound, and remains the subject of growing scholarly analysis. Through Williams, Kaufman acquired the dramatic rights, with the intention of directing the play himself. He engaged as the producer his friend Sam H. Harris (frequently confused with Jed Harris, another producer-director associated with Kaufman, a mistake perpetuated in Jackson J. Benson's definitive Steinbeck biography). Kaufman wrote to Steinbeck with a number of suggestions, telling the author that the book "drops almost naturally into play form and no one knows that better than you."
Steinbeck had written the novel primarily in dialogue, and had given the unpublished manuscript to Wellman Farley, president of a labor drama group in San Francisco called the Theatre Union. The theater company staged a dramatic version which ran for sixteen performances at the Green Street Theater in North Beach in May 1937. Apparently, the performance was static and the dialogue verbatim from the book. By this time it was known that Kaufman had acquired the dramatic rights and had planned a Broadway version in the fall. A critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, commenting on the Theatre Union production, predicted that Kaufman's version "will be more sharply dramatic, more resourceful in its use of theatre values."
Steinbeck wrote to Elizabeth Otis and Annie Laurie Williams to say that he had taken Kaufman's suggestions seriously, and that he hoped to have a draft of the dramatic version of Of Mice and Men completed by the time he and his wife Carol arrived in New York. The S. S. Sagebrush, the freighter transporting Steinbeck and his wife, docked in Philadelphia on April 15, 1937, after a complicated voyage via the Panama Canal. Steinbeck did not meet with Kaufman on this leg of his journey to Europe. The director had left New York on April 1, bound for Hollywood to work on what was to prove to be an abortive screen project with Moss Hart (three years later Hart turned it into the lavish musical Lady in the Dark, but, while in Hollywood, the two decided to create a satirical musical which was to star George M. Cohan, I'd Rather Be Right). A draft of Steinbeck's play reached Kaufman at his Hollywood home away from home, the Garden of Allah on Sunset Boulevard. According to biographer Malcolm Goldstein, Kaufman could not quite make sense of the draft, even when comparing it scene by scene with the novel.
The Steinbecks remained in New York for two and one half weeks, where they shopped enthusiastically at Macy's and Woolworth's. He and Carol also had one of their more spectacular fights, and John, with growing panic, phoned hospitals and the police after his wife angrily stalked off into the night, not returning for hours. Editor Pat Covici dragged Steinbeck to a formal dinner honoring Thomas Mann, and John, bored by the speeches, slipped off to the hotel bar by himself to drink a double brandy and soda. Later, during a press conference at Covici's office, Steinbeck was photographed sitting at a desk with a bottle of brandy next to him, which fueled the hearsay that Steinbeck was a heavy drinker -- not necessarily bad publicity in the era of hard-drinkers Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner. Steinbeck was not a teetotaler, but neither was he a drunk.
Alexander Woollcott, host of a popular CBS radio broadcast sponsored by Grainger Tobacco called "The Town Crier," explored the possibility of inviting John to appear on the program, but Steinbeck, in a letter to Otis and Williams, fretted about the interview, citing "...my hatred of personal matters... I simply cannot write books if a consciousness of self is thrust on me." Steinbeck would later describe his first visit to New York as "a dark hulking, frustration." John and Carol went on by freighter, the S. S. Drottningholm, to Denmark, Sweden, and Russia, returning to the United States in August. Amusingly, Harper's Magazine reported that Steinbeck was forced to dock 156 miles up the Hudson River in Albany because the freighter on which the author and his wife sailed did not stop in New York City.
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