Edna Ferber & Uncle George

When I told Don that A Reunion of Ghosts had received the Council of Wisconsin Writers’ 2015 Edna Ferber Fiction Award, he said, “How appropriate.” It wasn’t until then that I realized the family connection I have–or, rather that Don has–to Edna Ferber.


Don’s great uncle was George S. Kaufman, the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner who was one of the most famous playwrights of his day. (A great appreciation of his life and work can be found here.) Along with other wits such as Robert Benchley and Dorothy Parker, “Uncle George” was a member of the famous Algonquin Round Table. He also wrote for, and was great friends with, the Marx Brothers. He’s the guy who gave us Animal Crackers, which means he’s the guy who gave us  Captain Spaulding, the African explorer (hooray, hooray, hooray) and who wrote the immortal line, “One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas I don’t know.”  One of Kaufman’s best known plays was You Can’t Take it With You, where the characters are based on Don’s grandmother Ruth and her children Alan, Katie and Bruce. Bruce was Don’s father.

Edna Ferber, the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist and author of plays such as Showboat and Giant, was one of Kaufman’s many collaborators. Together they wrote the plays Dinner at Eight, Stage Door, and The Royal Family.

muntitledAs for Don’s grandmother, Ruth Kaufman Friedlich, who occasionally wrote occasionals for The New Yorker, was quite the character. When I met her she was very old and very feisty. She’d regale me with stories about her famous friends and lovers. She was  very proud of her big brother George, who had died years before, when Don was a baby. It typically took no more than 5 to 10 minutes before she’d figure out a way to work George’s name into any conversation. The first time I met her she didn’t even wait for an opening. She greeted me, inquired as to where my people were from (“Nowhere impressive,” I said), and then, appropos of nothing, launched into  what I’d come to know as an “Uncle George story.” If memory serves, this story was about the time he’d stopped by while she and a few of her friends were doing some sewing. “Ah,” he said. “I see you’re having a hemorrhage.”

You know–hem…hemorrhage…

I married into the family anyway.

And now I seem to have written a novel full of similarly awful puns. And have received recognition in the form of an award named for Uncle George’s close friend and collaborator.

My character Vee would chalk it up to coincidence. But my character Delph might disagree. Maybe I got some help coming up with all those puns in my book, she’d posit. Maybe I was just another of Uncle George’s many collaborators, albeit an unwitting one. Just another writer fortunate enough to get some assistance from the great George S. Kaufman from the great beyond…a literal ghostwriter for A Reunion of Ghosts.

OK. Probably not. Still, it’s nice to imagine the in-laws are looking out for me.

stage door