Wednesday, September 22, 2010

John Ned Kaufman

I never actually met my maternal grandfather and namesake, John Ned Kaufman, but that by no means is to suggest that I’m unaware of the considerable debt I and my siblings all owe him.

What I know about him for sure is that he was born near the Ukrainian city of Odessa, and came to this country with his parents when the odds started favoring their being butchered in a pogrom if they stuck around. He and his young bride settled in Minneapolis, of all places, and he began failing in a succession of business ventures. The family, which came fairly quickly to include my mother and her two younger siblings, got used to having to flee rented accommodations under cover of darkness when John Ned lacked the money to appease landlords. At one point, they had no hot water with which to bathe, and my mother, the most sensitive person on earth, was sent home for smelling bad. Thereafter, and until the dementia transformed her, she was not only the most sensitive person on earth, but also the most fastidious. (The first time I noticed a large spot on her clothing, it was as startling and heartbreaking as when she assured her doctor, a couple of months later, that she was 35.) At one point, the Kaufmans came out to Los Angeles, and my grandparents ran a sandwich shop in the Wilshire District, but it too failed, and they returned to the Midwest, where my argumentative grandfather got in the habit of being brought home bloodied or even semi-conscious.

And then, after Prohibition was repealed at the end of 1933, he suddenly got rich in the wholesale liquor business. The family moved to one of the most fashionable parts of Minneapolis that would abide Jews and my grandmother began wearing ermine. Four years later, John Ned was in his grave, and his three gorgeous children were all on the verge of disastrously unhappy adulthoods, presumably owing in considerable part to his having been alternately distant and tyrannical.

It’s common knowledge, though, that people are commonly much kinder toward and more supportive of their grandchildren than their own children. Given his having exited well before any of us entered, that wasn’t quite the case with John Ned Kaufman, but as noted above, we kids have ample reason to be grateful to him retroactively. Every time we got in serious, or even semi-serious, trouble as kids, it seemed that an unnamed former friend of our grandfather from the liquor business would step in on our behalves.

Take the time my elder brother Corky, as a freshman, failed to make his high school swim team. By the time he’d begun his sophomore year, an unnamed benefactor had given the school the money to build an Olympic-sized pool, and the coach came to our home personally to invite Corky to anchor the backstroke relay team. When Carla’s ninth grade boyfriend was involved in a tragic fall from the fourth floor of the Henshey’s department store building a few weeks after telling her he thought they should both be able to date other people, it was widely assumed that someone from the upper Midwest liquor business might have been visiting Santa Monica at the time.

Does the name Dorsey Keswick ring a bell? It will if you’re one of those whose idea of a pleasant Sunday morning is buckwheat flapjacks and the New York Times Book Review; his book The Apostrophe Catastrophe, about how Americans ceased en masse to understand the most fundamental rules of grammar beginning in July 1986, won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 2001. “Dorsey Keswick” is in fact the pseudonym of my younger brother Hillel, who hadn’t even been shortlisted, as I understand it, until the Pulitzer nomination committee heard from certain beverage interests in St. Paul, which of course is half of the Twin Cities.

As for myself, I could barely get arrested as a screenwriter until the Wm. Morris agency signed me as a client in 1991. Since that time, no fewer than three of my scripts have been produced, one of them featuring Bryan Batt, who later became so popular portraying the closeted gay art director Sal in Mad Men. There are those who believe my belated success has much to do with Bill Himself having been held out of a helicopter by his ankles, but I of course would prefer to believe that it’s all about the world finally having realized my brilliance.

[The second and third paragraphs of this are God’s truth, at least as I understand it.]

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