Bel Kaufman: Still Tangoing at 99 — in Stiletto Heels!
“On May 10, 2011, I will be 100!” Bel Kaufman said in amazement during our August 26 lunch at Shun Lee West. “I’m not sure how I’m supposed to feel. I have never been 100.” The Berlin-born, Russian-speaking granddaughter of Yiddish humorist writer Sholom Aleichem, vibrant in a turquoise ensemble, recalled the evolution of her 1965 best-seller, “Up the Down Staircase” (Prentice Hall), which was made into a film by the same name in 1967. “I had written a short story, ‘From a Teacher’s Wastebasket.’ Nobody wanted it. A young editor, Gladys Justin Carr, suggested I expand the story of the fictitious Calvin High School into a book.” Recalling her then angst, Kaufman said: “I was a short-story writer. I had never written a book. I [then] created an outline, characters that were real. I had to remember who the kids were. I got a sizable advance, [and] I spent it! I felt guilty! I was penniless. I had left my husband, Sidney Goldstine. My grown children were in college. I had moved out of a 14-room duplex at the [landmark] Apthorp into a two-room apartment. My mother was in the hospital with cancer…. There were bubbles on the paper from my tears!” Between bites, she paused and said: “It took nine months. Just like a baby.”
Kaufman, whose first name was Bella, explained that at the suggestion of her then agent, she shortened her name to Bel to make it sound masculine. “I had written a short story called ‘La Tigresse,’ about a femme fatale. At that time, Esquire, a [relatively] new magazine, only used male writers. [Thinking I was a man] they bought the story [and others that I wrote]. I was the first woman writer to be published in Esquire.”
When we revisited her memories of her famous grandfather, Kaufman reiterated what she has often told audiences: “I am the only living person who remembers his voice.” In response to my query about the Sholom Aleichem statue in Kiev, Ukraine, that was erected in the writer’s memory and demolished, Kaufman replied: “It’s been restored. There are now annual [Sholom Aleichem] celebrations in various parts of Ukraine.” Kaufman said that, during a recent visit, she “heard Ukrainians sing [the folksong] ‘Oyfn Pripetshik Brent a Fayerl’ [‘The Flame Burns in the Oven’].” Her afterthought: “How extraordinary that this was happening on the spot which is saturated with Jewish blood…. It was worth waiting 90 years to see the changes.”
The setting for Kaufman’s meeting with her husband of 35 years, Sidney Gluck, resonates like a scene from the musical “South Pacific.” She recalled: “It was at a friend’s party. I was wearing a slinky dress and three-and-a-half-inch heels. I saw him across the room — but without his gray beard. This tall man! I passed him and sat down.” Suddenly, another guest, who was a psychiatrist, “sat down next to me. He kept looking at his watch. And then he said:” ‘I have to catch a train. Can I call you?’ and then left. That’s when Sidney came over and asked to take me to dinner. I told him I couldn’t cook. He replied, ‘I can.’ He came with steak.” Renaissance man, artist and photographer, Gluck is also the moving force behind the Sholom Aleichem Memorial Foundation.
As we were parting, Kaufman repeated her mantra: “I have a passion for dancing. All Latin dances.” That evening, she was going to her weekly dance session, where, she said, “I dance with professional dancers — six to eight partners each night.” Not bad for 99!