He started life as a sickly, asthmatic child, confined to his bed. But illness didn’t stop him: Before reaching the age of 42, he had become the 26th president of the United States — the youngest person to hold that title.
Theodore Roosevelt Jr. was a strong-willed natural leader who embraced constant challenges. Dubbed the “conservation president,” he went up against timber barons to establish the U.S. Forest Service and hundreds of national forests, bird reserves, game preserves, and national parks, while protecting 230 million acres of public land. He signed into law the Antiquities Act to protect archaeological sites and monuments.
And yet, this nature worshipper was an obsessive hunter who tracked grizzly bears, stalked endangered white rhinos, and killed hundreds of animals — not all in the name of science.
THE STRENUOUS LIFE
Born in 1858 in a New York City brownstone, “Teedie” grew up thirsting for adventure. The bright 8-year-old preserved specimens and founded the “Roosevelt Natural History Museum” in his bedroom. He read obsessively, and by age 11 was writing essays on insects.
His merchant-philanthropist father, Theodore Roosevelt Sr., helped found the American Museum of Natural History in 1869. Teedie later donated his childhood natural history cabinet, containing thousands of animal specimens, to the museum. Encouraged by his parents to exercise, Teedie improved his health through the “strenuous life.”
He hiked, rode horses, and swam during summers around Cove Neck and at Tranquility, his family’s summer home in Oyster Bay. He hoped to become a naturalist and studied natural history and zoology at Harvard University.
After graduating magna cum laude in 1880, TR purchased land in Cove Neck for a home for his new wife, Alice Hathaway Lee.
THE HUNTER-CONSERVATIONIST CONUNDRUM
Enrolling in Columbia Law School, he dropped out in 1882 to pursue public service as a Republican. But his ambitions were crushed in 1884, when his mother and his wife both died, on Valentine’s Day.
The political life could not ease his grief. He headed for the Dakota Badlands, a buckskin-clad, New York City tenderfoot who reined in his sorrow by living in the saddle and hunting big game.
Roosevelt’s hunting passion was shaped by Victorian attitudes. Feathers and dead bird parts adorned women’s hats and boas, while gentlemen hunters embodied “all the qualities of the idealized, rugged, independent American,” as described in Environment and Society. Big-game specimens were collected — killed — to become trophies. Despite poor eyesight, Roosevelt loved the chase; he later recalled a group safari that “made our veins thrill.”
In 1885, on one of the last Dakotas buffalo hunts, he shot a bison, but the injured creature was never found. After several years he came home to pursue politics, married Edith Carow, and settled at Sagamore Hill. By age 25, TR was a three-time New York State assemblyman. He served as a reformer — on the Civil Service Commission, as police commissioner, assistant secretary of the Navy, governor of New York and vice president.
When President William McKinley was assassinated, Roosevelt assumed the office and curbed corporate power as a trust- buster. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1906 for brokering an end to the Russo-Japanese War.
As President from 1901 to 1909, he fought for wilderness preservation — and he hunted. On one 1909 safari, the Smithsonian-Roosevelt African Expedition, more than 11,000 animals were donated for taxidermy. Roosevelt and his son Kermit shot 512 animals, from aardwolves to zebras, many at excessive ranges. Author Bartle Bull wrote in time.com that the safari outfitter described “the slaughter which [Roosevelt] and his party perpetrated.”
This was the Jekyll and Hyde duality of Theodore Roosevelt. Today, his many supporters flock to his sprawling North Shore estate Sagamore Hill, where he lived from 1885 until his death in 1919. They view original furnishings and mementos throughout the 23-room Queen Anne home surrounded by forests and salt marshes. They absorb stories about the international dignitaries who visited this Summer White House from 1902 to 1908.
And they stare at his abundant hunting souvenirs — once-majestic creatures on display, now stuffed and silent — trying to understand the figure who is both revered and reviled.
Any fool can make a fortune; it takes a man of brains to hold onto it.
From the North Shore’s Gold Coast to the South Shore, they lived golden lives during the Gilded Age. But their scandal-ridden hijinks sullied their reputations and their fortunes nearly vanished, leaving only a dusty picture fading into history.
The dynasty began with Cornelius Vanderbilt. Born into poverty in Staten Island in 1794, he left school at age 11 to work with his father’s ferry business. At age 16 his mother loaned him $100 to start a Long Island Sound ferry; undercutting the competition, he made $1,000 that year, then expanded to the Hudson River and New England.
His character was despicable: One descendant said Cornelius was “Illiterate, bad-tempered and foul-mouthed,” and would “spit streams of tobacco juice and fondle the maids.” His philandering infected him and his wife, first cousin Sophia Johnson, with syphilis when he was 19. He ignored his daughters, insulted his sons, and committed family members to lunatic asylums.
He sold his shipping empire, bought New York Central and Long Island Rail Road, built Grand Central Station, and acquired ocean liners worth $100 million when he died at age 82, the richest American man disinherited all offspring except his eldest son, William Henry “Billy” Vanderbilt. Billy doubled his inheritance before dying in 1885, leaving much of his $200 million to his son, William Kissam Vanderbilt I.
LET THE SPENDING BEGIN
Like banks deemed too big to fail, the Vanderbilts’ wealth seemed invincible. They collected fine art, donated millions, endowed a university, and endured legal battles—a $10 million divorce, a custody battle over a child worth $5 million—and other scandals. They outdid each other by “Vanderbuilding” palaces for worshipping late 19th-century opulence.
Near what is now Connetquot River State Park Preserve, William Kissam Vanderbilt I established his 900-acre Oakdale hunting retreat/holiday residence in 1876. The estate boasted a 110-room mansion, palm house, bowling alley, English maze, and game pen with deer and elk. The mansion burned down repeatedly—first in 1899, during the honeymoon of his son William Kissam Vanderbilt Jr.—but the couple escaped and the mansion was rebuilt. It served as part of Dowling College but was auctioned last year after Dowling declared bankruptcy. Preservationists are lobbying against demolition and redevelopment.
William Kissam Vanderbilt II (Willie K.), a Harvard dropout who pursued speed sports, travel, and natural history, started developing his park-like, 560-acre “Success Lake” Deepdale estate in 1902. Of the structures—a 17-room mansion, inner terrace, sculptured columns, two crystal conservatories, a stable, and terraced views—one remains: Deepdale Gate Lodge.
RACING AGAINST REALITY
Willie K. created the first major road racing competition, the Vanderbilt Cup, in 1904. But he lost a fortune in the 1907 stock market crash and even tried selling vacuum cleaners and jewelry. After his 1909 divorce, unable to acquire Lake Success land, he abandoned his Georgian Colonial home.
In 1910, he started building a “modest” bachelor getaway house in Centerport overlooking Long Island Sound. The 43-acre estate grew to 11 buildings – a 24-room-Spanish Revival mansion (“Eagle’s Nest”), museums, a golf course, boathouse, seaplane hangar, and a salt-water pool. He hosted the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, the Tiffanys, and other notables, reportedly playing $50,000-per-hole golf with the Rockefellers. From Centerport, he sailed his yacht around the globe with a 50-person crew, collecting natural history and marine specimens.
Willie K. opened his home to the public in the 1930s; he died in 1944 and bequeathed the estate to the county with $2 million for upkeep. The Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum has been open to the public since 1950, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Vanderbilts’ legacy includes mansions, summer palaces, farms, museums, golf courses, country estates, and fascinating stories to go with them. Some remain, but many have vanished. But that’s another history.
In the 1950s, there were three fuzzy, black-and-white TV channels. Direct-dial phones, credit cards, iContraptions and computers didn’t exist.
It was this low-tech suburbia that produced Michael Crichton and his popular predictions of technological disasters.
Although he died from cancer in 2008 at age 66, Crichton’s popularity continues. Jurassic Park spawned five films; the next debuts in June 2018. A Swiss collector paid $100,000 for the crate housing the movie’s velociraptor. Crichton’s novels are in film and TV development. And an ankylosaur, Crichtonsaurus bohlini, bears his name.
The screenwriter, director, producer, anthropologist, professor, and physician — a true Renaissance man — focused on monsters running amok. Did his upbringing fuel such scenarios?
“I Was the Weird Kid”
He was born John Michael Crichton in 1942 in Chicago. In 1948, the family moved to Roslyn Heights and he attended Green Vale and East Hills Elementary. In 1996, he revisited Roslyn High, reminiscing with Newsday about childhood: Nobody feared being murdered. There was no known drug use. Child abuse wasn’t discussed. Children walked to school and rode bikes.
But paradise was imperfect. Crichton recalled home as “a pretty crazy house with lots of turmoil and yelling and screaming.”
His mother, a homemaker, took the kids to museums and libraries. His father, a journalist and executive editor of Advertising Age, was a demanding “first-rate son of a bitch,” Crichton said. Although they fought, the ad man provided inspiration. By third grade, Michael was writing plays. He loved movies, but they were forbidden. His parents relented with art films and movies by Alfred Hitchcock, Crichton’s first hero.
“The older I get, the more it seems that Hitchcock is the major influence,” Crichton recalled. No surprise there: Hitch loved trapping reluctant heroes in majestic settings, pursued by out-of-control powers.
“Big Mike” was 6 feet 7 inches tall by age 13. “I was the weird kid who wrote extra assignments….tall and gangly and awkward and I needed to escape,” he said.
Excelling at varsity basketball, he set three MVP records. He was an A student, the school paper news editor, a Latin scholar, and Harvard-bound.
“A Colossally Talented Guy”
Former Harvard Crimson editorial chair Robert W. Gordon said that “he was relatively understated…. It was only later on that many of us learned about many of the amazing different things he was doing at the time. He was a colossally talented guy.”
Crichton possessed a prescience about computers, completing his thesis on an IBM mainframe computer that occupied an entire building. He wrote programming manuals and computer games. He explored ethics regarding robotics and genetic engineering.
Majoring in anthropology, he wanted to be a journalist. But after earning C-minuses in English, disillusioned, Crichton decided on medical school. He graduated Harvard in 1964 summa cum laude.
To offset Harvard Medical School tuition, he wrote spy novels under a pen name. His first, A Case of Need, won a Mystery Writers of America Edgar award.
Graduating as an M.D. in 1969, he wrote full time; that year, his runaway-virus novel The Andromeda Strain was published under Crichton’s name. Universal Studios bought the novel and a young TV director, Steven Spielberg, guided him around the set.
Crichton directed Coma, Westworld and The Great Train Robbery, and wrote novels including best-sellers Sphere and Congo. Many became films, earning him tens of millions of dollars annually. TV’s ER and the movie Westworld revolutionized computer and camera effects.
New Life For Dinosaurs
On hearing about Crichton’s dinosaur-theme park idea, Spielberg committed to direct. The Jurassic Park films have earned $3.5 billion worldwide.
But insecurity plagued Crichton; much-married and divorced, he wrote incessantly. He told Charlie Rose, “My experience is of not being very gifted at writing, and of having to try really hard.”
Crichton wrote Jurassic Park six years before the first successful sheep cloning. Today, ironically, Harvard Medical School Genetics Professor Dr. George M. Church is using genome sequencing to resurrect the extinct woolly mammoth.
What would Crichton the future forecaster think of de-extinction? He might quote from Jurassic Park, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
That dazzling smile is instantly recognizable. No wonder: Supermodel Christie Brinkley has appeared on some 500 magazine covers around the world. Today, at age 63, the Malibu-raised surfer girl is an environmental rights advocate, humanitarian, TV host, Broadway star, New York Times best-selling author, and entrepreneur. The longtime Long Island resident spoke with the Long Island Press about Christie Brinkley Authentic Skin Care products, Hair2Wear extensions, Bellissima Prosecco sparkling wines, and the creativity and gratitude that sustain her.
Long Island Press: What would other people be surprised to learn about you?
CB: Some people say, “You should stay silent,” or, “Oh, just be pretty—that’s your job.” I’m an Aquarius. We believe that one individual can make a difference. It’s your responsibility to leave this world a bit better than you found it. As a kid I marched against the Vietnam war, but I support our troops and the people who stand up for us. I marched against putting nuclear weapons on fault lines in California. I led the Pledge of Allegiance at the Los Angeles Democratic convention. I am patriotic. I think the NFL should support players who take a knee. They respect the right that that flag represents. I do, too. But it’s got to be equal for everyone.
LIP: You have a long history of activism. What do you think about our country today?
CB: I’m really distressed by everything I see. I think President Trump is a divider. We have to be really, really careful to not allow that to happen. I think the segment of people that makes us feel like we’re terribly divided is much smaller than we’re led to believe. I could cry about this, I feel so strongly about it. I’m really apoplectic that we can mention nuclear war so casually, as if this is something we could recover from—because we can’t. Nuclear war is not an option. It’s immoral, it’s unethical, it’s like a death wish. Nothing good can come from that. Nothing. I’m distressed about what this
administration is doing to our environment. All the initiatives put in place to protect our health are being removed. I’m a very protective mom and even though my kids are grown, they’re still my babies. I’ll be damned if I’m going to let this administration destroy our children’s rights to breathe the air. A million children die every year in China because of the pollution—but they’re doing something about it.
LIP: With your kids grown, have you become an empty nester?
CB: Last year, Sailor, my last child at home, left. This is her second year of college. She was back that weekend with half the class that were new friends. So the house became a nest full of even more kids. When they do come home, they come home with a crowd. I really haven’t had time to get empty-nest syndrome yet.
LIP: What do you enjoy most right now?
CB: My life is so very full and busy. I feel so grateful that I have so many opportunities. I love spending time with my kids. When I do have spare time, I have wonderful friends. I love the fact that I have no routine to my life. I really do thrive on all the change, and every day is different. I work with different people all the time, whether it’s a group of people I work with on Prosecco, or all the wonderful people at Christie Brinkley Authentic Skin Care and Hair2Wear.
LIP: Why did you get into the wine business?
CB: My mom taught me to be grateful. If I felt low or sorry for myself, she said, “How dare you? Just count your blessings.” To that end, we loved to pop a cork and turn any situation into a celebration. It makes you look at life through a prism of gratitude. We’re certified organic and vegan, gluten free with no added sulfites, non-GMO, and delicious. A normal glass of wine has 52 chemicals. Unless certified vegan, wine is filtered through animal parts.
LIP: If you could live a different life, what would it be like?
CB: I wouldn’t change anything about the life I’ve lived because everything I did got me to my three children. Though it’s not always easy, they were the prize. If someone waved a magic wand, I’d love to spend more time on a giant schooner sailing from island to island. I’d love to raise the sails, harness the wind, and explore places I’ve never been. I’d dive off the bow into crystal-clear waters and swim up to beautiful islands.
LIP: After several marriages, you’re currently unattached. Is there anyone special in your life?
CB: No one really, right now. I’m just sort of dabbling.
LIP: What’s always in your refrigerator?
CB: Tons of fruits, vegetables, and acidophilus—a healthy gut is a happy gut. And a bottle of Prosecco.
Mary Mallon had spent most of her life living in squalid housing in the Lower East Side, but on August 4, 1906, she was escaping from all that, seated in a Long Island Rail Road car bound for Oyster Bay. The train pulled into the elegant new station that featured oyster shells in the exterior cement. She was looking forward to clean, cool, bay breezes.
She had been hired as a cook by Charles Henry Warren, the president of Lincoln Bank in Manhattan and banker to the Vanderbilts. Warren had rented a large yellow house with a wraparound porch at the corner of McCouns Lane and East Main Street. The mansion had well-manicured grounds at the edge of town sloping down to the bay, near President Theodore Roosevelt’s summer White House.
Mallon had come far since landing on American soil in 1883 as a 15-year-old from Ireland. The only people she knew were her aunt and uncle in New York City. They took her in but died shortly after. Mallon—also known as Mary Malone—had to fend for herself, a teenager with no family or friends, forging her way in a foreign land that was not entirely welcoming.
Earlier in the century in the mid-1800s, Americans had accused Irish immigrants of being rapists, carrying disease, practicing an un-American religion, and taking jobs away from American citizens—not unlike the anti-immigrant arguments of today. But by the late 19th century, those suspicions had lessened. Like many other immigrants, Mallon found work as a trusted domestic. She was a tall, blond, hard-working young woman who craved independence. She learned about cooking and became known as a good, plain cook, working for well-to-do Manhattan families. By 1900, the 37-year-old was preparing meals for prominent families, earning $45 per month, considered good wages. But she kept to herself and was seen as unsociable by the other servants.
Her specialty was dessert, so one night she made home-churned ice cream with fresh-cut peaches for the Warren household. Just weeks later, more than half the people served came down with typhoid fever. Between August 27 and September 3, six people fell ill. Three weeks after the outbreak, Mallon left abruptly, giving no notice.
Distrust and Denial
Typhoid attacked its victims with high fevers, aching muscles, stomach pains, exhaustion, and constipation or diarrhea. Untreated, the highly contagious infection could kill one in five people; in 1900, it killed 35,000 Americans. There was no cure, antibiotics didn’t exist, and a vaccine was not yet available.
Medical practitioners supported the “filth theory” of contagion, which held that typhoid was spread by unsanitary surroundings and people with poor hygiene and toilet habits. Immigrants, assumed to live in disease-ridden crowded housing, became scapegoats.
But what about the upper-class Warrens? None of them had associated with infected people.
Previously, medical disease theory of the 1850s embraced the “miasma theory,” blaming vapors (foul air) and environmental causes such as contaminated water and poor hygiene. In the late 1800s, doctors found that the typhoid toxin was transmitted through excrement and that water contaminated by human feces was responsible.
In 1900, researchers proved the germ theory: Tiny organisms invisible to the naked eye—like the typhoid-causing Salmonella typhi—could inhabit people and cause disease. This discovery revolutionized medicine.
But people remained suspicious of the invisibility theory. They couldn’t believe that things that couldn’t be seen could sicken humans—even in the best of homes.
When The New York Times covered the Oyster Bay outbreak, the home’s owner George Thompson panicked. As a member of the Seawanhaka Corinthian Yacht Club at Oyster Bay, he had to protect his reputation. Fearing the home would be condemned and burned down by the health department, in the winter of 1906, Thompson hired epidemic expert Dr. George A. Soper.
The New York City Health Department sanitation engineer at first blamed soft clams for the outbreak. But after nearly a year, Dr. Soper switched theories. He had learned that Mallon had started working in Oyster Bay on August 4—about three weeks before the outbreak. Dr. Soper was the first to suggest the “healthy carrier” theory of an asymptomatic person—one who is healthy but transmits disease.
Physicians of that era discovered many facts about disease, but much was still unknown. Also unknown was that Mallon had survived a mild case of typhoid fever as a child.
Give Me Your Urine
In 1907, 3,000 New Yorkers had Salmonella typhi. Dr. Soper found that during the previous 10 years, seven of the eight households Mallon worked in had come down with typhoid cases; 22 people were infected, and several died. In 1904, when she was the cook at Henry Gilsey’s Sands Point summer estate, four servants became infected. People would become ill within weeks of her arrival, and she would vanish soon after.
Dr. Soper suspected that Mallon’s body was a typhoid breeding ground. We now know that 5 percent of infected people become chronic carriers, excreting typhoid bacteria in their feces for a year or more. Doctors posited that Mallon didn’t wash her hands thoroughly so she transmitted germs when handling food—as when cutting up raw peaches for ice cream desserts.
Dr. Soper had to test specimens to prove his theory. While investigating an outbreak at a Park Avenue brownstone in March 1907, he met the cook: It was Mallon. He recalled in 1939, “I told her she was spreading death and disease through her cooking.” With a less-than-compassionate bedside manner, he insisted on taking samples of feces, urine, and blood for tests. Her reaction? “She seized a carving fork and advanced in my direction.” He quickly fled.
But he continued to zealously stalk Mallon where she worked and at her home. The health department, backed up by police, apprehended Mallon in 1907 after chasing her for hours, and forced her to give samples. Her stool tested positive for typhoid.
Up the River
With no trial, against her will, Mallon was physically restrained and taken to North Brother Island near Rikers Island. She was placed in involuntary confinement in a bungalow.
During the typhoid epidemic, people panicked, distrustful of each other and the authorities, and carriers were attacked by mobs. As Anthony Bourdain writes in Typhoid Mary, “It was not unheard of for those thought to be infected to be run out of town on a rail or set adrift in the Long Island Sound.”
During two years in confinement, most of her stool samples tested positive for typhoid. But no one tried to explain to Mallon why being a carrier was dangerous. After being hounded by Dr. Soper, she complained that the City of New York was persecuting her, insisting she had done no wrong. In 1908, the Journal of the American Medical Association dubbed her “Typhoid Mary.” Public sentiment was against her: She was a single, headstrong Irishwoman with no family or children, said to be the source of hundreds of typhoid infections.
A new health commissioner freed her in 1910. She promised to work as a domestic and not cook. But the department never trained her for a job that would pay well. Her laundress’ pay was inadequate so she resumed cooking, under assumed names. She fled her position at Sloane Maternity in Manhattan after 25 people fell ill—and two died—in three months. While working as a cook on a Long Island estate in 1915, she was apprehended, and again confined.
She protested by writing letters, saying she had “always been healthy,” and asking, “Why should I be banished like a leper and compelled to live in solitary confinement?” Doctors tried convincing her that while she seemed healthy, she spread bacteria. She didn’t believe them. They told her to wash her hands more often, more carefully. She didn’t listen.
Dr. Soper had described Mallon’s violent temper. Others said she had trouble making or keeping friends. She was seen as extremely determined and painfully isolated, even before being pursued.
But what if her suspicions (especially after being captured) resulted from her childhood typhoid? The Mayo Clinic states, “Untreated typhoid can cause permanent psychiatric problems such as delirium, hallucinations, and paranoia over the long term,” defining paranoia as “a symptom of a psychotic disorder in which patients become suspicious of others and feel that the world is out to get them.”
After 26 years of captivity, Mallon died in 1938. Historians say she contaminated at least 122 people and killed five. That same year, some 400 healthy carriers were identified and observed by the health department—but they were not confined. Mallon had broken no laws, but was exiled. Some say she was judged for being an Irish immigrant, for not staying out of the kitchen, and for being a noncompliant single woman.
After Mallon’s death, Dr. Soper wrote, “There was no autopsy.” Others reported that an autopsy was performed and showed that she shed Salmonella typhi bacteria from her gallstones. The National Institutes of Medicine calls the latter “another urban legend, whispered by the Health Center of Oyster Bay, in order to calm ethical reactions.”
The shabbily dressed, wild-eyed man was sitting quietly at a Chock full o’Nuts counter when he suddenly started banging his cup and screaming. Other customers glanced quickly at him and looked away, savvy New Yorkers knowing to avoid eye contact. A few decided it was time to get moving. No big deal. This was 1981 Manhattan. Wackos were an everyday thing.
The wacko in this case was Andy Kaufman, a once shy, Jewish kid from Long Island who was then at the top of his stardom, mesmerizing audiences with the oddball characters they loved and the jerks they despised.
Kaufman later described the coffee shop scene to an interviewer, but did it really happen? Or was it just another fantasy from his make-believe world, one more put-on from the master of performance art? The man, as the Los Angeles Times put it, who “may have been the greatest con artist in modern entertainment history.”
(Or not. As David Letterman once said, “Sometimes, when you look Andy in the eyes, you get a feeling somebody else is driving.”)
Either way, audiences remain fascinated by Kaufman’s story, even though it ended abruptly, in 1984, when the comic was 35. Netflix, in fact, has just acquired the rights to Jim & Andy, a new documentary based on the 1999 biopic Man on the Moon, which starred Jim Carrey as Kaufman in a performance Carrey called a “psychotic” experience.
Andy’s Mad Funhouse
Kaufman’s inspirations sprang from what appeared to be a normal, middle-class childhood. Born in New York City in 1949, Kaufman was raised in affluent Great Neck, just another a suburban kid addicted to 1950s television. Cartoons and puppet shows were nourishing fodder for the future performer, who started out “producing” children’s shows from his room and by age 9 was performing at children’s birthday parties with a portable record player and puppets, props that would become part of his grown-up act.
Because he spent so many hours a day alone and staring out the window, or in his room working on his productions, his concerned parents sought psychiatric help for their son.
As he got older, Kaufman continued to soak up material. At Saddle Rock Elementary School, a visit from Nigerian percussionist Babatunde Olatunji provided the impetus for Kaufman to learn to play the conga drums. His grandmother took him to Times Square, where he was captivated by the freak show at Hubert’s Museum and Flea Circus, and to Madison Square Garden professional wrestling matches, which inspired him to stage his own in his parents’ basement.
He completed his first novel, The Hollering Mangoo, when he was 16.
At Great Neck North, he was a poor student but a prolific writer of poetry and stories who carried around a copy of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and hung out in Greenwich Village. After graduating from high school in 1967, he drove delivery trucks and drank heavily for a year. In 1968, he went to Boston to major in TV and radio production at Grahm Junior College, where he created and starred in Uncle Andy’s Funhouse on a closed-circuit campus TV station and performed at coffee houses. After graduating from college in 1971, he landed gigs at local New York clubs and restaurants, where he was spotted by Budd Friedman, owner of the Improvisation Comedy Club, the famed Improv.
“I am not a comic”
The irreverent comedians of the early 1970s – Robin Williams, Billy Crystal, Larry David, Richard Lewis, Jerry Seinfeld – startled audiences with bold, often manic routines. But Kaufman was the antithesis of the joke-tellers who delivered the punch line then waited a beat for the laughter.
Affecting an English accent, he read aloud from The Great Gatsby until the audience booed and left, or simply napped in a sleeping bag. Creating material he would later become famous for, Kaufman played a phonograph record of the Mighty Mouse theme song, staring silently with bulging eyes until the chorus, when he would raise his hand and confidently lip-sync, “Here I Come to Save the Day.”
And then there was the gibberish-speaking “Foreign Man,” who would babble indecipherably in an excited, high-pitched voice that he was from the imaginary island of Caspiar, and then do impersonations.
That bit got Kaufman onstage at the Improv and on the 1975 Saturday Night Live debut. Executive Producer Lorne Michaels described Kaufman’s act as “midway between stand-up comedy in the Ed Sullivan Show sense, and performance art, which was just beginning to emerge in the world below Houston Street.”
Legendary writer-comedian Carl Reiner likened Kaufman to “Christo wrapping a mountain” – a character doing the worst possible act ever. Reiner told Rolling Stone that Kaufman was thinking, “The game we’re playing is to see how long you can take it before you bomb me.”
Kaufman, of course, enjoyed the game more than anyone. And if the audience didn’t get it, well, no matter. He wasn’t in it to make people laugh.
His perfect idea for television: A talk show in which the guests argue and start fighting, with one getting sent to a hospital and dying. No one would really get hurt, Kaufman said, but “people would always wonder, ‘What’s real? What’s not?’
“That’s what I do in my act, test how other people deal with reality.”
They didn’t always deal with it well. As Kaufman baited the crowds, some turned hostile, with the comic eventually hiring off-duty cops to break up the fights during shows.
Kaufman’s boorish new character, the chauvinistic, swaggering, washed-up lounge singer Tony Clifton, especially enraged crowds, who pelted him with eggs and fruit, leading the comic to don riot gear and used a protective net.
He created a furor after challenging women to wrestle with him or “go back to the kitchen where you belong,” offering $1,000 to any woman who beat him. He was booted from Saturday Night Live after thousands of angry letters.
This was Kaufman at his peak, with appearances on major networks and series, even a live show at Carnegie Hall, after which he hired buses to take the audience – nearly 3,000 people – out for milk and cookies.
The cast: Foreign Man, a crazed conga drummer, his scarily dead-on Elvis, Tony Clifton, a professional wrestler and a clean-cut, born-again Christian engaged to a gospel singer.
When Taxi ended its five-year run in June 1983, Kaufman was still very much a star, performing for David Letterman, in specials and in films. But by Thanksgiving he was coughing frequently and, shortly thereafter, diagnosed with advanced-stage lung cancer. He died in May 1984. After the funeral in Great Neck, he was buried at Elmont’s Beth David Cemetery.
It is a tribute to Kaufman’s performance art that many people continue to insist he faked his death and that he’s out there, somewhere, alive and well.