Kanfer, Stefan 1933-
Kanfer, Stefan 1933-
Born May 17, 1933; son of Allen (a teacher) and Violet (a scriptwriter) Kanfer; married May Markey (a teacher), 1956; children: Lilian, Ethan. Education: New York University, B.A., 1953, graduate study, 1955-57.
Writer, journalist, editor, critic, and television screenwriter. New York Herald Tribune, New York, NY, copy boy, 1951-53; television writer for The Patty Duke Show in the early 1960s and for Victor Borge and Allen Funt, 1964-65; Time, New York, NY, show business writer, cinema critic, essay anchor man, and book review editor, 1967-75, senior editor, 1975-88; New Leader, theatre critic and columnist, 1990—. Member of Distinguished Writer program, Southampton College, Long Island University. Military service: U.S. Army, 1953-55.
Writers Guild of America, Dramatists Guild.
J.C. Penney-University of Missouri Journalism Award, 1975; named Literary Lion of the New York Public Library, 1988; Westchester Writers Prize, 1995, 2000.
A Journal of the Plague Years, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1973.
A Summer World: The Attempt to Build a Jewish Eden in the Catskills from the Days of the Ghetto to the Rise of the Borscht Belt, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1989.
The Last Empire: De Beers, Diamonds, and the World, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1993.
Serious Business: The Art and Commerce of Animation in America from Betty Boop to Toy Story, Scribner (New York, NY), 1997.
Groucho: The Life and Times of Julius Henry Marx, Knopf (New York, NY), 2000.
(Editor and author of introduction) The Essential Groucho: Writings by and for Groucho Marx, Vintage (New York, NY), 2000.
Ball of Fire: The Tumultuous Life and Comic Art of Lucille Ball, Knopf (New York, NY), 2003.
Stardust Lost: The Triumph, Tragedy, and Mishugas of the Yiddish Theater in America, Knopf (New York, NY), 2006.
The Voodoo That They Did so Well: The Wizards Who Invented the New York Stage, Ivan R. Dee (Chicago, IL), 2007.
The Eighth Sin, Random House (New York, NY), 1978.
Fear Itself, Putnam (New York, NY), 1981.
The International Garage Sale, Norton (New York, NY), 1985.
I Want You (two-act musical), first produced Off-Broadway at Maidman Playhouse, 1958.
The Coffee Lover (two-act comedy), first produced in Eastern United States at summer stock theaters, 1964.
Author of short stories. Contributor of articles and reviews to periodicals, including Atlantic, New York Times Magazine, Harper's, and New Republic. Contributing editor, City Journal.
Stefan Kanfer has produced a diverse selection of books, encompassing satirical and serious novels as well as chronicles of diamond mining in South Africa and the life of famed comedian Groucho Marx. His first book, A Journal of the Plague Years, is an account of the "blacklisting and persecution" in the entertainment industry during the McCarthy era. Convinced that such a plague could again afflict the United States, Kanfer warns that complacency in such matters "is extremely ill-advised." The author offers another admonition in his second book, a novel, The Eighth Sin, where the sin of the title refers to forgetting about the Nazi Holocaust.
The Eighth Sin tells the story of Benoit, a gypsy survivor of the Auschwitz prison camp where the rest of his family has died. He is adopted by an American and his wife in England and then moves with his new family to New York City. His talent for painting is obscured by a penchant for shoplifting, a term in prison, and later a troubled marriage and alcoholism. In addition to his personal problems, Benoit carries with him the haunting memory of prison camp life. As Richard Freedman pointed out in the New York Times Book Review, "Benoit cannot and will not forget; the memory of the horror blights his life … Ultimately Benoit must seek revenge on Elezar Jassy, a gypsy who collaborated with the Nazis while protecting the boy when he was in Auschwitz." Freedman, however, objected to the "factual ‘Items’" that "obstruct the fictional flow, suggesting cool authorial research rather than genuine remembrance of nightmares past. This only slightly mars an absorbing narrative otherwise compounded of hot rage and ribald humor."
A subsequent novel, The International Garage Sale, is lighter in tone but still has serious points to make. Its protagonist is Alex Lessing, a television journalist covering the World Body, an organization resembling the United Nations. He finds a surreal environment where lies, bribery, and even murder are accepted means of managing world affairs. He is "the sane, principled character in a world lacking a common moral denominator," explained Eugene J. McCarthy in the New Republic. McCarthy had high praise for the novel: "The book is very close to what Evelyn Waugh might have written were he living and observing, as Kanfer does, the United Nations, network television, and today's sexual, social, and family mores." People reviewer Campbell Geeslin also applauded the work, calling it "an elaborate, carefully crafted book that has too much truth in its outrageous plot."
The Last Empire: De Beers, Diamonds, and the World is a study of the Oppenheimer family, controllers of two huge South African companies, De Beers and Anglo American, involved in diamond and gold mining and many other enterprises. The Oppenheimers have been not only successful capitalists but strong voices of opposition to South Africa's apartheid system, which was finally dismantled in the 1990s. "They have also been inevitably accused of hypocrisy for criticizing the repressive policies of South African governments while continuing to exploit cheap black labor," reported Peter Foster in a review of Kanfer's book for Canadian Business. "Nevertheless, one of the first people Nelson Mandela wanted to see on his release from prison … was Harry Oppenheimer, son of Ernest, the founder of the De Beers/Anglo American empire." Foster thought highly of The Last Empire's telling of the Oppenheimer saga, saying: "Kanfer deals well with the enormous complexities of South African history in particular with the evolution of the frequently testy relationship between commercial adventurers such as [Cecil] Rhodes and [Ernest] Oppenheimer and the local farmers of Dutch origin, the Boers." A Publishers Weekly critic, though, felt that Kanfer "focuses more clearly on history than on analysis" and lamented the absence of information about the role of De Beers and Anglo in constructing a post-apartheid South Africa and what reforms in the nation would mean for the companies.
In other works, Kanfer has dealt with various aspects of show business, and one of its icons is the subject of Groucho: The Life and Times of Julius Henry Marx. Kanfer chronicles the launching of the Marx Brothers' career by their ambitious mother, Minnie; their success in vaudeville, on Broadway, and in films; Groucho's development into the most famous member of the act, with his wisecracking, mustachioed, cigar-chomping persona; and his personal failings, including mistreatment of his wives and children. New York Times Book Review commentator Gary Giddins described the book as "a vivid, cleanly written biography," and he observed that Kanfer "stays away from facile psychology and moves his story along at a clip." However, he found that Kanfer had made several factual errors, something that "undermines his authority," and he deplored the dearth of primary research on Kanfer's part. Groucho's grandson, Andy Marx, reviewing the book for Variety, noted that "there's very little that hasn't appeared somewhere else," but "Kanfer has managed the Herculean task of synthesizing the material into a thorough, all-encompassing, though sometimes heavy-handed" account of Groucho and his brothers. Still, Marx found the book lacking in drama: "While Groucho's career was certainly fascinating, he didn't lead a life teeming with explosive secrets…. Sure, he was married three times, a modest number by Hollywood standards. And, yes, he was abusive to the people around him, including his wives and children, and was a narcissistic parent. But these traits aren't exactly rare in the entertainment industry. And the profile of the comedian with the dark, sad persona is as old as the history of clowns."
Kanfer further explores the legend and talent of the most famous Marx brother in The Essential Groucho: Writings by and for Groucho Marx. In the volume, Kanfer presents a variety of works from the comic's lengthy and irreverent career, including scripts of the numerous movies in which he appeared, transcripts from the Groucho-headed quiz show You Bet Your Life, and much more. Kanfer also includes several essays by Marx himself, pieces that reveal the depth of Groucho's own talent as a writer, comic, and thinker. "Groucho was the most verbal Marx, gifted from the beginning with a wit capable of hilariously reducing, in mere seconds, any conversation, however rational and civilized, to free-associating, anarchic drivel," observed Ray Olsen, writing in Booklist. Other essays by Marx address the early years of the Marx Brothers' career, including their lean times while developing their comedic talents, the decline of vaudeville, and the burgeoning of their widespread fame in the infancy of Hollywood. "Groucho's iconoclastic wit has certainly left a stamp on Western humor and certainly his style and image have passed into 20th-century mythology as much as Elvis Presley (who died the same week Groucho did), Marilyn Monroe, or Albert Einstein," noted reviewer Claude Lalumière in January Magazine Online. A reviewer in Publishers Weekly called the book "a delicious distillation of the comic's verve."
Serious Business: The Art and Commerce of Animation in America from Betty Boop to Toy Story contains a detailed study of movie cartoons, biographical information on the pioneering animators and creators who made them, and consideration of their position and importance within the wider world of politics, popular culture, and entertainment. Kanfer looks carefully at the numerous studios that made cartoons and animated features, including Warner Brothers, UPA, Fleischer Brothers, and, largest of them all, Walt Disney Studios. He uncovers biographical and professional highlights of prominent creators, including pioneer Ub Iwerks, Otto Messmer (who created Felix the Cat), Tex Avery, Ralph Bakshi, and many others. He notes how the technologies of the time, from the painstaking hand-drawing of each frame in the early days to the streamlined computer animation of today, influenced the tone and content of animated works. Booklist reviewer Mike Tribby remarked that Kanfer's book stands as an "essential resource for students of animation and entertaining fun for all its fans." Kanfer's book "should certainly join the ranks of important literature in the field," commented Carol J. Binkowski in Library Journal. The narrative's "quick pace and juicy anecdotes" constitute a "fascinating look at a largely neglected part of Hollywood history," noted Alex Abramovich, writing in Entertainment Weekly.
In Ball of Fire: The Tumultuous Life and Comic Art of Lucille Ball Kanfer presents a detailed biography of one of the icons of television comedy. Kanfer profiles Ball in depth, covering her early and often neglected years as a glamorous Hollywood beauty, her entry into comedy, and the evolution of her style as a redheaded purveyor of slapstick for a thoroughly appreciative television audience who tuned in throughout the medium's infancy. Approximately a third of Kanfer's biography focuses on Ball's nine years playing Lucy Ricardo opposite her then-husband, Desi Arnaz. Her work during these years constitutes her "claim to im- mortality; nothing she did before or after, in six decades of performing, would get her into comedy's hall of fame on the first ballot," commented Terrence Rafferty in the New York Times. Kanfer also considers Ball's personal life and her stormy marriage to Arnaz, who remained perpetually smitten by her even though he was prone to philandering. Through it all, Ball remained a pioneer who pushed the boundaries of comedy as well as women's place in Hollywood. "Lucy took great chances, wanted many of the things we all want, and got everything she'd wanted and then some, all at once and late. She was in her forties by the time they got their TV show on the air, had their two children, and became rich and famous," noted Mona Simpson in the Atlantic Monthly. Yet her comedy would become, and remain, a defining force in television, powerfully influential in its day and with repercussions still felt in modern programming. "As Kanfer tells it, Ball was a hot-tempered star, and she wasn't much of a mom. But, as a TV producer who helped establish an important studio, she forged new territory for women in Hollywood," noted reviewer Pat Broeske on the BookPage Web site. Ball's tenure at Desilu Studios not only resulted in the various incarnations of the Lucy Show, but in other television programming that has reached iconic status. It was through Ball's influence, for example, that a maverick science fiction program called Star Trek was produced and aired, as was legendary spy program Mission: Impossible. In the book's final chapters, Kanfer looks at Ball's declining years and ultimate death. "The final third of the book is pure Hollywood tragedy, as Ball confronts old age and a declining career," noted Robert Ito in Los Angeles Magazine.
In general, critics and reviewers responded well to Ball of Fire. Library Journal reviewer Rosellen Brewer called it an "important book" and the "first study to examine all aspects of Ball's life, work, and business acumen." A writer in the Hollywood Reporter named it a "fine portrait that honors its complex subject," while a Publishers Weekly reviewer named it an "excellent, compulsively readable biography." Time magazine critic James Poniewozik concluded: "Ball's many fans … will enjoy how vividly Kanfer captures Ball in her prime—brave, pioneering and, above all, ravenous for applause."
Stardust Lost: The Triumph, Tragedy, and Mishugas of the Yiddish Theater in America traces the formation and development of Yiddish theater from its origins in Eastern Europe during the Crimean War to its successful expression and profound influence a half-century later in London and New York. In its early days, Yiddish theater was a form of escape for war-weary viewers. While crude, it was well appreciated, and flourished wherever writers, directors, performers, and viewers were passionate enough to support it. Later, early performers such as Jacob Adler and writers such as Sholem Aliechem "transformed it into highly literate entertainment" and helped propel Yiddish theater to world-class stature, noted Jack Helbig, writing in Booklist. Library Journal reviewer Larry Schwartz called the book a "vibrant and painful recapitulation of a world that is nearly gone forever." As Kanfer points out, however, the influence of the Yiddish theater can still be seen in the works of actors such as Marlon Brando and Al Pacino and in the works of directors such as Sidney Lumet. "Kanfer's book solidly conveys the excitement and impact of Yiddish theater, not to mention its long shadow," commented Joseph Dorman in the New York Times.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Atlantic Monthly, September 1, 2003, Mona Simpson, "‘Loosie!’ The Rise and Fall of a Great Collaboration," review of Ball of Fire: The Tumultuous Life and Comic Art of Lucille Ball, p. 151.
Book, July-August, 2003, Elaine Szewczyk, "Big Red," review of Ball of Fire, p. 26.
Booklist, April 1, 1997, Mike Tribby, review of Serious Business: Cartoons and America, From Betty Boop to Toy Story, p. 1275; May 1, 2000, Ray Olson, review of The Essential Groucho: Writings by and for Groucho Marx, p. 1586; June 1, 2003, Brad Hooper, review of Ball of Fire, p. 1708; October 1, 2006, Jack Helbig, review of Stardust Lost: The Triumph, Tragedy, and Mishugas of the Yiddish Theater in America, p. 16.
Canadian Business, April, 1994, Peter Foster, review of The Last Empire: De Beers, Diamonds, and the World, p. 94.
Entertainment Weekly, April 18, 1997, Alex Abramovich, review of Serious Business, p. 62; August 15, 2003, Michael Sauter, review of Ball of Fire, p. 81.
Hollywood Reporter, December 4, 2003, review of Ball of Fire, p. 23.
Kirkus Reviews, June 15, 2003, review of Ball of Fire, p. 846; July 15, 2006, review of Stardust Lost, p. 712.
Library Journal, May 15, 1997, Carol J. Binkowski, review of Serious Business, p. 78; August 1, 2003, Rosellen Brewer, review of Ball of Fire, p. 86; September 1, 2006, Larry Schwartz, review of Stardust Lost, p. 148.
Los Angeles Magazine, August 1, 2003, Robert Ito, "Red Snapper," review of Ball of Fire, p. 150.
New Leader, July-August, 2003, "Between Issues," review of Ball of Fire, p. 2.
New Republic, February 17, 1986, Eugene J. McCarthy, review of The International Garage Sale, p. 40.
New York Times, August 10, 2003, Terrence Rafferty, "Seeing Red," review of Ball of Fire, p. 11; December 3, 2006, Joseph Dorman, "East Side Story," review of Stardust Lost, p. 46.
New York Times Book Review, April 30, 1978, Richard Freedman, review of The Eighth Sin; June 18, 2000, Gary Giddins, review of Groucho.
People, September 16, 1985, Campbell Geeslin, review of The International Garage Sale, p. 23; August 25, 2003, Tom Gliatto, review of Ball of Fire, p. 43.
Publishers Weekly, July 5, 1993, review of The Last Empire, p. 54; March 3, 1997, review of Serious Business, p. 56; June 12, 2000, review of The Essential Groucho, p. 66; June 2, 2003, review of Ball of Fire, p. 42; August 7, 2006, review of Stardust Lost, p. 47.
Reference & Research Book News, February, 2007, review of Stardust Lost.
San Francisco Chronicle, August 24, 2003, Alex Dolan, "A Life Performed for Studio Audiences," review of Ball of Fire, p. M-2.
Time, September 1, 2003, James Poniewozik, "Playing Fast and Lucy: A Dish-Filled Biography of the Insecure B-Movie Actress Who Became the Undisputed Queen of TV," review of Ball of Fire, p. 63.
USA Today, August 19, 2003, Deirdre Donahue, "Ball of Fire illuminates Lucy's Brilliant, Betrayed Life."
Variety, May 1, 2000, Andy Marx, review of Groucho, p. 39.
BookPage,http://www.bookpage.com/ (May 7, 2007), Pat Broeske, "Everybody's Favorite Redhead," review of Ball of Fire.
CNN Online,http://www.cnn.com/ (August 28, 2003), Anderson Cooper, "Live from the Headlines," interview with Stefan Kanfer.
Culture Kiosque,http://www.culturekiosque.com/ (November 10, 2003), Joel Kasow, "I Love Lucy, You Love Lucy, We All Love Lucy," review of Ball of Fire.
January Magazine Online, (May 7, 2007), Claude Lalumière, "Groucho Speaks," review of The Essential Groucho.
KGBBar,http://www.kgbbar.com/ (May 7, 2007), Jonathan Lachance, review of Stardust Lost.