R.I.P. Millard Kaufman

Two years ago, I interviewed Millard Kaufman, then 90 years old, for Rolling Stone‘s “Hot Issue.” The category: Hot Debut Novelist.

I was very sorry to hear that Kaufman died on Saturday (at age 92); he was a gentleman and I thoroughly enjoyed meeting him.

My short article on him and his fully lived life (a substantially truncated version of which ran in 2007):

The traditional advice for fledgling novelists is “write what you know.” But what if before you wrote your first novel, you had served in the Marine Corps, been nominated for two Academy Awards, co-created the cartoon character Mr. Magoo, and turned down the opportunity to star in a movie opposite sex goddess Sophia Loren?

Millard Kaufman, 90 years old, has done all those things. Which is probably why his debut novel, Bowl of Cherries, is a free-wheeling comedy that careens from a Colorado horse ranch to an Iraqi prison to a porn studio underneath the Brooklyn Bridge. “In movies, you have to find your subject and stick to it like grim death,” Kaufman says. “With a book, I like to go wild, just because I can.”

Kaufman spent his professional life as a screenwriter, dating back far enough that he routinely refers to movies as “pictures.” His most notable film was 1950’s Bad Day at Black Rock, where Spencer Tracy single-handedly faced down a hostile Western town. Bowl of Cherries is the work of a writer unshackled, finally able to use vocabulary and structure that would be verboten in Hollywood. Louts are “crapulous”; young men are “love-swacked”; breasts are “plangent.”

The novel is being published by McSweeney’s, the hip imprint that Kaufman had never heard of a year ago; Kaufman is getting more publicity than he ever has in his life. Sitting in the kitchen of his Los Angeles home, an untouched tuna-fish sandwich on the plate in front of him, he waves that off. “They didn’t give a goddamn about the book at first,” he says of the press attention. “It was because I was a freak, writing a novel at 90 years old. But I’m extremely limited. I’ve never been able to find anything I’d rather do than write, so what the hell choice do I have?”

Kaufman’s already working on his second novel. “I’m physically incapable of sitting around and doing nothing,” he says. “Despite my age, I can get into a lot of trouble.”

posted 18 March 2009 in Articles, News and tagged . no comments yet

Leave a Reply

Keep up to date with new comments on this post via RSS.