NEW YORK | Bel Kaufman, the witty and spirited fiction writer, educator and storyteller whose million-selling “Up the Down Staircase” captured the insanity and the humor, the pathos and the poetry of the American high school, died Friday at age 103.
Kaufman was a middle-age teacher and single mother in the mid-1960s when her autobiographical novel was welcomed as a kind of civilian companion to Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22,” a send-up of the most maddening bureaucracy. Like “Catch-22,” even the title of Kaufman’s book became a tell-all label, shorthand for all the senseless rules students and educators could never quite follow.
“Up the Down Staircase,” a scrapbook of letters, notes and memos, follows a few months in the life of the idealistic young Sylvia Barrett, the new teacher at Calvin Coolidge High School. She is a kind soul staggering under a blizzard of administrative nonsense and student impudence. When she’s not being reprimanded for her kids’ failure to memorize the school’s alma mater song, she faces a crowded but endearing class of misfits and other characters, from rebel Joe Ferone to the brown-nosing Harry A. Kagan.
When the book was released in 1965, The New York Times’ Beverly Grunwald praised Kaufman’s “refreshing way of stating the facts, of breaking down statistics into recognizable teenagers, of making you smile, be contrite and infuriated all at once.”
Kaufman became a heroine for teachers and students worldwide. “Up the Down Staircase” has sold more than 6 million copies and has been translated into 16 languages. It was made into a film of the same name, starring Sandy Dennis, and it helped start a trend of candid education books. Kaufman was delighted to learn that teachers in one of her former schools were warned not to let her see any memos, for fear they would end up in a book.
Decades later, another New York teacher-turned-celebrity, Frank McCourt, would praise “Up the Down Staircase” as one of the few honest looks at the public school system.
“She got all the craziness of the paperwork and the administrators and supervisors,” McCourt, author of the memoirs “Angela’s Ashes” and “Teacher Man,” said in 2005.
She was born Bella Kaufman in Berlin and raised in Odessa, her first language Russian. Her family fled in 1923 to escape the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, and she arrived in the U.S., at age 11, speaking no English. She was forced to begin her American schooling in the first grade, her classmates years younger. The kindness of her teacher inspired her to become an educator, too.
Language was a temporary handicap. She caught up quickly, graduated magna cum laude from Hunter College in 1934 and received a master’s degree in English from Columbia University two years later. Around the same time, she married Sidney Goldstine, with whom she had two children.
Literature was in her blood, not just from her grandfather, but from her mother, Lyalya Kaufman, a popular and prolific writer.
After leaving Columbia, Bella Kaufman wrote short fiction, including “La Tigresse,” published in Esquire with a small but lasting revision: Kaufman shortened her first name to Bel because the magazine only accepted work by men.
During the 1950s and into the ’60s, she taught in high schools and community colleges, never suspecting the good fortune of the second half of her life. The turn began in 1962 when her brief essay “From a Teacher’s Wastebasket” was published in the Saturday Review of Literature. She received $200 and was soon contacted by an editor at Prentice Hall, Gladys Justin Carr, who told her that her article might make a nice start for a novel. Kaufman resisted. Carr offered an advance. Kaufman spent it.
“So I had to write the book,” she recalled.
The novel took nine months and was finished during the “lowest point” of her life. She had left her husband, her kids were grown and her mother was ailing. She was alone and lonely in a two-room apartment and some pages had to be retyped, she said, because of the teardrops on the manuscript.
After “Staircase,” she wrote a second novel, “Love, Etc.,” and was a popular lecturer and speaker, talking about schools, the arts and her famous grandfather, including in the 2011 documentary “Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness.” She received numerous honorary awards, enjoyed tango dancing well into her 90s, and, in 2010, was invited by Hunter College to teach a course in Jewish humor. Her own life was a good punchline.
“In schools where I used to patrol the toilets,” she once said, “I am today required reading.”