Bel Kaufman, author of ‘Up the Down Staircase’ comic novel, dies at 103

Posted July 27, 2014, at 3:37 p.m.

Bel Kaufman, who turned her experiences teaching in the New York City public schools into the comic novel “Up the Down Staircase,” one of the best-selling books of the 1960s, which was later made into a film, died July 25 at her home in Manhattan. She was 103.

Her daughter Thea Goldstine confirmed the death to news outlets. The cause was not disclosed.

With pitch-perfect tone, “Up the Down Staircase” captured the humor, pathos and administrative nonsense of the urban high schools in which Kaufman had taught for 15 years.

“Staircase,” which was published in 1965, stayed on best-seller lists for 15 months, including five months at No. 1. When the paperback edition was issued in 1966, more than 1.5 million copies were sold in the first month.

Kaufman, who was the granddaughter of the celebrated Yiddish-language writer Sholom Aleichem, did not follow standard narrative form in her book. Instead, she composed it as a series of letters, memorandums, vignettes, classroom papers and lesson plans to create a portrait of the fictional Calvin Coolidge High School in New York. The book’s title character, Sylvia Barrett, faces one frustration after another.

The book’s title came from a note given to a student by a vice principal: “Please admit bearer to class — Detained by me for going up the Down staircase and subsequent insolence.”

Administrative ineptitude is a recurring theme, as paperwork, pointless meetings and foolish rules keep interfering with actual learning. A typically laughable memo begins: “Please disregard the following.”

Beyond the laughter, though, “Up the Down Staircase” touched on a variety of social issues that were beginning to affect schools and, in some cases, remain problematic today: poverty, racial strife, drug addiction, crime, teen pregnancy and even the sexual tension between students and teachers.

“This author has a refreshing way of stating the facts, of breaking down statistics into recognizable teenagers, of making you smile, be contrite and infuriated all at once,” writer and teacher Beverly Grunwald wrote in The New York Times in 1965.

The student archetypes in “Staircase” are familiar to anyone who has taught, or attended, school: tough-talking rebels, smarmy teacher’s pet and talented students falling behind because of hard times or indifferent parents.

One student in the book couldn’t turn in his homework, Kaufman wrote, because “my dog pead on it.”

An English teacher advises another, “Never give a lesson on lie and lay,” and never, under any circumstances, utter the word “frigate” in class.

When the book was published, teachers immediately recognized the absurdity that Kaufman satirized, even if school officials did not. The principal of one of her former high schools began to issue memos to his staff with a written warning: “Do not show this to Bel Kaufman.”

Bella Kaufman was born May 10, 1911, in Berlin, where her father was studying medicine. Her mother, Lala Rabinowitz Kaufman, was a writer and the daughter of Solomon Rabinowitz, whose tales of Jewish life appeared under the pen name of Sholom Aleichem.

Kaufman grew up in Odessa, in modern-day Ukraine, speaking Russian and Yiddish. She had distinct memories of the Russian Revolution and of soldiers breaking into her family’s house and firing guns. She saw dead bodies lying frozen on the ground.

She also had vivid memories of her grandfather, whose writings formed the basis of “Fiddler on the Roof.”

“When we were walking together side by side on the street,” she said during a 2011 speech at Iona College in New Rochelle, New York, “and I’m a child of 3 holding his big hand, he would say, ‘The stronger you hold my hand, the better I’ll write.’ “

She saved the letters he wrote to her before his death in 1916.

Kaufman’s family left Odessa for New York in 1923 and settled in the Bronx. She did not speak a word of English. At age 12, she was put in first grade and advanced quickly through school. The encouragement of her teachers inspired her to enter teaching.

She was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of New York’s Hunter College in 1934 and received a master’s degree in English from Columbia University in 1936. She began to write short stories for Esquire magazine in the 1940s, shortening her name to Bel to disguise the fact that she was a woman.

Kaufman tried for years to pass New York’s teaching examination, but she was repeatedly turned down because of her Russian accent. Eventually, she was accepted as an English teacher.

She published a satirical essay, “From a Teacher’s Wastebasket,” in the Saturday Review of Literature in 1962, which led to a book contract. She was going through a divorce and living in a cramped apartment while writing “Up the Down Staircase.”

In 1967, the book was made into a well-regarded film, with Sandy Dennis in the lead role. Kaufman served as a technical adviser.

She published a second novel, “Love, Etc.,” in 1979, but she remained closely identified with “Up the Down Staircase” throughout her life. She became a popular speaker on education and on the writings and influence of her grandfather.

Her first marriage, to Sydney Goldstine, ended in divorce. Survivors include her second husband, Sidney Gluck; two children from her first marriage; a brother; and a granddaughter.

Kaufman enjoyed dancing the tango and, when she was 100, taught a course on Jewish humor at her alma mater, Hunter College. In one of her favorite jokes, a Frenchman, a German and a Jew walk into a bar.

“The Frenchman says, ‘I’m tired, I’m thirsty, I must have wine.’ The German says, ‘I’m tired, I’m thirsty, I must have beer.’ The Jew says, ‘I’m tired, I’m thirsty, I must have diabetes.’”

“Because the Jew was the object of so much opprobrium and hatred,” Kaufman told the Times in 2011, “the jokes were a defense mechanism: ‘We’re going to talk about ourselves in a more damaging way than you could.’ “

For all the obstacles and annoyances that she faced, Kaufman always remained a teacher at heart. Being in the classroom, she wrote in “Up the Down Staircase,” offered one abiding consolation: “To make a permanent difference to at least one child.”

 

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