Thursday, June 01, 2006

Diary of a Mad Housewife

Sue Kaufman (8/7/1926-6/25/1977) saw seven of her books published before she committed suicide by plunging from a building in New York City at the age of fifty. Creepily, her last novel was titled Falling Bodies. Though I am fond of The Headshrinker's Test (1969), she'll probably be best remembered for Diary of a Mad Housewife (1967) which was also made into a movie starring Carrie Snodgrass in 1970. In it, a novel whose title was inspired by Nikolai Gogol's macabre and sad nineteenth century Russian tale, the protagonist, Bettina "Tina" Balser, is an educated and artsy smart woman who's nicely trapped in the Manhattan material world. Married to the well-named Jonathan Balser, a fussy, pretentious nimrod lawyer who is also anxious and unsatisfied, with two children attending local prep schools, she has a hard time getting through life. In fact, she is very unhappy with her station, and few in her circle sympathize, seeing only the material comforts. Frustrated, she begins asserting herself, trying to create an identity independent of her family by beginning a secret diary that provides the vehicle for the novel.

Diary of a Mad Housewife is funny, intelligent, sarcastic, and gleefully depressing. There are scary moments, too, such as when Tina finds herself facing a sinister male presence in Central Park; incidents such as this take her closer to the edge. As in the Rolling Stones' classic satirical songs "Mother's Little Helper" and "Nineteenth Nervous Breakdown," Tina resorts to pills, and therapy, and (not in the Stones' version) an affair with knavish playwright George Prager while trying to find her way. The novel works in an obvious feminist way, but it also works as broader social satire. Furthermore, it works effectively as an allegory for anyone caught in a similar situation: the typical work place, domestic situation, or even prison, where expectations are high and one's ability to break out and become autonomous, independent, and fully realized is seemingly non-existent. In that, Diary of a Mad Housewife is also a thoughtful existential exercise for all. In any situation, who wants to be controlled, bullied, or hamstrung?

Sue Kaufman has been praised by feminists, but why hasn't this novel in particular made it more into the mainstream? Why, until recently, were all of Kaufman's books out of print? Why hasn't the movie been released on DVD? If, like The Stepford Wives (1975) it is emblematic of its time, why hasn't it been remade? Here, I can only speculate and give what few facts I've been able to find.

Kaufman earned an undergraduate degree from Vassar in 1947, then worked as an editorial assistant for Mademoiselle's fiction editor for a couple years before devoting more time to her own writing. She married not a lawyer, like Tina, but a doctor, Jeremiah A. Barondess, in 1953 when she was about twenty-seven. Together they had one child, James, ca. 1957. Kaufman saw her first book, The Happy Summer Days, published in 1959 under the name Sue Kaufman, a name which she retained for all her publications. This is important, because it evidently allowed her to keep some distance from her married status. Even in the late 1960s, publishers seemed a bit confused, saying in the "About the Author" blurb for one version of Diary that she was "married to a doctor and they have . . . an eccentric dachsund, Poppy" on one hand, and that the novel was "Miss Kaufman's third. . ." We can see the need for Ms. here, at any rate, or nothing at all.

Given the detailed description in her fiction of the kind of lifestyle Kaufman actually lived, one wonders whether, after her suicide, Dr. Barondess has not either destroyed or withheld manuscripts, drafts, and correspondence, perhaps not liking the idea of additional public scrutiny. One may hope that some day her papers will be left to some special collection -- perhaps they have been, and are merely sealed until 2025 or so. One can hope.

In any case, Jeremiah A. Barondess is alive and living in New York City. I came across a March 19, 2001 article in The New York Observer that calls him "the patrician elder statesman of the New York medical community." Barondess is currently the President of the New York Academy of Medicine. He has connections with numerous institutions ranging from the University of Michigan to Cornell University, and has dozens of publications listed on the Academy's website. The list, however, only goes back to 1994. Given that Sue Kaufman leapt to her death in 1977, it's interesting to note some of the titles of his work: "Urban Health: A Look Out Our Windows" (2004); "Adolescent Suicide: Vigilance and Action to Reduce the Toll" (2004); "Danse Macabre: Poverty, Social Status and Health" (2002); and "Care of the Medical Ethos: Reflections on Social Darwinism, Racial Hygiene, and the Holocaust" (1998). Cheery stuff, to be sure. If you'd like to see his long Jonathan-like list of accomplishments, and actually see what the husband of Sue Kaufman looks like nearly thirty years after her death, go to

As with most things, more will be revealed (although the FBI came up empty again in their recent search for Jimmy Hoffa). Meanwhile, I'd love to stir up interest for the release of Diary of a Mad Housewife in digital form, and hope that all of her books will be digitized and posted on the internet. Plus, how about a biography? Or a group study including Anne Sexton and Diane Arbus, among other artists of obvious comparison?

To my knowledge, there is at least one award given out in her honor, the $2500 Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction, by the American Academy of Arts and Letters, for short story collections and novels. (I actually met the first recipient, Kaye Gibbons, an Algonquin Books author who won in 1995. More on Ms. Gibbons and Algonquin in a later post.)

A Salute to Sue Kaufman! Adieu.


Anonymous said...

Sue Kaufman is among the best! Good work, Mister. I'd like to see that movie in DVD too.


monicker said...

Just finished reading it for the second time - an incredible book!

Anonymous said...

I wrote a musical about a woman in 1969, struggling to find a connection with her family and her world while moving from one place to another and never touching down. I came upon your blog in the search for Ms. Kaufman's information in the hopes of someday doing a similar project on one of her other stories. "Diary" is the obvious choice, but would it make a good musical and how do I get the rights, if they're available???

Anonymous said...

I am confused as I read in the N Y Times that Sue Kaufman died after a long illness and someone wrote to me that it was cancer. Where did you read that she committed suicide?
I must say that her Diary Of A Mad Housewife was superb and should have received much more recognition than it did.

Anonymous said...

I think we can accept now that her death was due to cancer and she did not commit suicide.
Philip Lyman of Gotham Book Mart said that she had cancer and her obituary said 'after a long illness', so not suicide then.

Anonymous said...

What a great article! I just finished (this morning) reading Diary for the nth time, and went looking for some info about Sue. All these years I thought she'd died of cancer! I had no idea she had killed herself. Diary has sustained me for many years (and through countless crises) with its humour and inherent wisdom. I'd love to know more about her. Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

From 1965 to 1968, my family and I lived two floors above Sue Kaufman and her family. I remember her in the elevator as a nervous, unpretnetious person. Her husband was indeed a fastideous man but I have no idea if he was fussy much less the controlling, insensitive man he has sometimes been made out to be. I also remember James as an extremely well-mannered child with glasses and the same owlish face as his father's. I was about the same age as he.

My family lived on the 13th floor while the Barondess family lived on the 11th. In between was Robert McNeill later of the McNeil-Lehrer Newshour.

The goings-on in my household were so strange and at times, unhappy, that I was not too focused on others in the building but one day my fate was placed in Dr. Barondess's hands and his help was swift and sure.

After an argument with my brother, I slammed a B & M baked beans jar down on my desk that I had been using as a pencil holder. Part of the glass jar broke off and was sent into my wrist artery. Blood shot to the ceiling. I was hysterical and ran to my mother's room. Somehow, Dr, Barondess was made aware of the situation. He called ahead to NY Hospital and by the time I arrived, I was taken immediately to a room adjoining the emergency room where Dr. Barondes oversaw the stitching of my wrist and I went home i a cast.

He may be guilty of being an emotionally absent husband or not but he acted compassionately and quickly in my behalf.

I have always been under the impression that Sue Kaufman died by jumping out the window in the back of the building onto the courtyard where we played basketball. When you read the obituary closely, you can see that she could have had cancer AND committed suicide. God rest her. I wish my mother, who loved books and worked in publishing, had gotten to know her. In some ways, they were both trapped by the same constraints imposed by the success of their husbands whose careers far outpaced their marraiges.


Anonymous said...

Judith Krantz wrote in her autobiog "Sex and Shopping" that Sue Kaufman jumped from the eigteenth floor balcony of her (Kaufmans) apartment after a long struggle with depression. She was due to be re admitted to a psychiatric hospital the next day, according to Krantz, who had known her in college; Wellesley or Vassar I think.

Francesca said...

I am thrilled to find this page of comments on one of my favorite authors of all time, about whom so little is known. It is such a shame that Falling Bodies and Housewife are not more widely read. Thanks for taking the time to write and research this information.

Anonymous said...

DoaMH is my "comfort reading" - when I am out of sorts or don't feel like reading something new, I open it. I have read it dozens of times since reading it as a senior in high school in 1971 after seeing the movie with the excellent Carrie Snodgress who later put her movie career on hold to live with and/or marry Neil Young. Also Frank Langella is fabulous as George Prager - and unbelievably hot. However, I did not like that the movie and the book end differently. Like a few others have stated, I too would love to see the movie on DVD. I have it on video. Cannot imagine anyone else as GP except FL. Lots of the nuance in the book is completely lost in the movie though. SK was a genius - no doubt about it.

Anonymous said... now has an e-version of the book for their Kindle e-book reader.

Anonymous said...

I was a good friend of Sue's son, James, when we went to high school together, and my Mother was also a casual friend of Sue's. As someone else on this page commented, James was indeed a very well-mannered child, as well as a highly witty and intelligent one.

Sadly, I can also attest to the fact that the descriptions contained herein of Sue Kaufman's suicide, as well as of her progressively deteriorating mental state over the years, are all entirely accurate. Published obituaries attributing her death to other causes -- whether written at the behest of the family or for some other reason -- are simply devoid of truth.