Margo Kaufman; Humorist Who Wrote for The Times Dies of Cancer at 46


Margo Kaufman, a popular humorist, writer and radio commentator who published three books and once penned a column called “Private Lives” for The Times’ Sunday magazine, has died at the age of 46.

Kaufman died Friday at her Venice Beach home of breast cancer, said her husband, Eric Mankin.

“She had perfect pitch as a humorist,” Jon Winokur, author of “The Portable Curmudgeon,” said in a statement. “She made it look so easy, people still don’t know how good she was. And she did it without being mean.”

Kaufman’s short but productive life kept her readers, listeners, audiences and assorted acquaintances laughing.

There were the books, with titles offering only a glimpse of the predicaments and pleasures inside: “1-800-Am-I-Nuts?,” “This Damn House: My Subcontract with America” and “Clara, the Early Years: The Story of the Pug Who Ruled My Life.”


There were the commentaries on KABC radio and on National Public Radio’s “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.” As Hollywood correspondent for Pug Talk magazine (the actual title on her business card) and at-that-time owner of three pugs named Bess, Sophie and Stella, who decorated her refrigerator with pictures of the dogs dressed as bumblebees or sitting on Santa Claus’ lap, she was asked about pugs on a 1992 NPR talk show.

“Pugs,” the humorist said, “have absolutely no purpose in life except to look ridiculous, and they do look ridiculous. You can’t walk the dogs without people coming up to you and going, ‘What is that?’ Did it walk into a wall? Someone hit it on the head with a shovel? . . . I mean, they don’t look like dogs. They look like things.”

There were the columns, travel pieces, articles and book reviews for The Times, the New York Times and Cosmopolitan magazine.

For The Times, she reviewed scores of mysteries, one of her private passions, and books on Britain’s royal family, once typically noting, “God save the Queen from biographers.”

She also wrote amusingly of her family’s travel adventures, including a “Weekend Escape” feature only last December about taking her son to Carlsbad’s newest amusement park: “Hitting the Blocks at Legoland, Where a Little Boy’s Wish Is His Parents’ Command.”

She opined delightfully for Southern California Living and Calendar on such issues as how raising children cuts into parents’ moviegoing and “Secrets of a Museum-Goer,” stating, “Galleries should be guilt-free zones, right? Well, don’t let the palaces oppress you. Enjoy. (And don’t forget to stop at the gift shop.)”

From 1988 to 1991, Kaufman’s wit graced The Los Angeles Times Magazine every Sunday, when she was a contributing editor.

Her “Private Lives” column weighed--always with tongue lodged firmly in cheek--the travails of everyday life: “Unhappy Camper--Does this woman like sleeping in the wilderness? Does a bear sit under a hair dryer in the woods?” or “Stupid Cupid--Fixing people up can be like playing with matches,” or “No Time for Passion--How do I love thee? Let me count the seconds” or “Cinematically correct--These days, you are what you see at the movies.”

There were the speeches--which she never thought she could make.

“I’ve never spoken publicly in my life, but I speak to people on the phone all the time. I’m just going to pretend like I called you,” Kaufman said, walking to the podium, telephone in hand, at the Balboa Bay Club to address Round Table West after her first book was published in 1993. She talked about the book, with its descriptive chapter headings, such as “It’s in the Male,” “Blighted Beach Memoirs,” “Diary of a Mad Puppy Owner” and “Backfire of the Vanities,” a take on beauty addicts that landed her on the “Oprah Winfrey Show.”

“You just can’t get through life without a sense of humor these days,” she told her rapt audience. “The most awful things can be really funny. You have to be able to laugh or it gets too depressing.”

By then she knew whereof she spoke. Kaufman had been diagnosed four years earlier with breast cancer, and in 1992 had learned that it had spread.

Yet through radiation, surgery and chemotherapy, she kept writing, speaking and cracking wise until the end. With personal insight, she reviewed a spate of books about breast cancer for The Times in 1992. She often turned her own frequently painful experiences into amusing stories to make others laugh.

Born in Pikesville, Md., near Baltimore, Kaufman was educated at Northwestern University and began her writing career on Baltimore’s alternative weekly, City Paper. After moving to Los Angeles, she wrote for the LA Weekly and then moved on to national publications.

In addition to reading, travel, pugs and remodeling her beach-area home, the stuff of her writing, Kaufman also loved building dollhouses and working with miniatures, selling them professionally.

Survivors, in addition to her husband, include her parents, Allen Pearlstein of Boca Raton, Fla., and Gloria Asnes of New York; her grandmother, Flora Pearlstein of Baltimore; a brother, Robert Pearlstein of Baltimore; a sister, Laurie Goldberg of Atlanta, and her young son, Nicholas.

For admirers who enjoyed reading or hearing Kaufman so much that they never zeroed in on her fatal struggle with cancer, her death came as a shock. The humorist herself wasn’t planning on it.

Four years ago, just after publication of “This Damn House,” Kaufman told her hometown Baltimore Jewish Times that she had no clear vision of where her career would be five years from then, joking: “I do things instinctively. If it seems right, I do it. It’s like a combination lock. Suddenly you hit something and it clicks. . . . Maybe I could write about putting in a new master bedroom, and maybe the house would earn its keep.”