Lee Kaufman, who paved her path to stardom in late life, dies aged 99
Talk about an unusual celebrity.
“I really didn’t understand why people were looking at me,” Lee Kaufman told the New York Times in 2014 when she was 91 and grew about six months after her considerable Internet and TV fame. “I looked down. I thought my pants had fallen off. “
Ms. Kaufman and her husband Morty were something of a phenomenon at that moment thanks to internet and television commercials starring for the Swiffer cleaning product line. They pioneered a promotional strategy for Swiffer that was based on common people, not actors, and the public responded with admiration and a skyrocketing number of clicks.
“There are few things in this world that are as valuable as Lee and Morty Kaufman from the Swiffer commercials,” said a typical post on Twitter at the time.
The people, knowing that most commercials are illusions, wrote to newspapers about the Kaufmans, wanting to reassure themselves that they were what they appear to be.
“The couple promoting Swiffer products are so delightful,” was a query to a question-me column. “Please tell us that you are really married to each other!”
They were and have been since 1969. NBC’s Today, The Ellen DeGeneres Show and others featured them. TV news made segments about them. The cleaning products weren’t the draw; What generated fans was that the Kaufmans had a cuteness and seemed to have mastered the secrets of a long and happy marriage.
At the time, Frank Bele was Creative Director at the advertising agency Publicis Kaplan Thaler, which developed the spots.
“It was charming that they were real and not actors and they were funny,” he said in a phone interview. “The stuff that came out of their mouths was gold.”
Ms. Kaufman died on December 18 in a Port Jefferson, NY hospice center. She was 99 years old.
Her son Bruce Allen said the cause was pneumonia complications and Covid-19.
Ms. Kaufman lived 90 years without wanting to be or become a celebrity. She was born Leah Marion Auerbach on October 4, 1922 in Brooklyn, where her father Adolph owned an event hall for weddings and the like and her mother Rebecca (Ball) Auerbach was a housewife.
Ms. Kaufman, who had a bachelor’s degree from Hunter College and a master’s degree from Queens College, became a primary school teacher. She married Bernard Allen in 1944 and had three children before his death in 1965.
Mr. Kaufman was also widowed when he met his future wife a few years later. She had since retired from teaching but was teaching a summer school lesson. Mr. Kaufman, who owned a pharmacy, came to a parent-teacher conference.
“He came in and was actually referring to Scotty, his youngest son, who needed a little help,” recalled Ms. Kaufman when the couple appeared on Today in September 2013.
Mr. Kaufman described their nice meeting a little more bluntly in the same interview.
“I said to her, ‘Scotty can’t read for so many beans. What are you going to do about it? ‘”He said.
They married in 1969 and mixed their families. It was Mrs. Kaufman’s daughter who was the catalyst for her fame long after Mr. Kaufman had retired.
“Our daughter Myra knew a casting director who asked if she knew a, uh, mature couple in their 70s,” Kaufman told Ms. DeGeneres when they appeared on her 2013 show and the audience burst out laughing.
Mr Bele said the idea for the spots, which are part of a broader campaign that Procter & Gamble called “the everyday effect” to show how products made life better in small steps, was to show that Swiffer- Cleaning tools might be particularly useful for the elderly. Several other candidates were tested, but the Kaufmans made the choice easy.
“We saw the footage of Morty and Lee and we said, ‘This is the couple,'” he said.
A camera crew spent two days filming the Kaufmans at their Valley Stream, NY, Long Island home. In one section, Mrs. Kaufman is seen climbing chairs and trying to dust off tall shelves until she sees a Swiffer device designed to reach such surfaces while the user remains on the floor. In another, a Swiffer WetJet saves them from the tyranny of an old-school mop.
A three-minute spot for the internet was produced and received so much response that it was broken up into shorter segments for social media and television commercials; A number of other Swiffer ads featuring ordinary people followed. The Kaufmans’ Eureka moments in the parts were real enough – the couple later said they knew nothing about Swiffer products prior to filming.
In addition to her husband and children Bruce and Myra, Mrs. Kaufman leaves behind the four children Mr. Kaufman brought into their marriage, Scott, Corinne, Warren and Douglas; five grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
Bruce Allen said his mother was an eternal optimist.
“Mom never went out the door without commenting, ‘Oh, look at these flowers, look at these clouds, look at that beautiful blue sky,'” he said via email.
In 2013, Mrs. Kaufman told Newsday that her late life fame was a lesson.
“The bottom line is not to die young,” she said. “There are too many things that can happen.”