Leo Rosten

Rosten in 1959

Leo Calvin Rosten (April 11, 1908 – February 19, 1997) was an American humorist in the fields of scriptwriting, storywriting, journalism and Yiddish lexicography.


Early life

Rosten was born into a Yiddish-speaking family in Łódź in what is now Poland, but emigrated to the United States with his family in 1911 at age three. His parents were Samuel C. Rosenberg and Ida (Freundlich) Rosenberg, both trade unionists. They opened a knitting shop in the Greater Lawndale area of Chicago, where Rosten and his younger sister grew up among other working-class Jewish families. Like their neighbors, the children spoke both English and Yiddish. Rosten showed an interest in books and language very early, and began writing stories when he was only nine. He put himself through school and earned degrees from both the University of Chicago, where he obtained his doctorate, and the London School of Economics.[1]

During the Great Depression, when he was unable to find other work, he taught English for recent immigrants at night. These experiences eventually became the source of his most popular works, The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N and The Return of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N.


Rosten was a successful screenwriter. He wrote the story for The Dark Corner, a film noir starring Mark Stevens; and Lured, the Douglas Sirk-directed period drama starring Charles Coburn; both films featured Lucille Ball. He is listed as one of the writers for Captain Newman, M.D. adapted from his novel of the same title. Other films: Mechanized Patrolling (1943) (as Leonard Q. Ross), They Got Me Covered (1943) (story) (as Leonard Q. Ross), All Through the Night (1942) (story) (as Leonard Q. Ross), The Conspirators (1944) (screenplay), The Velvet Touch (1948), Sleep, My Love (1948) (novel) (screenplay), Double Dynamite (1954) (story), Walk East on Beacon (1952), and Mister Cory (1957) (story).

Stories and books

External audio
Leo Rosten Analyzes Humor, 1959, Rosten speaks 3:34-16:00, WNYC Archives[2]

Rosten is best remembered for his stories about the night-school "prodigy" Hyman Kaplan, written under the pseudonym Leonard Q. Ross. They were published in The New Yorker from 1935[1] and collected in two volumes published 1937 and 1959, The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N and The Return of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N.[3] The Education was a "close second" for one U.S. National Book Award in 1938.[4][lower-alpha 1] The second collection was one of eighteen National Book Award for Fiction finalists in 1960.[5]

He is also well known for his encyclopedic The Joys of Yiddish (1968), a guide to Yiddish language and to Jewish culture including anecdotes and Jewish humor. It was followed by O K*A*P*L*A*N! My K*A*P*L*A*N! (1976), a reworking of the two 1930s collections, and Hooray for Yiddish! (1982), a humorous lexicon of the American language as influenced by Jewish culture. Another Rosten work is Leo Rosten's Treasury of Jewish Quotations.


Among his own many quotations are "A conservative is one who admires radicals centuries after they're dead," "Truth is stranger than fiction; fiction has to make sense," "We see things as we are, not as they are," and "The purpose of life is not to be happy at all. It is to be useful, to be honorable. It is to be compassionate. It is to matter, to have it make some difference that you lived."[6] (A version of this quotation is sometimes attributed, falsely, to Ralph Waldo Emerson.)

At a tribute dinner to fellow humorist W. C. Fields, Rosten came up with the remark about Fields that "any man who hates dogs and babies can't be all bad."[7] This statement is often misattributed to Fields himself.[8]

In his book, The Joys of Yiddish, he defines the word chutzpah as "that quality enshrined in a man who, having killed his mother and father, throws himself on the mercy of the court because he is an orphan." In his novel Silky, he defines "nebbish" as "The kind of person, when he leaves a room, you have the feeling someone fascinating just walked in."

Personal life

On March 30, 1935, Rosten married Priscilla Ann "Pam" Mead (1911–1959), a fellow graduate student at the University of Chicago and sister of anthropologist Margaret Mead.[9] Rosten's marriage to Mead also made him a brother-in-law of William Steig and the uncle of Jeremy Steig and Mary Catherine Bateson.[9][10][11] They had two daughters: Madeline Rosten and Margaret Ramsey Rosten; and a son, Philip Rosten (1938–1996), and six grandchildren: Josh and Ben Lee (Madeline), Seth Muir (Margaret), and Alexander, Carrie and Pamela Rosten (Phillip). Carrie followed in her grandfather's literary footsteps and has written three books, including a young adult novel, Chloe Leiberman (Sometimes Wong). Leo's and Pam's marriage ended in divorce in 1959; she took her own life on December 1 the same year.[12] Rosten's second wife, whom he married January 5, 1960, was Gertrude Zimmerman (1915–1995).[13]

Rosten died in New York City in 1997. His obituary in The Independent on February 21, 1997, written by Chaim Bermant, describes his personality as follows:[14]

Rosten was an inveterate Anglophile. He had enjoyed his years at LSE, was amazed by the enthusiastic reception Kaplan had received in the English press, and returned to London whenever opportunity dictated and even when it didn't. He lived in considerable luxury in a penthouse flat in Sutton Place, one of the most exclusive areas of New York, and rented a mews flat in Mayfair. England represented the tranquillity he could not find in America. He loved to rummage in English bookshops and wear English clothes - he contrived to display a subdued elegance - to go to the London theatres and entertain and be entertained in London clubs. He himself was a member of the Savile, the Reform and the Garrick.

According to Alex Abella's Soldiers of Reason, Rosten was influential in forming the Social Sciences division of RAND Corporation.[15]


Maxim Lieber served as his literary editor, 1935-1938.

Hyman Kaplan

—"close second" for a U.S. National Book Award[4]
National Book Award for Fiction finalist[5]
—"New, completely rewritten H*y*m*a*n K*a*p*l*a*n, combining The education and The return with a new introduction." (Library of Congress Online Catalog)[3]


Wikiquote has quotations related to: Leo Rosten


  1. Probably that award was the Most Original Book of 1937. See Hyman Kaplan for more information.


  1. 1 2 http://www.nytimes.com/1997/02/20/books/leo-rosten-a-writer-who-helped-yiddish-make-its-way-into-english-is-dead-at-88.html
  2. "Leo Rosten Analyzes Humor". WNYC Archives. 1959. Retrieved October 7, 2016.
  3. 1 2 3 4 "Rosten, Leo, 1908–1997". Library of Congress Authorities. Library of Congress. Retrieved 2012-04-05. (Linked to Library of Congress Online Catalog listings for Rosten.)
  4. 1 2 "Booksellers Give Prize to 'Citadel': Cronin's Work About Doctors Their Favorite--'Mme. Curie' Gets Non-Fiction Award ...", The New York Times, March 2, 1938, p. 14
  5. 1 2 "National Book Awards – 1960". NBF. Retrieved 2012-04-05.
  6. "The Myths by Which We Live", The Rotarian (Evanston, Illinois) volume 107, number 3 (September 1965) 32–33 etc, page 55.
  7. Curtis, James. W.C. Fields: A Biography. A. Knopf, New York, 2003, p. 392.
  8. Curtis, James. W.C. Fields: A Biography. A. Knopf, New York, 2003, p. 393.
  9. 1 2 Banner, Lois W. (2010). Intertwined Lives: Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, and Their Circle. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. ISBN 9780307773401.
  10. Brinthaupt, Thomas M.; Lipka, Richard P. (2002). Understanding Early Adolescent Self and Identity: Applications and Interventions. SUNY Press. ISBN 9780791453346.
  11. Wolff, Carlo (7 February 2014). "Jeremy Steig: Flute Fever (2013)". All About Jazz.
  12. Jane Howard, Margaret Mead: A Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984, page 359.
  13. [Obituary], The New York Times, February 20, 1997.
  14. [Obituary], Chaim Bermant, The Independent, February 21, 1997.
  15. Alex Abella. Soldiers of Reason.
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