Lee Kaufman, Who Cleaned Her Way to Late-Life Stardom, Dies at 99

Talk about an unlikely celebrity.

“I didn’t understand why people were looking at me, really not,” Lee Kaufman told The New York Times in 2014, when she was 91 and about six months into her internet and television stardom. “I looked down. I thought my pants were off.

Ms Kaufman and her husband, Morty, were sort of a phenomenon by this point, thanks to the internet spots and TV commercials they appeared in for the Swiffer line of cleaning products. They pioneered an advertising strategy for Swiffer based on ordinary people rather than actors, and audiences responded with adoration and a number of clicks that skyrocketed into the millions.

“There are few things in this world that are as precious as the Lee and Morty Kaufman of the Swiffer commercials,” read a typical position on Twitter at the time.

People, knowing that most commercials are illusions, wrote to newspapers about the Kaufmans, wanting to make sure they were what they appeared to be.

“The couple who advertise Swiffer products are so adorable,” one “Ask Me” column read. “Please tell us they’re really married!” “

They have been and have been since 1969. “Today,” NBC’s “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” and others aired them. The TV news made segments on them. The cleaning products were not the attraction; what generated fans was that the Kaufmans were kind enough to finish each other off and seemed to have mastered the secrets of a long and happy marriage.

At the time, Frank Bele was the creative director of the advertising agency Publicis Kaplan Thaler, which designed the spots.

“It was lovely that they were real and that they weren’t actors and that they were funny,” he said in a phone interview. “What came out of their mouths was gold.”

Ms Kaufman died Dec. 18 at a hospice in Port Jefferson, NY. She was 99 years old.

His son Bruce Allen said the cause was complications from pneumonia and Covid-19.

Ms. Kaufman lived 90 years without being or wanting to be a celebrity. She was born Leah Marion Auerbach on October 4, 1922 in Brooklyn, where her father, Adolph, owned a reception hall used for weddings and the like, and her mother, Rebecca (Ball) Auerbach, was a housewife.

Ms. Kaufman, who had a BA from Hunter College and an MA from Queens College, became an elementary school teacher. She married Bernard Allen in 1944 and they had three children before her death in 1965.

Mr. Kaufman, too, was a widower when he met his future wife a few years later. She had retired from teaching at that time, but was teaching a summer term. Mr. Kaufman, who owned a pharmacy, came to a parent-teacher conference.

“He walked in and, in fact, he was referring to Scotty, his youngest son, who needed a little help,” Ms. Kaufman recalled when the couple appeared on “Today” in September 2013.

Mr. Kaufman, in the same interview, described their cute encounter a little more bluntly.

“I said, ‘Scotty can’t read beans. What are you going to do about it? ‘ “, he said.

They married in 1969 and reunited their families. It was Mrs. Kaufman’s daughter who, long after Mr. Kaufman’s retirement, was the catalyst for their moment of glory.

“Our daughter Myra knew a casting director who asked her if she knew a, uh, middle-aged couple, over 70,” Mr. Kaufman told Ms. DeGeneres when they appeared on her show in 2013. At the words “mature couple,” the studio audience burst out laughing.

Mr Bele said the idea for the spots, which is part of a larger campaign that Procter & Gamble called the “Everyday Effect” that sought to show how products improve lives in small ways, was to demonstrate that Swiffer cleaning tools could be particularly useful for the elderly. people. Several other candidates were tested, but the Kaufmans made the choice easier.

“We saw the takes of Morty and Lee and we said, ‘This is the couple,’” he said.

A film crew spent two days filming the Kaufmans at their home in Valley Stream, NY, Long Island, with the couple indulging in unscripted jokes while trying out the products. In one segment, Ms. Kaufman is seen climbing chairs trying to dust off tall shelves, until she is presented with a Swiffer device designed to reach such surfaces while the user remains grounded. In another, a Swiffer WetJet saves her from the tyranny of an old-fashioned mop.

A three-minute Internet spot was produced and received such a hit that it was cut into shorter segments for social media and TV commercials; a series of other Swiffer ads using regular people followed. The Kaufmans’ eureka moments in the tracks were pretty authentic – the couple later said they hadn’t heard of Swiffer products until filming.

Besides her husband and children Bruce and Myra, Mrs. Kaufman is survived by the four children Mr. Kaufman brought to their marriage, Scott, Corinne, Warren and Douglas; five grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

Bruce Allen said his mother was an eternal optimist.

“Mum never went out without commenting, ‘Oh, look at these flowers, look at these clouds, look at this beautiful blue sky,” “he said by email.

In 2013, Ms Kaufman told Newsday that her fame at the end of her life had learned a lesson.

“The main thing is not to die young,” she said. “There is too much that can happen.

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