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

When she and her husband, Morty, were featured in advertising spots for Swiffer products in their 90s, the public embraced them.

Talk about an unlikely celebrity.

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

Mrs. Kaufman and her husband, Morty, were at that moment something of a phenomenon, thanks to internet spots and television commercials in which they appeared for the Swiffer line of cleaning products. They were the pioneers in an advertising strategy for Swiffer built on ordinary people, rather than actors, and the public responded with adoration and a click count that soared into the millions.

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

People, knowing that most commercials are illusions, wrote to newspapers about the Kaufmans, wanting assurance that they were what they seemed.

“The couple who advertises Swiffer products is so adorable,” one query to an ask-me column read. “Please tell us they really are married to each other!”

They were, and had been since 1969. NBC’s “Today,” “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” and others had them on. TV news outlets did segments on them. The cleaning products weren’t the attraction; what generated fans was that the Kaufmans had a finish-each-other’s-sentences cuteness and seemed to have mastered the secrets to a long and happy marriage.

At the time, Frank Bele was creative director at the Publicis Kaplan Thaler advertising agency, which came up with the spots.

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

Mrs. Kaufman died on Dec. 18 at a hospice center in Port Jefferson, N.Y. She was 99.

Her son Bruce Allen said the cause was complications of pneumonia and Covid-19.

Mrs. Kaufman lived 90 years without being a celebrity or wanting to be one. She was born Leah Marion Auerbach on Oct. 4, 1922, in Brooklyn, where her father, Adolph, owned an event hall used for weddings and such and her mother, Rebecca (Ball) Auerbach, was a homemaker.

Mrs. Kaufman, who had a bachelor’s degree from Hunter College and a master’s degree from Queens College, became an elementary-school teacher. She married Bernard Allen in 1944, and they had three children before his death in 1965.

Mr. Kaufman, too, was widowed when he met his future wife a few years later. She had retired from teaching by then but was teaching a summer school session. Mr. Kaufman, who owned a pharmacy, came to a parent-teacher conference.

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

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

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

They married in 1969 and blended their families. It was Mrs. Kaufman’s daughter who, long after Mr. Kaufman had retired, was the catalyst for their moment of fame.

“Our daughter Myra knew a casting director who asked if she knew a, ah, mature 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, part of a broader campaign that Procter & Gamble called “the everyday effect” that sought to show how products improved lives in small ways, was to demonstrate that Swiffer cleaning tools could be especially useful for older people. Several other candidates were tested, but the Kaufmans made the choice easy.

“We saw the takes of Morty and Lee and said, ‘That’s the couple,’” he said.

A camera crew spent two days filming the Kaufmans at their home in Valley Stream, N.Y., on Long Island, with the couple engaging in unscripted banter while trying the products. In one segment, Mrs. Kaufman is seen climbing on chairs trying to dust high shelves, until she is introduced to a Swiffer device designed to reach such surfaces while the user remains earthbound. In another, a Swiffer WetJet rescues her from the tyranny of an old-school mop.

A three-minute spot intended for the internet was produced and got such a response that it was carved up into shorter segments for social media and television commercials; a string of other Swiffer ads using ordinary people followed. The Kaufmans’ eureka moments in the bits were genuine enough — the couple said later that they’d been unaware of Swiffer products before the filming.

via Kaufman Family

In addition to her husband and her children Bruce and Myra, Mrs. Kaufman is survived by another son from her first marriage, Bernard; 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.

“Mom never went out the door without commenting, ‘Oh, look at those flowers, look at those clouds, look at that beautiful blue sky,’” he said by email.

In 2013 Mrs. Kaufman told Newsday that her late-life fame held a lesson.

“The bottom line is, don’t die young,” she said. “There are too many things that can happen.”

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