Lee and Morty Kaufman during her 90th birthday party.

Lee and Morty Kaufman during her 90th birthday party. Credit: Kaufman family photo

Lee Kaufman was a first grade teacher at William L. Buck School in Valley Stream, where she lived for 70 years. Funny, compassionate, kind and determinedly optimistic, family members add that she was beloved by everyone who knew her.

None of this, however, is what Kaufman — who died recently at the age of 99 — is best known for. She and her husband, Morty, were the so-called Swiffer Couple — stars of the wildly popular internet and TV commercial and for a time (2013-2015) arguably Long Island's most famous nonagenarians. They were inarguably the most recognized.

In a phone interview Thursday, Morty Kaufman — also 99 and living in a senior care facility in Sayville — recalled "a very sweet woman [who] loved to entertain people, was conscientious as a teacher and was a loving companion for 52 years." He added, "this is the way of life. It's a long road and it's got to come to an end somewhere and you just hope that it comes to a peaceful end."

Until recently, both Kaufmans had been living in the Sayville facility, but after Lee was transferred elsewhere for specialty care, she contracted COVID-19, then pneumonia. She was later sent to a hospice in Port Jefferson, where she died Dec. 16.

Life confers small blessings in myriad ways but rarely, if ever, has Procter & Gamble's line of Swiffer products figured as one of those. It would for the Kaufmans. As part of its "Everyday Effect'' corporate ad campaign with real people — as opposed to professional actors — the Cincinnati-based consumer products giant cast them in a 3-minute internet commercial in 2013. An instant hit, the Kaufmans were suddenly America's oldest influencers.

The talk show circuit followed ("Ellen," "GMA," "Today," "Fox & Friends") and intensive local TV coverage, too. When WPIX's Mr. G — Irv Gikofsky — made the trip out to their home at 4 Helen Ct. for his piece, he wondered if Lee had some "rugelach the way grandma used to make it."

No, Lee and Morty said almost simultaneously: "The way Costco makes it."

That exchange instantly captured the magic of their three-minute Swiffer tour-de-force — shot over two days, without a script or big-shot director telling them where to take their marks.

Indeed, no script, no marks, just banter.

Lee: "I like a clean kitchen."

Morty: "I don't do cleaning. I make dirt."

Cue to Lee in the kitchen, squeezing a mop: "I'm not big enough or strong enough for this."

Cue to their front door, where someone had delivered a large green box full of Swiffer products.

Cue back to the kitchen, where Lee is puzzled by the Swiffer WetJet. "Some kind of mopping device," she muses. Morty starts to use it, and proclaims, "just like dancing!"

Then together, both husband and wife clasp arms, and waltz around the kitchen. The Swiffer is quickly forgotten.

Their daughter, Myra Allen — who ran a program for kids with speech and language problems from offices in Fort Salonga and Plainview that she now runs virtually — said that a client she had known for years had called one day in 2013, asking if she knew of an older couple who might be interested in doing the commercial.

Would perhaps her own parents have the time?

"The joke was, 'I don't know, it's Wednesday. I guess they're going to the library,'" recalled Allen. "The client [then] asked for a photo [and] I laughed. 'This is gonna happen,' because they were incredibly photogenic."

After the commercial started streaming, "they were genuinely stunned by all the attention," she said. "Someone from News 12 came to interview them in the house, and maybe an hour later we had gone to their favorite deli to get a sandwich and someone said, 'look! That's the lady on TV!'"

Allen's brother, Bruce — who now lives in Brooklyn — says that "at first there was no money at all in it" then two weeks later, after "there were twelve million hits on YouTube," P&G spliced the internet commercial into 30 and 15-second spots which began airing on national TV. From those "they made nice extra cash but they couldn't retire on it."

Lee Kaufman was born Leah Marion Auerbach on Oct. 4, 1922 in Brooklyn, where her father owned a wedding event hall. She married Bernard Allen in 1944, and after earning a bachelor's degree from Hunter College and a Masters in Education from Queens College, they moved to Valley Stream in 1953. Kaufman had been teaching at William L. Buck School when Allen died in 1965. It was there she would meet her second husband a few years later.

At the time, Morty was commuting from Valley Stream to Brooklyn, where he owned a pharmacy — pharmaceuticals were his professional life and he had been a pharmacist with the 330th Bombardment Group in the Pacific during World War II. One night he went to a parent-teacher conference to inquire about reading help for his son, Scott. The father of four and widower himself instead found his future wife. A few days later, he asked her out on a date and they were married on Valentine's Day, 1969.

Scott Kaufman, who now lives in Sayville, says "she continued to teach me" after his father and Lee had met. A fine teacher, she was also "a great mom. You couldn't ask for someone better."

At the recent service for his mother, Bruce Allen told the gathering that Lee "never went out the door without commenting — 'Oh, look at those flowers, look at those clouds, look at that beautiful blue sky. …. What a beautiful day.'" He said that after the TV ad, people would ask "how it started," and she would respond in Yiddish: "As mer lebt, du lebt men!" If you live, live to enjoy.

The Kaufmans certainly did. Morty now calls the ad "very fortunate" and while he hasn't used a Swiffer in years ("I'm an invalid and being taken care of [and] I don't do those things anymore") he says it was "a great experience, very gratifying, very rewarding."

Besides Morty and her two children, Myra and Bruce, from her first husband, Kaufman is survived by Scott, Warren, Doug and Corrine, children of Morty’s first marriage, five grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.

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