What could Groucho Marx and T.S. Eliot possibly have had in common? One was the crown prince of jokes and gags, the wisecracking star, first of vaudeville and then of movies such as Monkey Business and Horse Feathers; the other, the very priest of high culture, whose super-allusive work The Waste Land laid bare the spiritual anguish and anomie of modern Western civilization—whose every cough or sneeze, one imagines, encoded some profound meaning. Yet they formed one of the stranger mutual admiration societies of their times.
The Groucho Letters: Pocket Books, 320 pages, Rs729.
As recorded in The Groucho Letters, a selection of the most entertaining samples of Marx’s correspondence, edited by Arthur Sheekman, Marx and Eliot sent each other flattering portrait photographs of themselves in the first half of 1961. “You will have learned that you are my most coveted pin-up,” wrote Eliot. “I shall be happy to occupy a much humbler place in your collection,” responded Marx. “I had no idea you were so handsome,” gushed Eliot. “Why you haven’t been offered the lead in some sexy movies I can only attribute to the stupidity of the casting directors.”
The pages of The Groucho Letters shimmer with epistolary versions of the same incorrigible (and infectious) silliness which Marx, above all the other comedians of his generation, had made his trademark. Whether in a letter to an old pal or a business letter, Marx always throws in something to entertain the recipient and —before that, one suspects—to amuse himself.
In a letter to a fellow comedian, he advises him not to marry a chorus girl, for in that kind of marriage lies not harmony but alimony. In a highly entertaining reply to Warner Bros. Studios, who threatened legal action because his proposed movie A Night in Casablanca had a name too similar to their Casablanca, he wonders what legal right they have then over the word “Brothers”: “Professionally, we were [the Marx] brothers long before you were.”
And in a missive to his son, the tennis player Arthur Marx, Groucho takes on the voice of the family dog Duke. “Your father and I have many run-ins these days,” complains Duke. “You see, he can’t get it into his thick skull that I have come of age and that sex is just as important to me as it is to him.” He ends by asking Arthur to take care of himself: “That’s the leash you can do.”
The actor’s antics: Marx’s memorable role in The Circus Year(1939).
Whether complaining about taxes and the television age, enthusing about hot girls or sharing trade gossip, these letters speak of a universe every bit as helter-skelter as Marx’s childhood, with his brothers in vaudeville, when his mother managed their gigs while his father stayed home. Marx loved his father, an unsuccessful tailor who was always losing money on grand schemes and whose real interests were in cooking and playing cards, and memorialized him in the light-hearted yet touching essay “Our Father and Us” (anthologized in the collection The Essential Groucho). It is a piece that should compulsorily be attached to each new gloomy piece that V.S. Naipaul writes about his father.
In a letter to a journalist in 1960, Marx complains about the modern nonsense about parenthood generated by Freud and his disciples, which asserts that all the people in show business had unhappy childhoods and, more generally, that “parents are responsible for all children who turn out badly”. For Groucho, born in 1890 and the child of a less convoluted age, some of the newfangled ideas of his later years were unfathomable.
The Groucho Letters, which contains not just letters by Marx, but also some written to him, reveals how hard his respondents often tried to please him in turn with wisecracks and witticisms. The tone of the correspondence, even in exchanges with luminaries like Eliot, is dominated by Marx. These irreverent letters show how good he was at having a swell time—and making sure everybody else did too.
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