Groucho Marx and Other Short Stories and Tall Tales

Groucho Marx and Other Short Stories and Tall Tales has been published around the world and translated into several languages. The book has remained in print for more than twenty years. An expanded edition was published in 2011.

Listen to a September 1, 2013 interview about the book with Robert S. Bader on From the Bookshelf with Gary Shapiro (KUSP, Santa Cruz, California):


 

“Ghostwriters in the Sky”

Herbert Ashley. Arthur Sheekman. Ken Englund. Norman Krasna. Robert Dwan. Hal Kantor. Leslie Leiber. Richard J. Anobile. Hector Arce. No Pulitzer Prize winners on that list. All good writers, but none of them are household names. Would any of them even be considered well known? The single thing these writers share in common is that they were all credited collaborators on written work with Groucho Marx. Groucho loved writers and he treasured them as friends. He longed to be respected for his written work, and was more pleased by praise for his writing than he was by a good review of his performance in a play or a film. Yet questions about the authorship of Groucho’s written work persist. And to a certain degree, he has himself to blame. But there is no doubt that Groucho was a good writer.

The recent publication of Four of the Three Musketeers: The Marx Brothers on Stage has revived interest in Groucho Marx and Other Short Stories and Tall Tales, the anthology of Groucho’s writing that I edited. It was first published in 1993 and a revised edition with additional material was published in 2011. I’ve recently received a few e-mails asking whether or not Groucho really wrote the essays in the book. The short answer is yes, he did. But there’s a longer answer as well. While no explanation will convince everyone that Groucho was a capable writer, an examination of the facts should. But there are still people who believe that Hitler escaped to South America and that the moon landing was faked on a soundstage.

Many celebrities have published material actually written by others. This is just part of the culture of fame. Do some of them need a ghostwriter? Yes. Did Groucho Marx need one? No. Did he use one on occasion? Certainly. But that had little to do with his ability as a writer. In his 1959 autobiography, Groucho and Me, Groucho wrote, “This is indeed the age of the ‘ghost.’ Most of the palaver that emanates from bankers, politicians, actors, industrialists and others in the high-bracket zones is written by undernourished hacks who keep body and soul together writing reams of schweinerei for flannel-mouthed stuffed shirts. Like it or not, this is the kind of an age we’re living in.”  Clearly Groucho did not like the concept of ghostwriting in its generally understood form – the creation of ideas for someone lacking them. He also understood that he was a writer whose work could be improved by an editor. “I’m really sticking my neck out with this blast at ghostwriting. I know damned well I’m no Faulkner, Hemingway, Camus or Perelman… or even Kathleen Winsor. As a matter of fact, I’m not even the same sex as Kathleen. But every word of this stringy, ill-written farrago is being sweated out by me.” Does the assistance of an editor make Groucho a liar?

Robert Bader with Susan Marx

If an editor polishes a manuscript does that make the editor a ghostwriter? This question can be asked of almost every book ever published. Authors rarely work in complete isolation. In 1995 Susan Marx, the widow of Harpo Marx, hired me to help her write a book. Was I her ghostwriter, editor or coauthor? I certainly wrote portions of the manuscript, and I edited what she had written, but we didn’t really discuss the job title. She had been struggling to complete her memoirs. I had known her for around ten years and she enjoyed reading my letters. She was very complimentary about my writing and enjoyed Groucho Marx and Other Short Stories and Tall Tales. (In fact, she told me that she enjoyed the book more than she enjoyed Groucho.)

To be very clear, Susan was an excellent writer. She really didn’t need me. But she wanted me to rewrite, sort and edit her work. I wrote several passages in her style purely in the interest of narrative flow, but mostly kept what she had written. It was her work. I merely helped. I also transcribed a lot of her thoughts from interview recordings, which made me more of a typist than a writer. But I did pose the questions, which surely made me more than a typist. These distinctions were unimportant to both of us. Sadly the book had not been completed to her satisfaction at the time of her passing in 2002. Perhaps someday it will see the light of day. Susan planned to credit me for my work and even insisted that I share the royalties, if there ever were any. She had a very self-deprecating sense of humor and occasionally referred to our manuscript as a “pile of trash.” (Maybe she was right to give me credit – or as she sometimes said, blame.) Based on our work process, some might call me her ghostwriter, but if that implies that Susan Marx was incapable of writing a book, I would prefer to be called her coauthor. Someone who can write well does not usually employ a ghostwriter. But it has been known to happen. And there are always going to be editors with delusions of grandeur when it comes to describing their work. I’ve seen perfectly capable authors fall victim to someone claiming to have written some of their work. It’s a tough accusation to disprove even if it’s baseless.


Susan Marx Interview
   
Groucho’s use of a ghostwriter began innocently enough. When the Marx Brothers became Broadway stars, a publicist or press agent may have written an occasional piece under his byline. He may or may not have had input on these pieces. Several years later Groucho had another writer’s work occasionally appear under his byline for a completely different reason. He had become friendly with Chicago newspaper columnist Arthur Sheekman. Groucho convinced Sheekman to move to Hollywood, where he worked on Marx Brothers films at Paramount. Sheekman also worked on the Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel radio series starring Groucho and Chico Marx. But Sheekman didn’t find much success in Hollywood when he looked for opportunities away from the Marx Brothers. He had a handful of credits on good films, but by the early 1940s, work became scarce for him. It is not difficult to find unproduced Arthur Sheekman screenplay treatments for sale on the Internet. When times got tough, Sheekman asked Groucho to help him sell his work to magazines and Groucho contacted his literary agent, George T. Bye, who found no takers for Arthur Sheekman.

Groucho had no trouble selling anything he wrote to major magazines and newspapers. As a Broadway and Hollywood star, he could have gotten his grocery lists published. But he saw an opportunity to help his friend, and with the assistance of George T. Bye, Groucho allowed some of Arthur Sheekman’s work to be sold as the work of Groucho Marx. There is correspondence between Groucho and Sheekman that confirms the arrangement and even includes information about the level of Groucho’s involvement in specific pieces. Sheekman collected the money for the pieces he conceived and Groucho paid him for editing and polishing some of his own work. This scheme would unjustly put a cloud over all of Groucho’s written output.  Ironically, at the beginning of their friendship, Groucho wrote a guest column for Sheekman.

 

In collecting material for inclusion in Groucho Marx and Other Short Stories and Tall Tales, I was careful to exclude material for which evidence of Arthur Sheekman’s primary authorship exists. (Although Groucho was less concerned about this issue and included Sheekman material in several of his books, probably because he was comfortable with his own contributions to that material.) In the introduction to the book I explained the nature of the arrangement with Sheekman and quoted several passages from the Groucho-Sheekman correspondence. (Note that references to the writing arrangement were removed from these letters when Sheekman edited them for inclusion in The Groucho Letters. Sheekman’s redactions are on the original letters in the Library of Congress, but it is very easy to read the redacted portions.)


Miriam Marx Allen interview.

Worth noting is that Groucho shared credit with Arthur Sheekman for “The Event,” a sketch they wrote together for Max Gordon’s 1930 Broadway revue, Three’s a Crowd. Groucho had also previously worked in collaboration with vaudeville comedian Herbert Ashley on a sketch for Ashley’s act. They jointly registered the script for copyright in 1920.  Groucho seems to have had a policy very early in his writing career: when he works alone, the credit is his; when he collaborates he shares the credit. The Sheekman arrangement is an anomaly. Groucho is credited on material written by Sheekman with varying levels of Groucho’s participation for purely commercial reasons – and for the benefit of Sheekman, not Groucho.

  
You can read that Sheekman wrote Groucho’s first book, Beds, in at least a couple of good books, and a couple of bad ones. He was definitely involved. But to suggest Groucho had nothing to do with the book is ludicrous.  Beds first appeared as four essays in College Humor. Would Groucho have hired Sheekman to write four essays for a relatively lowbrow magazine after having been published in far more literary publications before they became friends? Doubtful, but certainly possible.  More plausibly, fashioning the essays into a book would be a job for a more experienced writer, and Sheekman was that writer.

The College Humor essays differ from the versions in Beds. For example, the third paragraph of the book does not contain the sentence, “Obviously you should never count your eggs before they are hatched, and you shouldn’t count your sheep after you are asleep.” Someone decided to remove that line in the first essay for the publication of the book.  There are other changes throughout the book. There will likely never be concrete evidence to support either theory, but Groucho didn’t ask Arthur Sheekman to write a book for him. And if he wanted to go that route, his level of fame at the time would have enabled his publisher to get him a much better writer than Arthur Sheekman for the task.  So the question becomes, “Did Sheekman edit Groucho, or did Sheekman edit Sheekman?” In either case it’s overly simplistic to say that Sheekman wrote the book. Even if Groucho merely came up with the ideas – as would later be established in their correspondence as the protocol for the Sheekman-penned “Groucho” pieces – the work is Groucho’s.

The material written by Sheekman under Groucho’s name was published as it was purely for the purpose of helping Sheekman make some money. In a December 19, 1941 letter to Sheekman, Groucho mentioned that Norman Krasna “couldn’t understand why you weren’t able to sell comedy stuff to magazines under your name.” Using Groucho’s name helped Sheekman place some material in publications that were not interested in Arthur Sheekman. The arrangement had nothing to do with Groucho’s inability to write or get published. In fact, the opposite was true. It was Groucho’s popularity and the demand for his writing that caused Sheekman’s work to bear Groucho’s name.

That same December 19, 1941 letter also contains a passage in which Groucho gives Sheekman some ideas for his second book, Many Happy Returns. There was clearly a process in which Groucho passed along material and Sheekman developed that material into the book. Did some of Many Happy Returns end up being written by Sheekman? Probably. Did Groucho have no involvement in writing the book? No. He was a very active participant in the process. (Portions of Many Happy Returns exist in a handwritten manuscript by Groucho, as do handwritten revisions for an unpublished revised edition.) He was employing his struggling friend.  Should Many Happy Returns have been credited to both authors? Perhaps, but there’s also a good chance that the commercial value of the book might have been reduced by adding Sheekman’s name to it. Groucho had already been involved in a credited collaboration with Sheekman, so it isn’t as if he objected to crediting his friend. In either case, Sheekman was certainly comfortable with the arrangement.

Sheekman’s wife, actress Gloria Stuart published her memoirs, I Just Kept Hoping, in 1999. She was 89 years old and not surprisingly, employed a ghostwriter, who happened to be her daughter. Stuart met Sheekman in 1933 and married him in August 1934. She did not know him at the time Beds was written. Groucho, in his mid-eighties employed Hector Arce as a ghostwriter, but credited him as a coauthor on two books. Arce also wrote Groucho’s authorized biography, Groucho. In it he says Groucho told him that Sheekman wrote Beds. Again, anything is possible, but to accept everything Groucho said late in his life as fact would be a terrible mistake for any researcher. Could Groucho have meant that Sheekman turned Groucho’s College Humor essays into the book Beds? I presented this completely plausible scenario in the introduction to Groucho Marx and Other Short Stories and Tall Tales.  The contention in the Arce book must be addressed in any consideration of Groucho as a writer, but Sheekman’s career problems should also factor into the equation. It’s fair to wonder if Gloria Stuart’s ghostwriter took the information from Arce’s book. This business of who really wrote what gets a little murky several decades down the road. We’ve got ghostwriters quoting ghostwriters about who used a ghostwriter!

Groucho’s letters to Arthur Sheekman


Groucho Marx Letter to Arthur Sheekman -(12-19-41)
Groucho Marx Letter to Arthur Sheekman -(12-19-41)
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So who is Howard Benedict? A recent correspondent was interested in my take on a May 1, 1929 item in Variety claiming that Benedict, a press agent, was ghostwriting for Groucho, and that articles had been placed in The New Yorker, Collier’s, The Saturday Evening Post and The New York Times. This presents an interesting problem. Benedict’s name is not found in any of Groucho’s correspondence, particularly the correspondence between Groucho and his literary agent George T. Bye. Since Sheekman’s situation was clearly outlined in letters, one would think another person involved in Groucho’s writing would be similarly documented. Of course it is possible that Benedict may have had a hand in some of the work. But it is also possible that the Variety item is a lie or an exaggeration. The guy was a press agent, after all. 

Helen Benedict, a novelist and Columbia University professor, is Howard Benedict’s granddaughter. She provides a bit of information about “Benny” – as he was generally known. “Benny used to talk about being Groucho’s ghostwriter all the time. That’s what he called it. He said his job actually entailed following Groucho around taking down the jokes that spilled constantly from his mouth, then picking out the ones that were good. Many weren’t, he said. He said Groucho would crack jokes all the time, sort of manically.” If that’s the extent of the work Howard Benedict did for Groucho, the ghostwriter claim is more than an exaggeration. It is simply false. But Helen Benedict also allows for the real possibility that even Benedict’s note taking claim might not be true.

Between 1919 and 1928, Groucho published at least 26 pieces in publications including The New York World, The New York Herald Tribune, Variety, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, The St. Louis Post Dispatch, and The New York Times. The Benedict claim in Variety would suggest that he had involvement in the following pieces:

“Press Agents I Have Known” (The New Yorker, March 9, 1929)

“The Return of the Four Mad Prodigals” (The New York Times, April 21,1929)

“Buy It, Put It Away and Forget About It” (The New Yorker, May 4, 1929)

“When I Was Young and Charming” (The Saturday Evening Post, June 22, 1929)

It would be safe to dismiss the claim on a Collier’s piece, since “My Poor Wife” was not published until December 30, 1930. Presumably if Benedict had been Groucho’s ghostwriter he would have been fired well before that for blabbing about it in Variety a year-and-a-half earlier. But assuming there’s some smoke in Benedict’s fire, accept also that all four of the items in question are clearly similar in style and tone to the numerous Groucho pieces that had been published prior to the Benedict claim. Additionally, there is nothing extraordinary about these pieces that would suggest Groucho would have been unable to write them. The subjects of vaudeville, the stock market and press agents were not at all foreign to Groucho.

Benedict actually was a press agent, and published his own humorous take on the profession. But the publication of humorous prose about press agents under his own byline does not indicate that Benedict wrote Groucho’s piece about press agents. In fact, Benedict’s press agent piece predates Groucho’s, which raises another question: Why would a famous Broadway star pay a completely unknown writer with no credentials for an essay similar to one that’s already been published? Apart from that, the pages of The New Yorker included at least eleven humorous pieces concerning press agents between the magazine’s 1925 inception and the publication of Groucho’s “Press Agents I Have Known.” It was a popular topic at the time.

Groucho certainly had his own ideas about press agents. Specifically, in “Press Agents I Have Known” Groucho comments, “I’m still looking for a press agent who will get me some publicity without making me roller-skate down Broadway.” The 2011 edition of Groucho Marx and Other Short Stories and Tall Tales includes an October 1924 photograph of the Four Marx Brothers roller-skating down Broadway. Would it not be more plausible that the subject of the piece is likely to have come from the recollections of Groucho Marx than the pen of Howard Benedict? Maybe Benedict was an editor. Maybe he was a liar. Or perhaps he just followed Groucho around with pencil and paper.

Howard Benedict was certainly an imaginative press agent. He published three volumes of memoirs – or more accurately, he self-published them with a vanity press. To put it mildly, Benedict was an incorrigible namedropper. In these books – As I Recall, Second Thoughts and Postscripts – written late in his life, Benedict recounts anecdotes from his days as press agent around Broadway and Hollywood – frequently associating himself with famous people. There’s no mention in any of the three books of the ghostwriting claim. (Perhaps the job description his granddaughter recalls is accurate, and Benedict knew better than to make the ghostwriter claim in his memoirs.) But in As I Recall, there is another dubious claim involving the Marx Brothers. And it is a very easy claim to disprove. In fact, Benedict disproves it himself in Postscripts.  In As I Recall, Benedict writes, “In New York I was press agent for the zany musical Animal Crackers, starring the Marx Brothers.” In Postscripts he writes, “My first job in New York was as press agent for Max Gordon who was about to produce Three’s a Crowd, a musical revue.” Animal Crackers completed its Broadway run on April 6, 1929. Three’s a Crowd opened on October 15, 1930. Mr. Benedict would not do well under cross-examination. 

Did Howard Benedict know the Marx Brothers? Probably. But his books suggest he was an intimate of just about every famous Broadway figure of the 1920s. If his claims are true one wonders how Benedict managed to escape the notice of decades of researchers and writers who have covered this period. In truth, he was a young guy trying to break into the theatrical business, and he had some brushes with famous people. A few weeks before the ghostwriting claim in Variety Benedict had a pair of letters to the editor published in The New York Evening Post concerning losing at poker to Zeppo Marx.  In all three of these press notices, Benedict gets his name in the paper by attaching himself to a Marx Brother.  A press agent’s job is to get his client’s name in the paper, not his own. In working for Max Gordon at the time of Three’s a Crowd, Benedict probably met Groucho and Arthur Sheekman, writers of a sketch in the show. Benedict’s name turned up frequently in the theatrical press in the late 1920s and early 1930s associated with several different shows, but not with Animal Crackers. Helen Benedict notes, “He dined off stories of the folks he knew in his press agent days for years. Unreliable narrator, I would add.”

All three of Benedict’s books contain anecdotes about Groucho and retell a few well-known Groucho stories. He’s even got a couple of Harpo stories. Benedict was a successful press agent and later became a producer. But he never worked with anyone else as famous as the Marx Brothers. His books make clear that he thought he should have become famous himself. He is prone to self-aggrandizement and his books seem to exist for no reason other than to connect himself to celebrities. But strangely, his poker playing with Zeppo and his ghostwriting for Groucho are not among his autobiographical exploits. Benedict could easily forget items he planted in the press sixty years earlier, but would be less likely to forget something like ghostwriting for Groucho Marx in a trio of books devoted to promoting Howard Benedict’s association with celebrities. None of this conclusively proves that Howard Benedict was never involved with the written work of Groucho Marx, but it certainly makes the notion of the Variety item being fabricated or exaggerated a reasonable one.

My research for Groucho Marx and Other Short Stories and Tall Tales included a very detailed look at Groucho’s correspondence and manuscripts at the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution, the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research, and several privately held collections.  The evidence of Arthur Sheekman’s involvement in several of Groucho’s published writings is clear and could not be ignored. Specific references to some of the published pieces in the correspondence were particularly valuable and enabled me to eliminate material that was more Sheekman than Groucho from the book. But the Sheekman relationship appears to be unique with regard to Groucho’s writer friends and collaborators.

I have been fortunate to see Groucho Marx and Other Short Stories and Tall Tales become a great success and a standard work on Groucho. Ten editions in numerous languages have sent the book around the world.  To my great astonishment, this book continues to sell quite well nearly a quarter century after the first publication. I believe Groucho would be proud of the book. His family and friends have told me that on several occasions. While I can’t stop anyone from believing that Groucho didn’t really write the material, I can confidently say that the arrangement between Groucho Marx and Arthur Sheekman arose purely so Groucho could help his friend. Read the letters. It’s all there. As for Howard Benedict, I am not convinced he had much, if any, of a role in Groucho’s writing.  At best, Benedict knew Groucho casually. There is no documentation of any relationship between them, apart from several very non-specific references in Benedict’s books. He doesn’t have a single Groucho story or quote not available elsewhere.

Benedict’s books read like a Who’s Who of Twentieth Century show business, sports and literature. Mostly he recounts anecdotes of the sort found in show business newspaper columns. Benedict became a prolific producer of B-movies in the 1940s and 1950s after having been the head of the publicity department at RKO. Only occasionally does he note an actual professional association with the people he writes about. (These claims appear to be legitimate, and mostly from his time at RKO. Oddly, the Marx Brothers made Room Service at RKO during Benedict’s time at the studio, but he does not mention that in any of the books.) He was not a man devoid of accomplishments, but in 1929 he had not yet accomplished anything. Had he actually been Groucho’s ghostwriter at that point, it would be hard to believe that he would leave this important early job out of three separate volumes of memoirs.

Groucho credited his collaborators. At least nine of them! He did not credit his editors as collaborators. No author does. Similarly, a presidential speechwriter incorporates the president’s ideas and policies into a presentable form for the president to deliver. Would it be fair to say that John F. Kennedy was incapable of writing a speech because he employed Arthur Schlesinger for that purpose? Was it Kennedy or Schlesinger who pledged to put a man on the moon?  If Howard Benedict or Arthur Sheekman, or anyone else played a role in any of Groucho’s writing, it is really no different than Maxwell Perkins playing a role in the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald or Ernest Hemingway. Most writers have editors.  Groucho certainly had Sheekman. But he probably didn’t have Benedict.

As for Groucho’s writing ability, I will simply quote from Dick Cavett’s foreword to the 2011 edition of Groucho Marx and Other Short Stories and Tall Tales. “Julius Marx was a born writer. I have treasured letters he wrote to me that could be used in a writing course at Yale as models of perfect wording, fresh images, deft turn of phrase, high intelligence, and a well-read, educated man’s vocabulary. In short, a lively and delightful original style, all of it balanced in incomparable wit.”

 

Robert S. Bader

Editor of Groucho Marx and Other Short Stories and Tall Tales