Groucho Lives! (In Two Places)

Opinionator

Groucho Lives! (In Two Places)

By DICK CAVETT MARCH 30, 2012

For the Groucho Marx fans of this column who continue to plead for more, the information contained herein, if new to you, might just make your day.

There are two very different books out, both of which are musts to grace the bookshelves of the Groucho addict: Robert Bader’s “Groucho Marx and Other Short Stories and Tall Tales: Selected Writings of Groucho Marx” and Steve Stoliar’s “Raised Eyebrows: My Years Inside Groucho’s House.” Those who may have read these books when they first appeared need not feel left out. Both are updated and expanded editions. Both contain abundant new stuff.

 

Woody Allen has said that of the greats, Groucho had the richest number of gifts. He could sing, dance and act, and beyond those fairly common gifts, when you add the distinctive voice, faultless instinct for wording, genius wit, hilarious physical movement, rich supply of expressions and physical “takes” — and the list goes on — it arguably adds up to the most supremely gifted comedian of our time.

And there’s one thing more. He could write. A born scribe. And many a Groucho fan is unaware of the degree to which this was true. This problem has been put to bed by Bader’s book. (Full disclosure: I know Robert from the masterful job he did putting together the “Dick Cavett Show” DVD sets.) Bader, too, can write, and in a fresh, humorous, scholarly and entertaining way, with shrewd analysis and observations about the products of Groucho’s pen and typewriter.

If your reaction to this is, “So what did he write?” this book holds the answer. In his early years, and aside from his books, Groucho’s written pieces appeared widely, including in the beloved magazine College Humor and, yes, The New Yorker. Bader has found and retrieved priceless specimens of Groucho’s impressively large output from all over, some of the pieces early enough to have been bylined “Julius H. Marx,” Groucho’s vrai nom. Open the book to any page and try not to laugh.

Prime among the delights for me are speeches Groucho gave at colleges and elsewhere through the years. As you read them, it’s almost like having him present. So tone-perfect are these pieces that you can’t help hearing the famous voice and its witty inflections in your mind’s ear. It’s a wonder.

A Marx Brothers fanatic virtually from birth, Bader is an intrepid researcher and gets stuff nobody’s got. For another, coming book, he can be found one day in the Lincoln Center Library or, on another, in local newspaper files in, say, Red Oak, Iowa, sleuthing out yellowing, local Marx Brothers clippings, reviews and material from their vaudeville days.

Groucho preferred the company of writers to that of actors. In Los Angeles, when he took me to the Hillcrest Country Club for lunch, he steered us past a table of beckoning movie faces to the writers’ table, where I met fabled “names” from a lifetime of reading screen credits. He told me once, “I’d rather be known as an author and remembered for my writing than for all the rest of it.” (He told others that, too, of course.) He was immensely proud of having been a houseguest of his pen pal T. S. Eliot. The only problem, he said, was that Eliot kept addressing Groucho’s then-wife, Eden, as “Mrs. Groucho.”

Groucho was a well-read, well-educated man (the “self-” method) and the only 9th-grade dropout I ever met who had read all of Iris Murdoch’s novels. I think he was quietly delighted when I, with my (envied) Yale degree, had to confess to having read not one.

 

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