Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Groucho: The Life and Times of Julius Henry Marx by Stefan Kanfer

Few figures throw a mightier shadow over the 20th Century cultural landscape than Groucho Marx (1890-1977), born Julius Henry Marx to assimilating German Jews in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.  With three of his four brothers – Chico, Harpo and Zeppo – he created several of Hollywood’s greatest comedies, and, as a single act later on, became a celebrated wit, humorist and game show host.  His eyebrows, mustache and eyeglasses have become shorthand for comedy and his insouciant, insulting delivery is echoed to this day in comedians as diverse as Adam Sandler and Woody Allen.

Sadly, Groucho Marx was like many other great comedians before and since, a deeply sad, melancholy and difficult man.  Groucho is revealed, warts and all, in a stunning biography by Stefan Kanfer called Groucho: The Life and Times of Julius Henry Marx.  Kanfer details Groucho’s troubled relationship with his mother, Minnie, who pushed all of her sons into show business and drove them on until they were successful, no matter the cost.  It was Minnie who took the quiet, bookish Groucho out of school and insisted that he go on the road – a move that the would-be doctor Groucho never forgot nor ever forgave.

Kanfer also looks at Groucho’s relations with his brothers.  Chico, the oldest, was a compulsive gambler and womanizer who seemed, oddly enough, beloved by everyone who knew him.  Things came easy to Chico, and Groucho resented that, along with the fact that Minnie loved Chico best.  Harpo, who clearly had some kind of undiagnosed learning disability, was often the subject of Groucho’s most condescending japes.  However Harpo was a genuinely happy man – it could be said Harpo had a talent for happiness – and this was inexplicable to the suspicious, touchy and often abrasive Groucho.  The two younger brothers, Zeppo and Gummo (who never really embraced show business) were never a significant part of Groucho’s life, but he did feel a responsibility for them, and often made arrangements to further their careers and businesses.  (Groucho often behaved as if he were the oldest brother – and was indeed the only brother upon whom a level of maturity rested.  It did nothing to improve his happiness.)

Kanfer shows that Groucho was equally inept in his romantic life.  He married three times, twice to women young enough to be his daughters.  All three marriages ended with Groucho emotionally pushing these women away from him – all three of them finding solace in alcohol.  His relations with his children were also messy – neither of his two daughters nor his son had much to do with the old man in later life, citing countless putdowns, oppressions, disappointments and casual brutalities as the reason.  One frightful illustration of Groucho’s child-rearing capabilities is evident in a bedtime story he told his daughter:

Tommy was a poor little boy.  He got up one morning and his mother said, “There is no food in the house, so you better go out and get some money.”  Tommy went out and he was hungry.  As he was walking along he saw a little girl run across the street just as a car was coming along.  He dashed out on the street and saved the little girl’s life.  The little girl’s nurse said, “Oh, you have saved the little girl’s life.  Her father is rich and he will reward you.”  So they wet to the little girl’s house and the nurse told the father that Tommy had saved the little girl’s life.  And the father said to Tommy, “You have saved my little girl’s life and I will reward you.  Here is $4,000.”  And Tommy said, “Oh, good, now I can buy some food.  I have not eaten anything all day.”  And the father said, “Wait a minute.  Here are some cookies and a glass of milk.”  So Tommy drank the whole glass of milk and ate all the cookies.  He was really hungry.  When he finished, the father said, “You better go home now and here is your money: $3,500.”  He had reconsidered.

Groucho Marx did not love people and always expected the worse.  To him people in general, and women in particular, were parasitic, scheming and untrustworthy.  This makes the tragedy that was the final act of Groucho’s life even more heartbreaking.  In his dotage, after driving his family and many of his friends away, Groucho became entangled with a deranged adventuress named Erin Fleming (1941-2003), who spent the last few years of Groucho’s life alternately abusing him and siphoning off his cash.  The family descended and a series of legal battles began, ending only 11 years after Groucho’s death.  Fleming spent the next two decades in and out of mental hospitals before committing suicide.  This final relationship seemed curiously fated for Groucho … he expected the worst in people, and found it only by seeking out the worst people.

Kanfer’s book is wonderfully written and he has a clean, clear prose style.  Despite this, his book is alternately delightful and depressing – Groucho’s early salad days, when the Marx Brothers were crystalizing and taking Broadway by storm are exhilarating, but the tales of his middle-and-old age were ghastly laundry lists of bad behavior, paranoia, jealousy and emotional self destruction.

However interesting the personal life of Groucho Marx – and serious Marxists are encouraged to seek out Kanfer’s book – what really matters is the body of work he left behind.  Horse Feathers (1932), Duck Soup (1933) and A Night at the Opera (1935) are among the finest movie comedies ever made, and if we must remember what an unhappy man Groucho Marx was in real life, we must temper that sad realization with the generations of happiness he has created.

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