Groucho and The Essential Groucho

By Stefan Kanfer
Ed. by Stefan Kanfer

One of the easiest things to say after reading any biography is that the biographer has failed to explain the essence of his or her subject. The real man (or woman) is finally incapable of being grasped. A life, any life, is simply too mysterious and paradoxical to be dissected and analyzed so that it can somehow be given a narrative shape or be seen to make sense when stuck between the covers of a book. In the case of a creative genius this sense of the irresolvable and incomprehensible is even greater. What made a Yeats or a Picasso? How can any biography answer that?

It can’t. Which makes it all the more strange to find so little mystery in Stefan Kanfer’s excellent new biography of Groucho Marx.

No one today would argue against Groucho’s genius. Admired by tastes both high and low, the anarchic farce of movies like Horse Feathers, Duck Soup and A Night at the Opera (all made in the 1930s) has stood the test of time. Groucho’s image, which remains famous through the use of props like “Groucho glasses” with shaggy eyebrows and a big nose, is a stylemark recognized all over the world. Generations of comedians have acknowledged their debt.

And yet there is nothing about Groucho’s story that is unfamiliar. Julius Henry Marx was the grandson of German Jewish immigrants who settled in New York’s Upper East Side, the son of an ineffective father and ambitious, domineering mother who pushed all her children into show business at an early age. A long apprenticeship in vaudeville was followed by stints on Broadway, film, radio and television, his career tracking the history of twentieth-century entertainment. He rode with the times, and while he sometimes would drift he never capsized.

Even Groucho’s personality seems pretty easy to grasp. Was he obsessed with money, a notorious miser and cheapskate who wanted to avoid divorce merely because of the alimony? Yes, but what else would you expect from a childhood spent in poverty, the loss of a fortune in the Great Crash of 1929, and the ever-present example of his dissolute brother Chico? Groucho knew what it was to be poor, and he knew the way down could be a lot faster and easier than the way up. Wasn’t that Buster Keaton grinding out gags for the Brothers at $100 a week?

Did he hate women? Kanfer has to raise the possibility. He was certainly verbally abusive to each of his three wives, and nearly every woman who came close to him was destroyed. But even this makes a kind of sense. He was raised by a mother he had to respect but could never love, in the company of four wild brothers and no sisters. His first sexual encounter was with a prostitute who gave him a venereal disease. Growing up, most of the women he knew were showgirls, the chorines he would always desire and despise. With such a start it would have been amazing had he turned into a model of sensitivity.

Nor is there anything surprising about Groucho’s desire to be recognized as an author. Forced to drop out of school before he turned 13, he thought of the literary life as something he had unfairly missed. In addition, writing had a social cachet that his wiseacre vaudeville routines couldn’t touch. He always preferred the company of writers to performers and wanted to be considered one of their group. He took pride in his acquaintance with T. S. Eliot, though by the time they met they were more interested in what had made them famous than they were in each other. Such is the lot of celebrities.

Ironically, given his interest in being an author, a biography of Groucho Marx is easier to recommend than a collection of his writings. There are two problems with The Essential Groucho, a selection of letters, skits, essays and one-liners edited by Kanfer. The first is our uncertainty about what really belongs to Groucho. Like any comedian, Groucho made extensive use of professional writers. And while famous for his ability to improvise and shoot from the hip it isn’t even clear whether the snappy comebacks from his long-running TV show You Bet Your Life were his own.

But the bigger problem with The Essential Groucho is the absence of Groucho. As fans, family and friends all agreed, it was never what Groucho said that was funny so much as the way he said it. The essential Groucho was never in the lines but in the slouching walk, the animate eyebrows, the waggling cigar, and above all the voice – the speed and timing of his delivery. The performance was everything, and what we have here is just the score.

But Kanfer’s biography is very well done. While there is nothing slapstick or bantering about it, it moves at a remarkable speed. I can’t remember the last time I read a biography this quickly. And the book also quietly brings out the shape of Groucho’s life without forcing it into a rigid pattern – the man who never had a childhood declining into an old age without retirement, the destroyer of women meeting his nemesis in a controlling and destructive woman, the outsider and non-joiner of clubs who always wanted to belong, and finally the sadness and sufferings of the unhappy clown.

The unhappy clown is, as Kanfer admits, “one of the bromides of show business, and one that Groucho particularly loathed – but that does not make it false.” In fact, it is almost inevitable. Comedy, especially of the aggressive, subversive Marx Brothers variety, always has an edge of bitterness and resentment about it. It’s a kind of violence, and it doesn’t come from a happy source.

Nor does it lead to a happy end. One reason why Groucho seems so transparent is because of his identification with a role. Usually the personality of the artist is something that stands behind the art which may or may not be worth digging out. But in Groucho’s case they were the same. As Maureen O’Sullivan put it, “His life was his jokes.” Groucho understood that the “curse of his profession” was to be expected to be funny at all times. In any setting, public or private, he had to be “on.” This meant that there was no escaping the resentment, insecurity and anger that fueled his bullying and insulting brand of humour. It is the fate of such personalities to burn out, leaving memories that never seem to fade.

Review first published August 19, 2000.


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