Groucho & Julius
Although the unlikeliest-seeming of theater critics, the Danish existentialist philosopher Søren Kierkegaard was responsible for some of the most penetrating observations about the nature of acting and performance this side of Aristotle. “The actor’s art is one of deceiving; the art is the deception,” Kierkegaard wrote in Works of Love (1847). And for this reason, he continued, “It is the pinnacle of art when the actor becomes one with what he represents, because it is the pinnacle of deception.”
Has any performer ever become “one with what he represents” more completely than Julius Henry Marx? Over the course of two decades in vaudeville, he slowly developed a comic character named Groucho that he would eventually end up playing for more than 50 years until his death in August 1977. He was assigned this stage name one night in 1914 in Galesburg, Illinois by a fellow vaudevillian, either because of his dour expression or because he carried the family “grouch bag” where he and his three brothers deposited the cash they were earning. By a similar process, his skirt-chasing brother Leonard would be dubbed Chicko (later amended to Chico), Adolph the harp player became Harpo, and Herbert, the youngest and least of them, Zeppo. A fifth brother, Gummo, had left the act in 1915 because he stuttered.
In 1924, the Four Marx Brothers appeared on Broadway in a revue, I’ll Say She Is, that caused a sensation and turned them into the toast of the Algonquin Round Table. The playbill listed their proper first names—the last moment when any public separation existed between Julius Marx the person and Groucho Marx the character. Thereafter, he was Groucho when he was on stage or screen and he was Groucho when he woke up in the morning and when he went to bed at night. As time went by, even his brothers ceased to call him “Julius” or “Julie,” and he in turn no longer called them by their given names. And in a very real sense, there was no more Julius Henry Marx.
Though the reputation of the Marx Brothers still rests primarily on the six great motion-picture comedies they made between 1929 and 1935 (Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, Horse Feathers, Duck Soup, and A Night at the Opera), the most famous stories about Groucho concern his conduct not on the silver screen but in the real world. Told he could not enter a restricted swimming club with his daughter in tow, he protested that, since the little girl was only half-Jewish, maybe she could be allowed to enter the pool up to her knees. In 1951, when Cecil B. DeMille eagerly solicited the comedian’s opinion of his new film, Samson and Delilah, starring Hedy Lamarr and the bodybuilder Victor Mature, Groucho replied, “You’ve got the roles reversed. Victor Mature has bigger—.”
For a story he often told to suggest that he had always been Groucho, the self-regarding solipsist and truth-teller, he even dipped back into his penurious youth in New York. At the age of twelve, it seems, he had taken the prettiest girl on East 93rd Street to Hammerstein’s Victoria Vaudeville theater in Times Square. “I had 70 cents saved up and I had it all measured out,” he wrote in his 1959 autobiography, Groucho and Me. “Two tickets in the second balcony, 50 cents . . . carfare both ways, 20 cents . . . total: 70 cents.” But then the girl asked him to buy her a bag of coconut candy for a nickel.
“I did what every sucker has done all his life when beauty demands something,” he recalled, still miffed 60 years later that she would not even offer him a piece. (“Perhaps she assumed I had diabetes.”) When the two emerged from the theater, a snowstorm was raging, but the boy had only a single nickel left for carfare to make the three-mile trip home. He offered to flip her for it. She called heads, it was tails, and, as he told a convulsed crowd at a Carnegie Hall appearance in 1972, “She walked all the way back to 93rd Street.”
Is the story true? It certainly sounds like Groucho, who employed the sensibility and style of a clever and obnoxious twelve-year-old into his old age. But those were the demands of his role, the role of a lifetime, one of the great roles of the 20th century—a role that, given its seductiveness, Julius Marx felt compelled to play at every waking moment. Ultimately, it does not matter whether the coin-flipping story is true or not—any more than it matters whether Groucho actually said at the perfect moment that he would never belong to a club that would have him for a member, or uttered any of the scores of quips he claimed to have thought up on the spot and immediately hurled at some unsuspecting burgher or doyenne.
From an early age, he had demonstrated a genius for seeming to ad-lib lines that were fully scripted, and he continued in that vein when he became a bantering quiz-show host on radio and television into his sixties. Such seeming spontaneity was key to the Groucho character—the violator of convention, the tormentor of saps and fools everywhere, the man who could say anything and do anything because he held nothing sacred but money.
What a liberation that must have been for the real Julius Marx. By 1935, the comedian was forty-five and after a knockabout life had become one of the most famous people in America. Why would he not have preferred to be Groucho rather than the man he truly was: a marrier of drunkards, an obsessive worrier about debt, an overbearing father who drove his beloved daughters away? When the mask fell, he must have been among the dreariest and most characterless of men.
That is certainly the impression one gets from reading two recent books: Stefan Kanfer’s Groucho: The Life and Times of Julius Henry Marx1 and Simon Louvish’s Monkey Business: The Lives and Legends of the Marx Brothers2 Both books are failures, but that is not entirely the fault of their authors, who do everything they can to jazz up a fairly conventional showbiz story: domineering stage mother, years of touring the Orpheum and Keith circuits on a bill with jugglers and dancers, hitting it big, suffering family difficulties and career setbacks, happy times and unhappy times, and then the final dwindle into death. Kanfer affects a tone of literary jocularity that eventually wears very thin, while Louvish is a pedant, spending pages sifting through census records to argue that the Marx family was not as poor as the brothers later claimed.
Both writers are keenly interested in the role Jewishness played in the lives of the brothers, but they do not come up with much. The father, a tailor, was Alsatian, the mother Prussian, and the family tongue was not Yiddish or German but a lowland dialect called Plattdeutsch. When Groucho began making a name for himself in vaudeville, it was as a German-dialect comedian—a role he had to surrender once World War I broke out. Unlike other successful Jewish vaudevillians like Eddie Cantor and Georgie Jessel, the Marx brothers wore their ethnicity lightly, though without shame—and Harpo became a passionate Zionist in the years before Israel’s founding.
The Marx brothers were genuinely eccentric. Zeppo was a thug headed for prison as a boy, Chico one of history’s most successful ladies’ men and an inveterate gambler who would think nothing of selling his father’s pants out from under him. Later on, the nearly illiterate Harpo (as an adult he once wrote an enraged note to someone reading, “You are ded”) became a beloved member of the Manhattan literary jet set.3
Groucho’s brothers, in fact, especially Chico and Harpo, come off as far more interesting subjects of biography than Groucho himself, just as Harpo’s ghostwritten autobiography, Harpo Speaks!, is far superior to Groucho and Me, whose labored prose is borrowed so heavily from the curlicued style of Groucho’s onetime screenwriter, S. J. Perelman, that it almost seems like plagiarism.
Although Groucho took great pride in the idea that he was a writer, and one whose work appeared in the New Yorker, Kanfer rightly points out the derivativeness of his magazine pieces, which “smacked of [the humorist] Robert Benchley, playing the much put-upon ‘little man’ hounded by larger forces.” Without his cigar, his drawn-on moustache, and his stooped walk, he was reduced to imitating others just to find a voice. His one play, Time for Elizabeth (co-authored by Norman Krasna), is a highly conventional comedy, little different from other Broadway plays of the 1940’s. “The Groucho of Time far Elizabeth was another copy,” Kanfer writes, “this time of a Broadway hack hoping to entice theater parties for a season or two.”
One usually thinks of Groucho Marx not as an actor but rather as a force of nature. But an actor he most assuredly was, trapped inside a single part that eventually atrophied his character. Maybe what is so disappointing about Kanfer’s and Louvish’s books is that they force one to confront the essential smallness of this comic giant. “One must not be able and must not want to see the actor through the costume,” Kierkegaard wrote. He might have added that many performers choose their professions because they would really rather be somebody else. Groucho Marx became his costume.
1 Knopf, 465 pp., $30.00.
2 St. Martin’s, 471 pp., $25.95.
3 Neither biographer seems aware of an offhand revelation in Young Man from the Provinces, a fascinating memoir by Alan Heims of gay life in New York City in the 1950’s and 1960’s, in which Harpo is casually mentioned as a participant in the homosexual roundelay of the time. Harpo married at the age of fifty, and he and his wife adopted four children.