Happy Birthday, Groucho Marx

Here’s Groucho Marx’s letterhead.

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One of Groucho Marx’s letters to Peter Lorre, having to do with Ulysses that makes me so happy. Peter Lorre, sending Groucho a book explaining James Joyce’s Ulysses?? This makes me feel that the world is a place that not only makes sense but is filled with magic.

October 5, 1961

Dear Peter:

It was very thoughtful of you to send me a book explaining James Joyce’s “Ulysses”. All I need now is another book explaining this study by Stuart Gilbert who, if memory serves, painted the celebrated picture of George Washington which hangs in the Metropolitan Museum. I realize that there is some two hundred years’ difference in their ages, but any man who can explain Joyce must be very old and very wise.

You disappeared rather mysteriously the other night, but I attribute this to your life of crime in the movies.

Best to you both.

Regards,
Groucho

Groucho and T.S. Eliot exchanged many letters, believe it or not. They were mutual admirers, pen pals, they sent one another pictures of themselves.

T.S. Eliot wrote to Groucho:

26th April, 1961

Dear Groucho Marx,

This is to let you know that your portrait has arrived and has given me great joy and will soon appear in its frame on my wall with other famous friends such as W.B. Yeats and Paul Valery. Whether you really want a photograph of me or whether you merely asked for it out of politeness, you are going to get one anyway. I am ordering a copy of one of my better ones and I shall certainly inscribe it with my gratitude and assurance and admiration. You will have learned that you are my most coveted pin-up. I shall be happy to occupy a much humbler place in your collection.

And incidentally, if and when you and Mrs. Marx are in London, my wife and I hope that you will dine with us.

Yours very sincerely,
T.S. Eliot

P.S. I like cigars too but there isn’t any cigar in my portrait either.

In 1963, Marx heard that Eliot had been ill. He dashed off this note.

January 25, 1963

Dear Mr. Eliot:

I read in the current Time Magazine that you are ill. I just want you to know that I am rooting for your quick recovery. First because of your contributions to literature and, then, the fact that under the most trying conditions you never stopped smoking cigars.

Hurry up and get well.

Regards,
Groucho Marx

On June 3, 1964, Eliot wrote a letter to Groucho, saying:

The picture of you in the newspaper saying that, amongst other reasons, you have come to London to see me has greatly enhanced my credit line in the neighborhood, and particularly with the greengrocer across the street.

Groucho also corresponded quite a bit with E.B. White. Here’s one of those letters:

April 5, 1954.

Dear Mr. White,

I received your note. I am now willing to concede that you are a fairly migratory gent. When I arrived in New York I was told you were in Florida. When I called you again they said you were in Maine.

I went to New York ostensibly to do the Rodgers and Hammerstein festival. Actually I came to New York to cut up some touches with the author of “Charlotte’s Web.”

Some years ago I had a dinner date with you and Ross. He showed up but you failed to appear. It’s strange–I have no difficulty meeting Nick Kenny, Toots Shor, and other minor luminaries in New York, but you have adopted the mantle of Garbo and to me you are just a wraithlike figure who lives suspended in a spirit world.

Sincerely yours,

Groucho Marx

Here is White’s reply:

April 12, 1954.

Dear Mr. Marx,

Before our correspondence attains the intensity of the Shaw-Terry letters, I want to explain my suspension in the spirit world–which is sometimes misinterpreted. Ross had a theory that if he could throw me with a better class of people, I might be more productive. (Ross entertained some incredibly unsound ideas and at great cost to himself.)
At any rate, once in a while he would pry me loose, and on the whole they were miserable experiences for the person who got involved. I think of an evening when he attempted to throw me with Ginger Rogers and we all went down to Chinatown for a debauch that should live forever in Miss Rogers’ memory as an example of midnight stagnation. (Another Ross illusion was that he understood Chinese food.)

It is nice here in the spirit world and if you get here I would like to buy you a drink. Garbo is here. We maintain separate residences, for appearances’ sake.

Sincerely,
E. B. White

The entire Groucho Marx collection of letters is fantastic: The Groucho Letters: Letters from and to Groucho Marx.

In an excerpt from Conversations with Wilder, Billy Wilder told Cameron Crowe:

We had an idea of doing a Marx Brothers picture set against the background of the United Nations. They were the four representatives of a republic. And that is always good, because the Marx Brothers were at their best against a very serious, pompous background. They were very good in A Night at the Opera because it’s very pompous, the opera. They were also quite good at the race track in Day at the Races. But other things they did, they were not so good because there was nothing good to poke at. I wanted to do a Marx Brothers picture, but then Chico died, and Harpo was very, very unstable. But Groucho was a genius, absolutely a fabulous, fabulous man. They were at Metro. The movie would have been a combination of at least six of their top stars of the early sixties. Zeppo was the leading man. Zeppo as lead was incredible, absolutely incredible. When you went to see A Night at the Opera, you were not disappointed. Thalberg was very smart, you know, because he treated it like a serious picture.

A legendary Marx Brothers scene from A Night at the Opera:

Groucho Marx told the following story to Roger Ebert, in 1972:

I knew [W.C.] Fields well. He used to sit in the bushes in front of his house with a BB gun and shoot at people. Today he’d probably be arrested. He invited me over to his house. He had a girlfriend there. I think her name was Carlotta Monti. Car-lot-ta MON-ti! That’s the kind of a name a girl of Fields would have. He had a ladder leading up to his attic. Without exaggeration, there was $50,000 in liquor up there. Crated up like a wharf. I’m standing there and Fields is standing there, and nobody says anything. The silence is oppressive. Finally he speaks: “This will carry me 25 years.”

It was my boyfriend in high school who introduced me to The Marx Brothers. (Boyfriend was a couple years out of h.s.) I would walk over to his house during study periods or lunch hours and he’d pop in battered VHS tapes of every Marx Brothers movie, and show them to me. He knew every line, every joke, every bit by heart. He’d have to hold himself back from explaining why something was funny, backstage stories, etc. He wanted me to experience the brilliance afresh. I did. This same boyfriend also introduced me to Mae West, W.C. Fields, silent film, the works. We would go to little film-noir festivals on the local university campus. That’s how I saw Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, The Big Heat, Maltese Falcon. I had already discovered James Dean, the 1950s, Montgomery Clift, Elia Kazan. But it was that first boyfriend who brought me back further, to Hollywood’s earliest days.

I am not at all surprised that that old boyfriend of mine, my senior prom date, would end up writing two books (so far) about that era of Hollywood: No Applause–Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous and Chain of Fools – Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to YouTube. We lost track of one another for years and we’re friends again and it’s great. I think of my 17-year-old self, watching Night at the Opera or Duck Soup, with my 20-year-old guy sitting next to me, stopping the VCR tape to explain some bit to me, and then rewinding it so we could watch it again. It’s beautiful that his obsession would, indeed, become his life’s work. I love it when life works out like that. Thanks, Trav. Huge contribution to my life!

You can check out Trav’s entire archive of Marx Brothers writing on his great site.

In 1969, Groucho appeared on The Dick Cavett show (he had been on it a bunch, actually), and the episode is famous. Well worth watching. Brilliant lunacy.

As Dick Cavett said, Groucho was not just an actor. He was an American institution.

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9 Responses to Happy Birthday, Groucho Marx

  1. mutecypher says:

    “I was trying to make love to this girl, and a pigeon was biting my ear. I thought it was her and I was encouraged by this.”

    Oh god.

    The midget in an orangutan suit. Greta Garbo. “She had big feet but she was a nice woman.”

  2. Melissa Sutherland says:

    Looked up Trav S.D. I so envy you having him as a boyfriend when you were in high school. Cannot even imagine.

    • sheila says:

      He was a big drama nerd – we both were = but when he was 14, 15 years old he was making silent films with his best friend – all inspired by Chaplin and Keaton, etc. He was INTO this stuff – so it’s so great that he’s still out there, doing exactly what he was doing when he was 14. Writing books about it. I love it when life works out like that. He knows everything. He knew everything then and he knows everything now.

      His books are wonderful !

      • sheila says:

        and there’s something touching to me about remembering the two of us wandering around going to film noir festivals at the local campus. Then going out for pizza and talking about Barbara Stanwyck.

        and here we are now, basically still doing the same things.

  3. Larry Aydlette says:

    A world in which we no longer “cut up some touches” is a poorer one, indeed.

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