Christopher Bray

In the wrong club

The most vocal of the Marx Brothers disliked his comic persona and preferred reading, writing and the company of poets to showbiz

Groucho Marx was delighted when he heard that the script for one of his old Vaudeville routines was being reprinted in H.L. Mencken’s The American Language. ‘Nothing I ever did as an actor thrilled me more,’ he said. Indeed, argues Lee Siegel in his brief biographical study of the most verbal Marx Brother, Groucho’s ‘greatest regret in life … was that he had become an entertainer rather than a literary man’. How else to explain that excruciating evening in June 1964 when Groucho and his wife dined at the home of Mr and Mrs T. S. Eliot and Groucho thought to lecture Eliot on King Lear?

To be fair, it was Eliot who, three years earlier, had written to the then 71-year-old Groucho requesting a photograph of his favourite funnyman. A picture arrived by return — though not, alas, the kind that Eliot had in mind. He wanted a portrait of Groucho as Groucho — wire-rimmed specs, six-inch stogie, paint-on moustache. Might he have another? Two years later, a second picture landed on the Eliot doormat. Siegel makes much of that delay. ‘Perhaps,’ he muses, ‘the secretly aspiring literary man resented being asked for a picture of himself in the character of the comic he had become.’ As he says, perhaps. Then again, perhaps Groucho’s secretary was busy with requests from other fans. Or maybe she’d run out of pictures of him in full make-up.

Making mountains out of molehills is pretty much the whole of Siegel’s critical method. Given Groucho’s Jewishness, he could hardly avoid mentioning Eliot’s anti-Semitism. But he fills pages with fanciful ruminations (‘it’s possible’, ‘could not have been unaware’, ‘seemed to provoke’) that tell you nothing concrete — or anything even vaguely plausible — about relations between the two men.

Soon enough Siegel has abandoned suspicions for certainty.

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