Bitter genius of unloved son

December 15, 2000

George Melly on the definitive life of a nihilistic, unhappy clown

I don't think anybody else need write another book on Groucho Marx after this one. It is as definitive as possible. Some may ask if it was necessary at all, this minutely detailed portrait of a comedian whose best work was 60 or more years ago. I'd say yes. Julius is long dead but his alter ego, the Lord of Misrule, cigar jammed in mouth under a grease-paint moustache and eyebrows, still lurches through our imagination, as three-dimensional as Falstaff. His cry, "Hello, I must be going," can never be realised. We won't let him go.

Without him, we might well have forgotten the others: even Harpo's childlike libido or Chico's mangled Italian-English, and certainly Zeppo, the early aardvark-profiled romantic lead. But Groucho no! His props are only the outward and visible signs of a profoundly nihilistic con-man who, like his only challenger, the great W. C. Fields, was determined to "never give a sucker an even break".

His weapon was verbal, a constant distortion of logic verging on the paranoid: "Outside of a dog, a book is a man's best friend. Inside a dog, it's too dark to read." No wonder the surrealists were fans.

On a personal level, Groucho had little to redeem him. Obsessed with money, pathologically mean, a misogynist, a poor father, a tyrannical husband, he seems flawed right through, but then a generosity of spirit is neither common nor necessary (despite apparently existing in Harpo) among the great comedians. The question is rather why, and the answer, almost ludicrously obvious, is his mother.

On both sides the parents were Jewish immigrants. The father, né Simon Marix, followed the example of his already established cousins and changed his name to Marx, in his case Sam Marx. Lazy and charming, he was a gambler and the world's worst tailor. He married a pretty blonde (née Minna Schoenberg) who had changed her forename to Minnie. Minnie ruled the household, warmly but firmly.

Sam, an excellent cook, became an ur-house-husband. They had six sons. The first-born died but the next, Leonard, was her favourite. He was to become Chico. The second, Adolph (Harpo), had red hair (in an early photograph of Minnie she looks ridiculously like him in drag). Him too she loved. The third, Julius (Groucho), she never loved. Not then, nor ever. The last two, Zeppo and Gummo, she loved well enough.

Why was Groucho the sole reject? From this book, and other sources, I conclude it sprung from a certain Jewish class distinction. Immigrants from Western Europe were early to arrive in New York and eager to assimilate. Many had blonde hair, pale skin and blue eyes. They were appalled when, following the pogroms in the East, wave after wave of Polish and Russian refugees swept in. Except for Groucho, the cuckoo in the nest, Minnie's sons looked, if Jewish, at least German Jewish. Julius, her fourth-born, with his curly hair, weak eyes and sloping shoulders, could have been mistaken for one of "the black-haired, swarthy ones down town". He so envied his favoured brothers that his mother, who was entirely responsible, called him "the jealous one".

Long after Minnie was dead, Groucho, interviewed in Vogue , was asked what woman had the most effect on his life. He did not hesitate: "My mother, Minnie." I believe, after reading this book, that all his failings flowed from her, but then perhaps so did his bitter, wise-cracking genius. His divine mistrust.

Quite early on, Minnie, herself a failed entertainer, decided her sons had been born to fulfil her frustrated ambitions. She was encouraged in this by the fact that her brother, under the name of Al Shean, was a rising star in vaudeville. Her other sons, some reluctantly, went along with it, but Groucho was tremendously enthusiastic. Could he reach her this way? It was he who paid his dues, toured in miserable entertainments, and was frequently robbed en route. Of all of them he was the committed professional.

It was together, however, by grafting their own anarchic instincts on to the old "Boom Boom!" routines, that they gradually metamorphosed into their true personae. They conquered first Broadway then Hollywood. Quite soon, while always revering Minnie, they finally retired her, and became their own nihilistic masters. Groucho, though, never escaped. I always feel his cruel courtship of the wonderfully dignified Margaret Dumont was aimed at Minnie. Here he could become the one who rejected, she the loving victim: Dumont: Tell me Wolfie dear, will we have a beautiful home?

Groucho: Of course. You're not planning to leave are you?

Quite aside from Minnie, Groucho had an unlucky karma. On his first sexual encounter he contracted VD. In the slump he lost an enormous fortune on the stock exchange. Chico, always broke anyway, a committed gambler and womaniser, was unsympathetic. He too was left penniless, but pointed out that he had had a lot more fun.

Groucho eventually clawed it all back. When his career in films was over he became a star, first of radio, then of TV, but with a real moustache, basing his success on cruel but clever wisecracks, many of them possibly contrived in advance.

Old age brought him iconic status and domestic disaster. First, from vanity surely, he married a beautiful, very young woman who was not only (understandably) unfaithful, but pushed him beyond his strength for her own reflected glory. She was replaced by Erin Fleming, a "secretary", minder and perhaps sometime mistress who grew rich in his service and, some maintain, physically mistreated him.

When he died there was the inevitable Jarndyce v. Jarndyce-like court case between the family and Fleming. Of course, the lawyers were the only real winners.

This is a fine book on every level. Stefan Kanfer is, among other things, an excellent if severe critic. His analysis of the oeuvre right up to the lamentable Love Happy is essential reading for all of us who revere the work. He is no hack either. His final sentence is charged with passion and conviction. Of our comics he writes: "Let them come; above the general tumult will continue to float the whiff of a large cigar and the reverberating echo of the last laugh."

George Melly is a professional jazz singer and writer, with a particular interest in surrealism.

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