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Dear World: Lighten Up. Sincerely, Groucho

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Dear World: Lighten Up. Sincerely, Groucho

Dear World: Lighten Up. Sincerely, Groucho

Dear World: Lighten Up. Sincerely, Groucho

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/95830821/95913036" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Cover of 'The Groucho Letters: Letters from and to Groucho Marx'
The Groucho Letters: Letters from and to Groucho Marx
By Groucho Marx
Paperback, 320 pages
Simon & Schuster
List price: $16.00

Read Groucho's letter to Gummo about T.S. Eliot.

Author Shalom Auslander

Shalom Auslander is the author of Foreskin's Lament and Beware of God: Stories. He lives in the woods in a small house that is surrounded by poo. It isn't dog poo. It isn't bear poo. But every night he removes it, and every morning there it is again. He doesn't know what the poo is, other than an unfortunately apt metaphor for life. Patrik Andersson hide caption

toggle caption Patrik Andersson

Groucho Marx on impressing T.S. Eliot

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Why are we here? What is our purpose? Is there a God? How can we account for the presence of evil?

These are just some of the questions not answered in The Groucho Letters: Letters from and to Groucho Marx — which is precisely why I keep a copy of it on the small table beside my bed.

On that same small table, there are also books of philosophy, theology and a few that have been blessed enough to qualify as "Literature" (the qualification process is brutal, with a $50 nonrefundable Literature Application Fee and a 17-page questionnaire that must be notarized by James Wood). These books approach life and its myriad questions with seriousness and focus, and after just a few pages, they make me want to kill myself. Which is why Groucho is never far away; I can't do an hour shot of Beckett or Carver without an unstiff Groucho chaser.

You see, I've long been of the opinion that life is too serious to be taken seriously, and if that is my religion, then Groucho is the pope. In his interactions with peers, children, lawyers, actors, writers and politicians, the man simply refuses to take any of it seriously. Shakespeare wrote that life is a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing. These letters make it seem as if Groucho actually lived it that way.

A letter from Warner Brothers threatening legal action for the Marx Brothers' use of the name "Casablanca" in the title of their movie was met not with bluster, counterthreats or even a request for discussion, but rather with a letter from Groucho discussing the history of the name "Warner" and the word "brothers."

"Professionally," he writes, "we were brothers long before you what about the Smith Brothers? The Brothers Karamazov? Dan Brothers, an outfielder with Detroit?"

Subsequent letters from the WB lawyers were met with even more flippancy, and eventually they simply stopped writing and gave up the matter.

In 1963, responding to an admiring letter he received from T.S. Eliot, Groucho replied, "Dear Tom; If this isn't your first name, I'm in a hell of a fix."

In 1959, he wrote Elaine Tynan, the author of The Dud Avocado, to tell her how much he enjoyed her book. She wrote back, thanking him for his kind words and requesting a photo of him for her wall.

"I am delighted," he replied, "that you are delighted that I was delighted about your book. I am sending you a photo of myself at age of seven. You will probably say to yourself, 'Why the cigar?' That's a very good question. Actually, the cigar is a phony, so is the moustache and, to wrap it all up neatly, so am I."

It takes a staggering degree of self-assurance to steadfastly refuse to be dragged down into the pit of worthiness and self-importance. It takes a monumental degree of wisdom to know that life is short and silly and probably ought to be treated that way. Serious is easy. It doesn't take much to stand on a soapbox and bemoan the fall of something, the corruption of whatever, the abuse of everything.

Perhaps the questions of "Why are we here?" "What is our purpose?" and "Is there a God?" are not answered in these letters. But a more important question is: How are we to go through life? How are we to approach this mess of an existence?

Groucho's answer: with laughter.

Biographer Charlotte Chandler recalls that after receiving an honorary Oscar in 1973 — he was 83 years old at the time — Groucho said that he'd wished they'd given the award sooner, when Harpo and Chico were alive.

"Do you know what I say when I go to bed every night?" he said. "Unborn yesterday and dead tomorrow. Why fret about them if life be sweet? Right now is the only moment there is."

"And you're really able to live that way?" Charlotte asked.

"It's the only way to live," answered Groucho.

Amen, Brother.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva.

A Letter From Goucho To Gummo About T.S. Eliot

TO GUMMO MARX

June, 1964

Dear Gummo:

Last night Eden and I had dinner with my celebrated pen pal, T.S. Eliot. It was a memorable evening.

The poet met us at the door with Mrs. Eliot, a good-looking, middle-aged blonde whose eyes seemed to fill up with adoration every time she looked at her husband. He, by the way, is tall, lean and rather stopped over; but whether this is from age, illness or both, I don't know.

At any rate, your correspondent arrived at the Eliots' fully prepared for a literary evening. During the week I had read "Murder in the Cathedral" twice; "The Waste Land" Three times, and just in case of a conversational bottleneck, I brushed up on "King Lear."

Well, sir, as cocktails were served, there was a momentary lull — the kind that is more or less inevitable when strangers meet for the first time. So, apropos of practically nothing (and "not with a bang but a whimper") I tossed in a quotation from "The Waste Land." That, I thought, will show him I've read a thing or two besides my press notices from vaudeville.

Eliot smiled faintly — as though to say he was thoroughly familiar with his poems and didn't need me to recite them. So I took a whack at "King Lear." I said the king was an incredibly foolish old man, which God knows he was; and that if he'd been my father I would have run away from home at the age of eight-instead of waiting until I was ten.

That, too, failed to bowl over the poet. He seemed more interested in discussing "Animal Crackers" and "A Night at the Opera." He quoted a joke — one of mine — that I had long since forgotten. Now it was my turn to smile faintly. I was not going to let anyone-not even the British poet from St. Louis-spoil my Literary Evening. I pointed out that King Lear's opening speech was the height of idiocy. Imagine (I said) a father asking his three children: Which of you kids loves me the most? And then disowning the youngest-the sweet, honest Cordelia-because, unlike her wicked sister, she couldn't bring herself to gush out insincere flattery. And Cordelia, mind you, had been her father's favorite!

The Eliots listened politely. Mrs. Eliot then defended Shakespeare; and Eden, too, I regret to say, was on King Lear's side, even though I am the one who supports her. (In all fairness to my wife, I must say that, having played the Princess in a high school production of "The Swan," she has retained a rather warm feeling for all royalty.)

As for Eliot, he asked if I remembered the courtroom scene in "Duck Soup." Fortunately I'd forgotten every word. It was obviously the end of the Literary Evening, but very pleasant none the less. I discovered that Eliot and I had three things in common: (1) an affection for good cigars and (2) cats; and (3) a weakness for making puns — a weakness that for many years I have tried to overcome. T.S., on the other hand, is an unashamed — even proud — punster. For example, there's his Gus, the Theater Cat, whose "real name was Asparagus."

Speaking of asparagus, the dinner included good, solid English beef, very well prepared. And, although they had a semi-butler serving, Eliot insisted on pouring the wine himself. It was an excellent wine and no maitre d' could have served it more graciously. He is a dear man and a charming host.

When I told him that my daughter Melinda was studying his poetry at Beverly High, he said he regretted that, because he had no wish to become compulsory reading.

We didn't stay late, for we both felt that he wasn't up to a long evening of conversation-especially mine.

Did I tell you we called him Tom? — possibly because that's his name. I, of course, asked him to call me Tom too, but only because I loathe the name Julius.

Yours,

Tom Marx

From Groucho Letters by Groucho Marx. Copyright 1967 by Groucho Marx. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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