Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Books: Groucho

The 2017 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge is an event in which the goal is to read and write about a variety of books related to classic film, hosted by Out of the Past. For a complete list of the rules, visit the website.

Groucho Marx was a film legend whose fame transcended the movies. The ones he made with his brothers - Chico, Harpo and Zeppo - are hilarious, anarchic and witty; live-action cartoons that follow no rules save their own. Like many great comedians, though, Groucho lived quite a different life off-screen.

Groucho: The Life and Times of Julius Henry Marx by Stefan Kanfer chronicles that life in substantial detail. We meet his stage mother Minnie, who pushed all five of her sons into a life in vaudeville before they had a chance to fully mature. We follow the ups and downs of Groucho's career on stage, film and television, both as a Marx Brother and solo. We witness the funnyman's three marriages, to women he dominated yet couldn't live without, and the three children who grew up with issues of their own because of their father's mercurial behavior. We acknowledge Groucho the intellectual, hobnobbing with literary big shots, writing plays, essays, books. Finally, we see Groucho, in his twilight years, grow entirely dependent on a woman more than half his age who may have taken advantage of his goodwill for purposes of her own.

The portrait Kanfer paints of Groucho is of a man who missed out on childhood and spent the rest of his life making up for it, in which Groucho the character - iconoclastic, puckish, irreverent - became more important than Julius Henry Marx the man. His mother was never completely satisfied with him, which could explain his impaired relationships with any woman who wasn't Margaret Dumont. He tried to goad his children into show biz, like he was goaded by his mother. Late in life he was blind - perhaps willfully so - to the machinations of someone who said she loved him, but alienated him from friends and family and made him perform to order.

While this is a well-written and highly informative biography, a part of me almost wishes I hadn't read it. The tale of Groucho's life is tragic in many places. The image of the sad clown is a cliché, but it contains truth: comedians often use laughter to hide deep pain.

Stefan Kanfer
Groucho wanted to be a doctor when he was young, but his mom, herself the daughter of entertainers, wanted something different for him and his brothers. She went to extraordinary lengths to get her way. Although her path led to fame and fortune for Groucho, a part of him always resented her because he could never completely please her; a relationship which set a pattern for everything that followed. Still, it's a fascinating book; well worth the read for anyone who ever enjoyed a Marx Brothers movie.

I bought Groucho used. Once again, signs of the previous owner are apparent: there are some notes written on the sides of the pages, some which correct an error made by Kanfer, others which supplement what he wrote. These are very few, perhaps four or five, all in the first half.

Tracy and Hepburn


  1. Great review Rich! I've read a bit about Groucho Marx and some works by him but never a full length bio. This one sounds interesting. I've read that author's other book Tough Without a Gun about Humphrey Bogart which was interesting.

  2. Thanks. It was a toss-up at the bookstore between this and a Gloria Swanson bio. I decided to go with this since I knew more about her than I did him.


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