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Richard A. BlakeApril 06, 2016
Groucho Marxby Lee Siegel

Yale University Press. 176p $25

“I do not want to belong to any club that would have me as a member” ranks as the most famous of Groucho’s many trenchant remarks. The exact wording and provenance remain a bit fuzzy, even though the sentiment has become a bit shopworn through constant repetition. Now Groucho has gained admittance to the world of scholarly exposition through an Ivy League press. Would he pen an equally acerbic resignation from the faculty club, or would he luxuriate in the smell of red leather chairs, spilt brandy and pipe tobacco?

Lee Siegel’s brief study would probably provoke both reactions. No, the author does not dwell in the rarified atmosphere of academe, and that might be a major source of Groucho’s discomfort with the book. Siegel identifies himself as a journalist and cultural critic. He has published essays in periodicals like The New Republic, Harper’s and The New Yorker, one of which is reworked as a chapter of the present book. He might also be identified as a professional provocateur: a writer who enjoys confronting his readers with offbeat, unpopular ideas designed to infuriate and illuminate in equal measure, as he did in his op-ed piece in The New York Times (6/15/15) explaining his rationale for defaulting on his student loans as a graduate student at Columbia.

Turning his journalist’s eye and polemicist’s scalpel to the legendary Groucho Marx, Siegel has produced a work of insight, to be sure, but also one so desultory in its presentation that it leaves a reader sputtering in frustration for a more coherent exposition. For example, the famous quip about resigning from the club appears early in the text and is cited three more times as part of an argument, but the context is not provided until 90 pages later. Even though the editors of the “Jewish Lives” series at Yale University Press try to keep documentation to a minimum in the interests of readability, a footnote or even a parenthetical explanation seems an obvious need here.

Groucho developed his stage persona as a loveable grouch. (Hence the name.) Siegel argues that this is not a stage persona at all. It is the real Julius Henry Marx, who looses his misanthropy and misogyny on helpless victims without mercy. His genius rested on an uncanny ability to say what he really thought about people, get laughs and become a famous and very wealthy entertainer as a result of his efforts. The thesis is more than plausible, as Siegel demonstrates with evidence from Groucho’s private life.

As a boy, Julius was determined to become a doctor, but because of a weak father (an unsuccessful tailor called Frenchie because of his Alsatian background) and an overpowering mother, he had to leave school after the seventh grade. Show business provided the ladder to the financial security his father could not provide, and he could never return to his boyhood dream. His thoughts later turned to the world of letters. He became well read and published short items in The New Yorker as Julius H. Marx, but branded a mere entertainer, he never gained acceptance in the literary world. The chapter on Groucho’s correspondence and eventual meeting with T. S. Eliot, when both were near the end of their careers, provides a poignant example of Groucho’s striving and ultimate rejection.

Lifelong rejection and frustration saturated the young man with bitterness. His comedy sprang from venting his rage on those who had “made it” into the higher ranks of society. While he poured insults on his adversaries, their world continued unfazed, as though he never existed and never said what he just said. Their lives went on unperturbed in a parallel universe from which Groucho was excluded.

The thesis strikes me as plausible, but is it valid? Margaret Dumont, for example, was the particular victim of Groucho’s barbs in her many films with the Marx Brothers. Her characters were society ladies, who had to be insulted and humiliated, yet she remained happily oblivious to his onslaughts. Was Groucho using her to exorcise the ghost of his mother, Minnie, who ruined his chances for success? Was the pointed humor clearly misogynistic, or simply the deflation of the rich and established that delighted Depression-era audiences?

Psychoanalysis at a distance is always risky business. Siegel’s role as cultural critic seems to blunt his sympathies for entertainment and comic conventions. Several times he points out that the jokes are not funny, but rather brutal. Why did audiences keep laughing at them? Perhaps Groucho was a brilliant satirist in the tradition of Roman comedy and medieval court jesters who spoke truth to power with impunity. Siegel acknowledges these traditions but sticks to his thesis that Julius created Groucho to exact revenge on the world. To paraphrase the famous Freudian line: “Sometimes a joke is only a joke.” It doesn’t need references to Nietzsche to clarify it, and in the process take the fun out of it.

While the other brothers faded quickly in the 1940s, Groucho reinvented himself as host of the popular radio show “You Bet Your Life.” Migrating to television in 1951, Groucho dropped the painted eyebrows and mustache and sat at a desk interviewing contestants with his outrageous ad-libs, a number of which, it turns out, were scripted and placed on cue cards. The program did not primarily involve contestants guessing the “secret word,” as Siegel asserts. They picked a category and answered routine quiz-show questions. If, in the course of the interview, anyone inadvertently used the “secret word,” a duck-like puppet with a $100 bill in its beak would drop from the ceiling. Also, when the program became a hit, it moved from ABC to NBC, not CBS, as Siegel asserts.

In this study, Lee Siegel provides a valuable, original perspective on Groucho Marx, but it leads to as many questions as conclusions.

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