A Puff of Smoke

Paul Wesolowski knows the secret word: Groucho

Another Kanfer volume, The Essential Groucho: Writings for, by, and about Groucho Marx, will be released June 20, and of Kanfer's two books, the latter is the more essential, as it conveys upon Groucho the title he always craved: man of letters. As Kanfer reminds in his books and during an interview, Groucho despised the company of comics and actors and instead surrounded himself with writers, such as playwright George S. Kaufman and poet T.S. Eliot. The Essential Groucho compiles not only scenes from the brothers' plays and films, but also Marx's writings for such publications as Collier's, Variety, The Saturday Evening Post, and Redbook.

"It's certainly not a secret that most comedians have a lot of unhappiness," Kanfer says of his books. "Usually, the unhappiness is buried in their childhoods, but I think the real informing incident in Groucho's life--and I hadn't realized it quite so strongly--is that he was a good scholar. He liked school. Chico was a brilliant kid, but he hated school. He was good at numbers, and he couldn't wait to get out and get laid. Groucho really was shy with women. He was the middle child--between cute little Gummo and Zeppo and the older, dashing Chico and Harpo. He took great refuge in books--he was an intellectual manqué--but his mother, Minnie, took him out of school and put him in show business. That was the end of his childhood, and it's the exact reverse of what you usually think of the Jewish mother, who wants the kid to stop doing that nonsense and become a doctor!"

But The Essential Groucho is but one of two Marx books being published this month: Simon Louvish's exceptional Monkey Business: The Lives and Legends of the Marx Brothers finally arrives in the United States, several months after it was published in England. It's a revelatory volume, full of facts even Wesolowski was unaware of: Louvish, for instance, confirms the existence of a sixth Marx brother, the first-born Manfred, who lived for only seven months in 1886 before succumbing to influenza. He has also located lost vaudeville scripts that were buried in the bowels of the Library of Congress. And, for the first time, a writer offers a rather detailed profile of Margaret Dumont, the matzo ball in the brothers' chicken soup. Louvish portrays her as a sympathetic figure who would never recover from the way the boys "had frozen her forever in that typecast role...the butt of jokes."

The tragic clown: Several new books about Groucho Marx tell a familiar story about the man and his cigar.
The tragic clown: Several new books about Groucho Marx tell a familiar story about the man and his cigar.

Wesolowski offers Monkey Business the highest praise for an archivist who has devoted his life to maintaining the Groucho files: "It breaks new ground," he says. "Louvish's book has set a new benchmark." He also speaks highly of another Marx book due in July. Next month, a small Baltimore publishing house--Midnight Marquee, which specializes in horror books--will release As Long as They're Laughing: Groucho Marx and You Bet Your Life by Robert Dwan, who directed Groucho's legendary game show on radio and television. At this moment, Wesolowski is proofreading Dwan's charming, anecdote-filled work, making sure the 85-year-old director's memory isn't shrouded in fog.

Such is the life of the fetishist and scholar, scrutinizing the manuscripts of witnesses and historians to make sure they don't get their facts wrong, even if that means he remains behind the scenes while others reap the rewards of his research and diligence. For such work, he is paid little, though he insists--with not a little embarrassment--he would do it for free, so deep is his affection for the subject matter.

As Louvish points out in the preface to Monkey Business, "No book about the Marx Brothers can be written without reference to the magnificent resource of America's most notorious Marxist, Paul Wesolowski, Number One Fan, diligent Marx Brothers historian, and Editor of the Freedonia Gazette." (The latter is a reference to a Marx Brothers magazine, so named for the country in Duck Soup, that Wesolowski stopped publishing about eight years ago, though he hopes to resurrect it soon enough). Kanfer, in an interview, says of him: "Paul knows everything about everyone. He has stuff even they didn't know existed." Indeed, even Groucho's daughter Miriam credits Wesolowski in her 1992 collection of letters between father and daughter, Love, Groucho.

The question, then, is, Why has Wesolowski lent out his collection to others when there's no one more suited to writing the definitive Marx Brothers book than he?

"I am a completist," he says. "Though I know more than anyone else, there are still bits and pieces I don't know, and I would rather know those things before I wrote the book. I began to publish the Freedonia Gazette in 1978, and I thought I could write an article, and if I discovered any additional information I could put a note somewhere updating the article. I mean, I've also worked on all the TV specials about the brothers--an A&E biography, The Unknown Marx Brothers, The Marx Brothers in a Nutshell. Sometimes, people will say, "Gee, that wasn't very good. Why did you agree to help them?' I guess sometimes you know this person's not going to do a good job, but if I help, it will be better than it would have been. It's easier to help correct them and not let them write a book of mistakes and let them perpetuate throughout history."

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