A Puff of Smoke

Paul Wesolowski knows the secret word: Groucho

History has been kind to the brothers; it has forgiven Chico's gambling and womanizing, and it has forgiven Groucho's flaws as father and husband. But history never bothered the Marxes, perhaps because by the time they made their final film together in 1949, they were already part of it. And Groucho was never afraid of dying, perhaps because he was always afraid of living. By the time he turned 85 in 1976, he knew more people who were dead than alive, as his old friend George Burns used to say. His brothers Chico and Harpo passed on in the early 1960s; Margaret Dumont had taken her final fall in 1965. He had lived long enough to bury them all: playwrights and composers, producers and parents, friends and foes. Perhaps he viewed (or, rather, accepted) death as the ultimate punch line to that old song he used to perform: Hello, I must be going.

Groucho was afraid only of living long enough to forget who he was--and what he had once been. He was terrified of growing senile, of telling the same stale stories over and over to those friends, fans, and hangers-on who piled into his Beverly Hills home to mooch free food and free laughs. "I don't want them keeping somebody alive, somebody who used to be me," he told Charlotte Chandler, who offered her own biography in 1978. By the time he died on August 19, 1977, he was a shadow of a greasepaint moustache and a Cuban cigar. Heart attacks, strokes, and myriad lawsuits had turned Groucho Marx into a frail, 86-year-old man named Julius Henry Marx. The master of the razor-blade quip died with a shrug. "We have to see if you have a temperature," said a nurse, not long before he faded into a coma from which he would never return. He mustered one final comeback: "Don't be silly," he said. "Everybody has a temperature."

That he lived so long, from 1890 to 1977, seems even now--on the occasion of the publication of five books about Groucho and the Marx Brothers--unfathomable. Groucho toured the vaudeville circuit, played Broadway, made movies, wrote books, appeared on radio, and starred in his own television show. His existence spanned the history of the entertainment industry; he lived long enough to open for W.C. Fields and close for Bill Cosby. He played Carnegie Hall when he was an old man, repeating lines from his old films much as an aging rock star performs his ancient hits. But thanks, in large part, to Wesolowski and the men who come along every now and then to paint another moustache on the grinning corpse, Groucho and his brothers thrive long after their final reels have screened.

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.

"Kanfer goes a little overboard on the serious side of Groucho--the serious man who had funny lines written for him," Wesolowski says. "I think if you go through Arce and Louvish's books and some of the other ones, you get a picture of a man who was at times troubled--aren't we all?--but who was a very funny person at times. I think if you looked at your own life, there might be friends who see you as one kind of person, your co-workers see a different side of you, and your neighbors see a third side. People don't have black-and-white personalities. They change over the years as they deal with different issues. From what I saw, Groucho was a funny man, but I can also see it would have been difficult to live with him. He wasn't a perfect person. I didn't make a conscious decision to know more about Groucho than anyone else. I only did it because he and the brothers were so interesting. And as you do the research, you learn good things about him and not so good things. But he was always entertaining. "

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