Groucho Marx, like many great comics, was feeling melancholy, contemplating his Marx Brothers–less future. Across the ocean, like many great poets, T. S. Eliot was thinking about the past—his St. Louis childhood, the movies, and music halls he had loved as a younger man.
By the beginning of the 1960s, T. S. Eliot was not just the most renowned poet alive but was widely regarded as the finest English-language poet of the 20th century. Groucho, however, was somewhat at sea after a run as one of America’s favorite comedic actors whose movies had entered the bloodstream. His game show, You Bet Your Life, had just ended. He was considered for the host of The Tonight Show, but instead the reins were passed to a young game-show host named Johnny Carson.
Few people knew that the beloved comedian—he of the bushy eyebrows, shoe-polish moustache, and ever present cigar—nursed a secret ambition to be a literary man. He’d published five books (including Groucho and Me and Memoirs of a Mangy Lover) and humor pieces that had appeared in College Humor and The New Yorker. He told Dick Cavett, “I’d rather be known as an author and remembered for my writing than for all the rest of it.”
After all, it was the words, and not just the way he said them, that made people laugh. But he’d had no formal education, having left school at the age of 12 to work as a delivery boy in a wig factory, to help support his struggling family. Before long, Julius, Adolph, and Leonard became Groucho, Harpo, and Chico, with Zeppo and Gummo weaving in and out of the Marx Brothers act over the course of their half-century in vaudeville, on Broadway, and in 13 films.
Like Eliot, Groucho was an avid reader, something of a philosopher, and he possessed a wit as sharp and quick as any of the Parnassian elite. And in his own field, his accomplishments were no less impressive than Eliot’s—five Marx Brothers films (Horse Feathers, Monkey Business, Duck Soup, A Night at the Opera, and A Day at the Races) would be selected by the American Film Institute’s list of the Top 100 comedy films of all time.
It was Eliot who began the friendship. Out of the blue, the great poet—then married to his second wife, Valerie, living in London, and still working at Faber & Faber as an esteemed editor—wrote to Groucho to ask for an autographed photo to hang in his study. This was in April of 1961, and Groucho, 70 years old and living the bittersweet life of a comedy legend in semi-retirement, was immensely flattered to find that so august a literary figure was a fan.
Eliot had always loved the theater. He wrote seven plays. The Cocktail Hour ran on Broadway and won a Tony Award in 1950. It would have pleased him to know that his whimsical collection of poems, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, would posthumously find its way to the West End and to Broadway in the perennially popular musical Cats, reimagined by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Surprisingly, given the somewhat dour, stiff figure he cut in later life, Eliot was a good dancer and he loved to cut a rug. He also loved the raucous English music halls, and he loved the Marx Brothers’ movies—especially Duck Soup.
Out of the blue, the great poet wrote to Groucho to ask for an autographed photo to hang in his study.
“Your portrait has arrived,” Eliot wrote to his new pen pal on April 26, “and has given me great joy and will soon appear in its frame on my wall with other famous friends such as W.B. Yeats and Paul Valery.” In the same letter, Eliot asked that “Mr. Marx and his wife” join him and Valerie for dinner when they came to London.
Groucho was over the moon, though a little taken aback when Eliot wrote the following year to request a different photo—one more recognizably Groucho—so his visitors could fully appreciate that he counted the comedian as one of his friends. “Your portrait is framed on my office mantelpiece, but I have to point you out to my visitors as nobody recognizes you without the cigar and rolling eyes,” Eliot explained. Groucho complied, sending Eliot a publicity still in full regalia.
“Your splendid new portrait is at the framers,” Eliot wrote after receiving Groucho’s publicity still. “I like them both very much and I cannot make up my mind which one to take home and which one to put on my office wall. The new one would impress visitors more, especially those I want to impress, as it is unmistakably Groucho. The only solution may be to carry them both with me every day.”
Delighted to have such a literary lion as a fan, Groucho nonetheless was aware of Eliot’s reputation for anti-Semitism. Not long after Groucho returned from Eliot’s memorial, Oscar Levant, the celebrated pianist and wit, told Groucho that Eliot was a violent anti-Semite. “What the hell,” Groucho replied, “I don’t like a lot of Jews either.”
It was a subject that remained unspoken between Groucho and Eliot, through the several letters that constituted their pen-pal friendship. The closest Eliot came to an apology, of sorts, was to write how much he wanted to visit Israel. “I envy you going,” he wrote in 1963, “and I wish I could go there if the winter climate is good as I have a keen admiration for that country.”
In June of 1964, Groucho and his wife Eden traveled to London, where they planned to meet Eliot and his wife for the long-promised dinner. Eliot wrote before the visit, “The picture of you in the newspaper saying that … you have come to London to see me has greatly enhanced my credit in the neighbourhood, and particularly with the greengrocer across the street. Obviously I am now someone of importance.”
For Groucho, this was a rare opportunity to be the literary man he’d always wanted to be. He spent the week reading and re-reading Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral and The Waste Land. And for good measure—just in case the conversation flagged—he read Shakespeare’s King Lear.
He need not have bothered.
All Eliot wanted to talk about was Animal Crackers, Duck Soup, and A Night at the Opera.
“Last night Eden and I had dinner with my celebrated pen pal, T.S. Eliot,” Groucho wrote to his brother Gummo. “It was a memorable evening.”
Groucho describes how he arrived at the Eliots’ “fully prepared for a literary evening,” but the evening did not turn out the way he’d expected. “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’s wan smile seemed to signal that he was well aware of his own poems and didn’t need to hear Groucho reciting them. So the comic “took a whack at ‘King Lear,’” describing the tragic king as “an incredibly foolish old man.”
That also “failed to bowl over the poet,” wrote Groucho.
“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.”
“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.”
While they dined on “good, solid English beef, very well prepared,” and “excellent wine” (poured by Eliot instead of the attendant butler), Groucho continued to wax philosophic on King Lear. Eliot changed the subject, asking if Groucho remembered the courtroom scene in Duck Soup. “Fortunately I’d forgotten every word,” Groucho wrote to Gummo.
He mentioned, perhaps to compliment his host, that his daughter Melinda was studying Eliot’s poetry at Beverly High. “He said he regretted that,” Groucho wrote, “because he had no wish to become compulsory reading.”
And with that, Groucho’s Literary Evening ended. (It didn’t help that the poet, now aged and somewhat frail, kept referring to Eden as “Mrs. Groucho.”)
One gets the impression from this letter that both men were disappointed—Groucho did not get to exchange literary insights with the great poet, and Eliot did not get to hear about the shenanigans of his favorite Marx Brothers movies. Groucho and Eden “didn’t stay late, for we both felt he wasn’t up to a long evening of conversation—especially mine.”
Perhaps the moral of the story is: Be yourself—and never meet your heroes.
T. S. Eliot died in London on January 4, 1965. Five months later, his memorial service filled the Globe Theatre. Groucho was stunned, and honored, to be invited to speak alongside major literary and cultural figures in a program opened by Igor Stravinsky’s “Introitus.” Several of Eliot’s poems, selected by W. H. Auden, were read by actors such as Laurence Olivier, who read “Little Gidding,” and Peter O’Toole, who read “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”
Groucho took the stage. He began with a joke:
“There’s an old vaudeville story about a man who was about to be hanged, and they had brought him out on the scaffold and put the rope around his neck, and the minister in the prison said, ‘Have you any last words before we spring the trap?’ And this thing was kind of shaky and he looked up and he says, ‘Yes, I don’t think this damn thing is safe.’”
A familiar sound reached Groucho—great laughter rose from the distinguished crowd. He continued, “I hardly knew anything about Mr. Eliot’s works. I knew he had written The Waste Land, which is the history of American television.” More laughter. Groucho then dove into reading “Gus: The Theatre Cat,” from Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. “After I recite this,” Groucho warned, “you will realize what Mr. Eliot meant by murder in the cathedral.”
Eliot, no doubt, would have approved.
Sam Kashner is a Writer at Large for Air Mail and the co-author of The Fabulous Bouvier Sisters: The Tragic and Glamorous Lives of Jackie and Lee