Readers shouldn’t turn to “Groucho and Me” funnyman Groucho Marx’s 1959 memoir to learn anything substantial about him or his famous brothers. He even acknowledges that a couple of times. Do pick up the book if you want to laugh. It’s the funniest book I’ve read in a long time.
I chose this book from among several options on my bookshelf to fulfill the Memoir or Biography category for the 2016/17 Classics Challenge. Surprisingly, there were several options on my shelves. I thought it might just be the time to dive into Moss Hart’s “Act One,” (and finally finish) or Sheilah Graham’s “Beloved Infidel,” her take on her relationship with F. Scott Fitzgerald. Oddly, I had even others that could fill the bill, too, but decided humor was the way to go. There’s so little to laugh at these days.
His running joke, and there are many in this memoir of the last days of vaudeville, Broadway in the 20s, early Hollywood and the beginning of the television era, is that he’s being strong-armed into writing the book and he’s none too happy about it. Take a look at this passage:
“Most show people, when they finally write their autobiographies (and don’t think they don’t), invariably relate in glowing terms a steady succession of triumphs. The smart ones sometimes throw in an occasional flop, for they know there is nothing more disheartening to the average reader, who is usually a failure in life, than to read about some lucky ham who, through a series of accidents (and a minimum of talent), has achieved fame, fortune and a steady procession of wives.”
Somehow, I don’t mind being called “a failure in life” by Marx. He takes nothing seriously, which may be the secret to his success. When the stock market crashed in 1929, he writes, “I lost $250,000. I would have lost more, but that’s all I had.” When he relates why he gave up movies, the way he tells it, there wasn’t much mulling or angst: His body was getting old and he couldn’t do the physical stuff anymore, so that was it. He bounces from event to event with, seemingly, a smile on his face, rolling his eyes at convention and the people he runs into.
Marx tells his life out of order, jumping back and forth in time, with long diversions into his relationships with automobiles (in a chapter called “A Case of Auto-Eroticism” which seems racy for ’59) or fishing or doctors. You won’t find out how he and his brothers took the names Groucho, Harpo, Zeppo, Gummo and Chico (his original name was Julius); or about his marriages (there seem to be two); or about his children (three, though we only learn the names of two and there are only photos of his youngest, a daughter, in the book).
We do learn he was a skinflint, how his mustache came to be painted on, that he and his brothers were notorious skirt-chasers and that a career in the theater isn’t all footlights and thundering applause. He gives us a hilarious peek at the experience of immigrants in the United States a century ago, and the mind behind an American icon.
Like his movies, this book is thoroughly entertaining and through it all you hear inimitable voice that is still relevant and quoted today.
Addendum No. 1: I started the Classics Challenge to clear my house of books that had accumulated through used book sales and generous friends who gave them away. I said I’d give the books away as I read them, and I have, but… I liked this book so much, I don’t want it lost in a church’s used book sale. So in a Shelf Improvement first, I’m going to give it away to one of you lucky readers. If you are interested, send me your address (put it in the comments below, I won’t publish it) and I’ll send it to you. If I don’t have any takers soon, look for it at your next used book sale.
Addendum No. 2: When you read your memoir or biography, post about it in the comments below.
Addendum No. 3: Next category in the 2016-17 Classics Challenge: Something written about or for children. I’m thinking it will be “Old Yeller,” which has been hanging around on my shelf since my kids were young enough to read to nightly. But it may be something else. Stay tuned and keep reading.