But because he relied heavily on what has appeared before in print, Kanfer, who worked at Time magazine for more than 20 years as a film and theater reviewer, repeats a few previously published inaccuracies.To be fair, most of Groucho’s closest friends, cronies and associates — the people who knew him best — are no longer around. But there are family members who could’ve provided some fresh information, and their absence in the book seems glaring. Only one of Groucho’s daughters, Miriam; and a niece, Chico’s daughter, Maxine — both of whom have written books about their famous fathers — spoke to Kanfer extensively. Groucho’s son, Arthur (my father) has written his own books about his father, and he refused to talk to the biographer.
Starting with the early beginnings of the Marx clan in Europe and ending more than 100 years later with Groucho’s final years, Kanfer covers a lot of territory — the Brothers’ struggles in Vaudeville, their pushy stage mother Minnie, their success on Broadway, the movie career, the eventual break-up of the Marx Brothers as a show business act, Groucho’s successful TV career, his retirement and eventual re-discovery by a whole new generation of fans. To keep the book lively through all this, Kanfer has smartly sprinkled the decades-long story with a liberal amount of dialogue from many of the Brothers’ routines, some famous, others lesser known. Just when you think you’re getting bogged down in minutae, there’s another hilarious gem from the movies or the Brothers’ stage act.
One problem with the book is that while Groucho’s career was certainly fascinating, he didn’t lead a life teeming with explosive secrets. Probably the most sensational fact in the book is that Groucho as a lover, was — to put it politely — quick on the trigger, but even that has been reported before. Sure, he was married three times, a modest number by Hollywood standards. And, yes, he was abusive to the people around him, including his wives and children, and was a narcissistic parent, but these traits aren’t exactly rare in the entertainment industry. And the profile of the comedian with the dark, sad persona is as old as the history of clowns.
The true fact of the matter is that no matter how hard writers try to spice things up, the behind-the-scenes life of Groucho Marx (except for his tumultuous final years when Erin Fleming, an unemployed thirtysomething actress who became his manager/companion, came into the picture) was pretty boring. He was a man who had a small circle of friends, liked nothing better than riding his bicycle around Beverly Hills and spending an evening at home reading a book. If you’re picking up Kanfer’s book looking for exciting off-screen exploits, a la David Niven or Errol Flynn, you’ll probably be disappointed.
But to Kanfer’s credit, he makes a compelling case that Groucho’s psychological make-up had less to do with his pushy mother, Minnie, and more to do with the fact that he was the middle brother of five, thus causing him, as a young man, to turn inward, retreating into a world of books and intellectual pursuits. It’s ironic that the brother who was the most socially withdrawn was the one who, at least onscreen, was the leader of the pack. Perhaps because of his position in the family, he had to try harder.
Kanfer also points out that Groucho, though unique in the annals of comedy, knew his onscreen character was partly an invention of some of the most brilliant comedy writers to ever come along (George S. Kaufman, S. J. Perleman, Morrie Riskind, Harry Ruby, Burt Kalmar and Al Boasberg, all of whom wrote much of the Marx Brothers material) and, according to Kanfer, this fact kept Groucho insecure for much of his life and in awe of writers.
In a book of this scope, I was none too pleased to find inaccuracies about myself. For instance, in one passage Kanfer relates a story in which I, as a young child, supposedly went up to Groucho at the Hillcrest Country Club, where he lunched for many years. According to Kanfer, Groucho stared at me and asked who I was, as though he didn’t recognize me. Kanfer’s explanation for Groucho’s behavior is that we had been estranged for many years because of my parent’s divorce. Although this incident has appeared in other books, it never happened. In addition, the part about us being estranged isn’t true either — even after my parents divorced, Groucho remained close to his ex-daughter-in-law, Irene, and her mother Grace Kahn (my grandmother), whom Groucho had known since his Vaudeville days when she was a song plugger.
In one passage, Kanfer writes about Groucho not coming to the hospital to visit my mother after she gave birth to my older brother Steve in 1947. Kanfer chalks this up to the fact that “Groucho experienced some lingering trouble with the idea of grandfatherhood,” and says he failed to visit my mother “allegedly because a friend of his had died at the same hospital.” But in fact, Groucho’s own father died at that hospital. And the rest of the story, which Kanfer doesn’t relate shows a side of Groucho that most people don’t know: Two years after my brother was born, my mother gave birth to a daughter who only lived a few days. For the first time in many years, Groucho immediately went to the same hospital to console his grieving daughter-in-law.
But these are small quibbles about a book that manages to accomplish many things, chief among themkeeping the public’s interest in Groucho and his brothers alive.