Groucho Hardcover – January 1, 1979
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"Groucho" by Hector Arce was the authorized biography: it's 500 pages long, indexed and illustrated, based on numerous conversations with Groucho, his friends, and his private papers. Nevertheless, the fellow who gave us "Captain Spaulding" was many-sided, and he does seem to have eluded Arce's grasp. But no other would-be biographer was able to do better, so...
To begin with, five brothers marrying and divorcing, fathering children as they went: help! Then there were all those Marx relatives, too; a picture of the "meshpoche" in a hotel room makes that clear, and gives a hint as to where that famous stateroom sequence might just have originated. Got all of them straight: good, because it gets worse. Minnie Marx, the mother of the brood, named three of her sons Julius, Leonard and Adolph; and Arce, I suppose he had his reasons, refers to them that way until they get famous as Harpo, Groucho, and Chico. What, he thought we wouldn't be confused enough? And don't even ask what Zeppo's and Gummo's real names were, it's not my job.
Of course, the book has its funny bits. Maggie Irving, who was playing Madame DuBarry in the play within the play in their early Broadway hit "Animal Crackers," said, "Now I was wise to those guys. I knew I had to keep covered. This costume was ... built on a leotard, fixed beautiful with white satin and lace, pearls and brilliants. Over it was an enormous hoop. With all this I wore a white wig. The hoop was too big to get into the dressing room, so they hung it on a piece of scenery on the side. Just before I went on, I just stepped into it and buckled it. If it got knocked off, there were a lot of ruffles underneath. I walked on in the spotlight, feeling very regal. I was on a second or two, and I heard somebody in the audience giggle. Had I picked up a brassiere on the hoop, or a pair of pants or something? I walked around trying to get a look to see what it was. But I still couldn't see. Finally I decided I wasn't going to stand there, and I sat down on this chair wearing this big hoop. A pair of hands came out from under the hoop. The hoop was so big I hadn't sensed there was anyone under there before. It was Harpo.
"Groucho asked, 'What will you have to eat...Dubarries?' Harpo's hand shot out from under the skirt, holding out a telephone. Groucho took it and said, 'Waiter, will you bring some ice water up to ten?'"
Groucho's private life, of course, wasn't that funny. He seems to have chewed up women. His first two wives, and eldest daughter, became alcoholics. His younger daughter? Don't ask. As for the last wife, who chose to call herself, heaven help us, Erin Hartford (born plain old Edna Higgins): Arce recounts that relationship practically day-to-day. And it's still not always clear what was going on.
But if you want to know more about the Marx boys, you could do worse.