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Groucho: The Life and Times of Julius Henry Marx Hardcover – May 9, 2000
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From Publishers Weekly
According to this engrossing, exhaustively researched biography, Groucho Marx (1890-1977) was a grouch who merged his raffish public persona with his dour, peevish private self. Former Time cinema critic Kanfer presents Julius Henry Marx as a browbeating spouse who drove his three wives to alcoholism or heavy drinking, and to divorce. Though he could be an endearing parent, his aloofness and fault-finding alienated his son and two daughters, in Kanfer's verdict. Groucho remained a perpetually insecure "infantile grownup," Kanfer avers, because of his troubled relationship with his aggressive stage mother, Minnie, who took eldest son Chico (Leonard) as her pet, and thought Groucho unattractive and let him know it. This is not a debunking biography; on the contrary, Kanfer calls Groucho the father of modern comedy, whose influence extends from M*A*S*H to Jerry Seinfeld to Woody Allen to daily conversation. Although Kanfer tries to warm up to his subject on a personal level, Groucho comes off as a thoroughly dislikable misogynist who nursed lifelong grudges against his children, wives, managers and compatriots. Long stretches of this bio make for painful, even depressing reading, despite a truckload of gemlike anecdotes, incisive mini-biographies of all the Marx Brothers and invaluable film and stage criticism. Still, the book's first half, which follows the brothers' comic quartet from struggling vaudeville act to stardom, is exhilarating. Photos. Agent, Kathy Robbins. (May)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.
From Library Journal
Groucho Marx mastered the worlds of vaudeville, theater, movies, radio, and television, yet he remained a moody, morose, unfulfilled man. Plagued by nagging financial insecurities, partly realized literary ambitions, and difficult, unsatisfying relations with his wives, lovers, and daughters, Groucho was a "depressive clown," notes Kanfer (The Eighth Sin). This is the show business saga of "Minnie's boys," Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and, sometimes, Gummo and Zeppo. Groucho never really had a childhood, as mother Minnie drove the boys relentlessly as they perfected their trademark antic, ad-lib style. Many books on the Marx Brothers pay homage to their innovative wisecracks, word play, and nonstop non sequiturs, but Kanfer shows the show biz realities behind the madness. The book also details Groucho's ambivalent relations with his son, Arthur; his brothers; New Deal liberals; intellectuals and collaborators like S.J. Perelman; and his custodian, Erin Fleming. Although Chico and Harpo remain shadowy figures in this portrayal, this is the first comprehensive portrait of Groucho in years. Recommended for large public and academic libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 2/1/00.] Pubbing in the same month as Kanfer's book, this work may signal the beginning of a Marx Brothers revival. The brothers' nonstop barrage of verbal and visual gags delighted average moviegoers and intellectuals alike. Kanfer focuses on Groucho, where Louvish, the author of The Man on the Flying Trapeze, a biography of W.C. Fields, expands the canvas to appraise the contributions of the other brothers, plus Margaret Dumont, a regular target of the brothers' mayhem. Chico was a compulsive gambler and risktaker. Harpo, whose comedy career was limited by his silent act, found fulfillment in family life. Dumont, Louvish shows, was more than a dimwitted comic stooge. (In fact, the Marx Brothers often failed to attract a female audience, an interesting topic covered more fully by Kanfer.) The Marx Brothers' story is now encrusted with numerous myths and dubious anecdotes, and Louvish does a solid job of separating fact from fiction and includes a family tree and a discussion of the FBI's file on the group. Like Kanfer's book, Monkey Business includes generous excerpts of classic Marx Brothers film dialog. Recommended for public library film collections.
-Stephen Rees, Levittown Regional Lib., PA
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Top customer reviews
There are few faults this reader can report. It's clearly obvious that Mr. Kanfer leaned heavily on previous sources, but their precise origins remain unidentified. I wish the author had included more photographs, but I'm grateful for those chosen. There are, without doubt, other ways to see them. Marx's early life receives rather less attention than his late years, but I believe that's a consequence of the available information. Still, this reader remains unsure that Marx's mother Minnie can be blamed almost entirely for his phobias, neuroses and family antagonisms. Mr. Kanfer shares his understanding of the entertainment industry willingly with his readers without vanity or hubris. His remarkably deep knowledge base, obvious background friendships and Hollywood contacts no doubt assisted his writing. The reader gravitates to these points rather than being dragged or battered by them. In fact, I only questioned how the author included so many intimate details of Marx's life without being physically present, yet I never questioned if they were imagined.
The book's last section on the battle over Mr. Marx's fortune is reviewed in great detail. Fifty-five pages are devoted to Erin Fleming's influence and legal squabbles. They read rather like the script of a soap opera and are somewhat less satisfying than the prior 383 pages. That being stated, these incidents were still greatly important in Mr. Marx's life, death and legacy. His survivors and Ms. Fleming were left devoid of parts of their sanity and significant financial resources following this protracted battle. This reader was left saddened by the section, yet Mr. Kanfer never shirks from this sordid part of Marx's history.
In summary, there is much to praise and little to criticize. Julius (Groucho) Marx receives splendidly honest treatment and analysis as one of America's great comedians. His wit, intelligence, timing, work and devotion to his craft made him incomparable. And thanks to Mr. Kanfer, now I know where to find his star in the galaxy.
One gripe about the book from an aesthetic standpoint: The pages are like sandpaper, and the binding on the hardcover breaks very easily, so be careful if you want to preserve its aesthetic value.
Most recent customer reviews
I suppose there's not much wrong with Stefan Kanfer's writing, on the surface;...Read more