Who had the most fun?

David Bromwich

  • Groucho: The Life and Times of Julius Henry Marx by Stefan Kanfer
    Penguin, 480 pp, £7.99, April 2001, ISBN 0 14 029426 0
  • The Essential Groucho by Groucho Marx, edited by Stefan Kanfer
    Penguin, 254 pp, £6.99, September 2000, ISBN 0 14 029425 2

Julius was the original name, but one may as well call him Groucho, from the ‘grouch bag’ carried by travelling showmen. His parents were Jewish immigrants: Simon Marrix, of a family of tailors from Alsace-Lorraine, and Minna Schoenberg, the daughter of a Dutch magician who emigrated when his work in Germany ran out in the 1870s. All of the Marxes appear to have been clever with words – Simon spoke French, German, Yiddish and English – and they were quick to absorb the cosmopolitan slang of the New York streets. Simon naturalised his name to Sam and set up business as a tailor out of the same three-room apartment on East 93rd Street that held Minna, her parents and the five boys; but the couple always had an air of waiting for something riper, and improvisation would become the family mood. With Sam, the nickname that finally stuck was Frenchy. He devoted his spare time to pinochle, whereas Minnie – the name she preferred – was a born entrepreneur and had a successful brother in show business. Uncle Al had given up trouser-pressing for vaudeville, and offered excellent advice once the boys got their start with the usual mix of banter, slapstick and melody hung on the barest pretence of lyrics:

Went fishing last Sunday and caught a smelt.
Put him in the fire and the fire he felt.
Of all the smelts I ever smelt,
I never smelt a smelt like that smelt smelt.

Leonard (Chico), Adolph (Harpo), Julius (Groucho), Herbert (Zeppo) and Milton (Gummo): Groucho was a middle child, if you want to make anything of it. He was the first to succeed, at the age of 15, with a vestigial talent for singing, but a miasma of rotten luck trailed his early efforts. When he went on the road with the Leroy Trio, Leroy fell hard for the second boy, a ‘buck-dancer’ named Johnny Morris, and the two ran off with all the money Groucho had stuffed in his mattress. How, he wondered, did his mother pay his way back from Cripple Creek, Colorado? ‘Probably hocked one of my brothers.’ By the time the brothers were well launched in the early 1910s, Groucho and Minnie together had taken charge, and the loutish authority with which he brought order to the pack would have made anyone seem older. Many of the neighbourhood boys they used to hang out with were dead or in jail by then, and Minnie saw how little her children were doing besides chase women and arrange transactions with petty thieves. Chico stole casually from his father’s business and only realised how serious it was when Frenchy said he would kill him if he ever did it again.

So, you get the feeling, Minnie sent them in one by one like a football coach alternating glances between the field and the bench. There can be no doubt that with Groucho, as with W.C. Fields, the relish he conveyed in the role of a churl had an accessible motive in youthful experience, though it is hard to agree with Stefan Kanfer that the result in his life and art was ‘to inter the adult and present a child persona to the public’. Actually, he is one of those characters, like Petronius or Squire Western, whom it is impossible to imagine as a child. But this comes to no more than a small error of tact in a highly professional biography. Kanfer’s feeling for Groucho’s life and milieu is expert, the anecdotes come out right and he knows how not to spoil a joke. The only real annoyance is a scarcity of dates. You have to leaf back and forth and triangulate in order to learn the month, the year, and sometimes the decade when a thing happened. But quite a lot of Groucho’s material is quoted at length – letters, pieces written for magazines, celebrated ad libs and whole scenes from his movies – and more of the same is reprinted in The Essential Groucho. They are good books to have.

The Marx Brothers were put together from an arbitrary estimate of the talents of the boys as their mother understood them. Chico was supposed to have the brains and the sex appeal. On the way to converting his genius for numbers into an immaculate instrument for gambling, he learned honky-tonk piano from a defective teacher, frills and trills for the right hand, oompah for the left: a demi-style that would stand him in good stead when the act lay fallow, and assist an inborn facility for seducing whole lines of chorus girls. The result placed a built-in ceiling on his competence, but it worked nicely as a sight gag for the eye and ear. Harpo would emulate him in this as in other respects, but he was a gentler-hearted boy, and of the famous three would be the only one to stop, by his own decision, and have a life of ordinary happiness with a family. His first observable talent appeared when he paid a visit in drag to some neighbours and flirted successfully with the men. The harp would come later. He jibbed at the advice from Uncle Al that he stop talking, but was brought over soon enough by the applause and the laughter. Harpo’s angelic and sociopathic qualities came to seem a natural counterpoint to the twisted allusiveness of Groucho, within whose careering speeches the most arcane point of history, literature or topography might be required knowledge for the audience – the fact, for instance, that Panama is the name of a street in Los Angeles a few miles south of Wilshire Boulevard.

The first of the brothers to form an act together were Groucho, Harpo and Gummo. Minnie came along for the ride and, as their business manager, felt sufficiently grand to rename herself Minnie Palmer. On a gig one night in Waukegan, Illinois – fabled town: was it not the Waukegan conservatory that taught Jack Benny the violin? – the brothers looked past the footlights and saw at the piano, inexplicably, the wandering right hand of Chico, whom they had long since written off. Harpo, wearing a fruit-covered hat, plucked an apple and an orange, Chico dodged and hurled them back, somebody lowered the curtain and the three Marx Brothers were four. Show business is full of incongruities. Gummo, drafted into the Army and told by Minnie that they could do without him, would withdraw entirely and then come back as Groucho’s agent. Zeppo, his replacement, the blandly forgettable brother in the early movies, before he joined the group had been a mechanic working for Ford who packed a gun and had a sideline in stolen cars. By 1915, the family was prosperous enough to buy 27 acres in La Grange, Illinois, which Minnie and Frenchy decided to fit out as a chicken farm. All except Gummo were rejected by the Army, for reasons of age or incapacity, and so the show went on through the Great War.

One of the earliest sketches to lodge in the memory of lifelong fans was a skit about the Emperor Napoleon called I’ll Say She Is! Its mode is runaway farce, a pastiche without a prayer for logic, and any sample suggests about as much as any other: ‘Our just is cause. We cannot lose. I am fighting for France, Liberty, and those three snakes hiding behind the curtain. Farewell, vis-à-vis Fifi D’Orsay. If my laundry comes, send it general delivery, care of Russia, and count it – I was a sock short last week.’ A memory of the three brothers all playing Napoleon in their tricorn hats would find its way into Finnegans Wake, according to Thornton Wilder, a formidable scholar of Joyce. ‘This is the three lipoleum Coyne Grouching down in the living detch.’ When told of the homage in later years, Groucho was well pleased and only a little sceptical. ‘Did a New York policeman, on his way back to Ireland to see his dear old Mother Machree, encounter Joyce in some peat bog and patiently explain to him that, at the Casino Theater at 39th and Broadway, there were three young Jewish fellows running around the stage shouting to an indifferent world that they were all Napoleon?’ But the world in the postwar years was not indifferent to the brothers, even if Groucho was the only one prudent enough to consolidate his gains. A natural tightwad and a careful investor, he settled in Long Island with his wife Ruth, and by 1929 had amassed a fortune of $250,000, to say nothing of 24 bungalows in Far Rockaway. Most of it went down in the crash that year. ‘You lose your money in the market,’ Chico said. ‘I toss mine away on dames and gambling. Who had the most fun?’ A conviction that he was among the unlucky would drive Groucho’s comedy for the rest of his days.

The Cocoanuts, which opened on Broadway in 1929 and ran for 377 shows, was their real breakthrough. The brothers had joined forces with George S. Kaufman, a great wit and a cabaret writer of exquisite timing and pitch, and as might have been predicted, the solid support made them even bolder with improvisations. ‘I may be wrong,’ Kaufman was heard to say at a rehearsal, ‘but I think I just heard one of the original lines.’ Kaufman, along with his collaborator, Morrie Ryskind, wrote to the skills of the brothers as no one had before:

Mrs Potter: I don’t think you’d love me if I were poor.

Groucho: I might, but I’d keep my mouth shut.

The material was a portable basis for anything they did, and the play sometimes ran on for hours – a drama critic straggling in around midnight found the action so unexplained that he assumed the show was just getting under way. Eventually, Groucho offered a reward for recovery of the plot, which had ‘gone missing’. You did not have to see the show in order to win.

Anyway, the plot of The Cocoanuts, some hokum about real estate in Florida, had been the frailest excuse for the yards of shtik: Groucho instructing Chico in the fine art of bidding up the price and Chico bidding against himself until Groucho, the auctioneer, is left holding the goods. Animal Crackers, another Kaufman-Ryskind collaboration, had even less plot and was all the better for that. Groucho as Captain Spaulding, ‘the African explorer’, was seen for the first time in his true colours as arriviste, romantic soliloquist and grammarian.

Groucho: Mrs Rittenhouse, ever since I met you I’ve swept you off my feet. Something has been throbbing within me. Oh it’s been beating like the incessant tom-tom in the primitive jungle. There’s something that I must ask you . . .

Mrs Rittenhouse: Why, Captain, I’m surprised.

Groucho: Well, it may be a surprise to you but it’s been on my mind for weeks. It’s just my way of telling you that I love you, that’s all. I love you. I love you . . . There’s never been . . .

Mrs Rittenhouse: Captain!

Mrs Whitehead: I beg your pardon, am I intruding?

Groucho: Are you intruding? Just when I had her on the five-yard line. I should say you are intruding. Pardon me, I was using the subjunctive instead of the past tense. Yes, we’re away past tents. We’re living in bungalows now. This is a mechanical age, of course.

Mrs Rittenhouse: Mrs Whitehead, you haven’t met Captain Spaulding, have you?

Mrs Whitehead: Why no, I haven’t. How are you?

Groucho: How are you?

Mrs Whitehead: I’m fine, thank you. And how are you?

Groucho: And how are you? That leaves you one up. Did anyone ever tell you you had beautiful eyes?

Mrs Whitehead: No.

Groucho: (Coy) Well you have. (To Mrs Rittenhouse) And so have you. (To camera) He shot her a glance . . . as a smile played around his lips. (Back to the ladies) In fact, I don’t think I have seen four more beautiful eyes in my life. Well, three anyway . . . You have got money, haven’t you? Because if you haven’t we can quit right now.

The routines in Animal Crackers also locked in for ever the relationship of two of the brothers. From now on, Chico will be the passive instrument by which Groucho outwits himself. It is an ancient device, the trumping of the big-time hustler by the small-time con artist whose only advantage is a genius for inadvertence; and nobody ever did it better.

Groucho: What do you get an hour?

Chico: For playing, we get-a ten dollars an hour.

Groucho: I see. What do you get for not playing?

Chico: Twelve dollars an hour. Now for rehearsing we make special rates. That’s-a fifteen dollars an hour.

Groucho: And what do you get for not rehearsing?

Chico: You couldn’t afford it. You see, if we don’t rehearse, and if we don’t-a play, that runs into money.

Margaret Dumont, most imperturbable of straight men, was the aristocratic foil to all the boys in Animal Crackers, and when the circus of Harpo reeled around her, or poked her with a stick, or got his foot caught in her sleeve, Dumont’s suffering was magnificently concealed. When Groucho once failed to supply a cue altogether, she walked on stage unbidden and was greeted with the unperformable ‘Ah, Mrs Rittenhouse! Won’t you – lie down.’ The baiting of Dumont was carried into earnest practice on the road, and she was Groucho’s unhappiest real-life casualty until his wives Ruth, Kay and Eden.

His first marriage, to Ruth Johnson, took a long time to unravel. She had fallen in love with his quickness. Closer up, Groucho resembled his on-stage character in ways she found disturbing. He could say ‘I want to be alone,’ in a vaguely Slavic basso profundo fine-tuned for hilarity, and yet he stayed close to his family, was sparing of publicity and fairly often did want to be alone. In his twenties he discovered the operas of Gilbert and Sullivan, and some time later the novels of Henry James. He liked to read and now began to write for publication – humorous essays and sketches at first, in the manner of Robert Benchley. ‘I dislike night life and clubs,’ he told a friend in a letter. He refused to push to the front of the line at fancy restaurants by telling the head waiter who he was. Ruth was put out by the show of intractability, which she rightly saw as aimed against her, and she felt thoroughly at home with the show-business life of partying, gossip, nightclubs, drinking. This was in the 1920s in New York. In Hollywood a decade later, they went with separate crowds and her drinking turned to alcoholism. Groucho was an affectionate and dutiful father to both of his children by this marriage: Arthur, whose memoir of Groucho is perceptive and has some human depth, and Miriam, known in Hollywood as a girl of charm and intelligence whom her father doted on past anyone’s good. In the divorce settlement, he would give Ruth half of everything. Miserly in his usual dealings with people, and often harsh beyond expectation or measure, he was not finally ungenerous towards anyone he had once cared about. But it was a thankless occupation to be his waiter or housekeeper, director or scriptwriter, collaborator or superior.

A sentimental view of the Marx Brothers misses the point about them even more than it does about Chaplin. They were nervous and resourceful fighters who rose from the bottom and never forgot it, and they deployed the slapstick aggressions of everyday life as a coarse stimulant and a way of gaining private ends. At the request of Kaufman and Irving Berlin, the producer of The Cocoanuts, Sam Harris, agreed one day to beard them in their dressing-room and secure their obedience to the written text. Presently, noises were heard from the corridor with a thump and velocity not much like the sound of negotiations. The producer’s clothes hurtled out of the door, and a moment later the producer himself, stripped naked, who said to the writer and the songwriter: ‘I guess you better handle it.’ The brothers had learned to think fast growing up because a double-cross was always coming. The verbal dexterity that Groucho practised was akin to that, and he has something in common with the political gangster of a later era who said: ‘I double-cross myself twice a day just to keep in practice.’ The greatest presence of mind was required in dealing with Harpo’s sudden entrances and scrambles in pursuit of a dame, spilling, from his outsize pockets, fruit, silverware, mouse-traps, party favours, bathtub toys. These disruptions were mult-iplied, without notice to Groucho or Chico, in the out-of-town performances of The Cocoanuts, where Groucho acquired a reputation for ad lib comments that never missed a beat, once declaring as Harpo honked on his stick and chased a chorus girl from left to right, ‘First time I ever saw a taxi hail a passenger,’ and as he careened from right to left before the dialogue could restart: ‘The 9.20’s right on time. You can always set your clocks by the Lehigh Valley.’ This coolness under assault was related to another of Groucho’s qualities, a propensity for treating every manifestation of the world as intelligible: the more bizarre the more intelligible. Riddles that do not bend to the strategy are pushed aside but left standing as objects of scorn to a man who has other fish to fry.

He showed a Socratic aplomb in despatching his enemies, the satisfied and well-appointed, to the limbo of impotence. When, in later years, on his quiz show, You Bet Your Life, a linguist with an accent disclosed that he could speak 11 languages, Groucho asked: ‘Which one are you speaking now?’ Mis-anthropy was, with him, a deep, familiar, in-the-grain affair. Nowhere in its vicinity could you find a reassuring alloy of self-love. The broad iconoclasm led some of his fans to hope for political satire, but, with allowances for bile, he was essentially a New Deal liberal and outwardly as unpolitical as Will Rogers, whom he would come to know and like. A revealing exception occurred in 1971, when an interviewer for an underground paper asked him, ‘Do you think there’s any hope for Nixon?’ and Groucho replied: ‘No, I think the only hope this country has is Nixon’s assassination.’ The FBI went after him, and he insisted he had spoken in jest, but the remark was characteristic. Groucho would have recognised in Nixon a misanthropic genius who denied his nature and in the process lost the ability to face unpleasant facts which is the only non-poisonous gift of misanthropy. Nixon’s bad faith continued over a lifetime with effects so psychically deranging that he was only free to lie: in this sense, Groucho was speaking the literal truth when he said there was just one way to get rid of him. He himself was close to being such a man and certainly knew from inside the spirit of resentment that spreads to everything. But Groucho in an odd way expected nothing from the world. He only hoped it would turn out a better bargain than himself.

The energy of the Marx Brothers together works as a partial antidote or inoculation against Groucho’s misanthropy. Chico and Harpo stand as living allegories of the sloth and anarchy that are a necessary condition for Groucho. But he was the guts of the act. Nobody ever got out of dips in a routine faster, or higher on the upswing, than he almost always did. At the same time he knew that his comedy was sufficiently logical, rhetorical and inhuman, and was wary of going the whole length with a verbal texture that took on a life of its own. This explains why his attitude toward puns was equivocal. True, they were his bread and butter, as they were for so much of vaudeville, and Kaufman had shown how far they could go to trigger the dialogue. The technique would be adapted with continuous fluency in Duck Soup:

‘Sir, you try my patience.’

‘I don’t mind if I do. You must come over and try mine some time.’

But as Groucho saw it, a pun should be a thing of a moment, gone in a moment. The more precious the composition, the more on-purpose the effect, and with a whiff of purpose humour dies. Premeditated puns are for this reason an enemy of humour, and though some of Groucho’s best ones – ‘Time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana’ – chime too resonantly to have been ad libbed, he made up for that by delivering them on the run.

His practical doubts about pastiche were to become a cause of discord in his relations with a gifted writer who contributed heavily to the early Marx Brothers movies. S.J. Perelman, a warm disciple of Joyce, had an exorbitant appetite for wordplay. Groucho, who might have been supposed the ideal audience, looked on the effects with a canny professionalism. The puns that riddled the scripts Perelman worked on were like raisins in an overdeveloped rum cake, but Groucho was the one who would have to swallow them on screen by twos and threes. His instinct was right when he found the verbiage in Monkey Business otiose and inconsequent. Though for a long time Perelman held this against him, the movie would have been better paced had Groucho used an even stronger hand. Puns are a waste of the medium, the extra thing that wrecks the thing you came to see, like perfume at a chamber music recital. The reason one still remembers Groucho and Chico as artists-of-the-pun is that they were stupendously good at the dramatic build-ups which make a fast line tell. Each of their best films – Duck Soup, Animal Crackers and (though with longueurs) A Night at the Opera – clinches the effect perhaps two dozen times. But Perelman was aiming much higher, with verbal riffs so egregious they required a fatal pause to sink in and left no room for a reply.

Chico, Harpo and Groucho make a comprehensible and self-contained troupe – the grifter, the zany and the charlatan – and no explanation is needed when the plot sets them against the world. But certain polarities underlie all the action with a dreamlike obstinacy. Harpo the silent rebukes Groucho and Chico the talkative. Groucho the climber is exposed by Harpo and Chico the clamberers. There is always, too, in Groucho, a hint of animosity towards Chico – to learn that Minnie had nicknamed Groucho ‘der Eifersuchtige’ (‘the jealous one’) does something to deepen the joke. No matter where they meet, they look as if they had met each other already on undisclosed business somewhere else. Chico may call Groucho ‘Boss’, yet he knows that Groucho has no competence at anything, and that his mannerly façade will crumble at the slightest pressure. On the other hand, Groucho has no doubt that the appearance of innocuousness in Chico is misleading: he is not a delightful scamp, but the usual breed of rat, or, if dumber than the usual, strictly so from some fault of his own. ‘I’ve known you a long time’ is Groucho’s song of their pre-relationship and it runs through all the elaborate fencing and all the hatching of plots. He is apt to shoot a glance at Chico that gives this away almost anywhere in their longer exchanges. Take the moment at the start of the auction-fixing dialogue in The Cocoanuts, when Chico lets fall a typical non sequitur and Groucho says: ‘Well, let’s go ahead as if nothing happened.’ Several blips like that in close succession come into the scene in the captain’s cabin in Monkey Business. ‘Would you get up off that flypaper and give the flies a chance?’ ‘Do you suppose I could buy back my introduction to you?’ Finally, at the end of Groucho’s patience: ‘There’s my argument – restrict immigration.’ When in Duck Soup he hails Chico from the balcony of the ministry of state in Freedonia – a European leader casually saluting a peanut vendor and inviting him up – it is clear they are old acquaintances and meant for conspiracy.

Groucho always has an intimation that Harpo and Chico together spell trouble, but it is trouble he knows he deserves. To work his magic he needs a higher-class mark than they do – his cigar and tails are qualifications necessary for success; but the audience knows that he will be gulled by the antic pair who drive a cheesier trade. They are inert, lumpen, almost aimless. Harpo is often shown sleeping or sleepwalking not because he is tired but to prove that their mental condition is a perfect torpidness. They live and breathe only to pick off the next meal and a night’s lodgings, if possible – none the worse if one’s companion in bed is a horse or a cow. Once that much is assured, nothing remains to stop their rational faculties from going belly-up. Groucho’s scheming is the antithesis of their inertia, but just as reflexive, since it steers him more than he steers it. Does he ever sleep?

‘He is the best phony,’ a dissident teenager said recently after watching one of the movies. The quality of the best phony is to put the others in their place – an evil spirit that wards off evil spirits. A dim perception of the genie-like charm that hangs about his character must have been what made the Groucho nose-and-moustache briefly popular as an anti-rotarian trademark. This was a kind of homage that never attached to a single trait of, say, Keaton or W.C. Fields, his legitimate peers in comedy, and it missed the real point about Groucho. Nobody would want to imitate this imitation. He used greasepaint rather than a fake moustache in early films for the same reason: he had found by stage experience that the plainness of the embellishment did no harm to the illusion. The susceptibility of his fraudulence to brazen copying is an inferred weakness that Chico and Harpo are allowed to play with in Duck Soup, when they dress up as Groucho – the only gag in that effervescent film that is milked dry – but there is a payoff in the mirror scene, where it emerges that two Grouchos are exactly as real as one.

What could never have been deduced from Groucho’s other attributes is his athleticism: the spring in his step and crook in his back that come to seem another mark of his indomitable unpleasantness. To prove his vitality, he has to test it against an immovable object, and that is the function of the gravity of Margaret Dumont. Groucho’s sallies at her are often dialogues in themselves. He neither expects nor receives any response but slow-footed dismay, melting complaisance or impersonal chastisement, all quite distinct reactions which Dumont knew how to keep in discrete chambers of a flawless and stupefied etiquette. Every verbal situation he subjects her to is bewildering, and she is never stumped, but rather stands impervious and expectant, a being unto herself whose world outside Groucho is unfathomable yet surely populous and governed by the clearest conventions.

When he talks to her, Groucho might as well be playing handball – she is the wall – and in the famous harangue he is only saying what his behaviour already shows.

Mrs Teasdale: I’ve sponsored your appointment because I feel you are the most able statesman in all Freedonia.

Groucho: Well, that covers a lot of ground. Say, you cover a lot of ground yourself. You’d better beat it. I hear they’re going to tear you down and put up an office building where you’re standing.

Her aristocratic sluggishness makes an unconscious balance with the humbler lethargy of Chico and Harpo. Even where her tone is distrustful and her attitude punitive, as in A Night at the Opera, Dumont is never cruel or malicious. But her worldly insensibility fits Groucho, whose life is a delirium of worldliness, as snugly as poetic justice. Groucho suffers, no, not suffers, is a perpetual fever of thought, thought grafted onto ambition and swarming with profane purpose.

Who are these people? The question was asked in effect by many admirers of the Marx Brothers: by Perelman when he first saw them on stage in Providence in 1916, by the critic Otis Ferguson, and by many budget-minding producers at the end of their tether. Chico is crudely ethnic and liable to have a name like Chicolini. Harpo, never named, is the speechless hic or ille whom exasperation can only hint at with the feeblest gestures. What is clear about Groucho by comparison is that he has never had a real surname. Driftwood, Firefly, Spaulding, Hackenbush: the name he begins any movie with seems already an alias. There is a joke about this in Duck Soup, absurdly funnier than it should be, where the old-world courtier and snot Trentino calls Groucho, alias Rufus T. Firefly, an upstart.

Trentino: I’ve said enough. I’m a man of few words.

Groucho: I’m a man of one word. Scram! (Trentino exits.) The man doesn’t live who can call a Firefly an upstart. Why, the Mayflower was full of Fireflys, and a few horseflies, too. The Fireflys were on the upper deck and the horseflies were on the Fireflys.

You know there will be hell to pay from the word ‘Mayflower’. The transition from flower to firefly to horsefly enacts the birth of anarchy from the spirit of naturalisation: a public joke on patrician resentment of Jewish immigrants because they were so many, a private joke on the interchangeability of the boys when Minnie first brought them together.

The Groucho character seems to be most of all a disreputable uncle, greedy, lascivious, deploying his cynical wit with a care for the posture in which each victim drops. Children are of no interest to such a person and the Marx Brothers films accordingly have no children in them. The kids at the puppet show who cheer Harpo in Monkey Business, when he crimps and bloats his face to be mistaken for one of the puppets, are an exception of convenience only. Yet Harpo makes perfect sense to children everywhere when he is going berserk in the middle of an obscure grown-up procedure like the stamping of visas. The dog that never was housebroken, the creeper-vine that gets tangled in everything, as in the cabin-cramming scene of A Night at the Opera where he feels up stewards and stewardesses indifferently and is allowed to sway like a drunken dancer because he is ‘sleeping off his insomnia’ – these manifestations are tedious or loathsome only if you are the one who has to keep order. But order is an abstraction to children, and success a grown-up hindrance. Margaret Dumont tells Groucho in A Night at the Opera that the ‘riff-raff you associate with on this boat’ make it impossible for her to trust him with money. Riff-raff is what they are, and what one wants them to be, and Groucho belongs to them in spite of himself.

This recognition is worked out with masterly economy in two unforgettable scenes that turn on bargains between Groucho and Chico. The dialogue about the contract in A Night at the Opera has Chico petulantly finding fault with one detail and another – starting with the phrase ‘the party of the first part’ (‘No, that’s no good’) – until most of the clauses in the contract are scrapped with cheerful indifference on both sides:

Chico: No, I don’t like it.

Groucho: You don’t like what?

Chico: Whatever it is – I don’t like it.

Groucho: Well, don’t let’s break up an old friendship over a thing like that. Ready? (They rip again.)

At the end of the scene, when a shred of paper remains, Chico says: ‘I forgot to tell you. I can’t write.’ Groucho answers with equanimity: ‘There’s no ink in the pen, anyhow. But listen, it’s a contract, isn’t it?’

The ‘tootsie-fruitsie’ scene in A Day at the Races has a more leisurely pace and rides longer on the collapse of Groucho’s hopes. He is looking to bet on a horse that will be a sure thing; Chico is the ice-cream vendor whose advice he unhappily takes. By an Iago-like series of blank responses, with the sowing and reaping of a doubt, the tootsie-fruitsie vendor gets him to pay a dollar for a book that will pick the winning horse. However, it proves to be written in an indecipherable code; to crack it you need a second book with the key to the code (free, but with a ‘printing charge’ of one dollar); but the page-references in the code book make no sense without a master code book (delivery charge: two dollars); variables in the code depend on whether the horse is a filly, but to find that out you need something called a Breeder’s Guide (Groucho: ‘Where can I get one? As though I didn’t know’). The race is over by the time he has doped out the long-odds favourite of Chico’s library, and in the meantime Chico has turned a nice profit betting on the horse Groucho wanted to bet on until he heard the fatal cry of ‘Get your tootsie-fruitsie ice cream.’

After A Day at the Races in 1937, the Marx Brothers movies came at long intervals, and most of the juice was gone. Yet Groucho’s celebrity would prove lasting and convertible to work in other media. He entertained for the Armed Forces during World War Two, and was an intermittent presence on radio. Kanfer has a memorable description of his appearance on a one-shot programme with Bob Hope whose premise was meeting up with celebrities in the middle of nowhere. The earlier guests went over their limits and Groucho was furious by the time he got his cue: ‘Why, Groucho Marx! What are you doing way out here in the Sahara Desert?’ ‘Desert, hell. I’ve been standing in a draughty corridor for forty-five minutes.’ At which, Kanfer says, ‘Hope went limp with laughter and the script slipped from his hands. Groucho put his foot on it. For the next twenty-five minutes, the two comedians improvised their exchanges, much of them taken up with references to a notorious Los Angeles madam.’

His career wound down amiably in a manner that spared him the graceless exposure and exit of so many stars from vaudeville or motion pictures. He was the host of You Bet Your Life, which started on radio in 1947 and lasted on TV for many seasons, into the early 1960s, with trappings so chintzy and prizes so minimal that it sailed over the game-fixing scandals of 1959. The point of the show was the give and take between contestants and host. They had to be ‘prepped’ not to feel anxious in his company, but their eagerness made them natural straight men, while Groucho, with a real cigar now which he puffed slowly, was a sword that still sometimes glinted.

Groucho: You have 22 children! Why do you have so many children? That’s a big responsibility and a big burden.

Woman: Well, because I love children, and I think that’s our purpose here on earth, and I love my husband.

Groucho: I love my cigar too, but I take it out of my mouth once in a while.

He was a familiar face now to a third generation. Yet his stance remained that of the unrepentant upstart, fretted by big-city posers with appetites smaller than his who jump the queue with a truly revolting savoir-faire.

American television in the 1950s, most of all in the sitcoms and the prize-shows, offered itself as a well-adjusted part of the new suburban landscape. Instant folkways like the backyard barbecue or the ‘luau’ imported from Hawaii were accordingly blended into the plots. The aim was to feed the commercials, but Groucho adapted the requirements with a free hand:

Groucho: You’re in the luau business? What do you do? You cater these things?

Max: Yes.

Groucho: Well, suppose I wanted to throw one of these nightmares. What’s the first thing I have to do – steal a banana tree?

Max: No. First thing I do is go into the backyard of your house to look over the grounds.

Groucho: Why do you have to look over my grounds in the back of the house?

Max: So I can dig a five-foot hole.

Groucho: Max, if your food’s that bad, you’ll have to find someplace else to bury it.

Moments like this give a clue to the man, but the most revealing portrait of him, in these later years, is a profile that S.J. Perelman wrote in 1952.

Perelman visited the set of A Girl in Every Port, and the article includes a report of a dinner with Groucho between calls. There is about as much certainty here as in the Marx Brothers movies about the source for any and all of the lines, but on the internal evidence one is disposed to grant Perelman’s claim that he was telling pretty much what he saw and heard. In the playroom of Groucho’s ‘repossessed hacienda on Hillcrest Drive’, the veterans are accompanied by ‘two statuesque actresses’, Chiquita and Queenie. The latter tells Groucho that he needs a woman to take care of him:

‘What did you have in mind?’

‘Oh, I don’t know,’ she said coyly.

‘You don’t?’ he demanded, rounding on her. ‘Then what do you mean by teasing me to the brink of madness, mocking me with a smile like a scimitar?’ He flung aside his knife with a bitter laugh. ‘Do you know what it means to stand here night after night, sawing away at cheap pot roast and thirsting for a coquette’s kisses?’

‘Hey, this meat is awful dry,’ complained Chiquita, our other dryad. ‘Isn’t there any gravy?’

‘Gravy, gravy!’ shouted Groucho. ‘Everybody wants gravy! Did those six poor slobs on the Kon Tiki have any gravy? Did Scipio’s legions, deep in the burning African waste, have gravy? Did Fanny Hill?’

‘Did Fanny Hill what?’ I asked

‘Never mind, you cad,’ he threw at me. ‘I’m sick to death of innuendo, brittle small talk, the sly, silken rustle of feminine underthings. I want to sit in a ball park with the wind in my hair and breathe the cold, clean popcorn into my lungs. I want to hear the crack of seasoned ash on horsehide, the roar of the hydra-headed crowd, the umpire’s deep-throated “Play ball!”’ So graphically had he limned the colour and excitement of the game that the three of us hung there with shining eyes, too rapt even to spurn the paper-thin, parsimonious slices of meat he had served us.

‘Golly!’ breathed Chiquita. ‘I feel as though I had really witnessed the game!’

‘So do I,’ said Groucho, yawning, ‘and I’m pooped. I’ll thank you two harpies to clear out and take that lush with you.’

At their last meeting, when both men were around eighty, Perelman asked, ‘Do you mind if I smoke?’ and was told calmly: ‘I don’t care if you burn.’

Groucho was a faithful correspondent who took pride in his ability to write with a certain sharpness: the letters to his children that Kanfer quotes are strong and far from casual. He was faster and less reserved in dealing with professional flak-catchers, waterflies and company goons, as in his famous encounter with the Warner Brothers legal department over the copyright on the title A Night in Casablanca. Did Warner Brothers own a piece of the action for a film that promised to be a send-up of their money-maker? The case was full of possibilities: they might be supposed to own the plot, any allusion to any version of the plot, even, maybe, the name of the city in the title. Groucho seized the opportunity in a letter in which a soufflé of more-in-sorrow pieties gives way to deadpan sarcasm:

It seems that in 1471, Ferdinand Balboa Warner, your great-great-grandfather, while looking for a shortcut to the city of Burbank, had stumbled on the shores of Africa and, raising his alpenstock (which he later turned in for a hundred shares of common), named it Casablanca.

I just don’t understand your attitude. Even if you plan on re-releasing your picture, I am sure that the average movie fan could learn in time to distinguish between Ingrid Bergman and Harpo. I don’t know whether I could, but I certainly would like to try.

You claim you own Casablanca and that no one else can use that name without your permission. What about ‘Warner Brothers’? Do you own that, too? You probably have the right to use the name Warner, but what about Brothers? Professionally, we were brothers long before you were. We were touring the sticks as the Marx Brothers when Vitaphone was still a gleam in the inventor’s eye, and even before us there had been other brothers – the Smith Brothers; the Brothers Karamazov; Dan Brothers, an outfielder with Detroit.

It is the letter of the shyster lawyer he had always half wanted to be, but the joke was lost on the Warner Brothers legal department, who asked for an explanation of the plot, and, when offered a shuffle of gags, wrote back again in quest of clarification. The letters were broadly circulated, and Warner Brothers retired in confusion.

Quite different, in the affiliations it brought to light, was his drawn-out correspondence with T.S. Eliot, begun by Eliot when he asked for a signed picture of Groucho and, on receiving a studio portrait, wrote back to say that this was not what he had in mind. What Eliot wanted was a picture of Groucho in action in a Marx Brothers movie. His approach to the star in these letters is meek-to-fawning, but it is also, in his usual way, testing. Groucho, one would have thought, was the incarnation of the human beast that ‘tears at the grapes with murderous paws’. Was he also then a companion with whom one might ‘take the air in a tobacco trance’? The writers circle each other discreetly and a little warily, but by November 1963, two years into the correspondence, first names have been exchanged and Groucho offers a disquisition:

The name Tom fits many things. There was once a famous Jewish actor named Thomashevsky. All male cats are named Tom – unless they have been fixed. In that case they are just neutral and, as the upheaval in Saigon has just proved, there is no place any more for neutrals.

There is an old nursery rhyme that begins ‘Tom, Tom, the piper’s son,’ etc. The third President of the United States’ first name was Tom . . . in case you’ve forgotten Jefferson.

So, when I call you Tom, this means you are a mixture of a heavyweight prizefighter, a male alley cat, and the third President of the United States.

A good-natured characterisation, informed by remarkable intuition. Eliot for his part made the mistake once of talking down to Groucho with affected bonhomie, referring to his wife as ‘Mrs Groucho’. He was met in reply with fond regards for ‘your lovely wife, whoever she may be’. In Groucho’s next letter, she has become ‘Mrs Tom’. After this small but useful lesson in democratic manners, all posturing ceases and a tranquil equality reigns.

And yet, for all the vivacity that remained, it is hard to speak of Groucho’s last decades without sadness. In 1945, he married Kay Gorcey, wife of the ‘dead end kid’ Leo Gorcey, and when he was 56 had a third child with her, Melinda. This marriage like his first began compatibly enough but worked toward a miserable dissolution. His third and shortest marriage would end when his young wife Eden Hartford walked out on him. Well into his eighties, he lived to see himself rediscovered not only by the Dadaist fringe of the 1960s antiwar movement but by Dick Cavett, Woody Allen and other literate and nostalgic entertainers. He appeared now as the honoured guest in public celebrations and televised specials which showed his energy waning but his mischief fundamentally unchanged. He presided over the rehearsals of Minnie’s Boys, a slop-sentimental musical about the young Marx Brothers.

He was a famous rich man losing his interest in life when he was taken over by a young actress, Erin Fleming, opportunistic, deranged and affectionate in unstable proportions, who became his secretary, chaperone and interpreter to the world until his death. Kanfer hangs a mystery on this relationship but what was happening was plain to anyone who saw them on talk shows in the 1970s. Groucho always brought her along, and was suspiciously docile beside her, but he must have been glad to have the choice taken out of his hands. It was either a graceful descent to a death alone or the life he ended up having with this companion: chock-full of amusements and massive partying, not at all in his style, and wrangles that sometimes came to blows. The stories got around, in glimpses, from unscheduled visits to the house by old friends, and there were efforts to separate them. Although he never disowned his family, Groucho steadily asserted that he loved his caretaker. The result after he died was a legal battle that deprived Fleming of everything and squandered most of his estate.

Groucho is honoured now with a more singular veneration than he ever knew in his life. He is an easily quoted exemplar for standup comics like Billy Crystal, Eddie Murphy, Paul Reiser and Jerry Seinfeld, whose subject is the vicissitudes of the instincts and whose stock in trade is the fast one-liner. These performers are more routinely transgressive than Groucho was, and they lack the pathos that was the undersong of his bitterness. The reckless attitude of the smarter standup comics now says nothing personal: it is an assumption, a given. You may listen to them for an hour with pleasure and without hearing a characteristic touch. Groucho looked ruefully on his fortune as bait for gold-diggers, but after a monologue by one of the prospering comics today, a self-respecting and eligible woman could ask for a date. They are presentable guys, and comedy is what they do, not what they are. There was always on the contrary a sense about Groucho that he was a desperate man, that he would do anything in the right circumstances for the right effect – the metaphysics of sauve qui peut were hardly separable from the constitutional necessity of fetching a laugh. You can see the principle at work in Horse Feathers, where Chico and Harpo disrupt a classroom with pea-shooters, and Groucho, the professor, drones on with the lesson craftily, then dives under a desk and attacks with a pea-shooter he just happens to have with him. It is the abortion of authority that sinks every pretence, nothing like the smooth delivery of the upscale shopper and man of taste. But the truth about the way that comedy has changed may be simpler than any relative calibrations of genius or motive. Square America died in the late 1970s, about the time that Groucho died, and bad as it was to live with, satire needed that world acutely. Without the dumb resistance of conventional manners to rub against, satire can point to no visible correlative of the ugliness it partakes of and deplores.

Groucho’s was not what the happiness makers call a happy life. On the other hand, he seems to have believed with Imlac in Rasselas that life affords less to be enjoyed than to be endured. The reflexive humour would far outlast the intelligence, and in his final years his quick responses to verbal cues, the association slyly caught and slotted in place, could generate an appearance of wit without a mind to support it. Asked by Woody Allen what he was up to, he replied: ‘Erin’s busy putting together a documentary about me. In the meantime I plan on dying.’ This might be a quip, or might be a string of words launched into dead air. The same optical illusion recurs where a large enough talent has had the time to break down, so that, by a trick of resemblance, the later performances cast a doubt on the earlier. Did his work obey a consistent purpose after all? Such estimates are hard to make, and probably wrong to attempt, and after the vague promise of a settled judgment, with a shadowy span of posthumous chapters, his biographer has the decency to deliver nothing conclusive.

For Groucho and for others, at a high cost which neither would have spared, his way of being staved off boredom. The imitation of his life that one saw in the movies was a germ of anarchy with nobody’s blessing, and imparted, as from a master to novices, a love of the daily scrimmage and contempt for the smarm and truckling that are the regime of worldly success. The cruel effects of his temper, well hidden from common view, were mostly confined to those nearest to him; and in a driven and harried career one turns with pleasure to one interval, his second bachelorhood in the 1940s. Groucho had for companionship then his daughter Miriam, who adored him and after the divorce elected to live with him, and got into scrapes because she had a mouth like his. From day to day he subsisted on the plateau of modest prosperity which the industry counts as failure. His courtship of Kay Gorcey was still some way off, and Miriam’s trouble with alcohol; further off were the paydirt of You Bet Your Life, the cover story in Time, the scrap-book encomia and academic testimonials; mercifully remote the wretched happiness of his dotage with Erin Fleming and the draining waste of the attacks on her by his family – the unsatisfied, the protective, the ever-estranged family. He thought all families were ‘a big responsibility and a big burden’.

In these middle years almost alone, Groucho rose early and shaved with an electric razor, economising the steel that others needed and pointing out that, though the shave might not be very close, he could read books while he did it. He would spend the morning working on a play with Norman Krasna – a musical, until they decided it would be better without the songs – which some years later would flop resoundingly, but who could worry about that now? He liked to waste an hour in the mild futility of tending the vegetable garden he nicknamed Marx’s Dust Bowl. In the afternoon, he would ‘put on his traditional uniform – shorts, sweatshirt, sneakers and beret – and pedal to his office’ in downtown Beverly Hills, there to whistle up to the second-storey window, from which his secretary lowered a basket. For twenty minutes more or less, he would read and respond to letters, write cheques, salute passers-by, ‘dictate an answer or two by shouting them up’. On his bicycle again to shop at the grocery store and bakery, with goodies hung from the handlebars, he would pedal back to the Dust Bowl, where, often, the screenwriter who lived next door would invite him over for supper. Groucho sat at the head of the table because, he said, he was the oldest, and from that position he held forth and directed the conversational traffic. All this, before the fall of the big studios, when craft and unbankable wit survived in odd corners without much fuss.

At the trial contesting his estate, a psychologist, a Dr Schindler, offered as proof of senility an answer to a diagnostic question, ‘What direction is Panama?’ ‘You get in your car,’ Groucho told the German shrink, ‘and drive down Sunset Boulevard.’