Forever sardonic, Groucho lives on

May 14, 2000|By Terry Teachout | Terry Teachout,Special to the Sun

"Groucho: The Life and Times of Julius Henry Marx," by Stefan Kanfer. Alfred A. Knopf. 446 pages. $30.

Who remembers Groucho Marx? Is there anybody left in America who can sing "Lydia, the Tattooed Lady" from memory? I can, but I'm on the far side of 40, which makes me a prime member of the target market for Stefan Kanfer's excellent new biography of the most verbally dextrous of the four Marx brothers.

In the early '70s, when I was in high school, Groucho seemed utterly contemporary; indeed, he was something of a cult figure, in part because his anarchic comedy seemed well suited to the political tendencies of the day. You could see "Duck Soup" and "Horse Feathers" on pre-cable TV, as well as syndicated reruns of "You Bet Your Life," the game show that had put Groucho back in the spotlight in 1950 after a decade of fumbling.

The old ad-libber himself was still around -- barely -- having recently given a feeble but well-meaning one-man show at Carnegie Hall. I actually dressed up as Groucho one Halloween, applying a greasepaint mustache and brandishing a cheap cigar, confident that the folks on my block would know who I was pretending to be.

Would they know now? Maybe. Tastes in humor have changed -- Groucho's innuendo-laced sarcasm has been replaced by blase irony and outright obscenity -- but Groucho the cultural icon lives, after a fashion.

I recently asked a 24-year-old of my acquaintance what, if anything, she knew about him, and she immediately mentioned the mustache, the cigar and the stateroom scene from "A Night at the Opera" (though she hadn't actually seen it).

Stefan Kanfer knows a lot more, and "Groucho: The Life and Times of Julius Henry Marx" contains all of it, served up with clarity and style. The funny stories are here, as well as the sad ones: surely no one will be surprised to learn that Groucho was a terrible father who was inclined to melancholia, or that he spent his final years in the care of a much younger woman who appears to have had money on her mind (though she didn't end up getting much of it). Anyone who wants to know about Groucho's epistolary friendship with T. S. Eliot, or how much of his "ad-libbing" on "You Bet Your Life" was really spontaneous, will find the answers here.

Kanfer has also edited "The Essential Groucho" (Vintage, 252 pages, $12), an anthology of "writings by, for and about Groucho Marx" that is being published in tandem with his biography. It contains excerpts from Groucho's correspondence and a sampling of his own published pieces, plus dialogue from seven of the movies (which were written by the likes of S. J. Perelman and George S. Kaufman), a garland of "You Bet Your Life" wisecracks and a sampling of contemporary newspaper and magazine articles about the Marx Brothers.

All this makes for passably interesting reading, but you have to imagine the voice and face to get much pleasure out of it. Start with the biography -- and the movies themselves, most of which are readily available on videocassette. Groucho was a performer, not a writer, and it is his ferociously sardonic persona that will be remembered long after "The Essential Groucho" makes its way to the remainder tables.

Terry Teachout, the music critic of Commentary, is a contributor to Time magazine, for which he writes about classical music, jazz and dance. He is taking a sabbatical from freelance writing to finish his biography of H. L. Mencken, starting next month.

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