Memoirs of a Mangy Lover is a fairly short book (213 large print pages, though I’m assuming there was a printing error and one or more pages are missing, as the last page ends in not only mid-sentence, but mid-word) of Groucho’s autobiographical stories. Mostly anyway. Among the exceptions, the longest single chapter in the book by far is The Unnatural History of Love, Groucho’s meandering, delightfully nonsensical recounting of male-female relations and random bits of history from the stone age to the present.
Early on I had the impression the stories from his life were all going to be about dating and marriage and such—in keeping with the title—but the topics are more varied than that. A disproportionate number of the stories are indeed about his adventures—and mostly misadventures—chasing women, but he also writes about poker, cocktail parties, his brothers, and numerous other things.
This is about 98% a humor book and 2% an autobiography. Groucho and Me is a little closer to an autobiography, but only a little. At least in that book you get some sense of his childhood and some of what shaped him, but still it’s far more a humor book than an autobiography. None of his autobiographical offerings are like what you’ll find in Charlie Chaplin’s My Autobiography. That comic giant chose to be very revealing, to get serious and deep in his examination of himself in print. Groucho didn’t.
Indeed, it’s hard to say how true the stories in Memoirs of a Mangy Lover even are. My guess is that most or all of them are at least loosely based on things he really experienced, but it wouldn’t shock me if some were made up out of whole cloth.
I suppose most readers wouldn’t care whether the anecdotes are true, heavily embellished, or completely made up; they would judge them solely on whether they’re funny or not. For me, though, it does matter. I’d prefer fiction to be clearly labeled as fiction, and nonfiction to be genuine nonfiction. Plenty of funny and interesting things happen in life, especially a life like Groucho Marx’s. Just telling them as they really happened would be plenty entertaining.
Then again, I’m not saying these stories didn’t happen, just that I have no way of knowing if they did or not. Nor am I saying that my doubt on that score resulted in my not enjoying the book. It detracted from my enjoyment, but only very little.
To describe it as a humor book, and as not a serious autobiography in the manner of Chaplin’s My Autobiography, is not to deny that a thread of semi-serious social commentary runs through much of the material.
This book came out late in Groucho’s life, in 1963. So it functions as a collection of his best anecdotes that weren’t in Groucho and Me or his other earlier writings, along with some original material, like the aforementioned The Unnatural History of Love.
But anyway, bottom line, is it funny? Absolutely. It’s very much the kind of humor you’d expect from watching Groucho in movies, on You Bet Your Life, and as a guest on talk shows. He’s self-deprecating, punctures pretensions left and right, displays a healthy obsession with the female form, and goes off on tangents that circle back through puns and other word play to seemingly get back on track, whether they really do or not.
You can very much hear his voice in your head as you read. Here’s an example, chosen by opening the book at random:
History tells us of a hungry Neanderthal man who, unable to see where he was, began eating the edge of his cave. He supposed it was spinach with perhaps a touch more than the usual amount of sand. Whereupon his wife said, “Remember, you can’t have your cave and eat it too!” But the poor Neanderthal man, not knowing what she was talking about, continued munching until he had eaten them out of house and home. That was how the expression was coined, for since they didn’t have money in those days either, all they could coin was expressions.
You either like this sort of nonsense or you don’t. I found the book consistently funny, at times laugh out loud so.
It’s just a little bit raunchier than I would have expected for that era, with a story set in a whorehouse and such. Obviously the humor here is quite tame compared to what one could have heard back then in certain night clubs and other isolated parts of the culture, but it still goes slightly farther than what I expected in a mainstream book from fifty years ago.
Memoirs of a Mangy Lover is a light, easy read—it took me about two hours to read cover to cover. The stories are funny and interesting, even if most of them didn’t stay with me very long after closing the book. There are certainly books at which I laughed more, but this is solid humor.