Groucho and Me, by Groucho Marx

Groucho and Me

One way to interpret the title of Groucho and Me is as a reminder that there is a distinction between a person and his persona as a performer.

That’s most obvious when we’re talking about, say, a fictional character in a movie or TV show, such as if William Shatner wrote a book entitled Captain Kirk and Me. Obviously Captain Kirk and William Shatner (“Me”) are two different people.

But there can also be a difference between a person and the role he plays in life rather than in one specific performance. The public persona of a rock star, superstar athlete, politician, etc. may be very different from how that person is in private, when he’s not “on.” Hulk Hogan, Pee Wee Herman/Paul Reubens, and Morton Downey, Jr. are all folks who didn’t just play a certain character one time, but who more broadly had a very recognizable public persona they created for professional reasons. A book about any of them could examine both the public figure and the real person behind the public figure.

Sometimes that distinction is more fuzzy though. Sometimes the public persona and the “real” person leak into each other and really aren’t all that different, whether because the person chose not to perform in a way much different from how he would have acted had he never adopted a public persona, or because he played a part for so long that eventually it “stuck” and that’s how he was all the time.

Ironically, if the title of this book really is supposed to highlight a sharp distinction between Julius Henry Marx and Groucho, I think Groucho is one of those figures where the distinction is more fuzzy. The voice, the style, of the writer of this autobiography is very much what you’d expect if you’ve watched a lot of Marx Brothers movies, and especially if you’ve seen or heard Groucho on his You Bet Your Life show or on various talk shows.

Whereas in Charlie Chaplin’s My Autobiography I never felt like I was reading something written by the Little Tramp, this is very much Groucho being Groucho. His prose is peppered with witticisms, puns, references to attractive women that are somehow simultaneously leering and charming (the references, not necessarily the women), and self-deprecation. The links in the chain of the story of his life are anecdotes rather than facts.

Not that that’s good or bad, but it feels like he’s never out of character, though again that may be not because there’s something insincere about his writing but because the character and the person (Groucho and “Me”) really weren’t very different.

Groucho and Me is disproportionately about his childhood and his early pre-fame days in show business, as opposed to going into great detail about each of the most famous Marx Brothers movies, for instance. That’s probably appropriate, as it means he’s focusing on those areas a reader is least likely to already know a great deal about from other sources.

Though if he were to follow that rule consistently, you’d expect a lot more about his private life. In fact, there’s only the occasional anecdote (including a very sweet account of Groucho the doting and long-but-very-willing-suffering servant of his princess of a daughter). It’s still mostly Groucho the performer talking about Groucho the performer, just with an emphasis on when he was an obscure performer.

Groucho and his brothers came from a far-from-privileged background, though you never get that same sense of extreme poverty, intermittent homelessness, and palpable physical and emotional suffering as you get in Chaplin’s autobiographical account of his childhood. Maybe the Marxes had a much better, more comfortable, if still economically challenged, life, or maybe it’s just not Groucho’s style to dwell on the negative unless he can upend your reaction to it by tossing in a funny line when his account threatens to become too grim.

Chico sounds like the most colorful of the brothers as a youth (and probably as an adult for that matter), though his antics are of the type that are probably a lot more entertaining in retrospect. A fellow who never met a pool hall or craps game he didn’t like, he was constantly getting himself—and all too often his brothers or his whole family—into some sort of jam due to his incessant skirt-chasing, compulsive gambling, and occasional petty crime.

He also, though, seems to have been the one with the most confidence that they’d ultimately hit it big. When the others hesitated at an opportunity that seemed maybe an intimidating step too far that they weren’t yet ready for, he shrugged off any such doubt with an attitude of “Let’s go for it.”

Their mom was a bit of a stage mother, though Groucho doesn’t present this as something negative but simply as her always being there in the early years to support and advise them.

Those early years in vaudeville sound glamorous in their way, but in concrete terms they could be quite harrowing as well. Disputes—over money especially—were common, and often had the potential to turn violent. The brothers took to carrying blackjacks in their back pockets in self-defense.

My first reaction reading about that period of their career was that things apparently were a lot rougher back then. But then I remembered reading I Killed, a book of anecdotes about the life of stand-up comics on the road playing contemporary comedy clubs around the country, and how struck I was at the time by how difficult and sometimes dangerous that lifestyle sounded. So maybe things haven’t changed all that much after all.

You don’t get the sense there was ever much internal strife among the brothers. It sounds like throughout the lean years and the years of success they always had a “we’re all in this together” attitude and worked as a team. Whether that’s really the case or Groucho just chose not to share the conflicts with his readers I don’t know.

Anyway, Groucho and Me is an easy and enjoyable read, with plenty of funny and self-deprecating stories about golf, the stock market, seasickness, and more. Along the way you get some insight into Groucho the person, but I don’t think it’s his style to be all that revealing (again insofar as Groucho the private person differs all that much from the Groucho we already know as a public figure). Expect to be entertained; the limited extent to which you get to know Groucho better is just a nice little bonus.

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