Lee Siegel considers the weird comedy of letters between T.S. Eliot and Groucho Marx
Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE
The second volume of T.S. Eliot’s letters was recently published by Yale University Press, with new materials and previously unpublished missives. This is as good a time as any to reflect on Eliot’s most fascinating correspondent. Ezra Pound? Well, no. James Joyce? Hmm. No. Paul Valery. Non! I am referring to Groucho Marx. And no, this isn’t a joke. The letters between T.S. Eliot and Julius Henry Marx are among the strangest and most delightful epistles ever created.
Alas, the new volume only goes up to 1922, so it doesn’t include this remarkable correspondence, which began in 1961 and seems to have ended in 1964, shortly before Eliot’s death. I say “seems” because the complete set of letters has never, to my knowledge, been published. A handful of the letters appear in “The Groucho Letters”, a selection that came out in 1965. In his biography of Groucho, Stefan Kanfer quotes excerpts from letters that are not in the selection, so it can be assumed that at least a few unpublished gems are out there somewhere.
At this point, I should insert some boilerplate reflection, something along the lines of “Two more unlikely correspondents could not be conceived of”, etc. And on the surface, the two men certainly are a surpassingly odd couple. As Anthony Julius puts it in his book, “T.S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism, and Literary Form”, Eliot was “able to place his anti-Semitism at the service of his art. Anti-Semitism supplied part of the material out of which he created poetry.” And not just his poetry. In polemics like “After Strange Gods” and “The Idea of a Christian Society”, Eliot elaborated his belief that Jews had no place in modern life.
Enter Groucho, whose wit was as uniquely Jewish as it was universally comic. Where Eliot was the famous defender of tradition, order and civilised taste, the crux of Groucho’s humour was flouting tradition, fomenting chaos and outraging taste. “I have had a perfectly wonderful evening,” he once said to a host, “but this wasn’t it.” And: “I remember the first time I had sex—I kept the receipt.” And: “The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” As for Groucho’s attitude toward Eliot’s exaltation of art and knowledge, he had this to say: “Well, Art is Art, isn't it? Still, on the other hand, water is water. And east is east and west is west and if you take cranberries and stew them like applesauce they taste much more like prunes than rhubarb does. Now you tell me what you know.” What Eliot considered “the waste land” of modern life—the deracination, impudence and profane materialism—was mother’s milk to Groucho.
Yet one day in 1961 Groucho received in the mail a note from none other than Eliot himself. Expressing his admiration for the comedian, Eliot asked him for an autographed portrait. A shocked Groucho sent back a studio photograph of himself, only to receive a second note from the icon of modern poetry requesting instead a picture of the iconic Groucho, sporting a moustache and holding a cigar. A second photograph was sent out and a happy Eliot wrote to thank Groucho: “This is to let you know that your portrait has arrived and has given me great joy and will soon appear in its frame on my wall with other famous friends such as W.B. Yeats and Paul Valery.” Groucho had asked for a portrait of Eliot in return, and the latter happily enclosed one. Then the famously morose poet, characterised by Siefgried Sassoon as having “cold-storaged humanity” and by Ottoline Morrell as “the undertaker”, finished with a joke. “P.S.” he wrote. “I like cigars too but there isn’t any cigar in my portrait either.” Well, sort of a joke.
Eliot’s attraction to Groucho might come as a surprise—it certainly did to Groucho—but there had always been signs of his own buried antic disposition. For one thing, in his early expatriate days in London, he grew fond of wearing pale green powder on his face, occasionally accompanied by lipstick. For another, he expressed great enthusiasm for the defecation scene in “Ulysses” that had appalled Virginia Woolf. V.S. Pritchett described Eliot as “a company of actors inside one suit, each one twitting the others.” One thinks of the twitting Marx Brothers packed into that small stateroom in “A Night at the Opera”.
The St Louis-born American poet, who had transplanted himself to London for an extended impersonation of an Englishman, knew all about the suppressed comedy at the heart of role-play. Appalled by humourless modern ideologies like communism, Eliot might have been drawn to Groucho’s alternative mode of revolution. It seems he agreed with Irving Berlin that “the world would not be in such a snarl, had Marx been Groucho instead of Karl.” Eliot was also experiencing matrimonial happiness for the first time with his second wife, Esmé Valerie Fletcher, so much so that he had stopped writing poetry altogether. With sex, perhaps, came laughter.
As for Groucho, his love for books and culture was unabashed and unabated. “Outside of a dog,” he once proclaimed, “a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.”
The precious handful of letters that have been published reveal mutual warmth and respect—on the surface. Underneath there is a mutual fascination and wariness. They speak of getting together for three years before Groucho and “Mrs Groucho”, as Eliot gamely calls her, arrive at the Eliots’ apartment in London for dinner one evening in 1964. Throughout their correspondence, Groucho is almost alarmingly provocative with Eliot. “I get away with saying some pretty insulting things,” he told one of his biographers. "People think I’m joking. I’m not.” In his new pen pal, Eliot might have recognised Thersites in Shakespeare’s “Troilus and Cressida”, perhaps the most famous case of parrhesia—compulsive frankness—in literature. It seemed that simply being invited by Eliot into his club, as it were, incited Groucho not to want to be a full member.
Groucho cannot resist the compulsion to remind one of literature’s most famous expatriates of his origins: “Dear Tom…I think I read somewhere that your first name is the same as Tom Gibbons’, a prizefighter who once lived in St Paul.” He is quite open about his ignorance of the very public details of the poet’s life: “My best to you and your lovely wife, whoever she may be.” He pushes Eliot’s origins in his face. In another letter he calls him an “early American, (I don’t mean that you are an old piece of furniture, but you are a fugitive from St Louis)…” In the same letter he relays to Eliot that “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.” He concludes by assuring the famously buttoned-down author that “I would be interested in reading your views on sex, so don’t hesitate. Confide in me.”
Eliot’s well-known attitude towards Jews was something the Jewish provocateur could not leave alone. If the comparison of Eliot to Thomashevsky was not challenge enough, Groucho on another occasion promises Eliot that he will visit him “on my way back from Israel.” (He never does.) Eliot gamely rises to the occasion. “I envy you going to Israel,” he replies, “and I wish I could go there too if the winter climate is good as I have a keen admiration for that country.”
Yet the most intriguing of Groucho’s letters with regard to Eliot is not one that he sent to the poet, but a description of the dinner that finally did take place. Groucho wrote up an account of it for his brother Gummo.
Groucho writes that the week before the dinner, “I read ‘Murder in the Cathedral’ twice; ‘The Waste Land’ three times, and just in case of a conversational bottleneck, I brushed up on ‘King Lear’.” They begin with cocktails. A lull in the conversation prompts Groucho to “toss” in a quotation from ‘The Waste Land’.” Eliot “smiled faintly.” Feeling perhaps slighted by this uber-goy, Groucho writes that he “took a whack at ‘King Lear’," arguing that the king was “an incredibly foolish old man”. But Eliot, whether annoyed or nonplussed, perhaps passive-aggressively ignores Groucho’s invitation to ponder “Lear”, preferring instead to discuss “Animal Crackers” and “A Night at the Opera”. “Now,” recounts Groucho triumphantly, “it was my turn to smile faintly.” Suddenly they are like two characters in a play co-written by Samuel Beckett and Neil Simon.
The conversation limps along, Groucho insisting that Lear was an idiot, while Eliot segues into an inquiry about “Duck Soup”. Dinner is then served, which “included good, solid English beef, very well prepared”. Groucho finishes on a note of sincerity: Eliot “is a dear man and a charming host”. Though a butler was present, Eliot had insisted on pouring the wine himself, “and no maitre d’ could have served it more graciously.”
Clearly the two men found a mesmerising bond in each other’s very alienness. That is not so surprising when you think about it. They had both, in their ways, spent their lives following Edgar’s brave, if dangerous, exhortation at the end of “King Lear” to: “Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.” Or as Groucho famously put it—and it could serve as an epigraph to “The Waste Land”—“Whatever it is, I’m against it.” It takes one strange god to know another.
Lee Siegel is the author of a book on Groucho Marx published by Yale University Press in its "Jewish Lives" series