Friday, August 15, 2014


Dedicated to my friend,
the incredibly talented Frank Ferrante,
who brings Groucho back to life in his performances

For as long as I can remember I have loved the comedian, humorist and writer Groucho Marx [pictured] and his movies, TV shows, and writings.

Groucho, who was Jewish, was not into formal, institutional religion---'organized religion is hogwash,' he was heard to say more than once---but he did start attending services at a Reform synagogue, Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, in the final years of his life. It seems, however, that his attendances at the temple were largely to please his then secretary and companion, the controversial Erin Fleming, who had converted to Judaism. None of Groucho's three wives were Jewish, nor was he ever married by a rabbi. And he sent none of his three children to schul or, to my knowledge, Jewish schools. But he was certainly not anti-Semitic or a self-loathing Jew of whom there are more than a few these days.

Groucho would occasionally attend or even hold a Pesach [Passover] Seder but his attitude toward the matter was largely indifferent. For example, when asked to attend one such Seder he said, 'I went to a Seder last year, and it's the same material.' That was Groucho. As Groucho saw it, being an observant Jew meant being a conformist, and that was something Groucho simply couldn't, or rather wouldn't, be.

The truth is Groucho hated institutions of all kinds. For example, the thrice married Groucho, forever the satirist, had this to say about marriage: ‘Marriage is a fine, upstanding institution, but who wants to live in an institution?’ That is what he thought of institutions. As for his three marriages and three divorces, he quipped, 'Take the wives out of marriage and there wouldn't be any divorces ... In union there is alimony.'

Groucho was a realist and cynic---the 'high priest of rationalism' in the words of famed humorist, academic and writer Leo Rosten. ‘I’m the brash, realistic type,’ he once said. 'Whatever it is, I'm against it.' Of that there was no doubt.

A number of persons, including his son Arthur and the actor Stanley Holloway (with whom Groucho starred in a 1960 Bell Telephone Hour television production of The Mikado), have written that Groucho was an agnostic. On one occasion, when speaking about his father Sam, Groucho said, ‘Sam was a great cook. He could convert leftovers into something fit for the gods, assuming there are any left.’ And he had this to say about the last film in which he appeared [see image below]: ‘In my last film [Skidoo] I played God. Jesus, I hope God doesn’t look like that.’ (By the way, lest there be any confusion on the matter, the character 'God' that Groucho played in that 1968 film---a film which at the time it was released was a bomb but which has since acquired quite a cult following---was a top mobster who lives on a yacht in international waters and gives orders to have people liquidated.)

If there's any doubt about what Groucho thought of organized religion, there's this priceless gem:

I was in Montreal and a priest came up to me, put out his hand, and said, 'I want to thank you for all the joy you've put into this world.' And I shook his hand, and said, 'And I want to thank you for all the joy you've taken out of this world.' He said, 'Could I use that next Sunday in my sermon?' I said, 'Yes you can, but you'll have to pay the William Morris office ten per cent.'

Although not formally religious Groucho did identify very closely with the Jewish people and during his long lifetime he donated generously to a number of Jewish charities and causes. He was also the victim of anti-Semitism. He would often recall the time when a country club manager told him he couldn't use the swimming pool. His reply has made it into countless books of quotations. ‘Since my daughter is only half-Jewish, could she go in up to her knees?’ He would also tell this one:

Two Jewish men in Israel are in adjoining urinals. One says to the other, ‘Are you Jewish?’ He says, ‘Yes.’ So the first man says, ‘How is it you’re not circumcised?’ ‘Well,’ says the other guy, ‘I’m not sure I’m going to stay.’

Groucho would tell a lot of jokes about being Jewish. Here's another one:

Two men--one a hunchback--were passing a synagogue. One of them turns to the other and says, ‘You know, I used to be a Jew.’ And the other says, ‘Really? I used to be a hunchback.’

Groucho certainly did not believe in an afterlife. ‘You only live once, despite what Jesus or somebody said … Go out to the garden and tear a flower in four. It won’t be a flower again.’ He said that in a 1969 New York Times interview. A few years later he was asked by Bill Cosby whether he believed in life after death---this was in 1973 when Groucho appeared on Bill’s TV show---and this was Groucho’s reply: ‘I’m beginning to have serious doubts about life before death.’ Love it. Then there’s this whimsical quip: ‘Someday we’ll meet in Heaven. New York. Or Philadelphia.’ 

Occasionally Groucho would undisparagingly use religious language, more so in his later years. For example, in his book The GrouchoPhile, published in 1976, Groucho had this to say about his brother Chico:

Chico was a rogue and a scamp. Had the Lord spared him and allowed him a few more years, he wouldn’t have changed. I can imagine that after being rescued from death’s door, he would look God straight in the eye and ask, ‘What odds will You give me on another ten years?’

I’m sure Groucho did not pray in any traditional way, despite once having asked, somewhat facetiously it seems, his eldest daughter Miriam to pray for the success of a certain Broadway show written by some friends of his. However, he did write this in his 1976 book The Secret Word is Groucho:

There’s a prayer of sorts I recite to myself every night. I don’t know where it comes from, but it’s me: ‘Unborn tomorrow, and dead yesterday, why fret about them if today be sweet?’

Well, I do know where that ‘prayer of sorts’ comes from. It’s from the The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. (I've written a post on that one.)

On another occasion Groucho expressed it this way. ‘Yesterday is dead, tomorrow hasn’t arrived yet. I have just one day, and I’m going to be happy in it.’ On yet another occasion he expanded on the same theme:

Each morning, when I open my eyes, I say to myself I, not events, have the power to make me happy or unhappy today. I can choose which it shall be. Yesterday is dead. Tomorrow hasn't arrived yet. I have just one day, today, and I’m going to be happy in it.

As for the past, it was a case of letting the past stay in the past, which is very wise. So many people can't do that. Anyway, Groucho expressed it this way in a letter that he wrote to his daughter Miriam in 1954:

There’s an old saying, ‘Let the dead past bury its dead,’ and I am a firm believer in never looking backward. There are too many horrifying things lurking there.

But here's a paradox. Groucho once penned a magazine article---one of many---entitled 'Bad Days are Good Memories,' in which he wrote that the memory of a dreadful, miserable experience can be a happy one. Yes, a happy one. The memory in question---his 'happiest memory,' he said---was when he was a boy actor, stranded in Colorado, hungry and broke. Not only that, but ...

For me, a happy experience does not necessarily mean a happy memory. On the contrary, I am sometimes jealous of my past.

If you think about that for a while it kinda makes sense. 

The 'secret' of life, said Groucho elsewhere, is to stay happy ... and have fun. As Groucho put it, ‘If you're not having fun, you're doing something wrong.’ So, if you are not having fun, look within to find out what needs changing ... in you. Ditto me. (It was only during Groucho's last hospitalization in mid-1977, having already endured several strokes, a major heart attack, a broken hip, respiratory problems, and various other maladies, that he was heard to say plaintively to his literary collaborator and biographer Hector Arce, 'This is no way to live.')

Groucho once told the veteran showbiz writer and celebrity interviewer Pete Martin that he got the advice about choosing to be happy one day at a time from a 100-year old man who appeared on Groucho’s TV show You Bet Your Life. It’s damn good advice. No matter what happens to us in life, we all have choices. We can always choose how to respond to what happens. As Groucho expressed it:

When we get up in the morning we have two choices. We can either be happy or unhappy. We make our own choice. The more times we choose happiness the longer we’ll live.

But is that easy to sustain? No, it's not, said Groucho:

It’s hard to choose happiness when you get up in the morning with a hangover or the market has dropped down a hole and taken your lifetime savings with it.

The latter actually happened to Groucho in the stockmarket crash of 1929, so he was talking from personal experience.

You know, each of us is in the manufacturing business. We manufacture our own happiness or unhappiness every moment of every day. You determine whether you're happy, and I determine whether I'm happy. It's as simple as that. Not easy, but simple.

Groucho may not have believed in religion or the hereafter but he did believe in life---and in living fully and deeply. ‘I intend to live forever, or die trying,’ he once quipped.

He died trying. But his legacy will live on forever.

Material owned and controlled by the Estate of Groucho Marx
or other rightsholders is copyright. Fair use permitted. All rights reserved.


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