June 3: On this day in 1964, T. S. Eliot wrote to Groucho Marx to confirm that a car would be waiting at the Savoy to pick “you and Mrs. Groucho” up for dinner. Eliot also noted that Groucho’s announcement of having “come to London to see me has greatly enhanced my credit in the neighbourhood, and particularly with the green grocer across the street.” Eliot had begun corresponding with Marx several years earlier, having first sent a fan letter saying how much he enjoyed his movies. They exchanged photographs—Eliot had to ask for a second of Groucho as his first one had no cigar—and over several years tried to arrange dinner. Their letters show an increasing familiarity, though perhaps more on Groucho’s part. In one letter he says that he has just finished his latest opus, Memoirs of a Mangy Lover: “I doubt whether it will live through the ages, but if you are in a sexy mood the night you read it, it may stimulate you beyond recognition…. I would be interested in reading your views on sex, so don’t hesitate. Confide in me.”
The much-postponed event took place just seven months before Eliot’s death at the age of seventy-six. In a letter afterwards to Gummo, Groucho describes finding his “celebrated pen pal” to be “a dear man and a charming host,” though the evening not quite the literary event he’d imagined:
During the week I had 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. Well, sir, as the cocktails were served, there was a momentary lull—the kind that is more or less inevitable when strangers meet for the first time. So, apropos of practically nothing (and not with a bang but a whimper) I tossed in a quotation from The Waste Land. That, I thought, will show him I’ve read a thing or two besides my press notices from Vaudeville. Eliot smiled faintly—as though to say he was thoroughly familiar with his poems and didn’t need me to recite them. So I took a whack at King Lear…. That too failed to bowl over the poet. He seemed more interested in discussing Animal Crackers and A Night at the Opera. He quoted a joke—one of mine—that I had long since forgotten. Now it was my turn to smile faintly…. We didn’t stay late, for we both felt that he wasn’t up to a long evening of conversation—especially mine. Did I tell you we called him Tom?—possibly because that’s his name. I, of course, asked him to call me Tom too, but only because I loathe the name Julius.
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.