Chapter One: "Hello, I must be going"
Groucho did not grow old gracefully, because there is no such thing. It was an indignity with which he lived, with the greatest dignity possible. "Growing old is what you do if you are lucky," he said, and though any decline was a constant offense to his pride, Groucho mustered all his strength for what in the end had to be a losing battle.
The Groucho legend, however, didn't age; it was frozen in time. The Duck Soup Groucho was expected by some; others expected to find the You Bet Your Life Groucho. After one of his jokes you could hear echoes of "He's the same, he's the same as ever!" People didn't want to see their idol fall. If Groucho was aging, so were they someone else's old age is a threat to one's own immortality. Time may pass for them as it does for other mortals, but they are shocked to find that it also passes for an immortal of the silver screen and the video tube. Captain Jeffrey T. Spaulding, Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff, Impresario Otis B. Driftwood, and Dr. Hugo Z. Hackenbush are ageless, but Groucho was in his eighties.
In his daily life, the most difficult competition Groucho had to face was competition from his younger self. His professional appearances, though happening until shortly before his death, were constantly diminishing in number to avoid growing old in technicolor close-ups, and because growing old isn't funny.
Groucho had a perspective different from those of most of his friends, since virtually none of them had ever been that close to a century old. Health and survival became what was important. He gave the highest priority to remaining able-minded. "I want to go on as long as I can, as long as I'm in good shape, especially mentally." But he did not find the rigors of growing old or the supposed secrets of longevity to be a diverting topic of discussion.
"Age isn't very interesting to talk about. Anyone can get old. Everybody gets older, if you live long enough."
In answer to Jack Nicholson's "How old are you, Grouch?" he raised his eyebrows and said, "It's not how old I am, it's how I'm old."
During Groucho's last visit to New York City, Betty Comden, Adolph Green, and Penelope Gilliatt joined Groucho and me for lunch in his suite at the Sherry Netherland Hotel. We gathered in a football huddle in the living room, glasses in hand. Groucho raised his glass of tomato juice in a toast and said, "To health. That's all there is." Mystified, Betty pondered the toast. "Is that all there is?" she asked. Groucho shrugged and said, "Vay iz mir." Adolph translated: "That means 'Woe is me.' What kind of a toast is that?" Groucho didn't even try to explain that for him the greatest luxury in life was being able to take good health for granted.
While we were having dinner before going to see Juno and the Paycock, Billy Marx, Harpo's adopted son, asked Groucho what was the most exciting thing that ever happened to him.
"The most exciting thing that ever happened to me was when my doctor said I was good and healthy."
"I mean in show business, Groucho," Billy persisted.
"I was in show business when the doctor said that."
He also tried to explain his feelings to virile young friend Jack Nicholson, who couldn't really put himself in Groucho's house slippers:
We ought to be goin' around the town together, Grouch. We'd have some time!
You reach a certain age, and you don't care about sex anymore. You just care about health.
There has to be more than that. You can still always do something. You can just lay around and...
This conversation was interrupted by the entrance of nurse "Happy," whom Groucho always described as "the only woman who can put me to sleep." He was referring to her tickling of his feet, a minor passion of his, "one of the few I can still satisfy." He added wistfully, "That wasn't the way it always was. But when a guy is eighty-three, he should forget the whole thing. I know if I do it, it's going to be lousy, so why cheapen myself? It doesn't depress me. I know I can't do it properly anymore; if I could, I'd still be doing it. I've talked to a lot of guys who are seventy-eight, seventy-nine, and they all say it's hopeless. When you can't get it up anymore, you should quit. When a guy is eighty years old or thereabouts, he should read a book."
Is there anything in your life you would do differently?
I wish I were young enough to make the same mistakes all over again.
But isn't there something you would do if you had your life to live all over again?
I'd try more positions.
Animal Crackers had not been shown in theatres for more than twenty years when Groucho obtained a print and screened it at home for us. Mike Nichols and Jack Nicholson were invited for the event, and they clearly thought the film was great. Jack was particularly impressed by Groucho's dance. "I'd sure like to be able to do that," he told Groucho. "It must be really difficult to get it just the way you did it." Groucho said, "I'll give you lessons."
The next day, Jack appeared for his lesson. Groucho got up and did the dance, but it was a pale reflection of his 1930 performance. Jack looked momentarily stunned, and Groucho was angry at himself for not being the man he had been. Then the moment passed and the conversation turned to other topics.
Jack Nicholson, who was born almost a decade after Groucho danced that dance perhaps even after Groucho had already forgotten it had not fully appreciated the interval of time that had elapsed between the 1930 performance and the 1973 performance and neither had Groucho. On the screen the performers remain unchanged over the decades. The motion picture can be rather frightening for the performer who is able to watch his own wide-screen wrinkles appear. When Jack had left, Groucho told me, "I hope I look that good when I'm his age."
In 1974 Groucho returned to New York for the opening of Animal Crackers, and Doubleday Editor Ken McCormick asked him, "What do you find most changed, Groucho?" He replied, "Me, I'm eighty-three." At his Carnegie Hall appearance in New York, Groucho summed it up: "I come from a world that doesn't exist anymore, and hardly do I."
Groucho was fortunate that his character was never extreme youth. Who's ever heard of a youthful lecher? He never had to face the trauma that confronts the motion picture ingenue. The Groucho character was middle-aged in his earliest films and remained so for a very long time. He was, in fact, still readily recognizable in his middle eighties, as one learned on even the shortest saunter down any street with him. Harpo's innocence was like that of a child who was never supposed to grow up, let alone grow old, while Groucho, who wooed dowager Margaret Dumont or soubrette Thelma Todd, didn't have to contend with losing his youth. He could still joke about it. "My youth is slipping," he said. "Someone should tell him to be more careful."
There were those who felt that any public appearances by Groucho in his eighties should be curtailed or better yet, curtained. They felt that his forays into the world of show business were destroying the myth of a Groucho Marx who should not grow old in the glare of the klieg lights. It is part of the limitation of the human condition that the mystique of glamour and the mistake of excessive accessibility have enough difficulty coexisting without the complication of aging.
For Groucho, the important day of his life was today, and he loved playing himself. As the years ahead grew shorter, the tributes grew longer, but he was not ready to be enshrined. "I don't want to be put in a case in a museum like Harpo's harp." As for his fans, some of them young enough to be his great-grandchildren, the thrill of Groucho in his eighties was still a thrill, even if especially if the name he mischievously signed in the autograph book was "Mary Pickford," which he did on occasion.
As one grows older, one is constantly losing illusions, learning that the "real" Santa Claus is working for the Salvation Army and Macy's at the same time, and that romantic, true, and perfect love rarely ages as well as cognac. But Groucho managed to remain at least somewhat illusioned in the face of disillusioning realities. Life itself, after a certain point, operates under a law of diminishing returns, and eighty-five-year-old optimism is rarer than twenty-one-year-old optimism or even seventy-five-year-old optimism.
Was it a hard life in the early days when the Marx Brothers didn't get much money, had to travel all the time living in rooming houses, eating chili every day?
Well, I was young. And there's no hard life when you're young. Everything is easy.
Yes, but unfortunately, when you're young, you may not realize that.
Yeah. You don't know it, so it seems hard. But when you're young, you're not afraid. You don't know any better.
Then Groucho put his finger on what was different for him about being old: "Everything comes harder. You have to concentrate to do what you didn't have to think about before. You can't take things for granted. You can't even take salt for granted."
Having dinner with Jack Nicholson, Groucho suggested to him, "Maybe you should stop using salt while you're still young, so you won't miss it when you have to give it up. I don't use salt, I don't drink now, and I don't smoke.
"I used to be crazy about Somerset Maugham. He lived to be about ninety years old. He still smoked cigarettes. The doctor said, 'You ought to quit. You'll die if you don't quit smoking.' And Maugham said, 'What can you give me to replace it?' The doctor went home in a huff. He was driving a blue Huff at the time."
Happiness consists largely in the ability to live each day without too great an awareness of the passing of time. The ability to be oblivious to the passing of time is one of the greatest luxuries of youth, but Groucho in his eighties still had that casualness about time which allowed him to waste it in nonconstructive pursuits without feelings of pressure or guilt. "I take one day at a time. And I won't put it back."
Another aspect of happiness is the ability to reconcile one's hopes-and-dreams world with the real world. Groucho had made his peace with what he was and what he had. "Getting old is what hurts. After you get there, you're glad to wake up in the morning." He was a realist, if a romantic realist. He accepted the natural law of diminishing returns not as a situation tragedy but as his due "for having too many birthdays." He had the satisfaction of being able to answer "Groucho Marx" to the question "Who would you like to have been?"
Groucho was the first to recognize that he was not the man he used to be:
"I called my tailor, and a girl answered. I said, 'This is Groucho Marx,' and she said, 'You're foolin' me. He's dead.' And she was right."
When I asked Groucho, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" he responded soberly, "I'm growing down."
Nothing made Groucho unhappier than when a young woman held a door open for him, unless it was when an old woman held a door open for him.
Groucho was well aware that old age is not the ideal state, only the best of all possible choices. He read to me the words Vincente Minnelli had written in the front of a book he had given Groucho:
"'To the greatest comedian alive,'" then Groucho paused and added, "Only he was wrong. I'm not alive."
Groucho sometimes told a story about a baseball game between two vaudeville teams. He and Will Rogers were on opposing sides. When Groucho tried to steal second base, the catcher threw to second-baseman Will Rogers, who yelled, "You're out!"
"But you're ten feet off second base," Groucho protested.
"Groucho, at my age wherever you stand is second base," Will Rogers explained.
Old age can be like the tortures of Tantalus. The fruit is still there, but not only is it out of one's grasp, one may no longer care about grasping it. Groucho still cared.
Although it is common for older people to begin liquidating their estates in advance, Groucho eagerly continued to acquire possessions and enjoy them. His inanimate world as well as his animated world was not in a state of diminution. Going through several books every week, he remained an avid reader, able to be alone without being lonely. He practiced his guitar, still taking frivolity seriously. He continued trying to improve himself, even while all the forces of nature were at work against him. True old age commences with the feeling there is nothing to look forward to; Groucho was still looking forward.
His detailed accounts of long ago never ceased to amaze friends like Elliott Gould, George Segal, Jack Lemmon, and Dinah Shore. Inability to remember is sometimes associated with aging. Those who think that way fail to take into consideration how much there is to remember when you're past eighty-five. Young people just don't have as much to remember. Groucho would be asked by a fan, "How did you feel before the battle scene in Duck Soup?" He answered, "Geez, that was a thousand years ago." Or, "That was 1933. It's almost fifty years ago. I don't remember everything."
It's true that most people aren't expected to remember their lives in infinite detail, as was Groucho. But the advantages of being Groucho Marx outweighed any disadvantages. At least people did want to know about his life, and most people never have that kind of experience. Memory is capricious rather than pragmatic. We don't choose what we remember, it chooses us.
You remember the damnedest things.
You've lived such a long life, does that boy Julius Marx on Ninety-third Street ever seem like another person, a stranger to you now?
You've seen the pictures. Don't you think I've changed?
I mean on the inside.
I don't know. No, I guess I'm the same, only older.
Everyone has problems, and how people deal with their problems reveals a great deal about their personalities. There may even be a basic human need for problems, since anyone so fortunate as to be temporarily without any will probably hurriedly create some. One is fortunate when the little things seem very big Groucho was still worrying about little things.
There are problems you can solve and problems you cannot solve. Groucho recognized the importance of cutting his losses and not throwing good time after bad. Even though old age is a condition that is difficult to accept as well as being a disability from which one cannot look forward to a recovery, he didn't consume his energies, efforts, and time in useless pondering, complaints, and regrets.
In old age, the questions often become more important than the answers. One learns more than one might wish to know of problems about which one would rather remain in total ignorance, and one is constantly reminded of one's own vulnerability. Groucho told me, "When you're eighty-five, you've learned how to live with things you don't want and how to shut the door." He had learned to sweep those problems that have no solution under a wall-to-wall carpet. Old age was for him that kind of problem.
Goddard Lieberson, whose friendship with Groucho went back thirty years, remembered a younger Groucho who was so healthy that he would notice any insignificant ache and complain about it. "But now," Goddard noted, "when I say, 'How are you, Groucho?' he says, 'Fine,' and never complains about anything."
Old age is like taking out one consolidated loan to pay off all of your debts. The debts don't disappear, but all of the problems are wrapped up in one not so neat package. Old age is a problem so complete, so all-encompassing, so totally pervasive, so insurmountable in any desirable way, that it distracts from all others.
Perhaps the single quality that Groucho most valued and respected in a man was strength. In his middle eighties, he was leaned on by a great many people, but he didn't like to lean himself. Norman Krasna said of his longtime friend, "Groucho is not a complainer. He had so many years of terrible family problems, but he always went onstage funny." The Groucho I knew always went on funny, and his stage was his daily life.
When a person reaches a certain age, he is expected to assume the role of an old person. He is beseeched to rest, almost as if in rehearsal for that final inevitable rest. "Act your age," a young world admonishes, when there's no fun in that. Groucho chose to put up a fight.
Early in life he learned that life is a battlefield, and that for every winner there are lots of losers. Thus he was careful never to go forth into the arena or the one-liner's den with his suit of armor askew. And always emblazoned on the breastplate was "Tell 'em Groucho sent you."
On the theory that the best defense is a good offense, Groucho got in the first blow, and he could on occasion be somewhat offensive. Most people, however, would rather have received an insult from Groucho than a compliment from anybody else. He was considered by those who didn't like him (and even Groucho had a few of those one may measure one's success by appraising one's enemies) to be selfish. What he did have was a highly developed sense of self, which is not to be confused with selfishness.
People are born with an undamaged self-esteem which is constantly under assault from that first jarring slap on the back. We are born liking ourselves; Groucho continued to do so. Headstrong, headlong, he loped through life, his self-confidence unshaken, through turbulence and turmoil unperturbed. He didn't break the rules: he ignored their existence. He remained never self-conscious, but calmly conscious of self.
Groucho avoided ruts, accepting routine but not acting from force of habit, remaining predictably unpredictable.
Well into his eighties, Groucho still eschewed conformity:
"It's a good idea not to live your life just to please others. You don't please yourself, and you end up not pleasing anyone else. But if you please yourself, maybe you'll please someone else."
A waiter at Hillcrest Country Club in Beverly Hills greeted Groucho with, "How do you feel, Mr. Marx? You look younger." Groucho responded, "I'm getting younger. Next year I'll be eighty-three. And the next year I'll be eighty-two."
One day, having lunch at Hillcrest with Groucho, we were joined by George Jessel. Their conversation stopped in midsentence as Adolph Zukor, then well past one hundred, was wheeled by.
George Jessel It's good to be alive.
I don't want to live that long. I took her (Indicating me) to see Durante the other day. I sang for him and he liked it. I asked him, "How's Mrs. Calabash?"
I hear he's not so good.
He'll never work again.
Once I asked Groucho, "In your many years of experience, what have you learned that you would like to share? Do you have any advice to offer?" He shared with me the benefit of his wisdom: "Never sit down at a party because you may have somebody sitting next to you that you don't like."
Groucho didn't like to have anyone he cared about say goodbye to him. "Never say goodbye," he admonished friends.
Though in attendance at Jack Benny's funeral, Groucho assiduously avoided funerals. He just had been to too many. Looking through his address book and seeing all of the people who, though he didn't cross them out, could no longer be reached was a traumatic experience. He said about George S. Kaufman, "I still never get used to his being gone." The death of friend Harry Ruby deeply saddened Groucho, as did the hospital visits to Arthur Sheekman visits which he continued to make regularly.
Groucho told me, "I'm still alive. That's about it."
He was less than impressed by one well-meaning fan's admonition "Don't die just keep on living." Dismissing it peremptorily, Groucho said, "Some line."
He once discussed life and death with Woody Allen:
I'm still alive.
How do we know that?
I can tell when I get up in the morning. If I don't get up, that means I'm dead.
Groucho liked to quote Woody's line which was one of his favorites: "I don't mind dying. I just don't want to be there when it happens."
One day grandson Andy rushed in and told us that he'd been to a hilarious film. Laughing at the very memory of it, Andy said, "I died laughing."
"If you've gotta go, that's the way to go," Groucho commented soberly. "You know, I have a friend who works for an organization that tries to prevent people from committing suicide. If you want to kill yourself, you call this man up. He'll do it for you."
As Groucho left Chasen's after dinner with Minnie's Boys' producer, Arthur Whitelaw, a solicitous captain rushed anxiously after us, mother- hen-like cautioning Groucho, "Careful, Mr. Marx! Careful!" His tone implied that Groucho was not just less than agile, but as helpless as a very small child. The patronizing manner was not lost on Groucho. Stooping over and putting his hand on his back, he began walking in a bent-over posture that would have been appropriate to the oldest man in the world. As he creaked along, he made low groaning sounds and cackled like one of Macbeth's witches, repeating, "I'm an old man, I'm an old man."
The captain, failing to take the hint, added, "Watch the step, Mr. Marx!" Groucho instantly froze, his stare fastened on the steps. The parking attendant arrived with his Mercedes and announced, "Your car, Mr. Marx."
Groucho responded without unriveting his gaze, "I'm watching the step."
Once when Groucho talked with me about being old, he said, "I don't mind it if I can work." As for his total retirement from show business, Groucho said when he was eighty-four, "I'm not gonna retire, I'd like to die right onstage. That would be the way to go, right onstage." He added to that sober thought, "But I don't plan on dying at all."
In Animal Crackers, Mrs. Rittenhouse pleads with Captain Spaulding to stay, and Groucho answers:
Hello, I must be going. I cannot stay, I came to say I must be going. I'm glad I came, but just the same, I must be going.
For my sake you must stay. If you should go away, you'd spoil this party I am throwing.
I'll stay a week or two, I'll stay the summer through, but I am telling you, I must be going.
And without Groucho, the party never can be the same.
Copyright © 1978 by Doubleday & Company
Copyright renewed © 2006 by Doubleday & Company
Introduction copyright © 1992 by Bill Cosby
Preface copyright © 2007 by Charlotte Chandler