Today something I almost never do: plug a book that’s decades old (as opposed to 150 years old or new). My friend Last-Up Larry kindly gave me some used books a few months back; two were by author/journalist Charlotte Chandler (no apparent relation to Rosco W.), including 1978’s Hello I Must Be Going: Groucho and His Friends. As you can imagine, I have long since read just about every book about the Marx Brothers, singly and as a team. Somehow, though, this one seems to have fallen through the cracks. I’m pretty sure I’d not read it previously (at the very least I didn’t own it). It proved to be such a trove I wanted to recommend it to the more devoted Marxians out there who haven’t yet read it, and conversely, assist readers of that book with information about the many obscure names that Groucho and his cronies drop over the course of their interviews (and about many of the cronies themselves, who by now have also become obscure).
My main takeaway, as a major Gummo and Zeppo booster, is sheer delight in the wealth of material the book has on both brothers. I don’t know of any other book that offers as full a portrait of these seeming shadow-Marxes, so much more elusive than their vastly more famous and public brothers. There are copious anecdotes about them related by others (including countless references to Zeppo as the funniest of the brothers off screen) but there are also extended interviews, where both men opened up with a volubility I’d not encountered before. In contrast with Richard Anobile’s Marx Brothers Scrapbook, for example, in which Zeppo is downright hostile and terse, Chandler got him to spill the beans on his whole post Marx Brothers career. Logically, this was because Chandler was a classy, elegant lady, and Zeppo was a Marx Brother, which is to say, something of a wolf. For the same reason no doubt, Groucho himself (the main focus of the book) and his live-in paramour/manager/assistant Erin Fleming both also seem on their best behavior (in stark contrast to the snapshot we get of Groucho in the Anobile book as a foul mouthed, dirty old man. The truth, one imagines, is probably somewhere in between. The third great portrait, covering the same years, the early 1970s is of course Steve Stoliar’s Raised Eyebrows. I recommend reading all three for the most complete picture. Three very different perspectives).
Hello, I Must Be Going was Chandler’s first show biz book, apparently assembled and rushed to market in some haste in the wake of Groucho’s and Gummo’s deaths. It feels a bit disorganized and there is some repetition of material. And a good chunk of it is presented in raw form, interviews in their entirety. But she clearly had amassed a wealth of great stuff, and thankfully she stuffs her book with it. Basically the project started with an interview with octogenarian Groucho that Chandler did for Playboy in 1971. This led to a lengthy process where Chandler spent a LOT of time with Groucho and Erin, not just at chez Groucho but also out on the town with the pair at restaurants, openings, shows, daily walks, and Groucho’s favorite hangout Hillcrest Country Club. The result is a very up-close portrait, not only of Groucho and his young minder, but of everyone he interacts with, including colleagues and family members (besides his brothers and ex-wife Eden there’s also his grandson Andy and his nephew Bill, Harpo’s adopted son).
So many names are dropped in the book, many of them of people I most definitely would have known little to nothing about prior to the vaudeville research I began in earnest about 20, 25 years ago, so I thought it would be useful to mention many of them here in case you want to learn more about them, as I have written blogposts about nearly all of them. (Just click on the links to learn more). These include bygone vaudeville acts like Frank Fay, Joe Cook, Bennie Leonard, Roger Imhof, Wilton Lackaye, Frank Crumit, Doc Rockwell, Harry Tate, Clark and McCullough, and of course the inevitable Swayne’s Rats and Cats. Naturally, better remembered vaudevillians are spoken of as well, like W.C. Fields, Ed Wynn, Eddie Cantor, Will Rogers, Charlie Chaplin, and Buster Keaton. And there are full on interviews with surviving ones like George Burns, Jack Benny, and George Jessel. Milton Berle has a cameo. Sadly, longtime Groucho crony Harry Ruby died while Chandler was researching her book (you can find a short segment with him in the Anobile book). But there’s lots with his writer and composer friends like George Seaton, Robert Pirosh, Nat Perrin, Morrie Ryskind, Arthur Sheekman, Comden and Green, Grace Kahn (widow of Gus Kahn and thus a Marx in-law), Norman Krasna, and some less intuitive but nonetheless real ones like Nunnally Johnson and Sidney Sheldon.
Billy Wilder, who came close to directing the Marxes in a couple of pictures, is interviewed. (I was particularly amused by a revelation of Groucho’s, in light of all his abuse of Robert Florey and the latter’s ostensible lack of English skills, that one of the directors he most wished he’d worked with was an even Frenchier Frenchman, Rene Clair). The great schlockmeister Irwin Allen, who produced the Marxes last film The Story of Mankind, is also on deck.
Of course, nowadays, the early 70s is every bit as “historical” as the 1930s were when I was first discovering the Marx Brothers as a kid, so a lot of the joy is also in Groucho’s interactions with friends and colleagues who came up after him, like Woody Allen, Dick Cavett, Mike Nichols, Marvin Hamlisch, Bill Cosby, Jack Nicholson, Steve Allen, Jack Lemmon, and Walter Matthau.
This is just a short list. There are probably a hundred other bold-faced names in the book. One of the book’s shortcomings, at least in the edition I have, is that it lacks an index. Boy, how I could make good use of an index to this book.
Of course there are warm recollections and stories about Harpo, Chico, their parents, Uncle Al Shean, their grandparents, and other departed relatives. Someone, maybe Groucho, makes the interesting point that Harpo’s voice didn’t match his character, thus it may have been a reason for him going mute. The usual reasons given are that he was terrified of lines, and forgot them. But here is an excellent point. As we related here, Harpo’s voice has been described (and can be heard in some short recordings) and is revealed to have been something like Chico’s, kind of raspy and deep. The contrast between that and his character would be jarring, something like the way Buster Keaton’s voice kind of disrupts his presence in talkies. But Groucho mentions a funny monologue Harpo loved doing in the act. That’s an eye-opener.
Also, there is a surprising wealth of stuff about my current city of residence, Great Neck, where Groucho and his brothers lived and partied during their years as Broadway stars. That’s always welcome. I’ve walked by the house where Groucho lived. Stay tuned for a repeat visit, available only to my Patreon Posse! And also Groucho mentions lots of famous vaudeville venues that are near and dear to my heart, such as the Palace, Henderson’s Coney Island (mentioned in this post) and Keith’s Flushing.
But honestly the chief pleasure of the book can’t be related in words, it’s in the details as these old guys talk about vaudeville and old time show biz, and the way they talk about life. At one point, George Burns is talking about death and he says “You know it’s your time to go when they knock on the door and hand you your pictures”. In vaudeville, if they fired your act, sometimes the way you found out was the stage manager would hand you back your 8 x 10 glossies from the lobby. It’s sad, but it’s romantic. And I can’t think of a better conception of heaven then an Old Actors Home in the sky. Eternity with some of these old characters? The very idea puts a smile on my face.
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To learn more about vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.