All Male Cats Are Named Tom: Or, the Uneasy Symbiosis between T. S. Eliot and Groucho Marx is by Ed Simon, Editor-at-Large for The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books. It appears in JSTOR Daily.
T. S. Eliot and Groucho Marx
“In 1961 a letter with a Royal Mail postmark arrived at 1083 North Hillcrest Road, Beverly Hills. Fan mail sent to this modernist estate amidst the California scrub were not uncommon. After all, it was the home of Julius “Groucho” Marx, the visionary leader of the fraternal comedic group. This particular note had a return address of 3 Kensington Court Gardens, a continent and an ocean away.
Groucho Marx had no shortage of fans, as the Marx Brothers revolutionized American comedy in films such as Duck Soup, A Night at the Opera, and, notably, Horse Feathers, in which Groucho plays a college dean, with the mockingly patrician name Quincy Adams Wagstaff. Overseeing an assemblage of pompous, mortar-boarded, gown-wearing academics who dance and sing, Wagstaff says “I don’t know what they have to say/It makes no difference anyway.” It’s an “anarchic expression of distrust of any form of social or political organization,” according to Leonard Helfgott in an essay from Jews and Humor, and shows exactly how the Brothers went about their business of puncturing pretension.
“Leading this anarchic charge was Groucho, with his thick greasepaint mustache and arched eyebrows, rolling his eyes inside wire-rimmed glasses, a cigar perennially hanging from a mocking smile. Marx presented an enduringly influential and endearingly archetypal Jewish trickster character. It was this persona the letter-writer wanted captured in an autographed photo. Groucho instead sent a standard headshot absent the iconic costume. Nevertheless, the fan hung the picture in his Victorian townhouse alongside, he later wrote, “other famous friends such as W. B. Yeats.”
“So began the unexpected and contentious relationship between Groucho Marx and T. S. Eliot, a Nobel Prize-winner who revolutionized poetry, as Groucho had humor…”
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