Stefan Kanfer is the author of a number of acclaimed books, including one on the history of animated cartoons. A former writer and editor at Time, he has been the recipient of numerous awards for his writing. He lives in New York and on Cape Cod.
A conversation with Stefan Kanfer, author of Groucho: The Life and Times of Julius Henry Marx, in which he reveals, among other things, why he feels Groucho's humour has endured for so long, what makes this book different from others written on the subject and what obstacles he had to overcome while writing the book …
Why did you write
I suppose I have been obsessed with Groucho Marx since childhood. My parents were fans, and they took me to Marx Bros. Festivals at the Museum of Modern Art and other arenas, and the day when Chico prepared to play and Groucho addressed the screen: "I have to stay here, but you can go out in the lobby and get some popcorn," I thought he was talking directly to me. I still think so sometimes.
The chief obstacle was not the family, to my surprise, but the mists of history. Many of Groucho's contemporaries were of very advanced age, and they related anecdotes that varied with telling, or contradicted each other or the written record. So I had to search old, yellowing periodicals, ancient reviews of the act when the Marxes were kids, letters Groucho wrote to his doctor, scrapbooks etc. For this I relied on the vast archives of Popular Art at the Sterling Library at Yale, the Lincoln Center Library of the Performing Arts in New York, the Library of Congress and many other repositories scattered throughout the country-but mainly in Groucho's towns, New York and Los Angeles.Why do you think Groucho's form of comic relief has endured for so many years?
Groucho's comedy endures because he dares to articulate what the rest of us are either too polite or too intimidated to say. His headlong attacks on the medical establishment, the academy, high society, and politics etc. are timeless because, one way or another, these institutions endure and so do the frustrations they cause. He is our primary comic representative against the stuffy, the pretentious and the tyrannical.As an admirer of Groucho's work, was it hard to separate his private and public persona and look at them objectively when writing the book?
I had no trouble separating the private and public Groucho; rare is the performer - particularly the comic performer - who has orderly offstage life. The comedian usually has the same troubles the rest of us do, only more so. The difference is that he tends to pick up his travails from the wrong end, making the process amusing for outsiders.Were you surprised at anything you uncovered about Groucho?
What surprised me most was Groucho's intelligence. Although most of his funny lines were of course scripted by brilliant comedy writers - S. J Perelman, George S Kaufman, Morrie Ryskind etc. - marx was a truly witty many off screen and offstage, and someone who kept trying to improve himself until he was over 80, reading the books, and giving himself the education he was denied when his mother, Minnie, took him out of school and pushed him onstage, when he was barely 13.Groucho has been in vaudeville, the theatre, on screen and TV. Is he on the internet?
There are at least five Web sites dedicated to Groucho, many of them full of inaccuracies and misquotes, but nonetheless appreciative of the man's comic art and originality. Eventually Groucho can adapt to any medium, no matter how new.What is your favourite Marx Brothers movie or line?
My favourite movie is Duck Soup, my favourite line was one he wrote himself: "Outside of a dog, a book is a man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read."What sets your book apart from previous works written about Groucho and the Marx Brothers?
There are not very many books about the Marx Bros. And most of them have been out of print for decades. Some try to be funnier than Groucho - always a mistake - and others are incomplete. None have so thoroughly analyzed the man's comic techniques, traced his influence on the next generation of comedians, taken so close a look at his marriages and liaisons, and gone into the painful but fascinating lawsuit between his children and Erin Fleming, Groucho's last female companion, for his estate.Throughout the book, you include script dialogue from various Marx Brothers movies. Why?
I included long passages from the films to show how Groucho's comedy works: it's the literary equivalent of an anatomy chart.Are you concerned that by revealing some of the truths about Grouchos' personal/private life that his iconic image will be changed for some who have idealized him for so many years?
In a day when scandal is printed on the front page of the New York Times, I doubt that anyone can be shocked by human lapses, or that Groucho's greasepaint moustache, claw-hammer coat, fluid slouch and rapid-fire delivery will seem any less comic because he drove all three of his wives to substance abuse.What is next on the horizon for you?
The arena of vaudeville, the base from which Groucho made his extraordinary and unprecedented climb, will be the focus of my next book. More than that, I can't yet reveal.