My son Toby recently alerted me to a fascinating New Yorker article on a correspondence between T. S. Eliot and Groucho Marx. Eliot was a huge fan and Groucho, somewhat flattered, eventually accepted a dinner invitation. Lee Siegel believes that, upon further scrutiny of the letters, he has uncovered a simmering tension in what he once believed to be a warm relationship.
In retrospect, there was every reason to believe that there would be tension. As Siegel notes,
Groucho, a highly cultivated man whose greatest regret in life was that he had become an entertainer rather than a literary man—he published some of his first humor pieces in the inaugural issues of this magazine—could not have been unaware of Eliot’s notorious remarks about Jews.
Groucho was a pop-culture celebrity, a child of immigrants, an abrasive, compulsively candid Jew. Eliot was a literary mandarin, the confident product of St. Louis Wasp gentry, and an elliptical Catholic royalist given to grave, decorous outbursts of anti-semitism.
I’ve quoted before Jewish poet Philip Levine’s own mixed feelings about Eliot. Even while acknowledging his admiration for Eliot, Levine sometimes quotes a line from “Gerontion”—“the jew squats on the window sill”—and follows it up with the complaint, “and the son of a bitch didn’t even capitalize ‘Jew.’”
Siegel describes Groucho wanting to have a serious intellectual discussion and Eliot not wanting his beloved film star venturing into his realm of “high culture.” Eliot might want to go slumming into Jewish vaudeville—it allowed him to feel not quite so prissy and stuck-up—but he didn’t want Jews and entertainers moving into the neighborhood.
After studying the letters, Siegel concludes that things could not possibly have gone well. (As far as Siegel can tell, the correspondence ended after the meal.) Note how, in the following interchange, Eliot comes across as a patronizing snob, triggering a very understandable fury:
Eliot seems to have wanted Groucho to consider him a warm, ordinary guy and not the type of stiff, repressed person who disdained from a great height “free-thinking Jews.” He can’t quite bring it off—his acquired British self-deprecation stumbles into an American boorishness. On the eve of Groucho’s visit to London, Eliot wrote, “The picture of you in the newspapers saying that … you have come to London to see me has greatly enhanced my credit in the neighbourhood, and particularly with the greengrocer across the street. Obviously I am now someone of importance.”
Compared to the buried anxieties that Eliot stirred in Groucho, though, Eliot’s strenuous bonhomie seemed like the height of social tact. The font of Groucho’s and the Marx Brothers’ humor was an unabashed insolence toward wealth and privilege. Born at the turn of the century to an actress mother and a layabout father in Manhattan’s Yorkville neighborhood, the brothers turned the tumult of their hardscrabble origins into a universal reproach to the rigidity of social class. The encounter with Eliot brought out Groucho’s characteristic tendency to hide his embarrassment about his origins by pushing them in his audience’s face.
The Marx Brothers were hypersensitive to the slightest prerogatives of power; a person in authority had only to raise a finger to turn them hysterical and abusive. “I decided what the hell,” Groucho said once. “I’ll give the big shots the same Groucho they saw onstage—impudent, irascible, iconoclastic.” They fought with studio bosses and alienated directors and comedy writers. The humorist S. J. Perelman found the brothers to be “megalomaniacs to a degree which is impossible to describe.” There was a tremendous release in watching them utter and enact taboos in the face of power and privilege. That sense of liberation—of something unthinkable and impossible being deliciously actualized—is what makes even their less funny movies enthralling.
In the meal, apparently, Groucho wanted to talk about King Lear and Eliot (as Groucho saw it) wanted to talk about the movies. Here’s Groucho’s account of the meal:
According to Groucho’s letter to Gummo—the only existing account of the dinner—Eliot was gracious and accommodating. Groucho, on the other hand, became fixated on “King Lear,” in which the hero, Edgar, just so happens to disguise himself as a madman named Tom. Despite Tom Eliot’s polite indifference to his fevered ideas about “Lear” (“that, too, failed to bowl over the poet,” Groucho wrote to Gummo), Groucho pushed on. Eliot, he wrote, “quoted a joke—one of mine—that I had long since forgotten. Now it was my turn to smile politely. I was not going to let anyone—not even the British poet from St. Louis—spoil my Literary Evening.” Groucho expatiated on Lear’s relationship to his daughters. Finally, Eliot “asked if I remembered the courtroom scene in Duck Soup. Fortunately I’d forgotten every word. It was obviously the end of the Literary Evening.
I would love to have heard what insights Groucho had into both Edgar and the fool, given that he plays the fool in the movies and may have seen himself as having to assume the disguise of the madman. Siegel thinks that Eliot may have appreciated some of what Groucho had to say but that Groucho couldn’t hear it:
In the trial scene in “King Lear,” Edgar/Tom protests the Fool’s own nonsense, saying, “The foul fiend haunts poor Tom in the voice of a nightingale.” Perhaps that was Eliot’s inner cry of protest at dinner, too. But Groucho was so defensive in the presence of the “British poet from St. Louis” that he seems to have missed Eliot’s subtle homage to his intellect. Groucho still could not shake the primal shame that was the goad of his comic art as well as the source of his self-protective egotism.
If I understand Siegel’s point, he is suggesting that Eliot is signaling to Groucho that he is already a genius but that Groucho can only hear a putdown.
I don’t blame the defensive Groucho for having misunderstood, given the messenger. In some ways, Eliot shares something with Margaret Dumont in Night at the Opera, who aspires for the respectability of the opera. To be sure, Eliot genuinely understood high culture. But his longing for upper class British status had to have rubbed Groucho the wrong way.
As I think about it, both Eliot and Groucho can be seen as reacting to modernism, only in different ways. For Eliot there is a nostalgia for a lost order so that the tone of the Wasteland is both elegiac and despairing. But the stress of upholding the ideals of high civilization was so draining that, for comic relief, he turned to the dark Jewish humor. As the despised Jew, meanwhile, Groucho had no reason to be nostalgic for high Western ideals—Tudor England, for instance, banished all Jews—and so responded to the world falling apart with a cynical humor that dismantled every institution. Duck Soup was too much for many people in 1933 but Eliot got it.