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Getting To Know Groucho—And His Brothers—book reviews

Getting To Know Groucho—And His Brothers—book reviews

I avoided reading Steve Stoliar’s Raised Eyebrows: My Years Inside Groucho’s House when it was first published in 1996 because I didn’t want to learn about an aging, diminished Groucho Marx, and I wasn’t interested in rehashing the exploits of Erin Fleming, the controversial woman who took control of the comedian’s life.

Now that I’ve read Stoliar’s updated edition of the book, published by BearManor Media, with an evocative cover illustration by Drew Friedman, I realize that my fears were unfounded. Groucho never had a more devoted fan, and this book documents his extraordinary experiences as the comedian’s latter-day secretary and archivist.

Stoliar has no axes to grind. That’s why the first edition of his book earned him the gratitude and praise of Groucho’s daughters, who appreciate his straightforward account of life in the Marx household during the mid-1970s. Woody Allen, no less, calls it “one of the best books about a show business icon I’ve ever read.”

Fleming hired him after he and some fellow UCLA students mounted a successful campaign to get Universal Pictures to reissue the Marx Brothers comedy Animal Crackers. He won her trust, and Groucho’s, and became such an active part of the comedian’s Beverly Hills household that he even got to meet Zeppo and Gummo Marx, and many of Groucho’s illustrious friends, from George Burns to S.J. Perelman and Nunnally Johnson. He describes some of his more memorable encounters in loving detail, and explains how he answered Groucho’s fan mail and took dictation from time to time. Even when Stoliar thought the comic’s mind had clouded over, Groucho could occasionally summon the energy and wit to compose some delightfully funny letters.

Stoliar provides us with a diary of life in the Marx orbit as his comedic hero dealt with the indignities of old age, and the vicissitudes of his would-be protector, the volatile Fleming. (The author doesn’t portray her as a villain, explaining that she did him a great deal of good at different times, but as time went on her behavior became increasingly erratic and counterproductive.)

I’m sure some fans will feel the way I did back in 1996 and would rather remember Groucho Marx at the peak of his powers. All I can say is that I found this book surprisingly involving. Perhaps as I’ve grown older, and had somewhat similar experiences watching some of my heroes age, I have more empathy than I did sixteen years ago.

The year 1996 also saw the publication of The Marx Brothers Encyclopedia by British comedy expert and scholar Glenn Mitchell. I was pleased to provide a foreword to this fine reference guide, and now I’m happy to report that Titan Books has released a revised and expanded edition. Here you will find entries on each of the Brothers’ vaudeville acts, Broadway shows, and famous films, most of their collaborators on and off-screen (from Margaret Dumont to Irving Thalberg), as well as entries on such varied subjects as wigs, continuity errors, working titles, deleted scenes, the harp, impersonators, and documentaries about the brothers. Extensively illustrated and featuring many rare photos and vintage advertisements, The Marx Brothers Encyclopedia is a handy fingertip guide for all things Marxian. The discovery of color footage shot on the set of Animal Crackers and snippets of long-missing scenes from A Night at the Opera are just a few of the newly-minted nuggets Mitchell has added to his original volume. Even if you think you know everything there is to know about the Marxes, you’ll enjoy browsing through this thick paperback, as I did, dipping into various entries, and admiring the illustrations. Nice work!

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