Groucho Marx Was My Favorite Hollywood Interviewee
In the early days when I was on tour with my travel films I was often interviewed by young media people. That’s nothing new to all my filmmaker colleagues out there, but for me it was an unusual role reversal from the days I did the interviewing as an Associated Press newsman and foreign correspondent.
The youngsters often wanted to know who was my favorite Hollywood interviewee. That’s easy. It was Groucho Marx.
My editor had assigned me to update the obituaries of the Marx Brothers—all the brothers. I was thrilled. As a youngster, I was crazy about the Marx Brothers’ movies, particularly their epic, A Night at the Opera, made at MGM under the guiding genius of Irving Thalberg. I always laughed longest at the scene showing this great souffle of people cascading from Groucho’s stateroom when Margaret Dumont opened the door. It’s not all that funny when I see it today. (See video clip below.)
The only brother making much news in those days was Groucho, who was starring in his own popular TV quiz show, You Bet Your Life.
My interview with Groucho was arranged by NBC, which was airing Groucho’s show. I was to meet him for lunch at Romanoff’s in Beverly Hills. “Groucho lives near by and walks to the restaurant. He won’t be interviewed anywhere else,” the flack said.
The self-styled Prince Michael Romanoff, the restaurant’s gregarious owner and host, was actually born Hershel Geguzin in Lithuania, and raised on the streets of New York City. Everyone knew his title was as phony as Groucho’s screen mustache, but his restaurant was home to Frank Sinatra, Joan Crawford, Humphrey Bogart and other big stars— one of Hollywood’s “in” places, along with Chasen’s, Perino’s and the Brown Derby.
The publicity man and I were waiting when Groucho, then 63, entered, speaking to several pals as he made his way to our booth. After introductions, he slid in beside the NBC guy, with me sitting across the table. He looked exactly as he did on television. I thought that his (real) mustache showed a little grayer in person than it did on TV.
“I always love to come here,” Groucho says, buttering a roll. “Especially when NBC pays for it. You are paying for it?” he asked the flack.
“Sure, Groucho,” smiles NBC.*
I wait until after the meal—we all had sandwiches—to start the interview in person. I never told Groucho I was collecting information for the Marx obituaries.
Once when I kept pushing for some info about his early life, Groucho said querulously, “Hey, I’m saving all that for my own autobiography.”
Indeed, he was. Groucho and Me came out the next year to great reviews.
He was born Julius Marx, the third son of a poor Alsatian immigrant tailor and the ambitious daughter of a German magician.
Groucho said his father was a rotten tailor, “You could always tell one of his suits when the wearer had one pant leg shorter than the other.”
His mother Minna—called Minny—was described by Groucho as “a sexy, young thing” who loved the theater and dedicated her life into pushing her sons into show business. Her brother, Al Shean, was half of the successful vaudeville team, Gallagher and Shean.
“If she hadn’t pushed me I’d be on relief,” Groucho said.
She also pushed Chico (Leonard) to take piano lessons, but Harpo (Arthur) learned the harp on his own. Zeppo (Herbert) was the only Marx to reach high school. Gummo (Milton) was in the brothers’ act at times, but never appeared in any movie.
The brothers toured in a number of vaudeville acts before they hit big time in Broadway musicals: I’ll Say She Is, followed by The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers. Their first film was a movie version of The Cocoanuts.
Groucho never tried to hide his love for the ladies, on or off camera. That his libido was still active was obvious during my Groucho interview when Zsa Zsa Gabor entered Romanoffs and sashayed by our booth wearing a low-cut dress that displayed her ample bosom. She smiled and said hello to Groucho, then sat at a table behind him, but facing me.
“Let’s trade seats,” Groucho suggested. Seeing my questioning look, he said. “I can’t see Zsa Zsa from where I’m sitting.”
The interview went downhill from then on as Groucho flirted outrageously with Zsa Zsa. It was hard keeping him on track.
Groucho concluded his memoir by telling the story of how a middle-aged couple stopped him as he was walking down State Street in Chicago. “You’re Groucho?”
The woman touched him timidly on his arm and said, “Please don’t die. Keep on living.”
And he and his brothers still live, especially when you see all those people falling out of Groucho’s stateroom.
I recognized parts of Groucho’s AP obituary I wrote in the newspapers after he died in 1977.
(Excerpt from my Hal McClure’s unpublished memoir Serendib Adventures)
*AP pays its own way today.