November 1, 2011


AN UNEXPECTED ALLIANCE: Lee Siegel considers the weird comedy of letters between T.S. Eliot and Groucho Marx ... (Lee Siegel, MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE)

The precious handful of letters that have been published reveal mutual warmth and respect--on the surface. Underneath there is a mutual fascination and wariness. They speak of getting together for three years before Groucho and "Mrs Groucho", as Eliot gamely calls her, arrive at the Eliots' apartment in London for dinner one evening in 1964. Throughout their correspondence, Groucho is almost alarmingly provocative with Eliot. "I get away with saying some pretty insulting things," he told one of his biographers. "People think I'm joking. I'm not." In his new pen pal, Eliot might have recognised Thersites in Shakespeare's "Troilus and Cressida", perhaps the most famous case of parrhesia--compulsive frankness--in literature. It seemed that simply being invited by Eliot into his club, as it were, incited Groucho not to want to be a full member.

Groucho cannot resist the compulsion to remind one of literature's most famous expatriates of his origins: "Dear Tom...I think I read somewhere that your first name is the same as Tom Gibbons', a prizefighter who once lived in St Paul." He is quite open about his ignorance of the very public details of the poet's life: "My best to you and your lovely wife, whoever she may be." He pushes Eliot's origins in his face. In another letter he calls him an "early American, (I don't mean that you are an old piece of furniture, but you are a fugitive from St Louis)..." In the same letter he relays to Eliot that "the name Tom fits many things. There was once a famous Jewish actor named Thomashevsky. All male cats are named Tom--unless they have been fixed." He concludes by assuring the famously buttoned-down author that "I would be interested in reading your views on sex, so don't hesitate. Confide in me."

Eliot's well-known attitude towards Jews was something the Jewish provocateur could not leave alone. If the comparison of Eliot to Thomashevsky was not challenge enough, Groucho on another occasion promises Eliot that he will visit him "on my way back from Israel." (He never does.) Eliot gamely rises to the occasion. "I envy you going to Israel," he replies, "and I wish I could go there too if the winter climate is good as I have a keen admiration for that country."

Yet the most intriguing of Groucho's letters with regard to Eliot is not one that he sent to the poet, but a description of the dinner that finally did take place. Groucho wrote up an account of it for his brother Gummo.

Groucho writes that the week before the dinner, "I read 'Murder in the Cathedral' twice; 'The Waste Land' three times, and just in case of a conversational bottleneck, I brushed up on 'King Lear'." They begin with cocktails. A lull in the conversation prompts Groucho to "toss" in a quotation from 'The Waste Land'." Eliot "smiled faintly." Feeling perhaps slighted by this uber-goy, Groucho writes that he "took a whack at 'King Lear'," arguing that the king was "an incredibly foolish old man". But Eliot, whether annoyed or nonplussed, perhaps passive-aggressively ignores Groucho's invitation to ponder "Lear", preferring instead to discuss "Animal Crackers" and "A Night at the Opera". "Now," recounts Groucho triumphantly, "it was my turn to smile faintly." Suddenly they are like two characters in a play co-written by Samuel Beckett and Neil Simon.

The conversation limps along, Groucho insisting that Lear was an idiot, while Eliot segues into an inquiry about "Duck Soup". Dinner is then served, which "included good, solid English beef, very well prepared". Groucho finishes on a note of sincerity: Eliot "is a dear man and a charming host". Though a butler was present, Eliot had insisted on pouring the wine himself, "and no maitre d' could have served it more graciously."

Posted by at November 1, 2011 6:09 AM

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