A Puff of Smoke

Paul Wesolowski knows the secret word: Groucho

Pere Ubu, with the Numbers Band. 6 p.m. 6 p.m., Wednesday, June 7, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum 1 Key Plaza, free, 216-555-1222
The tragic clown: Several new books about Groucho Marx tell a familiar story about the man and his cigar
The tragic clown: Several new books about Groucho Marx tell a familiar story about the man and his cigar
His name appears in almost every book written about Groucho Marx, so much so, he has been given the appropriate appellation by members of the Marx family: Wesso. But Paul Wesolowski is of no relation to the famous clan. He's a man in his 40s who lives outside Philadelphia and, several times a month, works with children who suffer from emotional problems as the result of abuse or neglect--hardly the stuff of which laughter is made. He knows Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Zeppo only from a black-and-white distance--from the late-late-show screenings of Animal Crackers and Monkey Business and Duck Soup that popped up on the television screen during his childhood. He adored the brothers the first moment he saw them, falling in love with Groucho's way with words and Harpo's way without them. A child of the 1970s became instantly enamored of these purveyors of anarchy who were stars and failures and stars again decades before he was born. And long ago, the fan became the expert.

Wesolowski met Groucho Marx only once--in January 1977, shortly before Groucho broke his hip and slipped further into old age, frailty, and eventual death. It's little wonder, then, that Wesolowski treasures those 10 days spent in the company of Mr. Marx. Had he decided to travel west only a few months later--as originally planned, during a summer break from college--there would have been no Groucho Marx to visit.

Groucho had found out about Wesolowski through writer Hector Arce, who was then working on a biography titled Groucho (though Groucho wanted it called Warts and All). Arce traveled from library to library across the country, only to discover this kid had always been there before him. Arce finally phoned Wesolowski and then informed Groucho of this kid in Philly who had devoted his young life to researching the Marx Brothers, photocopying old articles from newspapers long since folded and forgotten. Groucho was impressed, if not a little startled, by the revelation that someone so young would spend his life poring through history, studying not only the brothers' famous films but also their vaudeville and stage productions, most of which hadn't been seen or mentioned since the 1920s.

Groucho wanted to meet the boy, if only to find out what the hell was wrong with him.

"We were having dinner one night," Wesolowski says, "and I preceded a question by saying, "In 1905, you...,' and Groucho said, "How do you know? You weren't even born yet!' I think he was as much impressed by the fact I was from Philadelphia. After all, we saved their careers in 1923. They were washed up in vaudeville and had to leave show business and made a silent film [Humorisk] that bombed. Then they debuted I'll Say She Is, which opened here and set a box-office record that has yet to be broken. But after Hector introduced me, Groucho said, "Show him the servant's entrance. Better yet, show him the servant's exit.' It was hard to tell whether he was happy to meet me or just insulting me. Either way was OK."

When Arce's book appeared in 1979, he thanked Wesolowski for allowing him access to his archives, which then totaled about 5,000 entries. Twenty-one years later, that number has grown to 50,000, from newspaper clippings to long-unseen photographs to writings by and about the brothers that allegedly disappeared. As such, he has become the most invaluable Marx Brothers resource on the planet--the man producers and publishers and writers call when they need one fact or a thousand. Without him, no doubt, the bookshelves would be barren this summer.

Four books about Groucho and the Marx Brothers are set for release in coming weeks; another, filled with rare photos, will follow in December, to coincide with the showing on PBS of a play titled Groucho: A Life in Review. (Wesolowski insists that there is no Marx Brothers renaissance at hand, per se, but that publishers are merely a cynical lot: "The people who make these decisions have no originality," he says. "They hear someone else is publishing a book, therefore they want to publish a book, since someone thinks it's a good idea.")

One book, Stefan Kanfer's Groucho: The Life and Times of Julius Henry Marx, debuted last month. Not so different from Arce's work, which Wesolowski considers among the definitive books on the brothers, Kanfer's biography presents the sad-sack Groucho--the comedian who led three wives and a daughter toward bottles of booze and pushed them in, the son of a domineering Jewish stage mother who pried away her son from books and led him kicking and screaming to the stage, the frugal man who tried to buy his children's love and wound up receiving pennies on the dollar. (In a recent review for Variety, Groucho's grandson Andy chides the book for being derivative, "sometimes heavy-handed," and rife with inaccuracies.)

Groucho is, in essence, a distillation of previous books written about Julius Marx, a thoughtful and comprehensive Cliffs Notes that ends on a sour note, concluding with the legal battles over Marx's estate. It's the soap-opera Groucho--the man who could no longer tell where Julius ended and Captain Spaulding began--and not surprisingly, DreamWorks recently purchased Kanfer's book. The studio has made no formal announcement, but it is preparing a Marx Brothers biopic to be written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (Ed Wood, Man on the Moon) and directed by Danny DeVito.

Another Kanfer volume, The Essential Groucho: Writings for, by, and about Groucho Marx, will be released June 20, and of Kanfer's two books, the latter is the more essential, as it conveys upon Groucho the title he always craved: man of letters. As Kanfer reminds in his books and during an interview, Groucho despised the company of comics and actors and instead surrounded himself with writers, such as playwright George S. Kaufman and poet T.S. Eliot. The Essential Groucho compiles not only scenes from the brothers' plays and films, but also Marx's writings for such publications as Collier's, Variety, The Saturday Evening Post, and Redbook.

"It's certainly not a secret that most comedians have a lot of unhappiness," Kanfer says of his books. "Usually, the unhappiness is buried in their childhoods, but I think the real informing incident in Groucho's life--and I hadn't realized it quite so strongly--is that he was a good scholar. He liked school. Chico was a brilliant kid, but he hated school. He was good at numbers, and he couldn't wait to get out and get laid. Groucho really was shy with women. He was the middle child--between cute little Gummo and Zeppo and the older, dashing Chico and Harpo. He took great refuge in books--he was an intellectual manqué--but his mother, Minnie, took him out of school and put him in show business. That was the end of his childhood, and it's the exact reverse of what you usually think of the Jewish mother, who wants the kid to stop doing that nonsense and become a doctor!"

But The Essential Groucho is but one of two Marx books being published this month: Simon Louvish's exceptional Monkey Business: The Lives and Legends of the Marx Brothers finally arrives in the United States, several months after it was published in England. It's a revelatory volume, full of facts even Wesolowski was unaware of: Louvish, for instance, confirms the existence of a sixth Marx brother, the first-born Manfred, who lived for only seven months in 1886 before succumbing to influenza. He has also located lost vaudeville scripts that were buried in the bowels of the Library of Congress. And, for the first time, a writer offers a rather detailed profile of Margaret Dumont, the matzo ball in the brothers' chicken soup. Louvish portrays her as a sympathetic figure who would never recover from the way the boys "had frozen her forever in that typecast role...the butt of jokes."

Wesolowski offers Monkey Business the highest praise for an archivist who has devoted his life to maintaining the Groucho files: "It breaks new ground," he says. "Louvish's book has set a new benchmark." He also speaks highly of another Marx book due in July. Next month, a small Baltimore publishing house--Midnight Marquee, which specializes in horror books--will release As Long as They're Laughing: Groucho Marx and You Bet Your Life by Robert Dwan, who directed Groucho's legendary game show on radio and television. At this moment, Wesolowski is proofreading Dwan's charming, anecdote-filled work, making sure the 85-year-old director's memory isn't shrouded in fog.

Such is the life of the fetishist and scholar, scrutinizing the manuscripts of witnesses and historians to make sure they don't get their facts wrong, even if that means he remains behind the scenes while others reap the rewards of his research and diligence. For such work, he is paid little, though he insists--with not a little embarrassment--he would do it for free, so deep is his affection for the subject matter.

As Louvish points out in the preface to Monkey Business, "No book about the Marx Brothers can be written without reference to the magnificent resource of America's most notorious Marxist, Paul Wesolowski, Number One Fan, diligent Marx Brothers historian, and Editor of the Freedonia Gazette." (The latter is a reference to a Marx Brothers magazine, so named for the country in Duck Soup, that Wesolowski stopped publishing about eight years ago, though he hopes to resurrect it soon enough). Kanfer, in an interview, says of him: "Paul knows everything about everyone. He has stuff even they didn't know existed." Indeed, even Groucho's daughter Miriam credits Wesolowski in her 1992 collection of letters between father and daughter, Love, Groucho.

The question, then, is, Why has Wesolowski lent out his collection to others when there's no one more suited to writing the definitive Marx Brothers book than he?

"I am a completist," he says. "Though I know more than anyone else, there are still bits and pieces I don't know, and I would rather know those things before I wrote the book. I began to publish the Freedonia Gazette in 1978, and I thought I could write an article, and if I discovered any additional information I could put a note somewhere updating the article. I mean, I've also worked on all the TV specials about the brothers--an A&E biography, The Unknown Marx Brothers, The Marx Brothers in a Nutshell. Sometimes, people will say, "Gee, that wasn't very good. Why did you agree to help them?' I guess sometimes you know this person's not going to do a good job, but if I help, it will be better than it would have been. It's easier to help correct them and not let them write a book of mistakes and let them perpetuate throughout history."

History has been kind to the brothers; it has forgiven Chico's gambling and womanizing, and it has forgiven Groucho's flaws as father and husband. But history never bothered the Marxes, perhaps because by the time they made their final film together in 1949, they were already part of it. And Groucho was never afraid of dying, perhaps because he was always afraid of living. By the time he turned 85 in 1976, he knew more people who were dead than alive, as his old friend George Burns used to say. His brothers Chico and Harpo passed on in the early 1960s; Margaret Dumont had taken her final fall in 1965. He had lived long enough to bury them all: playwrights and composers, producers and parents, friends and foes. Perhaps he viewed (or, rather, accepted) death as the ultimate punch line to that old song he used to perform: Hello, I must be going.

Groucho was afraid only of living long enough to forget who he was--and what he had once been. He was terrified of growing senile, of telling the same stale stories over and over to those friends, fans, and hangers-on who piled into his Beverly Hills home to mooch free food and free laughs. "I don't want them keeping somebody alive, somebody who used to be me," he told Charlotte Chandler, who offered her own biography in 1978. By the time he died on August 19, 1977, he was a shadow of a greasepaint moustache and a Cuban cigar. Heart attacks, strokes, and myriad lawsuits had turned Groucho Marx into a frail, 86-year-old man named Julius Henry Marx. The master of the razor-blade quip died with a shrug. "We have to see if you have a temperature," said a nurse, not long before he faded into a coma from which he would never return. He mustered one final comeback: "Don't be silly," he said. "Everybody has a temperature."

That he lived so long, from 1890 to 1977, seems even now--on the occasion of the publication of five books about Groucho and the Marx Brothers--unfathomable. Groucho toured the vaudeville circuit, played Broadway, made movies, wrote books, appeared on radio, and starred in his own television show. His existence spanned the history of the entertainment industry; he lived long enough to open for W.C. Fields and close for Bill Cosby. He played Carnegie Hall when he was an old man, repeating lines from his old films much as an aging rock star performs his ancient hits. But thanks, in large part, to Wesolowski and the men who come along every now and then to paint another moustache on the grinning corpse, Groucho and his brothers thrive long after their final reels have screened.

"Kanfer goes a little overboard on the serious side of Groucho--the serious man who had funny lines written for him," Wesolowski says. "I think if you go through Arce and Louvish's books and some of the other ones, you get a picture of a man who was at times troubled--aren't we all?--but who was a very funny person at times. I think if you looked at your own life, there might be friends who see you as one kind of person, your co-workers see a different side of you, and your neighbors see a third side. People don't have black-and-white personalities. They change over the years as they deal with different issues. From what I saw, Groucho was a funny man, but I can also see it would have been difficult to live with him. He wasn't a perfect person. I didn't make a conscious decision to know more about Groucho than anyone else. I only did it because he and the brothers were so interesting. And as you do the research, you learn good things about him and not so good things. But he was always entertaining. "

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