GROUCHO: The Biography of Groucho Marx by Hector Arce

GROUCHO: The Biography of Groucho Marx

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Poor Groucho -- has anyone but Dr. Johnson himself had so many would-be biographers lurking around the house during his sad, dying days? Charlotte Chandler from Playboy was there with her tape recorder -- till Groucho's companion-secretary Erin Fleming threw her out -- and she delivered the rambling bulk of Hello I Must Be Going: Groucho and His Friends earlier this year (p. 145). Hector Arce was there too, ""a fixture in his house,"" collaborating with Groucho on two books, and beginning work on an authorized biography. Arce presents himself as Mr. Objectivity caught in the middle of the disputes between Erin and Groucho's son Arthur -- and his cautious, sympathetic analysis of that ugly tug-of-war over the senile Groucho may indeed be the fairest yet. But Arce, nice guy though he seems, is no writer, and his biography is a lifeless, clichÉ-ridden, clumsy narrative, dotted with Groucho's own words but disproportionately heavy with third-hand material and quotes from those friends and relations willing to talk; Arce apparently got no cooperation from any of the Marx kids or ex-wives or Erin. Weakest is the detailed but unfocused treatment of Groucho's career -- there's virtually no attempt to assess the films, the Brothers' chemistry, the nature of their comedy, or the development of the Groucho persona; by contrast, the radio/TV quiz show -- subject already of a whole Arce book (The Secret Word is Groucho) -- receives an undue amount of chatter. Arce tries harder with Groucho's psyche, wanting to temper son Arthur's indictment (Son of Groucho, 1972) with ""a more dispassionate look at Groucho's essentially bitter character."" But his psychological conjectures about ""the phobias, the frustrations, and the complexes that go into the making of a great comedian"" are painfully simplistic: not enough love from mom Minnie and pop Frenchy made Groucho a ""basic malcontent,"" sardonically defensive; his mother's rejection made him a premature ejaculator who drove his beautiful wives to drink or worse, and, ""feeling himself less than a man, he had developed a self-hatred which he projected by hating others."" And whole areas of Groucho's private self -- his Jewishness, his literary interests -- are passed over, unforgivable in a 576-page biography. Still, there is more here about Groucho's daughters -- especially alcoholic, mentally ill Miriam -- than elsewhere, so if any of Groucho's fans haven't had enough of his offstage miseries, this is for them. But if there's a real book to add to all that's been written by and about Groucho -- and maybe there isn't -- Arce hasn't even gotten within spitting distance of it.

Pub Date: Jan. 8th, 1978
Publisher: Putnam