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Groucho Marx & Me: Memories of a Newly Celebrated Legend

A PBS special looks at Groucho Marx's later years, which reminds Michele Willens of meeting him for what may have been his last interview.

My year begins with an old memory. (Hey, that alone is something to celebrate.) One that sparks interesting reflection on how times—if not I, necessarily—have changed. This came to mind when I watched Groucho & Cavett, a documentary that is part of PBS’s American Masters series.

The show is about the late and great television relationship between talk show host Dick Cavett and performer—and, later, quiz show host—Groucho Marx. The exchanges are funny, and Marx did little to hide his “dirty old man” reputation. The Cavett of today (at 86) is interviewed throughout.

I have often bragged about my landing what I believe may have been Groucho’s last print interview. To convince my skeptical friends and family that I was not imagining such an interview, I tried to locate it, but nothing worked—until an editor at the Los Angeles Times (in which the piece ran) just tracked it down in the paper’s archives. We are talking 1971.

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Groucho’s Last Interview

As for my motivation back then: I was in my early 20s, a budding journalist, and like so many of my generation, suddenly discovering the wacky, even anarchic, Marx Brothers movies. “Like millions of others,” I wrote, “I have fallen in love with Groucho Marx. But not content with the silent celluloid affairs I afford Redford and Gould, I had to know what he thought of his latest reincarnation.”

Like so many of my generation, [I was] suddenly discovering the wacky, even anarchic, Marx Brothers movies.

At the time, I mentioned this curiosity to Marx’s son Arthur, who happened to belong to the same tennis club as our family. He said, “Why don’t you call him?”  What? Really? He gave me his dad’s number, and when I got home, I picked up the phone and nervously dialed. When I explained to Marx that I’d love to interview him, his first question was, “How good are your legs?” When I confessed that they were nice, he said, “OK, meet me tomorrow at the Polo Lounge at 10.” That’s inside the Beverly Hills Hotel. I waited at its entrance, doubtful this would actually take place.

Sure enough, a car pulled up, driven by the 80-year old legend. He was wearing his customary white beret, looked me over (yes, I made sure to wear a short skirt), and led me inside. As soon as I took out my recorder to catch every word from this quip-master, he said, “That’s the mark of an amateur reporter.” Whoops. I quietly removed it from the table and pulled out a pen and paper. It was a challenge to keep up. When we got menus, Groucho said, “Order something cheap.” I then asked when he was leaving for a planned trip to London. “It depends how much you eat,” came the reply.

Bridging a Generation

Groucho and Cavett

The super-hip Aero Theater in Santa Monica recently played a double bill of Marx Brothers hilarity.

Much of the piece was about how my generation was suddenly so enamored with him: “I’ll tell you the one thing that puzzles me,” Marx said. “We get more fan mail now than when we made the pictures. I think the kids regard us as anti-establishment, and we were just trying to be funny.” It is true: The rancor, the wisecracks, the taking on the big folks (including a president—Reagan in his case) seemed relevant.

‘Remember how you felt when you learned that ice cream came in 30 more flavors? That’s how it feels to watch the defrosting of Groucho Marx.’

He was anything but warm and cuddly. To a passing waiter, he snapped, “Would you turn down the air conditioner? I just got out of the hospital three years ago.” But he warmed up in his own way, and the occasional flirtation seemed genuine, almost endearing. I wrote, “Remember how you felt when you learned that ice cream came in 30 more flavors? That’s how it feels to watch the defrosting of Groucho Marx.”

He talked about his three marriages: “The first lasted 21 years, and I only cheated a little,” he told me. I mentioned a man who, since that time, has had the opposite (read: downward) roller coaster ride. I told Marx that Woody Allen (who is also a part of the PBS special) claimed everything he did was “stolen from the Marx Brothers.” Ultimately, Marx said he felt no part of the industry that had rediscovered him, and was confused, if reluctantly flattered, that his photo was hanging on walls alongside the Kennedys, the Fondas, and Angela Davis.

Newly Rediscovered?

What I have since discovered is that we were not the last generation to rediscover Groucho, Chico, and Harpo. When I showed the films at one time to our son—then about six—his own love affair began. My son now lives in Santa Monica, where Hollywood’s hippest movie house—geared to young cinephiles—was recently playing a double bill of Duck Soup and Cocoanuts.

Am I proud of getting an interview with Groucho Marx because I had nice legs?

“Let’s go, Slim,” Marx said when our meal was over. I handed him the hat he’d almost forgotten, and he hugged and kissed me without saying a word. I ended my piece saying, “I’ve fallen for a man whose time and mine have been divided by wars and many gaps. But not only is he saying things I’m feeling, he’s saying them in his 80th year.”

It is endlessly interesting to look back on experiences and relationships we might not accept today and to give ourselves plaudits when we can. I was suspended from a job when the local anchorman for whom I wrote—but would not allow in my apartment one midnight—complained to our boss about my work. Did I out him? Not then, nope.

Am I proud of getting an interview with Groucho Marx because I had nice legs? Truth is, today no one would dare ask, and if they did, I would hang up. Or would I? I may be 50 years older, but I’m still looking for the story.

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By Michele Willens


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