Groucho, My Dad

Times Staff Writer

The Groucho Marx the public knew was the leering, cigar-smoking iconoclast with the greasepaint mustache, the bobbing eyebrows, the loping walk and caustic wit. To a posh woman in “A Day at the Races” who huffed that she had never been so insulted in her life, Groucho said: “Don’t worry, it’s early yet.”

The Groucho Marx his daughter, Miriam Marx Allen, knew was a homebody who did his own grocery shopping--an often moody but always loving father with a passion for reading and listening to Gilbert and Sullivan records.

It’s the gentler side of the acid-tongued comedian that Allen wants to portray in a book she’s writing--and hoping to sell--about growing up with the man the world knew as J. Cheever Loophole, Wolf J. Flywheel and a string of other movie aliases.


His Other Side

Tentatively titled, “Love and Kisses, Padre: Letters from Groucho Marx With a Memoir by His Daughter Miriam Marx Allen,” the as-yet-unsold book will include excerpts from 255 letters Groucho sent to his eldest daughter between 1938 and 1967. (Allen and her older brother, Arthur Marx, had called their father “Padre” ever since Arthur learned the word for “father” in high school Spanish class.)

“I want people to see a different side of Groucho from the leering, sex-mad, constantly funny one. This is seeing him as nobody has showed,” said Allen, 62, seated in the living room of her modest condominium in San Clemente.

A recovering alcoholic who had her last drink in 1977, the same year her father died at age 86, Allen says her book also will chronicle her battle with the bottle--a 30-year struggle that put her in and out of hospitals and psychiatric clinics and ruined her marriage.

But the memoir--which is in the hands of a literary agent who is in the process of helping shape Allen’s transcribed taped reminiscences into book form--will deal primarily with her childhood, growing up in Beverly Hills. Dick Cavett, a long-time Groucho fan, has agreed to write an introduction, according to Allen.

A friendly, mild-mannered woman who bears a slight resemblance to Groucho, Allen received her first letter from her father when she was 10. She was vacationing in Catalina with the next-door neighbors and Groucho wrote to say how much he missed her “big feet clunking around the house.”

Groucho wrote many letters to his daughter while he was performing out of town, particularly on USO tours during World War II. “He didn’t approve of long-distance calls,” Allen said. “He felt a person could take the time and sit down and write a letter.”

Groucho the Human

Excerpts from the letters--misspellings and grammatical errors intact--illustrate what Allen calls, Groucho “the father, the caring man, the human being.”

Here’s Groucho on:

--Show business (1941): “This is a tough racket, and all the heartaches and sleepless nights make it a pretty thankless profession, unless of course you are one of the lucky few who put over a hit, and then, everything looks different, and all the anxious moments are forgotten.”

--The family dog, Duke (1941): “How are you and my dog Duke? You apparently think Duke belongs to you don’t you? Well I had it out with Duke one day when we were together on the bike. I said, Duke who do you belong to? Miriam or me? He looked up at me and winked. He said, I like Miriam, she is a nice kid, and occasionally brushes my coat and throws me a bone, but to compare her to you is sheer folly. My Groucho old boy, you are my man, that’s the first time he had ever called me Groucho, and believe me I was thrilled to my finger tips, he usually called me Julius, and to hear him saying Groucho affected me deeply . . . I have never been attached to a dog like I am to this one . . . if you see him around the house, kiss him for me.”

--Doing “You Bet Your Life” on radio (1948): “As you know, I was embarrassed about doing a quiz show, for it is considered the lowest form of radio life, but all of my friends, the ones who make big salaries and listen to Information Please and other erudite programs, are nuts about this. I just don’t understand it, but apparently the quality of ad libbing on the air is so low that if anyone comes along with even a moderately fresh note he’s considered practically a genius. Don’t be surprised, but I think your old man has finally arrived in radio.”

--On Miriam’s dating a man named John, whom she met on an elevator (1947): “Was the elevator going up at the time, or down? This is very important, for going down in an elevator one always has that sinking feeling and for all I know you may have this confused with love. If you were going up, it is clearly a case of love at first sight and it also proves that he is a rising young man . . . .”

Allen makes it clear from the outset that “Love and Kisses, Padre” will be no “Daddy Dearest.” She loved her father, she says, but that doesn’t mean he was perfect.

A Dependable Father

“He was always there for me,” she said. “Moody? Yes. Difficult at times? Yes. But a loving father and one that I knew loved me and that I could depend on.”

When Miriam Marx was born in 1927, Groucho Marx was appearing on Broadway and the family was living in a house in Great Neck, Long Island. They moved to Hollywood in 1931 when the Marx Brothers signed to make movies at Paramount.

After living in several rented homes, the family moved into a two-story ranch-style house in Beverly Hills. Although the house included two maids’ rooms and a large back yard, the home lacked the requisite swimming pool.

“My father said he wouldn’t have a swimming pool,” said Allen. “If he had a swimming pool people would always be hanging around, and he didn’t want them hanging around.”

Allen said her father enjoyed his privacy.

“He liked to stay home,” she said. “If he had his way he’d never go out for the evening. He did like to go to the movies--if he could smoke in the balcony. He didn’t care what was playing. He’d call the theater and say, ‘Can you smoke in the balcony?’ and if you couldn’t, forget it. But he liked to stay home and read and listen to good music.”

Allen’s mother, Ruth, had different ideas about how to spend an evening.

“My mother was an alcoholic and she never got into recovery,” said Allen. “Her idea of a good time was dancing, drinking and the high life--what they used to call the gay life.”

Because of the Marx Brothers’ exalted position in Hollywood, most of Groucho’s friends were famous writers, producers, directors and song writers--anything but actors. “He felt actors were dull,” said Allen.

Closest to Harpo

Of his four brothers (Harpo, Chico, Zeppo and Gummo), Groucho was closest to Harpo, whom he talked to almost every day on the phone. Harpo and his wife and their four adopted children lived only six blocks away and Allen spent a lot of time at Uncle Harpo’s.

“They had totally different lives,” she said. “I’ll tell you the truth, life at home was not all that easy. There were a lot of silent moments because somebody was angry, like my father at my mother because she was drinking. So when things got really rough I would get on my bicycle and ride over to Harpo’s house. And even though there were four little kids there, there was a peacefulness there that wasn’t at my home at all.

“I used to say, I wish he (Harpo) would be my father. I don’t, but I used to think that. There was a loving and caring between him and his wife and the kids and it came across to me. I used to think, I hope they invite me to dinner, and they did frequently.”

Mismatched Couple

Allen said she was about 10 when her mother began drinking heavily, but her father and mother, a former vaudeville dancer, “were really never well matched. They should never have been married in the first place. The drinking, of course, made it a lot worse as the years wore on.”

An exceptional tennis player until drinking affected her game, Ruth Marx spent her afternoons playing tennis. Allen said her mother would come home from the tennis club every day “three sheets to the wind” and Groucho would be sitting at the dining room table, with his arms folded, waiting for her.

“She’d blow in about 10 minutes after dinner began with her face all flushed,” said Allen. “This did not set for a really nice evening at dinner. How we didn’t get ulcers, my brother and me, I don’t know, because then it would start.

“Like any drunk she would repeat herself. She thought she was being really wonderful, but she was a drag. She’d be repeating these stories and everything, but he kept putting her down. He didn’t handle it well. He put her down, he made her look foolish. He argued with her--and you’re arguing with a bottle, which I’ve learned now.

“So those were horrible evenings and there were many of them. But other times there would just be stony silence where they’d have a fight and they’d each go to their room, or she’d go out later in the evening and he’d just stay home. He wouldn’t talk. He wouldn’t even talk to us.”

Close to Father

Allen was 12 and her brother 18 when their parents divorced. Both children chose to live with their father rather than their mother, “which suited her just fine,” said Allen. “She didn’t want kids around to cramp her gay life style.”

With Arthur soon joining the Coast Guard, Allen said, she and her father became even closer.

“He loved to be with his children which, at that point, was me,” said Allen. “He took me to the movies, he took me to baseball games, he took me to prize fights. He spent a lot of time with me.”

Allen said she did not begin drinking heavily until she moved to Vermont to attend Bennington College, where she majored in writing. She was expelled for various infractions due to drinking, three months shy of receiving her degree.

After a stint writing for Mademoiselle magazine in New York, she moved back to California and got a job helping edit the radio version of “You Bet Your Life.”

“I’d sit up in that cutting room maybe two or three days a week, but it gave me plenty of time to drink,” she said. “I was taking a bottle with me. Just to get by I’d go to the restroom and take a swig of vodka or something, and the drinking got much worse.

Clinic in Kansas

In 1954, after Groucho discovered his daughter was getting drunk at 9 in the morning, Allen checked into the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kan., where she met a fellow patient who later became her husband. The marriage lasted 10 years, although they were not together that long.

“We were both drinking,” said Allen, who has no children. “We weren’t good for each other really. We were two sick people and two sick people can’t make it.”

Through it all, Groucho, who helped support Allen after her divorce, did what he could to stop her from drinking, said Allen. He sent her to various hospitals and psychiatrists, none of which helped her drinking problem, she said.

“I really wasn’t all that mixed up psychologically, I don’t think,” she said. “I’d be in with people who were really crazy. I wasn’t. I’d be crazy when I drank, but I wasn’t crazy otherwise.”

At one point, Allen said, her father hired practical nurses to keep her from drinking, but it didn’t work: “I sneaked out and got the booze.”

Allen, who credits a self-help program for the treatment of alcoholism for helping her keep off alcohol, said she was in a recovery house in the San Fernando Valley when her father died in 1977. His death came after a bitter and much-publicized court battle between her brother, Arthur, and Erin Fleming, Groucho’s companion and personal manager, for the conservatorship of the ailing comedian’s multimillion-dollar estate. (After a four-month legal battle--and less than a month before Groucho’s death--the court appointed the comedian’s grandson, Andrew, permanent conservator of Groucho’s personal affairs.)

Although they talked on the phone from time to time, Allen said she didn’t see much of her father during his last years. She said her drinking had taken “precedence over everything” and she didn’t visit often because she knew she wouldn’t be able to drink in front of him.

“But the biggest reason was Erin Fleming who, in my opinion, had taken over his life and had driven the family away,” she said. “She made it so unpleasant to be around him that neither my brother nor my (half) sister (Melinda Miller) wanted to be around the house because she was ruling the roost. She didn’t want anybody in the family around.”

At her literary agent’s suggestion, Allen has written a segment on Fleming, who lived with Groucho the last six years of his life.

“It was not fun, but I wrote it,” Allen said. “I don’t have very nice things to say about Erin Fleming.

“I’m really adamant about the fact that she took this man, whom I adored, and turned him into a caricature. He may have become that anyhow, but she made it worse, in my opinion. If she hadn’t been around he probably would have retired from the limelight. People wouldn’t have seen him as this stumbling old man, which they saw. She kept parading him around, putting him on awards shows and whatever she was doing. In my opinion, she treated him like a trained animal in the circus. She had him performing his tricks and it was a sad way for a great comedian to end his life.”

Comfortable Living

Although she now lives comfortably on a trust fund and income from stocks and bonds she inherited from her father, Allen concedes that money motivated her to begin working on her book in 1986.

The impetus was a letter she received from her bank saying she was taking too much money out of her trust fund. At the time, she said, she was supporting a friend so she was taking out much more than she normally would have needed. Nevertheless, she was warned that if she kept it up at that rate she’d wipe out the fund in several years. “That scared me,” she said.

“I saved his letters through years of drinking and everything else, thank God,” said Allen. “I was just going to put them in order and have my brief comments on them and get them published. But it’s not that easy.”

A New York literary agent told her that all she had at that point was “just a bunch of letters from a father to a daughter.” She took the agent’s advice to incorporate the letters into her own story and began a morning routine of sitting on the floor, “and talking my story into a tape recorder.”

With these taped “memories” transcribed and edited, she sent them, along with her father’s letters and her comments, to Los Angeles literary agent Charlotte Gusay, who agreed to represent her and plans to begin contacting publishers in September.

“The letters are so rich with information, just wonderfulness and angst and on and on and on,” raves Gusay, adding that, unlike previously published Groucho Marx letters to various celebrities in “The Groucho Letters,” Allen’s cache of unpublished correspondence is “very human because he’s writing to this adored, cherished daughter.”

As for Allen’s memoir, Gusay said Allen is “just very straight-forward about her life, and this is quite a step for her to take. This is the first time any of the Marx women has ever spoken out--other than, to my knowledge, Erin Fleming.”

Seated in her living room late one afternoon, Allen talked of her hope to make money off a book sale. “I’m comfortable, but I’d like money to travel, to fix this place up--to buy a new carpet--and buy a new car, and the only way I can do that is to make extra money,” she said.

But, she maintains, that’s not the only reason she wants to see her book about Groucho Marx published.

“This is seeing him as nobody has showed: a loving parent, a strict parent, just a father,” she said.

“He was moody and difficult at times, but overall I loved him. I love my mother, too, I realize now, but she wasn’t there for me because of her alcoholism. But he was.”