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Book Review: The Groucho Letters

Groucho Marx

Although my Facebook profile doesn’t reflect it accurately, I’m a fan of quite a few things. I love Winston Churchill’s speeches and Sara Lee’s snack cakes. I like Otter Pops, Dorothy Parker’s essays, crossword puzzles, March Madness, and Nibs.

I can’t get enough of old Soundgarden, playing fingerstyle guitar, personal records in the gym, and conversations with good friends. I love to laugh and there’s nothing so fine as a vanquished foe, although thankfully I don’t have many arch-enemies.

But there may not be anything I like so well as sharp wit. And when I need a fix, I turn to Groucho Marx.

That guy from those old movies?

Well, yes, but even better is his writing, and the best of his writing comes from his correspondence with other clever people. Leo Rosten compiled a fun book called Carnival of Wit. Do you know how many times Groucho Marx is quoted in there? Me either, but it’s a lot.

Grouch was a man of letters. Fortunately, he was also friends with James Thurber, T.S. Eliot, and many other fantastic minds and personalities and talents.

But because I am a heartless monster, I enjoy Groucho’s on-the-attack letters much more than his thoughtful, emotional, and occasionally vulnerable letters to his friends.

For instance, The Marx Brothers were preparing to make a movie called A Night In Casablanca. Groucho got a letter from Warner Bros. threatening legal action action against them, because their proposed title was too close to the Warner Bros. film, Casablanca.

Here is a bit of Groucho’s reponse:

You claim that you own Casablanca and that no one else can use that name without permission. What about “Warner Brothers”? Do you own that too? You probably have the right to use the name Warner, but what about the name Brothers?

Professionally, we were brothers long before you were. We were touring the sticks as the Marx Brothers when Vitaphone was still a gleam in the inventor’s eye, and even before there had been other brothers—the Smith Brothers; the Brothers Karamazov; Dan Brothers, an outfielder with Detroit; and “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” (This was originally “Brothers, Can You Spare a Dime?” but this was spreading a dime pretty thin, so they threw out one brother, gave all the money to the other one, and whittled it down to “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”)

Now Jack, how about you? Do you maintain that yours is an original name? Well it’s not. It was used long before you were born. Offhand, I can think of two Jacks—Jack of “Jack and the Beanstalk,” and Jack the Ripper, who cut quite a figure in his day.

That snippet right there should tell you all you need to know about whether you’d enjoy The Groucho Letters. I hope it’s obvious that I love the book.

Who’s read it? Who likes to read letters? Who knows of another epistolary masterpiece that I should check out?

Josh

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  • Vandy Massey March 12, 2010, 3:15 am

    It’s the most fantastic book. His wit and sheer cheek make it an absolute delight to read. I read it years ago and snippets from his letters are forever in my head.

    I was wondering what to read on my imminent holiday. Now I know. The Groucho Letters are well worth another read. Thank you, Josh!

  • Avil Beckford March 12, 2010, 5:32 am

    Josh,

    You’ve done your job because now I want to read The Groucho Letters, and the snippet that you included is perfect, such wit. Thanks for sharing. Here is a book list you may enjoy: “Using Rare Books to Inspire Learning” http://www.against-the-grain.com/TOCFiles/v20-1_GeneWaddell.pdf. They also have Part Two, but this will keep you occupied for a while.

    Thank you so much Josh.

    Avil Beckford

    • Josh Hanagarne March 12, 2010, 11:53 am

      Let me know what you think when you’re done!

  • Todd March 12, 2010, 8:41 am

    Groucho was a cool cat. Always cocked, locked and ready to rock with some comment. A tad before my time, but I love watching the old clips of “You Bet Your Life”.

    I’ll check this book out.

  • Patty - Why Not Start Now? March 12, 2010, 12:12 pm

    You reminded me of something, Josh. My best friend in college introduced me to the Marx Brothers. She was absolutely smitten. We watched all the movies, and she talked me into dressing up as Groucho (to partner her Harpo) for a Halloween party. I got to spout those memorable lines, she got to honk her horn and place her knee in any unoccupied hands. We were the hit of the party.

    I’ve read Groucho’s other books and loved them; there’s nobody else like him. And I do like to read letters. I guess one reason is because they were never meant for publication, so we get this unexpected window into the person. John Cheever’s letters were fascinating (and not just because they based a Seinfeld episode on them).

  • Daisy March 12, 2010, 8:53 pm

    Jack the Ripper, who “cut quite a figure” in his day? Clever. Very clever.

  • Nick Saari March 12, 2010, 10:55 pm

    Sharp wit is one of many reasons I check out your blog each new day. Thanks for the entertainment!