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?
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