One day in 1961, Groucho Marx received a letter from a fan requesting an autographed picture. The request didn’t surprise him but the source did. The letter came from T.S. Eliot, one of the 20th century’s greatest poets, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature and author of “The Waste Land,”along, gloomy poem so difficult to decipher that it was published with footnotes that translated the passages Eliot wrote in Latin, Greek, German and Sanskrit.
Flattered to find that he had such an intellectual admirer, Groucho sent a photograph of himself looking like a dapper, semi-retired 70-year-old man, which is what he was. Eliot wrote back, explaining that what he really wanted was a picture of the classic cinematic Groucho—the guy with the greasepaint moustache, the huge cigar and the cynical smirk. Groucho obliged, and an unlikely friendship began.
How unlikely? Consider their backgrounds. Born to a prosperous Christian family in St. Louis in 1888, Thomas Stearns Eliot studied philosophy at Harvard, Oxford and the Sorbonne and wrote a doctoral dissertation titled“Knowledge and Experience in the Philosophy of F.H. Bradley.”Born to an impoverished Jewish family in New York in 1890, Julius Henry Marx dropped out of school in his early teens and traveled the low end of the vaudeville circuit performing with his brothers Harpo, Chico, Zeppo and Gummo in a show called Fun in Hi Skule. Eliot once summed up his worldview by describing himself as a “classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and Anglo-Catholic in religion.” Groucho summed up his worldview by singing, “Whatever it is, I’m against it.”
But the two men did share certain traits. Both were avid readers, both loved to play with words and both were highly skeptical about the perfectibility of their fellow man. Also, both were fans of Groucho.
“Your portrait has arrived and has given me great joy and will soon appear in its frame on my wall with other famous friends such as W.B. Yeats and Paul Valery,” Eliot wrote to Groucho. “If and when you and Mrs. Marx are in London, my wife and I hope you will dine with us.”
“Should I come to London I will certainly take advantage of your kind invitation,” Groucho graciously replied, “and if you come to California, I hope you will allow me to do the same.” That was in June 1961. For the next three years, the two men repeatedly planned to get together, but something always kept them apart.
First, Eliot got sick. Then Groucho got sick. But they continued corresponding. In his letters, Eliot was reticent, bashful and so buttoned-down that he apologized for addressing Groucho as “Groucho” instead of “Mr. Marx.” In his letters, Groucho called Eliot “Tom” and then launched into a long, goofy riff on the various Toms of history, from tomcats to Thomas Jefferson. In November 1963, Groucho informed Eliot that he’d just finished writing a book on love and sex, Memoirs of a Mangy Lover, and he recommended it as an aphrodisiac: “If you are in a sexy mood the night you read it, it may stimulate you beyond recognition and rekindle memories that you haven’t recalled in years.”
After plugging his sex book, Groucho grumbled that contemporary authors wrote too much about sex. Then he suggested that Eliot should write about sex. “I would be interested in reading your views on sex, so don’t hesitate,” he wrote. “Confide in me. Though admittedly unreliable, I can be trusted with matters as important as that.”
Not surprisingly, the Nobel laureate never sent a steamy letter detailing his erotic fantasies to the guy with the greasepaint moustache.
The two pen pals finally met in June 1964. Groucho was in London with his wife, Eden, and Eliot and his wife, Valerie, invited them to drop by for dinner. Groucho prepared for the encounter by reading “The Waste Land” three times, and Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral twice. He also reread King Lear, so he could hold his own if the conversation turned to Shakespeare.
“The poet met us at the door with Mrs. Eliot, a good-looking middle-aged blonde whose eyes seemed to fill up with adoration every time she looked at her husband,” Groucho wrote the next day in a letter to Gummo. “He, by the way, is tall, lean and rather stooped over; but whether this is from age, illness or both, I don’t know.”
A butler served cocktails, followed by a roast beef dinner, and Eliot poured a fine red wine. But Groucho found the conversation a bit strained.“I tossed in a quotation from ‘The Waste Land.’ That, I thought, will show him I’ve read a thing or two besides my press notices from vaudeville. Eliot smiled faintly—as though to say he was thoroughly familiar with his poems and didn’t need me to recite them,” Groucho told Gummo. “He seemed more interested in discussing Animal Crackers and A Night at the Opera. He quoted a joke—one of mine—that I had long since forgotten. Now it was my turn to smile faintly.”
Apparently, quoting each other wasn’t the best conversational gambit, so Groucho brought up King Lear.
“I pointed out that King Lear’s opening speech was the height of idiocy,” Groucho wrote. “Imagine, I said, a father asking his three children: Which of you kids loves me the most? And then disowning the youngest—the sweet, honest Cordelia—because, unlike her wicked sister, she couldn’t bring herself to gush out insincere flattery. And Cordelia, mind you, had been her father’s favorite! The Eliots listened politely. Mrs. Eliot then defended Shakespeare; and Eden, too, I regret to say, was on King Lear’s side….As for Eliot, he asked if I remembered the courtroom scene in Duck Soup. Fortunately,I’d forgotten every word.”
Was the meeting of these great minds really as ridiculous as Groucho’s letter suggests? Or was the comedian just exaggerating the absurdity to make his story funnier? Unfortunately, Eliot never wrote his version of the historic summit, so we’ll have to make do with Groucho’s conclusion:
“I discovered that Eliot and I had three things in common: (1) an affection for good cigars and (2) cats; and (3) a weakness for making puns—a weakness that for many years I have tried to overcome. T.S. on the other hand, is an unashamed, even proud, punster.…He is a dear man and a charming host. When I told him that my daughter Melinda was studying his poetry at Beverly High, he said he regretted that, because he had no wish to become compulsory reading. We didn’t stay late, for we both felt that he wasn’t up to a long evening of conversation—especially mine.”
The two men never met again. Eliot died seven months later at the age of 76. “I was saddened by the death of T.S. Eliot,” Groucho wrote to columnist Russell Baker. “My wife and I had dinner at his home a few months ago, and I realized then that he was not long for this world. He was a nice man—the best epitaph any man can have.”
Originally published in the August 2012 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.