In 1961 a letter with a Royal Mail postmark arrived at 1083 North Hillcrest Road, Beverly Hills. Fan mail sent to this modernist estate amidst the California scrub were not uncommon. After all, it was the home of Julius “Groucho” Marx, the visionary leader of the fraternal comedic group. This particular note had a return address of 3 Kensington Court Gardens, a continent and an ocean away.
Groucho Marx had no shortage of fans, as the Marx Brothers revolutionized American comedy in films such as Duck Soup, A Night at the Opera, and, notably, Horse Feathers, in which Groucho plays a college dean, with the mockingly patrician name Quincy Adams Wagstaff. Overseeing an assemblage of pompous, mortar-boarded, gown-wearing academics who dance and sing, Wagstaff says “I don’t know what they have to say/It makes no difference anyway.” It’s an “anarchic expression of distrust of any form of social or political organization,” according to Leonard Helfgott in an essay from Jews and Humor, and shows exactly how the Brothers went about their business of puncturing pretension.
Leading this anarchic charge was Groucho, with his thick greasepaint mustache and arched eyebrows, rolling his eyes inside wire-rimmed glasses, a cigar perennially hanging from a mocking smile. Marx presented an enduringly influential and endearingly archetypal Jewish trickster character. It was this persona the letter-writer wanted captured in an autographed photo. Groucho instead sent a standard headshot absent the iconic costume. Nevertheless, the fan hung the picture in his Victorian townhouse alongside, he later wrote, “other famous friends such as W. B. Yeats.”
So began the unexpected and contentious relationship between Groucho Marx and T. S. Eliot, a Nobel Prize-winner who revolutionized poetry, as Groucho had humor. In seminal works including “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” The Waste Land, and Four Quartets, Eliot drew upon fragmentation, bricolage, and dense allusions in a language commensurate with the 20th-century. It was a period when the mustard gas of the First World War, Einsteinian special relativity, and Freudian psychoanalysis irreparably disrupted the traditional order, and Eliot responded in kind alongside fellow Modernists such as Yeats and Ezra Pound.
“We are the hollow men,” Eliot wrote in a poem of that name from 1925. “We are the stuffed men/Leaning together/Headpiece filled with straw.” For three years Marx and Eliot corresponded, frequently talking past each other and sometimes subtly (and not so subtly) insulting one another. The tension between them culminated in an awkward dinner in 1964 at Eliot’s home in London. More than historical curio, their interaction demonstrates how titans of American letters and culture reacted to the alienation of modernity.
Few figures were as different as the poet and the comedian. Marx was “born at a very early age,” as he wrote in his 1959 autobiography Groucho and Me, to a pair of Jewish immigrants in the Yorkville neighborhood of Manhattan. He dropped out of school in seventh grade to become a Vaudeville performer, though he grew into a self-taught and well-read writer with bylines in the New Yorker. He was brilliant, insecure and simmered with class resentment. Eliot, meanwhile, was the scion of wealthy Missouri WASPS, educated at Harvard, and eventually became a British subject. He was precisely the sort who could have been named “Quincy Adams Wagstaff.” In his 1929 essay collection For Lancelot Andrewes, Eliot infamously describes himself as “Anglo-Catholic in religion, a classicist in literature, and a royalist in politics.” By contrast, Marx was unabashedly Jewish in religion, an anarchist in performance, and a New Deal Democrat in politics. With his dislike of haughtiness intact, Marx referred to Eliot as a “British poet from St. Louis.”
When Marx responded to the poet’s request for a photograph, he was likely aware of Eliot’s history of antisemitic comments, even while Eliot seemed genteelly embarrassed by what he had said in the years after the Holocaust. While Eliot’s conservatism never veered into the open fascism of Modernists like Pound, he was still infamous for arguing that “reasons of race and religion combine to make any number of free-thinking Jews undesirable,” as he wrote in After Strange Gods, published a year after Hitler’s appointment as chancellor. Just as disturbing is the presence of rank antisemitism in his early poetry. In “Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar,” from 1920, Eliot writes with Goebbelsian frothing of how the “rats are underneath the piles. The jew is underneath the lot,” and describes the character of Bleistein as “Chicago Semite Viennese” with a “lusterless protrusive eye” which “Stares from the protozoic slime.”
“But he was a great poet,” writes Walter A. Strauss in a 1997 essay from South Central Review, “perhaps the greatest poet in the English language of his generation, and we have been inclined, and still are inclined, to ignore or forget such remarks.” This was accurate until the publication of Anthony Julius’ controversial 1995 study T. S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism and Literary Form. Before Julius, incidences of Eliot’s bigotry were explained away as mere country-club antisemitism, not uncommon at the time among Eliot’s socioeconomic class. Eliot defenders point to his role in securing academic positions for Jewish refugees, or his friendship with Marx and other Jews such as the philosopher Horace Kallen. Those suspicious of Eliot’s intentions counter that he never apologized for his antisemitic poetry, preferring to ignore such profound moral travesty during the earliest days of genocide.
According to Strauss, it’s misguided to focus on a few ugly lines, a “gutter anti-Semitism that come to the surface only for a few years in his pre-Waste Land poems.” Julius disagrees; he argues that Eliot was “alive to anti-Semitism’s resources, insensitive to Jewish pain.” According to this argument, antisemitism was a potent source of inspiration to Eliot, who produced startlingly original verse that had encoded within it brutal prejudices.
If not a fascist, Eliot was certainly a particular kind of conservative. After his conversion to high church Anglicanism, he retreated into hierarchy and traditionalism. Far from being in tension, Eliot’s politics were positively common among his contemporaries—Pound, Yeats, Thomas Mann, Evelyn Waugh, and even Gertrude Stein (who was herself Jewish). Formalist daring, literary experimentation, and Pound’s impulse to “Make it new”—all of these bohemian virtues were yoked to a revanchist mission. Despite its frequently atrocious politics, Modernist literature powerfully described the anomie of its age, the displacement, alienation, rootlessness, and vertigo that had come to define life under industrial capitalism.
“What is that sound high in the air?” asks Eliot in 1922’s The Waste Land. “Murmur of maternal lamentation/Who are those hooded hordes swarming/Over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth/Ringed by the flat horizon only/What is the city over the mountains/Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air.” If Modernist literature provided an apt diagnosis, it was less helpful in providing a prescription. For Eliot, a retreat into pre-modern values acted as balm to meaninglessness, but along with that came hierarchy and order, ancestry and custom. Jews became a convenient metaphor of the rootless cosmopolitanism that he disdained. Strauss observes that the poet “simply does not like the modern secular Jew, or better his borrowed stereotype of the modern Jew… the liberal, the democrat, the free-thinker.” Suddenly Eliot’s essay from After Strange Gods comes into focus. For the poet, the Jews—notwithstanding his friends among them–represent something he disdains.
Jewish comedy ironically reacts to a similar sense of displacement, alienation, rootlessness, and vertigo, but its purposes and prescriptions differ from that of Modernism. Eliot may have felt all that which is solid melting into air, to paraphrase a different Marx, but for the Jews from the shtetls and ghettoes of Poland, Ukraine, and Lithuania nothing had ever been solid. Pogroms and persecution, exile and diaspora had defined their experience. A distinctive comedy was the result.
In No Joke: Making Jewish Humor, Ruth Wisse writes that Judaism is an—“exegetical tradition that values literate intelligence [and] cultivates wit as one of its values”—and is based in a “theology founded in divine election whose adherents have been targeted for genocide.” These incongruities, she continues, “tickle the modern Jewish imagination.” The attributes of Jewish comedy—a distrust of authority combined with self-deprecation, verbal dexterity, and iconoclastic glee—were necessities in the diaspora. Since the Middle Ages the figure of the Yiddish badchen, a type of jester or divine fool has evidenced a unique sensibility. It is one that runs from Marx through Larry David, though it also appears as early as the book of Genesis, when the matriarch Sarah laughs at God with a sort of gallows humor.
“Initially, this traditional European Jewish humor of the underdog did not resonate with the individualistic, autonomous American psyche,” writes Roberta Rosenberg in Shofar. Character types from the schlemiel to the schlimazel had little role in the “American nineteenth-century age of manifest destiny and an early twentieth-century age of empowered masculinity.” While American humorists like Ben Franklin and Mark Twain shared verbal dexterity with Jewish comedy, they didn’t hold the same absurdist perspectives. Meanwhile, American concert halls and music revues favored minstrelsy and slapstick, drawing from a comedically unsophisticated Anglo-Saxon tradition. With Vaudeville, however, Jewish humor was increasingly performed before gentile audiences. Through the Borscht Belt and then Hollywood it would become the dominant American comedic form. Along with Black music, Jewish comedy is one of the United States’ greatest innovations; the Catskills deserve to join the Mississippi Delta as a site of cultural pilgrimage. Mel Brooks, Lenny Bruce, Joan Rivers, Sid Caesar, Mort Sahl, Andy Kaufman, Sarah Silverman, Amy Schumer, and Marc Maron are all within this tradition, as differing as their styles are. But in America, however, even non-Jewish comedians like Conan O’Brien and Tina Fey are “Jewish” comedians. The Marx Brothers illuminate how this can be so.
The distinctiveness of Jewish comedy spoke not just to Jews, but also to Italians, Irish, and Poles, who came through Ellis Island, estranged from their homelands, often unable to speak English, forced into slums, and targeted by nativist prejudice. In the United States, Jewish comedy became immigrant comedy. Helfgott explains that wordplay was an aspect of “being caught between two languages,” so that Jewish-American comedy “seeks double meanings by distorting words, phrases, or sentences, especially in the language of public expression… a common phenomenon among immigrant children and the children of immigrants,” regardless of sectarian identity. The Marx Brothers became spectacularly successful because of immigrant audiences who thrilled to the mocking of the status quo, an attitude that punctuated their own experiences in the “home, schoolyard, poolroom, playground, or street.” Of the five Brothers, only Groucho, Harpo, and Chico appeared in every film, and each took on a familiar stereotype. Speaking in Italian-accented broken-English, Chico was supposed to be from the Mezzogiorno. Harpo’s orange fright-wig was meant to be read as Irish, and in Vaudeville, he performed in a brogue; it was so poor he ultimately opted for the persona of a mute clown. Groucho, meanwhile, embraced what would be read as Ashkenazi affect.
What could easily turn into a minstrel act–Chico’s shiftlessness, Harpo’s eccentricity, Groucho’s cunning–was instead deployed to mock aristocrats. “The Marx Brothers’ uniqueness lies in their unorthodox treatment of immigrant insecurities over acceptance and assimilation,” write Daniel Lieberfeld and Judith Sanders in The American Scholar. “Instead of trying to ‘pass,’ they exaggerate their ethnicity. Instead of repressing the immigrant’s shadowy fear of exposure and censure, they turn a glaring spotlight on it.”
Every Marx Brothers’ movie sees them ingratiating themselves into an elite space–a university in Horse Feathers, a Long Island estate in Animal Crackers, a government in Duck Soup. Then, through absurdist derision and chaos, they demolish the self-importance of the ruling class. “The Marx Brothers humor is playful and anti-sophisticated,” write Lieberfeld and Sanders, and their comedy elevates “low-brow immigrant culture in response to the snobbish refinement and elitism of those insiders and sophisticates who define their social position by exclusion.” They offered a set of values based in “mutual aid, entrepreneurship and hustle, and a wry accommodation to the exigencies of day-to-day survival.” The Marx Brothers undertook a comedic bait-and-switch, presenting the elite with a mirror in which they could see their own absurdity.
This trickster disdains the rich, mocks the elite, and laughs at the powerful. Not so easy to extricate Groucho from Julius, and if T. S. Eliot wanted a photograph of the former and got one of the latter, than he definitely encountered both. What did he expect?
Marx’s biographer Lee Siegel provided an excellent overview in The New Yorker, decoding the resentments and condescension that pulsates in their correspondence. Eliot huffily writes to Marx that their friendship has “greatly enhanced my credit in the neighbourhood, and particularly with the greengrocer across the street. Obviously I am now someone of importance,” displaying the thinly veiled passive-aggression that’s a mainstay of British humor. By contrast, Marx responds with American aggressive-aggression, mocking the poet as originally Tom from St. Louis, and opining that the “name Tom fits many things. There was once a famous Jewish actor named Thomashevsky. All male cats are named Tom–unless they have been fixed.”
And yet they needed each other; Eliot to rehabilitate his pre-war image, Marx to receive the benediction of the literati he so coveted. The hostility of their epistolary exchange notwithstanding, they sat down for dinner a year before Eliot’s death in 1965. Marx later described the evening in a letter to Gummo, one of his lesser known siblings; he noted that while he expounded on King Lear, Eliot “asked if I remembered the courtroom scene in Duck Soup. Fortunately I’d forgotten every word. It was obviously the end of the Literary Evening.”
Yet Siegel identifies something subtle in the meeting that Marx overlooked in his predilection to detecting insult. “During the trial in Duck Soup,” Siegel writes, “language is held over the fire of puns, double entendres, and non sequiturs until it melts into nonsense.” Shakespeare’s play is English literature’s preeminent text of life’s meaninglessness, of how as “flies to wanton boys are we to the gods.” Duck Soup is equally conversant with absurdity. “Gentlemen, Chicolini here may talk like an idiot, and look like an idiot, but don’t let that fool you,” Groucho says to the jury, “He really is an idiot.”
Eliot wasn’t trying to dismiss Marx so much as draw a connection between Shakespeare and Groucho, Siegel argues; in his imperfect way, the poet was offering Marx “subtle homage to his intellect.” Their encounter has the feel of a tragic Modernist fable about the impossibility of communication; two radically different men—one an iconoclast, the other an elitist—both geniuses in their respective domains, forever blown about on the winds of their own insecurity and anger.
“It is impossible to say just what I mean!” Eliot wrote in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and that’s the central problem of trying to live an authentic life. “Would it have been worth while if one… turning toward the window, should say:/’That is not it at all, /That is not what I meant, at all.’” Separated by class, by upbringing, by nation, by ethnicity, by religion, Eliot and Marx’s distance may seem marked, but all of us are separated from one another regardless. Facing such the predicament of our myriad alienations, Modernist poetry responds with a plaintive whine, while Jewish comedy is perfectly content to laugh.