When journalist Charlotte Chandler phoned Groucho Marx and asked him for an interview, she didn't realize how slim her chances were. Later she found out. "He was rejecting all interviews at that time," Miss Chandler told me recently, over lunch. "But I was lucky. When I called, it was the first time in five years that he had answered his own phone. He hated the phone and would let it ring for 15 minutes if there was no one else to answer it!"
She explained her project. Groucho replied that Life magazine had offered him $10,000 for an interview that very day, and he had refused. He added that he wouldn't talk to her for $30,000! "And of course, I wasn't offering a thing," Miss Chandler recalls. "It was an intimidating beginning."
When Groucho realized she was calling from a nearby hotel, however, he asked her to come over "so he could say No in person." When Miss Chandler arrived, Groucho took her on a tour of "his collection -- what he called his Marxibilia." They had dinner, talked about baseball, and became friends.
Many months later, not long after Groucho's death, their friendship resulted in a long and immensely detailed book called "Hello I Must Be Going: Groucho and His Friends." It describes Groucho's later years, and gives glimpses of his long experience as a comedian, movie and TV star, and member of the quintessential show-biz family.
Looking back on her association with Groucho, Miss Chandler thinks she learned a lot about him during that first tentative dinner at his home. "He made it clear he was inviting me tom dinner, not form dinner," she recalls. "He explained that they didn't eat anybody at his house.
"The meal itself was successful and happy. I think our whole friendship started because he happened to be alone at suppertime that night. He didn't like to east alone. He remembered the days when he was in New York, eating at the automat with a lot of people he didn't know, and hoping he wouldn't have to do that all his life. He used to say no meal in the world is worth eating unless you have someone to complain to if the toast is burnt . . . ."
Did Groucho have a theory of comedy? "His theory of comedy was that he didn't have one. If it gets a laugh, leave it in! That was his big analysis."
Yet Groucho had a special respect for comedians -- such as Allen and Cosby -- who create their own characters and write their own material. Even when he disapproved of a colleague's private life -- he hated w. c. Fields's drinking, for example, and the gambling of his brothers Chico and Zeppo -- he could separate professional respect from personal disagreement. "He was extraordinarily accepting to people's differences," says Miss Chandler. "In fact, it was more than a tolerance: He simply didn't set himself up to judge anyone."
Groucho went to the movies often in his later years -- a couple of times a week -- and was often disappointed. "He didn't like today's films as much as the movies of the past," reports Miss Chandler. "He didn't like nudity, or the kind of language they use today. He said he was an old-fashioned man who grew up with Horatio Alger, and those were his values. He said you didn't have to take off your clothes . . . . He felt this was a way to get by with less story, dialogue, and humor -- an excuse for not being able to handle anything else."
Among movies old and new, Groucho liked comedy best, though he rarely smiled at a movie. Indeed, he was a man who never laughed, except occasionally when talking about his family. With his serious streak, might he have wanted to make a serious film, as Woody Allen did with "Interiors"? According to Miss Chandler , "He said he didn't. He said comedy was harder -- that it's more difficult to make people laugh than to make them cry."
In sum, says Miss Chandler, Groucho was "a current man with old-fashioned ideas. He was also quiete a chivalrous person, with an extremely romantic conception of women. But they wouldn't let him keep this conception -- they were always jumping off the pedestal, and that disappointed him. HE felt women should be diffident, feminine. The thing he hated most was vulgarity in a woman."
Groucho had a tremendous respect for literary work. He was inordinated proud of his own achievements in print, and encouraged the writing of a full-length book by Miss Chandler. "In fact, it was his idea that it should be a wholebook, " she recalls. "He said he didn't tell jokes; he only told the truth, and sometimes that'sm joke. There was lot of truth in everything he said, even though it came out funny. And he was all for the book idea. . . ."
He even suggested his own title: "Groucho Marx and Other Short Stories." But Miss Chandler stuck with her own name for the volume, "Hello I Must Be going," because of its emphasis on the older Groucho. Knowing him as well as she did, she wanted to show the world "this beautiful example of a man having some of the greatest times of his life in what's supposed to be extreme old ag). . . ."