Author Steve Stoliar
Raised Eyebrows -
Inside Groucho's House
Interview by Stuart Galbraith IV
The Marx Bros., and Groucho Marx in particular, have been the subject of a seemingly endless series of biographies, photo books, and histories - literally dozens of books. But Steve Stoliar's Raised Eyebrows - My Years Inside Groucho's House, first published in 1996 and now reissued with a brand-new and essential Afterword, is something altogether different.
Stoliar was a nineteen-year-old Marx Bros. fan who spearheaded the campaign to get the long-unavailable Animal Crackers (1930) officially re-released (he succeeded), and this led to a job working as Groucho's personal secretary and archivist, at Groucho's very own hilltop mansion in Beverly Hills above Sunset Boulevard.
It was a fan's dream-come-true and then some, but also an experience tempered by other factors. Groucho was already in his mid-eighties and in failing health, including creeping senility. He had been divorced from his third wife since 1969, but had taken a thirty-something companion, an aspiring actress and entrepreneur named Erin Fleming. She quickly took a proprietary interest in the comedian, driving a wedge between Groucho and his adult children, all of whom felt Fleming was little more than a gold digger out to steal his money and cash in on the renewed interest in all things Marx. A few people, notably biographer Charlotte Chandler (Lyn Erhard), in her book on Groucho called Hello, I Must Be Going, argued that Fleming made Groucho happy in his last years, but more discerning eyes recognized that she was, at the very least, verbally and emotionally abusive, and that Fleming's own schizophrenia, unpredictable mood swings and accompanying paranoia ultimately did far more harm than good. In his lucid states, Groucho himself seems to have been aware of Fleming's motives and personal shortcomings, but was also so desperately lonely that he was willing to put up with her - at least until he no longer could put up much of a fight himself.
Stoliar's book isn't a biography, nor does it claim to be an unbiased, third-person account of those years. Rather, it uniquely and with remarkable recall documents his perspective alone. It conveys only his experiences and from his vantage point. This might seem limiting, but Stoliar turns this into great advantage. He calls 'em as he sees 'em, as an outsider neither in the Fleming "camp" of eccentric hangers-on nor allied with the anti-Fleming faction, led by Groucho's middle-fifties son, Arthur, who at the time also viewed Stoliar with a certain degree of suspicion - the yet-another stranger rummaging about his father's home.
The book is remarkable in numerous ways. It captures the tail end of Hollywood's Golden Age, as sometimes vibrant, sometimes aged friends and colleagues like Bob Hope, Mae West, and Olivia de Havilland stop by to say hello, and peppered throughout are moments of great wit proving that the Groucho of the '30s films and the great You Bet Your Life quiz show hadn't faded entirely.
But, more intriguingly, it explores with great honesty the sad truth that even Hollywood legends get swept up in the same bitter squabbles over money and control as other families, that long-repressed resentments erupt when adult children, friends, and caregivers grapple over a parent's deteriorating health and decisions that have to be made about their long-term care and business affairs. Add to that mix a delusional opportunist and you've got a recipe for total disaster.
The new version of Raised Eyebrows nicely brings things to a close. Groucho may have died nearly 35 years ago, but the fight over his estate raged on for years thereafter, and it took even more time for Groucho's three mostly estranged children - Arthur, Miriam, and Melinda - to find the strength to revisit those last years through Stoliar's book. Happily, he reports, for them Raised Eyebrows help fill some gaps, and their new comments not only further authenticate Stoliar's account of that time, they also offer new bits of insight.
It also brings Erin Fleming's controversial role in Groucho's life to its violent and unhappy end. After a widely reported trial over his estate in the early 1980s - I can still hear Erin screaming, "You killed Groucho Marx!" in footage broadcast over several days on Entertainment Tonight - Fleming all but vanished from the Hollywood landscape. By the time Raised Eyebrows was first published back in 1996, even Stoliar had lost track of her.
A personal story: Some years ago, I was strolling along Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade when I saw a sixtyish homeless woman seated about 20 feet in front of me. Our eyes met and my startled reaction gave myself away. In an instant, I realized I had stumbled upon Erin Fleming, now a pathetic bag lady. There was no mistaking those steely blue eyes and older Paulette Goddard-like features, no matter that she was dressed in ratty hand-me-downs and looked like she hadn't bathed in weeks. Recognized, she scurried away and I didn't try to follow her. I did decide if I ever ran into her again, I'd offer her a meal and see if she'd be willing to be interviewed. Until I moved to Japan in 2003, whenever I was in Santa Monica, I kept an eye out for her, but that was the only and last time I ever saw her. Stoliar's book more or less confirms what I had seen, and he further chronicles Fleming's depressing later years.
Stuart Galbraith IV: Besides authoring this wonderful book, you were instrumental in getting the Marx Bros.'s Animal Crackers re-released. People forget that up to that point it was practically a lost film and virtually impossible to see.
Steve Stoliar: Yes, that's why I felt I had to explain why it was such a coup to see the awful bootleg of the film in Anaheim and then help orchestrate the striking of new prints and the official re-release of the film.
Galbraith: Along the same lines, in the book you extol the virtues of the Z Channel, which was a kind of artier precursor to HBO and Showtime. Today, of course, people expect instant gratification; if their favorite movie isn't out on DVD or Blu-ray RIGHT NOW they're up in arms. When I was growing up in Detroit, we had four VHF and four UHF stations. The idea of seeing a movie on, Oh-My-God! Cable, or videocassette was once terribly exotic. (Of course, now even The Story of Mankind and Double Dynamite are available.)
Stoliar: Somehow, my friends and I were gifted with the ability to stay up till all hours if there was something on TV that we wanted to see. I no longer have this power. But if TV Guide said Duck Soup was on at 2:35am, I'd just stay up past Johnny Carson, past Tom Snyder, into the netherworld of Cal Worthington commercials and the wee hours - provided it wasn't a school night. No repertory theaters until I'd gotten into classic films via TV. I find it frustrating that classic films are accessible at the touch of a button now, but that doesn't translate to hordes of young people sampling old black-and-white films. There's too much choice now, and I think, on the whole, they gravitate toward stuff in color, more recent, more easily understandable. Alas.
Galbraith: You prefer the team's Paramount films to their later, MGM efforts, including A Night at the Opera, which some consider to be their very best. Why?
Stoliar: Why? Because!!! The Paramounts are purer, funnier, sillier, more absurd - even the first two, with their staginess. MGM had a way of "homogenizing" artists, even as they lavished great production values on them. I'd much rather see a breezy, pre-Code Warners gangster drama or nonstop Paramount comedy than admire sets and wardrobe in MGM's statelier - but not necessarily funnier - films. I don't dislike Opera, but for me - and for the purists - it's the beginning of the end, not the pinnacle. A Day at the Races represents quite a sharp drop from Opera, and then it's rather a plummet thereafter. Every film had moments or sequences, but in terms of consistently funny/entertaining, Opera starts the car rolling down the hill. Opera and Races were the Marxes' highest-grossing films, which means they were the right films for the mid-'30s, but younger generations like the craziness of the Paramounts.
Galbraith: Did you ever have this debate with Groucho, knowing that he practically worshiped Thalberg?
Stoliar: No, but Groucho himself shifted to favoring the Paramounts in later years - even as he continued to laud Thalberg. I'm sure his decades-long preference for Opera and Races was based on the prestige of being at MGM coupled with the fact that those were the two big moneymakers. But I guess the film critics, historians and baby boomers had succeeded in convincing him that the earlier films showed the Marx Brothers off to better advantage.
Galbraith: Groucho had a second career as host of You Bet Your Life. Though vintage game shows have since become quite popular on cable and DVD, You Bet Your Life was an unexpected hit in syndication something like 35 years ago, when it was already 20 years old. Why has it stood the test of time?
Stoliar: Groucho's interplay with "average" Americans holds up nicely over time. I'm always amazed that people are as young as they are, because they look so much older in '50s clothing and makeup and hairstyles. But Groucho is the obvious reason for its enduring popularity.
Galbraith: Shout! Factory released two excellent collections of episodes about ten years ago, but will a more definitive home video release ever happen? Is such a thing even possible?
Stoliar: I don't know. I know that some of the earlier episodes weren't syndicated because one of the writers - Doc Fisher - was holding out for a lot more money than the others when "Best of Groucho" was first syndicated, so they just said, "Screw it - there are enough episodes." Not sure what years are on the boxed sets, nor if one could conceivably put out an all-encompassing box/crate set.
Galbraith: Although he did make occasional television and movie appearances, Groucho sort of vanished from the end of You Bet Your Life until his reemergence on Dick Cavett's show and later as managed by Erin Fleming. As Cavett notes in his introduction to those earliest Groucho interviews, he managed to capture him right on the cusp, just before his health went into decline. How would you describe Groucho's physical and mental state the time you first met him?
Stoliar: Actually, I was pleased to see how together he was when I first spoke to him on the phone and then met him, because seeing the one-man show was such a sledge-hammer blow, seeing him that old and frail. I so resented the press for perpetuating the idea that "Good Ol' Groucho, at 80, just as funny as ever!" But in a relaxed atmosphere, at the lunch table or reading in his bedroom, he made a lot of sense, said a lot of funny and/or interesting things, and got around okay - just more slowly. So your other comment is correct: His witticisms got fewer and farther between as his health deteriorated, but he never entirely stopped being "Groucho."
Galbraith: There's this strange mixture of emotions at work, isn't there? One is personally awed meeting somebody who made such a big and personal impact, and yet a) while you know all about them YOU are a total stranger to them; and b) seeing them in such a physically and/or mentally diminished state is quietly distressing.
Stoliar: Yep. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. A real maturing experience for me. I'm hanging out with my hero, meeting his friends and brothers and associates, but I'm watching my idol slowly fade out - plus dealing with Fleming.
Galbraith: Along similar lines, I treasured my LP of Groucho at Carnegie Hall but could understand why others thought Groucho should have gracefully retired long before he did. At social gatherings, were you seeing him through rose-colored glasses or were there whispers noting how old and feeble he had become?
Stoliar: Yes, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, we were simultaneously electricfied to be in the presence of Groucho Marx, and saddened/shocked at how old he'd become.
Galbraith: Reading the various Groucho biographies, it's clear two things profoundly influenced his life in ways that didn't impact the other brothers. The first was losing his fortune in the Stock Market Crash of 1929, an event that seems to have haunted him for the rest of his life, even after he became so rich, he didn't really have to worry about money. Did you get any sense of this first-hand?
Stoliar: Apparently he was quite stingy for years, but when Erin took over, she really got him to open up his wallet for interior decorating and chi-chi clothing and stuff.
Galbraith: The other overriding influence was Groucho's lack of a formal education. He spent the rest of his life trying to make up for it. For some reason, I have this image of Groucho handing you a copy of Treasure Island, or maybe Murder in the Cathedral, and saying, "Here, kid. Read this."
Stoliar: He did do that, but not with those books. He handed me an advance copy of Dick Cavett's memoir, saying, "Read this. You'll like it." I did - and I did! And it led to what continues to be a wonderful friendship. I also remember him handing me Bruce Jay Friedman's The Dick and saying he thought I'd like it, which I did. Once I got turned on to the Algonquin set, I asked about borrowing his books. He said I was welcome to borrow any of his books - so long as I returned them. Quite a lending library, especially the inscribed Benchleys.
Galbraith: One of the great paradoxes of Groucho is that he coveted great wit and the company of intellectuals, and you'd think he'd want that in a wife, too. And yet from what I can tell, he had this string of trophy wives who almost by design were not his intellectual equal. He didn't seem to like any competition from them, or for that matter, from his writer-son Arthur.
Stoliar: When I was younger, I thought Groucho would've gone for someone witty, like Dorothy Parker. But he was more the Pygmalion type, latching onto young, pretty, not-well-educated women and then trying to educate them.
Galbraith: At least two of Groucho's ex-wives were also alcoholics, and Erin had busloads of her own baggage. I wonder if something in Groucho's early life led him to be drawn to these self-destructive women?
Stoliar: Not sure, but all three wives had drinking problems. I hasten to add, however, that "blaming" Groucho for their drinking is rather na•ve (not that you are doing that). For instance, Groucho's second wife, Kay, had a substantial alcohol problem during her earlier marriage to Leo Gorcey. It's possible Groucho was drawn to the same personality type, without ever becoming enlightened enough to break the pattern.
Galbraith: There's an episode of This Is Your Life, I think it was a show honoring Harold Lloyd, where they surprised him at the Brown Derby. Groucho happened to be sitting at the next table, and he practically shanghais the show away from Lloyd. I think it illustrates how much Groucho loved being famous and his need to be center-stage. When you knew him, was that need satiated or did he still get a charge out of an adoring audience, and was it for that reason that he allowed Erin Fleming to find him new work? Was he a Willy Clark or an Al Lewis?
Stoliar: He wasn't always "on." He was a serious, thinking man - not just a schtick guy. But conversation was almost always peppered with clever remarks. I don't think he hungered for the limelight, although he appreciated the applause and crowds.
Galbraith: What about Groucho's personality surprised you? In what ways was he different from, say, the You Bet Your Life Groucho?
Stoliar: Well, he was much older and slower and hazier, for the most part. But he was still very perceptive and cared a lot about what was on the news or happening in showbiz.
Galbraith: You recently stumbled across a photo of Groucho at a George McGovern rally. Did you talk about politics much? Did his liberal views surprise you at the time?
Stoliar: He was a lifelong Democrat and a longtime Nixon-hater. Even though his view of women may have been Victorian (he was, after all, born in 1890), he was quite liberal and left-wing in his politics, which mirrored my own nascent political views.
Galbraith: Your book describes so many wonderful encounters between Groucho and other Hollywood royalty (and non-royalty): George Jessel putting the bite on Groucho; Bob Hope showing up at Groucho's 85th birthday party in order to try out his latest monologue; Harold and Maude's Bud Cort rudely inviting his friends over for a Christmas party. Did such incidents personally disappoint you or change your attitude toward Hollywood's elite?
Stoliar: I was impressed with how personable and down-to-earth the real legends were, which contrasted the younger set, which were the ones that tended to have "an attitude." But I was pleasantly surprised by how easy it was to chat with people I'd only read about or seen in films.
Galbraith: Who struck you as being especially approachable? And were they surprised to encounter a 20-year-old guy who actually knew their work?
Stoliar: Well, S.J. Perelman was a legendary misanthrope who did not suffer fools (and others) gladly. But once he saw that I was "into" the Algonquin set and could pinpoint on of his lines from "Horse Feathers," he seemed to enjoy chatting with me - even as others at the party wondered what had become of "Sid" when he went down the hall to take a leak. Nat Perrin was warm and wonderful. George Burns was a delight. Hal Kanter. Jack Lemmon remains one of the warmest and nicest famous people I've ever spent time with.
Galbraith: Of his famous friends, who was most loyal? Who had Groucho's best interests at heart?
Stoliar: Groucho's friends had Groucho's best interests at heart. Erin's friends were generally peculiar, somewhat hangers-on.
Galbraith: Was Erin Fleming schizophrenic?
Stoliar: Yes, she was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, which seemed to worsen as more time went by, both at Groucho's house and in the years after he died. It may give a reason for some of her behavior, but it does not excuse it. Also, for the record, schizophrenic is not the same as multiple personality, even though they are often confused. The "schism" is between the person and reality; not between warring personalities.
Galbraith: Do you think that she truly believed she was acting in his best interests? Was she just a callous gold digger or do you think on some level, however cockeyed, she truly cared about him on some level?
Stoliar: Yes to all. A very mercurial and complex woman.
Galbraith: Did she ever do anything for Groucho truly altruistic? Did she ever do something for Groucho that wouldn't have happened anyway, without her assistance?
Stoliar: Well, she should be given credit - or blame - for putting him back in the spotlight, so that he went out a legend, rather than a half-forgotten former comedy great. But the Marx Renaissance was already rolling when she came along; she just helped him ride the wave.
Galbraith: What's your favorite memory of your time with Groucho?
Stoliar: Can't pick a snowflake out of a blizzard.
Galbraith: You have a singular achievement in that you and Zeppo Marx dated the same young woman. From your book, I gather Zeppo was a real piece of work.
Stoliar: Zeppo was truly "a character." He lit up the room when he entered it. Big smile. A real kidder. And he looked and felt far younger than his mid-seventies. He seemed about 55. When he and Gummo came up for dinner once, I got a taste - no pun intended - of what it must've been like when they were all alive and well.
Galbraith: It's almost like a running gag: Ask those who knew them who the funniest Marx brother was, and at various times you'll hear Groucho, Chico, Harpo, Zeppo, and even Gummo. Chico and Zeppo seem to have been pretty similar, personality-wise, while Gummo - what little we know of him - seems to have been most like Groucho, but without all the vanity and angst. What were your impressions of him?
Stoliar: Gummo was soft-spoken, but interesting to talk to and he also had a great sense of humor. Since I didn't have a photo of him on hand when he and Zep came to dinner, I took a blank 3 x 5 card and asked him to sign it to me. He did so, adding, "This would be worth a lot more if it were at the bottom of a check."
Galbraith: Has social media like Facebook resulted in you renewing long-lost Marx connections or strangers volunteering new and useful information?
Stoliar: Yes to both. I've gotten back in touch with Andy Marx and more frequent touch with Henry Golas, and it's heartening to hear from so many in the "Marx Brotherhood" of fans and aficionados.
Galbraith: Will people still be watching Marx Bros. movies and/or You Bet Your Life fifty or a hundred years from now?
Stoliar: Ask me then. I sure hope so.
Amazon link for
Raised Eyebrows - My Years Inside Groucho's House
Publisher's Page at Bear Manor Media
Text © Copyright 2011 Stuart Galbraith IV
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2011 Glenn Erickson
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