The Jewish wit and the morose anti-Semite: The Unexpected Alliance Between TS Elliot And Groucho Marx
The second volume of T.S. Eliot’s letters was recently published by Yale University Press, with new materials and previously unpublished missives. This is as good a time as any to reflect on Eliot’s most fascinating correspondent. Ezra Pound? Well, no. James Joyce? Hmm. No. Paul Valery. Non! I am referring to Groucho Marx. And no, this isn’t a joke. The letters between T.S. Eliot and Julius Henry Marx are among the strangest and most delightful epistles ever created.
Alas, the new volume only goes up to 1922, so it doesn’t include this remarkable correspondence, which began in 1961 and seems to have ended in 1964, shortly before Eliot’s death. I say “seems” because the complete set of letters has never, to my knowledge, been published. A handful of the letters appear in “The Groucho Letters”, a selection that came out in 1965. In his biography of Groucho, Stefan Kanfer quotes excerpts from letters that are not in the selection, so it can be assumed that at least a few unpublished gems are out there somewhere.
At this point, I should insert some boilerplate reflection, something along the lines of “Two more unlikely correspondents could not be conceived of”, etc. And on the surface, the two men certainly are a surpassingly odd couple. As Anthony Julius puts it in his book, “T.S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism, and Literary Form”, Eliot was “able to place his anti-Semitism at the service of his art. Anti-Semitism supplied part of the material out of which he created poetry.” And not just his poetry. In polemics like “After Strange Gods” and “The Idea of a Christian Society”, Eliot elaborated his belief that Jews had no place in modern life.
Enter Groucho, whose wit was as uniquely Jewish as it was universally comic. Where Eliot was the famous defender of tradition, order and civilised taste, the crux of Groucho’s humour was flouting tradition, fomenting chaos and outraging taste. “I have had a perfectly wonderful evening,” he once said to a host, “but this wasn’t it.” And: “I remember the first time I had sex—I kept the receipt.” And: “The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”