Simply a Grouch

In death, the lunatic legacy of Groucho Marx looms larger than life - the man who would not join any club that would have him as a member, the comic con man who would criticize a king to make a beggar laugh.

While many other classic comedians are fondly if only dimly remembered, Groucho Marx became a role model for a cynical generation that came of age in the 1970s, recognizing that they needed their own Marxist guide to prick the pomposity and platitudes of politicians promulgating the Vietnam war. It was Groucho, not Karl Marx, who may have hit upon the deeper reasons the United Stateswas in Vietnam. He spelled out the absurdity of war as Rufus T. Firefly, the loping, leering, cigar-chomping, eyebrow-raising, wisecracking prime minister of embattled Freedonia in the 1934 film classic "Duck Soup."

When asked to call off a war, Firefly declares, "It's too late, I've already paid a month's rent on the battlefield." Pointing at Margaret Dumont, the richest and most powerful woman in Freedonia, he says, "You're fighting for this woman's honor, which is probably more than she ever did." Both were absurd sentiments, but many embittered Americans thought they could be applied to the unpopular war.

Now along comes Groucho - the Life and Times of Julius Henry Marx by ex-Time Magazine book editor and critic Stefan Kanfer, a biography with a simple premise: that Groucho Marx was on and off stage a grouch, a lonely and sometimes cruel Uncle Julius whose uncensored wit sent audiences into reels of laughter but reduced wives to tears and drink.

"He was the middle child. His two oldest brothers, Chico (Leonard) and Harpo (Adolph), were the adored older sons while the two younger sons, Gummo (Milton) and Zeppo (Herbert), paired off," Kanfer said in a recent interview. "Groucho's mother called him 'the jealous one.' He wanted to be a doctor and she forced him into vaudeville. Can you imagine a Jewish boy wanting to be a doctor and winding up a comedian instead?

"All of this made him prickly, a lifelong insomniac, a man whose idea of a good time was to be alone and read a book. Two of his wives drank ... his last companion got high on drugs. He had this ability to seek out women who were made to feel uncomfortable," said Kanfer of Groucho, who died in 1977.

The book has scenes of maids fleeing Groucho rather than endure the sharp tongue that made him rich on TV's "You Bet Your Life." Groucho may have been the greatest ad-lib artist of all time, but Kanfer says his ad libs were often carefully scripted and his famous madcap on-screen persona was partly the result of some brilliant comedy writers - men like George S. Kaufman and S.J. Perelman - as well as himself.

The real-life Groucho even wanted to belong - a feeling that probably led to one of his most famous quips, the author says. When an anti-Semitic swim club refused to let his daughter join, Groucho responded: "She's only half-Jewish. How about if she only goes in up to her waist?"

The wit was also quick. Once on "You Bet Your Life" he asked a woman why she had 10 children, and she replied she loved her husband. Without missing a beat, Groucho said, "I love my cigar but sometimes I take it out of my mouth."

Kanfer's book breaks into two halves: A high-spirited first part tells the tale of the Marx Brothers show business rise - how the act was honed for years in vaudeville, egged on by an aggressive stage mother and inspired by New York's ethnic mix. Chico played the Italian immigrant speaking broken English, Harpo was a mute Irishman with curls and an angelic smile, and the slouching, wisecracking Groucho was a Jewish immigrant who lost his accent but kept his sarcasm and sense of absurdity. The second half is the darker tale, recounting Groucho's personal failures, divorces and troubled last years when a younger, mentally troubled actress took over his life.

Andy Marx, Groucho's grandson, calls the book definitive. In a review of it for Variety magazine, he said: "Sure, he was married three times, a modest number by Hollywood standards. And yes, he was abusive to the people around him, including his wives and children, and was a narcissistic parent. But these traits aren't exactly rare in the entertainment industry. And the profile of the comedian with the dark sad persona is as old as the history of clowns."

"Groucho: The Life and Times of Julius Henry Marx," by Stefan Kanfer. 480 pages. Alfred Knopf. $30.