Monday 2 October 2017

Groucho Marx danced on Hitler's grave

I just learnt that Groucho Marx climbed a pile of rubble that marked the site of Adolf Hitler's bunker, the site of Hitler's death, and performed a two-minute Charleston.

So it is said. Matthew Coniam, who has written extensively about the Marx brothers has some reservations. He says that most stories about Groucho, and quotes supposedly from him, are invented: this one is attested to by those who claimed to have been there, so is probably true but Mr. Coniam has some doubts.

What it smacks of to me is the kind of exaggeration that is epidemic where Groucho is concerned, because his reputation demands it, and the desire to have a personal anecdote to add to the pile must be so overwhelming that I'm
sure I'd succumb too. What I could see happening is Groucho doing some sort of disrespectful jig for a second or two, which naturally becomes "a frenetic Charleston, for at least a minute or two" in the telling. A related issue, which these conversations always seem to highlight, is why such a wall of defensiveness surrounds Groucho legends. Questioning them always means putting one's neck on the block!

(Robert Dwan's book on Groucho says explicitly that it "went on maybe for a minute or more." And I must stress that, as I said first, this belongs very much in the 'possible' category, unlike a great many other widely believed stories about him!)

There are hundreds of stories about Groucho, in many cases supported by eyewitness claims, that are demonstrably untrue. Sometimes they are professional press stories, sometimes the work of people who just want to have a great Groucho story to tell. As I said first, this one could well be true, I'm not saying it isn't. I'd say there's a strong likelihood that, in moderated form, it is. But there's no real a priori reason to think so, given the profusion of Groucho anecdotes that all tend to promote the same image of Groucho as the wildly impulsive, convention-be-damned character that his legend portrays him as. The conclusion I came to is that this simply is not the man he was, and so I am always a little cautious with these sort of stories. He was basically a very serious fellow when 'off', which fans who cling to the idea that he and his screen persona were the same are very reluctant to accept. It's no big deal, though - I just made the point that - as with any celebrity anecdote, but in his case multiplied by a factor of ten - Groucho stories should always be taken with a pinch of salt.

However, a friend of mine asked a friend of his, Groucho's assistant, Henry Golas who mailed back:
Groucho certainly said he did it, but whether it was for a full two minutes, not sure how we could know...

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