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By Ben Winters

MAY 29, 2000: 

Groucho: The Life and Times of Julius Henry Marx by Stefan Kanfer (Knopf), $30, 465 pages

The idea of the celebrated funny man delighting the world while secretly tormented by his own demons is so commonplace, it's hardly surprising to find it true of Groucho Marx as well, though no less distressing. In Stefan Kanfer's lucid and straight-shooting biography, we meet Marx's domineering svengali of a mother, Miriam, who boosted her entire brood of boys into vaudeville, creating out of a Julius, a Groucho: A penny-pinching and anxious man, terrified of failure, emotionally withdrawn, temperamental and caustic. Later we meet the string of women who would be privy to these charming characteristics; three wives, two daughters and, finally, a manager/mistress/nursemaid, all of whom were charmed by the clown and burned by the man.

It would be impossible to write a Groucho bio without writing a Marx Brothers bio as well, so we also meet Chico, the unrepentant womanizer and gambler ("The first craps game I played I lost $47,000 in one night," he says. "But I learned as I went along. In time I was able to lose more than that."); Zeppo, who shrugged and played the straight man until the moment he could get out and start a real business; and Harpo, sweetly silent on screen, sitting after hours at the Algonquin Hotel with Dorothy Parker and Walter Winchell.

Despite all the painful truths revealed, Kanfer's book has, at times, an element of tribute to it, especially when the author quotes at length from the scripts of various vaudeville routines and films. Not that I'm complaining; it's really almost shocking, considering how quickly most humor becomes dated, that the Marxes really do hold up.

As he charts Groucho's career, from vaudeville circuit to movie studio to radio and television (with a tossed-off book or two along the way), Kanfer does two things brilliantly. First, he is a masterful evoker of worlds, with a great eye and ear for detail. Backstage at Broadway debuts, in Midwestern flophouses or on Hollywood sound stages, the Marx Brothers found themselves in a lot of interesting places (and performing various elaborate, nudity-centered pranks), and Kanfer quite cleverly brings them to life.

Secondly, there is an implicit aesthetic study going on here -- much more interesting than all the pocket psychoanalysis and bedroom tidbits we get along the way -- as Kanfer tries to piece together how and why Groucho's persona shifted and continued to shift: From acerbic anti-establishmentarian to sassy Everyman to quipping, toothless radio host to grand old man of entertainment.

True fans of American comedy will latch on to this aspect of Kanfer's expert biography and let all the painful stuff go by; we prefer to let our clowns cry in peace.

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