Groucho Marx and T.S. Eliot Become Unexpected Pen Pals, Exchanging Portraits & Compliments (1961)


Grou­cho Marx and T.S. Eliot: they’ve got to rank as one of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry’s most sur­pris­ing pair of pen pals. More intrigu­ing­ly still, they first got in touch — as lumi­nar­ies seem to do — out of the spir­it of mutu­al admi­ra­tion. Marx took the praise beyond Eliot’s poet­ry to his looks: “Why you haven’t been offered the lead in some sexy movies I can only attribute to the basic stu­pid­i­ty of the cast­ing direc­tors.” This he wrote in the let­ter of June 19, 1961 above, after hav­ing received a por­trait of the poet, from the poet, in exchange for a por­trait of the come­di­an, from the come­di­an. This con­sti­tutes only part of what The Econ­o­mist calls “among the strangest and most delight­ful epis­tles ever cre­at­ed.” That same arti­cle quotes a dark­er obser­va­tion on Eliot from Antho­ny Julius’ T.S. Eliot, Anti-Semi­tism, and Lit­er­ary Form: “Anti-Semi­tism sup­plied part of the mate­r­i­al out of which he cre­at­ed poet­ry.”

There we have only one of the rea­sons to believe that the author of The Waste Land count­ed as no friend of the Jew­ish peo­ple. Yet at least in cor­re­spon­dence, between 1961 and 1964, he did befriend one par­tic­u­lar Jew­ish per­son. “Enter Grou­cho,” the Econ­o­mist arti­cle con­tin­ues, “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.’ ” The famous quip could well have come at the end of Marx and Eliot’s first, and last, meet­ing in per­son, a din­ner at the Eliot house. “There were awk­ward lulls in the con­ver­sa­tion,” accord­ing to Anna Knoebel at The Out­let. “Nei­ther man was inclined to dis­cuss his own work, while the oth­er was eager to praise it. They stopped writ­ing short­ly there­after.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Ray Brad­bury Gabs with Grou­cho Marx on You Bet Your Life (1955)

T.S. Eliot, as Faber & Faber Edi­tor, Rejects George Orwell’s “Trot­skyite” Nov­el Ani­mal Farm (1944)

T.S. Eliot Reads His Mod­ernist Mas­ter­pieces “The Waste Land” and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on cities, Asia, film, lit­er­a­ture, and aes­thet­ics. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on his brand new Face­book page.

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