Raised Eyebrows: My Years in Groucho’s House By Steve Stoliar
In the past six months I’ve read two books that are memoirs of working in the homes of celebrity performers. Both of them I found because the writers promoting them on Facebook.
The first was Pauline Butcher’s account of working for Frank Zappa, Freak Out: My Life with Frank Zappa. This one has to do with working in the home of Groucho Marx.
I have not been very drawn to celebrity, movie star biographies of late. There are many other things I want to read, and, well, how many nights can one spend staring at the stars shining so brightly and remotely far above? I think I’ve done enough of that and, frankly, it seems like something I was more comfortable doing in my youth.
But these two books, although having to do with stars, and not really about the stars but the reactions of the people around the stars. Raised Eyebrows is much more about Steve Stoliar than it is about Groucho. When Stoliar enters the great stars glow, Groucho is already fading out, running mostly on afterglow. There is also a feeling of having happen on an accident scene where the people who have collided have already done so and it’s all over except for the insurance adjustments, and deciding who is in the wrong through the courts. When the very young Stoliar enters Groucho’s life, he has only recently had a stroke which pretty much ended the late faze of his performing career. He is not the man he once was, except for that occasional, witty, starry afterglow.
I have not read a biography of Groucho and I’m not sure that I would want to now, or one of Zappa for that matter. But this is a highly subjective outsider view by another star gazer who gets very close and sends back the events and feelings of what he experienced by getting so close to the light. When Stoliar enters, the last of Groucho’s heydays is was not the remote past. 1974 was only 13 year after his weekly TV program You Bet Your Life a sort of quiz show that really was a comedy show with Groucho at it’s witty core. We can all remember the stars of very popular programs from 13 years ago can’t we? I mean if we cared enough to know who they were in the first place. Plus the 1960s were a different time, in a different mass media landscape, and if one had a show on one of the three networks, the only channels available, one was at the very center of the culture, such as it was. Not to mention The Marx Brothers many films. So Groucho was hardly a remote past, sad, out of touch, Norma Desmond in 1974. He was Groucho “The One the Only” and we all knew him.
Yet he had such a long career and was born in 1890, and, I hate to break this to you, I hope you are sitting down for this, we all die. Some of us tend to fall apart a little or quite a bit for a short while, or a long while before, at least until some of you buy some gadget from Ray Kurzweil, we eventually die. According to my subjective reading of the subjective book, Groucho had, by some measure, a moderate, and not too horrible four year crash landing. This was mostly due to the strokes. Plus he had the delightful buffer of money. Stoliar enters the house after leading a campaign for the long delayed re-release of The Marx Brothers’ second feature film which had not been available for over 40 yrs. Through that he ends up working for Groucho, answering his fan mail and dealing with his career long collection of memorabilia. But there is more trouble ahead than only the health decline issues. There is Erin Fleming who becomes the main conflict of the story due her polar, often abusive personality and her mental issues. Fleming, an actress of little accomplishment 50 years younger than Groucho, entered the elderly star’s life at the very end, the last 6 years or so of his life. Her relational mess with Groucho, combined with the already messy relationships with his three adult children, that Fleming intentionally adds fuel to, makes for a sad, but very interesting, story of the star’s final three years as seen thought the eyes of the young Stoliar. We do get some very interesting biographical information that perhaps gives us some clues to why it had to get so messy at the end, with court battles over the conservatorship of the dying star. Groucho was unlucky with women. Both of his wives ended up with major problems with heavy drinking. Did he drive them to drinking, was it just that he had an eye for the type for some reason? The second wife, Kay, the former Mrs. Leo Gorcey, had, according to one of her and Groucho’s daughters in the book, already been a heavy drinker with Gorcey. By the way, Leo Gorcey died of liver failure at the age of 51. So we have two alcoholic wives followed by the crazy young thing in his old age. . . Tough luck, or bad karma, whatever. There are lots of stories of the young innocent Stoliar in the house with a steady stream of celebrities, stars of the day whose relationship with Groucho went back to his vaudeville days. There is a lot of fun in the book. Stoliar is a good guy to hang out with and tells it like he sees it. A good read that I can recommend no matter your level of fandom of Groucho. Perhaps a cautionary tale for those elders who have an eye for those 15, 20, or more years younger.