09/28/05 - groucho and his daughter

In today's excerpt -  a glimpse into the complex, painful relationships between divorced fathers and their daughters.  Here, we see the interaction between Groucho Marx and his college-aged daughter Miriam.  Groucho has long since divorced, Ruth, Miriam's mother, and is now married to Kay.  Every thing in this passage speaks to the heartbreaking interplay between love and misunderstanding:

"... There was more damage on the home front. This was Miriam’s first long stretch away from home, and Groucho wrote weekly letters to the Bennington freshman. They included all sorts of information, about the dog, about Hollywood, about her uncles—about everything except for the most important news of all: Kay was pregnant. It was obvious to anyone who knew him that Groucho had at last found a sexually compatible partner. It was difficult enough for Miriam to accept that the rival for her father’s affection had won out. Even more painful was the knowledge that Groucho had not bothered to tell her that she would shortly have a stepsister; she gleaned that information from a newspaper column. Miriam blasted her father in a letter, and for once he rushed to apologize. Thereafter, he tried to keep Miriam informed of his domestic life—she was one of the first to know about the new house, for example. Groucho and Kay had put the Westwood place up for sale; in a few months, they would move to 1277 Sunset Plaza Drive. But Miriam had been wounded too deeply by this time, and kept an emotional distance from her father and the stepmother who was once her crony. A new flurry of letters offered a double portrait of two affectionate, neurotic individuals who knew exactly how to prey on each other’s vulnerability. Miriam’s sparse letters prove the validity of Lord Halifax’s observation that love is presently out of breath when it has to travel uphill from the child to the parent. Groucho’s wavered between affection and irresponsibility. Now that he had a new and successful marriage, he could allow himself to be solicitous about his ex-wife. In one message he expresses concern for Ruth, advising Miriam, 'See if you can’t shake her out of this alcoholic haze. She needs someone strong to rely on”'— as if Miriam had the objectivity and skill to treat an alcoholic. Nevertheless the freshman made an attempt during her winter break from college, staying with Ruth at the Gramercy Park Hotel, then heatedly moving out on New Year’s Day 1946, because the two were at each other’s throats. Groucho barely alludes to this incident as he takes on different tones. He can be in appropriately coy: 'I look at your picture every day in my bedroom, or does that sound like an old maudlin beer song? At any rate, you’re not a bad looking girl. Would you like to exchange photos?'  In a couple of messages he becomes an authentically worried parent. Addressing himself to Miriam’s radical politics, yet hesitant to impose his own, he mentions a planned dinner at the Marx home. 'Your dream girl Dorothy Parker will be there, and I told her all about you. ... I told her about your attending a Communist meeting in the big City … and that seemed to make her very happy. I don’t want you to be a Communist; all I expect you to be is a good liberal American, and I am sure that you have enough sense for this. I certainly have no objection to your attending any kind of a meeting that interests you, and I think that is the only way you can decide what you want to be.' ...

"Without warning, however, Groucho can seize on his daughter’s insecurities: 'Perhaps it’s the excess weight that you’ve put on that’s responsible for your pessimism.'  Kay 'is getting fat and will soon equal you except that you are not having a baby, I don’t think.'  ' Keep dieting—remember, you still have to catch a man.' On the subject of sex, he first adopts a lighthearted manner: 'I am happy to hear that the man you are going with at the moment is not a fairy; I should have known this—I am sure that no one on the Luce publications is anything but virile.'  Then he switches to innuendo: 'What about a boyfriend—do you have anyone or are you reduced to just going around with women? You don’t say much about this side of your life so you are either hiding a dark secret or Mr. Right … hasn’t come along yet.' ”


Stefan Kanfer


Groucho: The Life and Times of Julius Henry Marx


Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc.


Copyright 2000 by Stefan Kanfer


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