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Love, Groucho : Comedian's Letters to Daughter Show a Gentler, Unknown Side

September 07, 1989|DENNIS McLELLAN | Times Staff Writer

The Groucho Marx the public knew was the leering, cigar-smoking iconoclast with the greasepaint mustache, the bobbing eyebrows, the loping walk and caustic wit. To a posh woman in "A Day at the Races," who huffed that she had never been so insulted in her life, Groucho said: "Don't worry, it's early yet."

The Groucho Marx his daughter, Miriam Marx Allen, knew was a homebody who did his own grocery shopping--an often moody but always loving father with a passion for reading and listening to Gilbert and Sullivan records.

It's the gentler side of the acid-tongued comedian that Allen wants to portray in a book she's writing--and hoping to sell--about growing up with the man the world knew as J. Cheever Loophole, Wolf J. Flywheel and a string of other movie aliases.

Tentatively titled "Love and Kisses, Padre: Letters From Groucho Marx With a Memoir by his Daughter Miriam Marx Allen," the as-yet-unsold book will include excerpts from 255 letters Groucho sent to his eldest daughter between 1938 and 1967. (Allen and her older brother, Arthur, had called their father "Padre" ever since Arthur learned the world for "father" in high school Spanish class.)

"I want people to see a different side of Groucho from the leering, sex-mad, constantly funny one. This is seeing him as nobody has showed," said Allen, 62, seated in the living room of her modest condominium in San Clemente.

A recovering alcoholic who had her last drink in 1977, the same year her father died at age 86, Allen says her book also will chronicle her battle with the bottle--a 30-year struggle that put her in and out of hospitals and psychiatric clinics and ruined her marriage.

But the memoir--which is in the hands of a literary agent who is in the process of helping shape Allen's transcribed taped reminiscences into book form--will deal primarily with her childhood, growing up in Beverly Hills. Dick Cavett, a long-time Groucho fan, has agreed to write an introduction, according to Allen.

A friendly, mild-mannered woman who bears a slight resemblance to Groucho, Allen received her first letter from her father when she was 10. She was vacationing in Catalina with the next-door neighbors and Groucho wrote to say how much he missed her "big feet clunking around the house."

Groucho wrote many letters to his daughter while he was performing out of town, particularly on USO tours during World War II.

"He didn't approve of long-distance calls," Allen said. "He felt a person could take the time and sit down and write a letter."

Excerpts from the letters--misspellings and grammatical errors intact--illustrate what Allen calls "the father, the caring man, the human being."

Here's Groucho on:

Show business (1941): "This is a tough racket, and all the heartaches and sleepless nights, make it a pretty thankless profession, unless of course you are one of the lucky few who put over a hit, and then, everything looks different, and all the anxious moments are forgotten."

The family dog, Duke (1941): "How are you and my dog Duke? You apparently think Duke belongs to you don't you? Well I had it out with Duke one day when we were together on the bike. I said Duke who do you belong to? Miriam or me? He looked up at me and winked. He said, I like Miriam, she is a nice kid, and occasionally brushes my coat and throws me a bone, but to compare her to you is sheer folly. My Groucho old boy, you are my man, that's the first time he had ever called me Groucho, and believe me I was thrilled to my finger tips, he usually called me Julius, and to hear him saying Groucho affected me deeply . . . I have never been attached to a dog like I am to this one . . . if you see him around the house, kiss him for me."

Doing "You Bet Your Life" on radio (1948): "As you know, I was embarrassed about doing a quiz show, for it is considered the lowest form of radio life, but all of my friends, the ones who make big salaries and listen to Information Please and other erudite programs, are nuts about this. I just don't understand it, but apparently the quality of ad libbing on the air is so low that if anyone comes along with even a moderately fresh note he's considered practically a genius. Don't be surprised, but I think your old man has finally arrived in radio."

On Miriam's dating a man named John, whom she met on an elevator (1947): "Was the elevator going up at the time, or down? This is very important, for going down in an elevator one always has that sinking feeling and for all I know you may have this confused with love. If you were going up, it is clearly a case of love at first sight and it also proves that he is a rising young man."

Allen makes it clear from the outset that "Love and Kisses, Padre" will be no "Daddy Dearest." She loved her father, she says, but that doesn't mean he was perfect.

"He was always there for me," she said. "Moody? Yes. Difficult at times? Yes. But a loving father and one that I knew loved me and that I could depend on."

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