ON JULY 27, 1977, I was appointed my grandfather's conservator. I was 26 and suddenly in the ironic position of caretaker to a man I had always believed to be invincible--a man who now lay dying. My grandfather was Groucho Marx, and if he were still alive, next Tuesday would be his 100th birthday.
The chef at Trader Vic's in Beverly Hills is probably relieved he's not around to celebrate it. My grandfather's annual birthday dinner at that restaurant always ended the same way, with one of his trademark tirades. "This food is lousy. Take it back and dump it on the chef's head!" he would order the waiter. I pitied anyone who didn't know he was a regular customer. Because this was just my grandfather's way--Groucho was often at his grouchiest (the attitude came before the nickname) when he was showing his appreciation.
Even as a young child, I understood that my grandfather's gruff behavior was a facade. He was always eager to have his grandson around. He would spend hours asking me about school, earnestly discussing whatever I was studying. But as soon as his guests arrived, he slipped back into his irritable Groucho persona. And they had better arrive on time--if dinner was at 7, that was when Groucho began eating, whether his guests, no matter how important, were there or not.
Although I felt I understood him, I was still awed that this larger-than-life image I saw at the movies could step off the screen and become real. On and off screen, he always had an answer; no one could best him. To me, he was a hero. And unlike today's action-macho characters who rely on heavy artillery, Grandpa Groucho could get out of any tight spot with just a look and a well-placed one-liner.
Being Groucho's grandson didn't mean I had a Hollywood childhood. The only time I tried to take advantage of having a famous grandfather was when I was 11 years old. It was the summer of 1962, and I was away at camp. One afternoon, Robbie Edwards boasted that his ancestors had come to America on the Mayflower.
"Big deal," I replied. "My grandfather is Groucho Marx." Robbie didn't believe me, so I bet him 50 cents. There was just one problem. How was I going to prove it? My prayers were answered several days later when I received an unexpected surprise, a letter from Grandpa Groucho:
Your mother tells me you're having a hot time at camp, and I thought that by this time you might have written me a letter describing your activities. What's the good of me being your grandfather if you don't send me any news about yourself?
How long are you going to be up there?
When you get back, be sure to give me a ring. I will invite you over to swim and throw water on the French poodles.
Hoping this reaches you by Pony Express, I still remain your grandfather,
Elated, I ran to Robbie's cabin to collect my winnings. Unfortunately, Robbie had left because someone in his family was ill. So much for milking the family name.
Although I never got my 50 cents, I did spend many days that summer swimming in Groucho's pool and harassing the dogs (one of which was named De Soto, after the sponsor of "You Bet Your Life"). I had a standing invitation to hang out with my grandfather, and that summer was much like every summer. In the mornings, I'd bum a ride with my mother, Irene (she separated from my father, Groucho's son Arthur, when I was 10), to Groucho's house in Beverly Hills. Upon my arrival, Groucho would kiss me on the cheek, his mustache, with its unmistakable scent of cigar, tickling my face.
Groucho had recently completed a 14-year run as the wise-cracking host of NBC's popular quiz show, "You Bet Your Life." Now he was 71 and semi-retired, but even when he was working, he found plenty of time to be a grandfather. We swam together and watched cartoons--"Crusader Rabbit" was our favorite. Both avid Dodger fans, we listened to the games on the radio, arguing about whether the team would pull it off that year. And in 1965, we both were on the edge of our seats, cheering for Sandy Koufax the night he pitched his perfect game. Groucho never used a one-liner when he was talking about baseball; baseball was sacred.
When I was an adolescent, Groucho had yet to be turned into a living legend. It had been more than a decade since the Marx Brothers, as a team, had made a film and even longer since they had made one that was considered worth watching. Their early efforts, including 1929's "The Cocoanuts" and "Animal Crackers" in 1930, had propelled the brothers to stardom. But by the 1950s, their movies, including "Duck Soup" and "A Night at the Opera," had been all but forgotten, dismissed as mildly funny. (It was a source of much amusement to Groucho when, in the late '60s, their films were labeled masterpieces of sophisticated wit.)