By Steve Stoliar
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Groucho Marx, a comedy icon, lived from 1890 until 1977, first making his name in Vaudeville with his brothers, later making thirteen films with various subsets of those brothers, and finally hosting a long-running quiz show, You Bet Your Life. For many people, this master comedian has been boiled down to a caricature of black-rimmed glasses, a fake moustache, a waggled cigar, and a stooped walk. However, he still has many fans who maintain a more nuanced image of the one, the only Groucho.
One of those fans is Steve Stoliar. As a college student in the early 1970s, Stoliar learned that one of the Marx Brothers classic films, Animal Crackers, was not available for distribution or televising. He and a friend created a movement to have the studio release the film, in the process getting the opportunity to meet his hero, Groucho, as well as his caregiver, Erin Fleming. Once his campaign was successful, Stoliar found himself working for Groucho for the last several years of the comedian's life. He describes his experience in his autobiography, Raised Eyebrows.
Over the course of the book, Stoliar discusses Groucho's decline over his last few years, culminating with his death. A lot of what he has to say shows a man who is surrounded by people who just want to be near him and the various celebrities Stoliar was able to meet during that time. Groucho would fade in and out, sometimes being fully aware of who he was, where he was, and what was happening, other times he was an old man who was being shuffled around, non-cognizant of his situation. It seemed a bittersweet time.
Stoliar was hired, not by Groucho, but by Erin Fleming, a controversial figure who, depending on who tells her story, used Groucho for her own advancement, or actually cared about him. Stoliar's depiction of her is much more nuanced, acknowledging that she cared for Groucho and may have helped to make his final years more bearable for him, but also noting that she was a difficult person to be around, occasionally allowing flashes of anger and selfishness show through the calm façade she generally tried to present.
By the time Stoliar came to work for Groucho, he clearly needed someone to take care of him, and for better or worse, Fleming filled that role. Stoliar saw Groucho's world as various camps. Fleming surrounded herself with her own friends and sycophants who enjoyed being near Groucho, but weren't really his friends (Bud Cort comes across poorly in this regard). Groucho had his own friends, mostly people from his own generation who were also dying, but some current actors who took the time to get to know Groucho and let him get to know them. Finally, Groucho's children, Arthur, Miriam, and Melinda, whose estrangement from Groucho was exacerbated by Fleming's presence.
Although hired by Fleming, Stoliar did not consider himself to be part of her cadre and often wondered when she would fire him. Others, such as Groucho's estranged children, viewed him as one of Fleming's supporters. Stoliar appears to honestly have wanted what was best for his idol, and Groucho's children's attitude toward him seems to have hurt him, although he appears to have won them over towards the end of Groucho's life and beyond.
Stoliar's story is of a man who has the unique opportunity of not only meeting, but working for one of his idols. But it is also the story of a man seeing someone he cares about living out his final years and outliving many of his contemporaries and friends.
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