The House with a Clock in Its Walls
Black, more than anyone else, should have been the one to wind up The House with a Clock in Its Walls. Too bad he doesn't…
I. Tuesday afternoon at Le Bistro, a restaurant in Beverly Hills
BEVERLY HILLS, 1972 -- Groucho Marx was wearing blue jeans, Hush Puppies, a brown sport shirt buttoned at the neck, an ancient tweed sport jacket, a cap and a pepper and salt overcoat. He peered into the gloom of Le Bistro, seeking out familiar faces, while a young lady introduced herself to me. “My name is Erin Fleming. I'm Mr. Marx's secretary."
"A likely story," Groucho said. He led the way up the stairs to the second floor. "I always eat on the second floor here," he said. "It's closer to the men's room. Esquire isn't my favorite magazine, you know. Interviews are really murder. They keep asking you questions. I could be brought up on a rape charge. I don't mind a hatchet job, if it's truthful...could you pin a rape charge on me? Could you try? I'd appreciate it. You don't do any dental work, do you? I have to go to the dentist before I go to France."
The sun fell brightly into the upper room, which was less crowded than the fashionable downstairs. There was a Paris motif of brass and mirrors and plush maroon opulence. The tables were occupied mostly by ladies, in twos and threes and fours.
"Look at that, will you?" Groucho said. "Broads on alimony. It's disgusting the money they're probably spending."
We sat at a wall table opposite the bar.
"They have the world's finest cheesecake in this place," Groucho announced "Believe me, I've had cheesecake all over, and this is the best cheesecake I've had. You know Miss Fleming here? She's an actress. She's done Shaw. She's even done Shakespeare. She's in the new Woody Allen movie. They say Allen got something from the Marx Brothers. He got nothing. Maybe twenty years ago, he might have been inspired. Today he's an original. The best, the funniest. Waiter?"
The waiter approached.
"How would you apprise the cheesecake situation?" Groucho asked.
"Very nice, sir," the waiter said.
"Don’t change the subject. And bring pumpernickel, I want a lot of pumpernickel. Not toasted. This place has the greatest pumpernickel. And cheesecake. This picture is rated R that she's in, the Allen picture. I think it's very dirty. It might even be filthy. But that's only to me. I'm really a prude. I don’t like dirty comedy. She showed me some of the script, and I was horrified just reading it. She does things in it I've never been able to persuade her to do in the privacy of my own home."
"Grouch!" Erin said.
"So anyway, as I was already saying, I'm going to the Cannes Film Festival. I'm going to be honored by the French government, they're going to make me a Cannes-man. For a while I thought it was canceled. I hoped so."
"Grouch, you know they've planned the whole festival around you," Erin said.
"No, they're showing films from all over the world," Groucho said. "It's an international event"
"But you're the big one, baby."
"A cup of lentil soup and the steak tarter," Groucho told the waiter.
Very good, sir. The steak tartare."
"That's right, the steak tarter. And three cheesecakes. Lundy’s, in New York, they used to talk about the cheesecake there. If they don't have it here today I'll kill myself. If you take one bite, I'll kill you. A piece of cheesecake here should cost a hundred bucks. What we should really do is order it now."
"I'll wrap mine up and you can eat it for dinner tonight," Erin said.
"It's worth taking home more than any broad in this place is worth taking home. This is going on the cover of Esquire? I was on the cover of Harper's once, all by myself. And I was on the cover of Newsweek. I was on the cover of Time twice -- once by myself and once with my brothers. Christ, is it cold in here. I shoulda ordered chili."
"I'll get your coat and your cap, darling," Erin said. She fetched them from the cloakroom and Groucho got up and put on his overcoat and his Irish tweed cap. Then he sat back down at the table.
"First I'm going to Iowa," he said "I'm going to be honored by the University of Iowa. Then I'm doing Carnegie Hall. It's the first time I've done New York in years. Then I sail to France. After I get back, I want to play Washington, Philly, Boston, probably Chicago. I'm glad that critic isn't there anymore, that Claudia Cassidy. She was the most vicious, with the possible exception of Percy Hammond. I guess this table is condemned. Where's my steak tarter? They put us here and left us to our own resources. Reserve three orders of cheesecake."
Erin got up to reserve us three orders of cheesecake.
"Percy Hammond reviewed us at the Majestic Theater in Chicago," Groucho said. "He said the Marx Brothers and several relatives ran around the stage for about an hour, why he'd never understand. That was one of his good reviews. Later, he came to New York and went to work for the Herald Tribune. He had a drinking problem. I wrote one of his reviews for him once. He reviewed Evelyn Thaw...Harry Thaw's wife? He shot Stanford White. You never heard of him, for Christ's sake? He shot Stanford White! That's the trouble with being interviewed by a kid. Then the war came."
"What war, darling?" Erin asked, returning to the table.
"Second. They had a meeting at the Trib, six or eight of the big factotums. Ring Lardner was working there at the time. The editor suggested sending Percy Hammond to Europe to cover the war. For Christ's sake! Lardner says, You can't do that! Supposing he doesn't like it?”
Groucho allowed himself a smile.
"I'm gonna work onstage at Carnegie Hall," he said. "Talk, sing a few songs that nobody remembers anymore...It's freezing in here!" He wrapped his coat around himself "Everything I have is frozen...I'm not going to have a script, just a few notes to remind myself what I want to talk about. They're paying me ten thousand dollars for the night's work. Not bad. I'm eighty-one years old, and I'm proud of it. Usually it's the reverse, people lie about their age.
"I'm still alive, I'm still functioning...intellectually...my brain is still working, that is. I read that piece in Esquire about Teddy Kennedy. Is he serious about not running for the presidency? It said he hits the bottle. I have a couple of brothers who are dead -- I'm not a drunk.
"Gummo and Zeppo live at the Springs, where there is abundant golf and tennis. I don't go down much, but I miss them. They come in whenever the weather gets too hot. I think we were the only group that never fought. Four-a-day, on edge, tired, fighting the audience, we never fought...That was a great time, that was the time of the Algonquin crowd."
"You could tell the one about Wolcott," Erin said.
"You could tell the one about Wolcott," Groucho said. "You seem to remember it so well. I want to tell the one about Benchley. This was at the Garden of Allah. One night they were all drinking. One night! Ha! And...will you look at that steak tarter?"
He examined it with appreciation, even lust.
"So Benchley takes a mattress and cuts it open, takes out the feathers, and glues them all over Charlie Butterworth's ass. Then they send for the doctor. The doctor asks Charlie to take his pants down."
Groucho rocked with silent laughter.
"The world is so serious now," he said after a moment "Nothing used to get past Harpo. In those days, people used to joke more, they weren't so serious. I knew Fields well. He used to sit in the bushes in front of his house with a BB gun and shoot at people. Today, he'd probably be arrested.
"He invited me over to his house, he had his girlfriend there. I think her name was Carlotta Monti. Car-lot-ta MON-ti! That's the kind of name a girl of Fields would have. He had a ladder leading up to his attic. Without exaggeration, there was fifty thousand dollars in liquor up there. Crated up like a wharf. I'm standing there and Fields is standing there, and nobody says anything. The silence is oppressive. Finally, he speaks: This will carry me twenty-five years.”
Groucho scrutinized his steak tartare "I'll try it and if l don't like it," he told me, "throw yours away."
"You know those magazines like Playboy?" Erin said "They could learn a lot from Grouch. How to dress, how to enjoy life..."
"It's very good steak tarter," Groucho said "I only eat steak tarter at places I trust. Otherwise, I might get feathers on my ass."
"I'll have a taste," Erin said, extending her fork in the direction of Groucho's plate.
"Why don't you have a taste of his?" Groucho said. He leaned toward me. "She gets a sexual kick out of eating my food. The only kick she's getting, by the way."
"The subject of sex is incredibly complicated," Erin said. "Playboy printed some of the findings of Masters and Johnson…"
"They were printed there first?" Groucho said.
"They subsidized some of their research," Erin said. "Sweetheart, I told you this before."
"Masters and Johnson, they're going to tell me I'm doing everything wrong. I am doing everything wrong, but I'm not worrying about it -- she is."
"Ummm, this whitefish is delicious," Erin said.
You see why she loves me?" Groucho said. "Not for what she can get at night, but for what she can get at lunch." He sang under his breath: "Sometimes I love you, sometimes I hate you...that's a very accurate statement. Don't get married! Stay in love! Marriage kills love...unless you're after five or six kids, and if you are the police will catch you. Look at what happened to Mussolini. What a schmuck, to die upside down He wanted to see if his girl was wearing underwear. What a schlemiel."
"But you do like McGovern, don't you baby?" Erin asked.
"Warren Beatty is organizing some stuff," Groucho said "I think I like McGovern the best. But out at Iowa, I might not talk about politics. Maybe I might. I might if I feel like it I won't if I don't. I spent my honeymoon in an upper berth going through Iowa. My wife was up there with me."
"Which wife?" Erin said.
"Ruth," Groucho said.
"Groucho was married to Ruth for twenty years," Erin said. "She was a wonderful woman. She died last week...two weeks ago..."
"She was a nice woman," Groucho said. "She went on to become what most women do, a big drinker I had three wives and they all liked it. They used it as an escape. What she does, she runs and locks the bedroom door."
"I don't live in your house, Groucho," Erin said, making sure I got that down.
"Wait'll you get to Paris," Groucho said.
"Wait till I get into the shops in Paris," Erin said.
"Wait till I get into you in Paris," Groucho said.
He got up from his seat. "A good thing, this second floor," he said "Close to the men's room. Do you want the bridal chamber? the fellow asks. No, I always use the window."
He walked through the sunny room in overcoat and cap, nodding to the ladies as he passed their tables.
"He had this operation, very serious, after his divorce from Eden," Erin said. "A doctor named Joe Kaufman at UCLA saved his life. When I met him, he was spending all day in bed, he didn't care if he got up or not. Now he's filled with plans again...and if you're going to mention me, do you have my name right? Erin Fleming? I was a stage actress in New York for nine years, off-Broadway. I got tired of playing in places where somebody who'd been on 'Mannix' got two hundred dollars more. I came out here, and several people wanted to introduce me to Groucho. He offered me a job working for him. I'm really only his secretary."
Groucho approached across the room, already talking. "I've had cheesecake in Paris, London, Mexico City. This is the best cheesecake in the world."
The waiter, just arrived from the kitchen, placed the cheesecake reverently upon the table.
"Send out the chef!" Groucho said. "My compliments! It's probably frozen, you know..."
"Grouch, do you remember how you met me?" Erin asked.
"In my bedroom, five minutes ago. The only great party is a boy and a girl and a whole cheesecake. Where's the chef? Only goes to prove that Jews make bad waiters. See this cheesecake? There's a fly in it! Quiet! Everybody will want one!"
He inspected his cheesecake for the imaginary fly. "This is like an interview with Milton Berle," he said. "I got twenty-five dollars from Reader's Digest last week for something I never said. I get credit all the time for things I never said. You know that line in 'You Bet Your Life'? The guy says he has seventeen kids and I say: I smoke a cigar, but I take it out of my mouth occasionally? I never said that."
Erin wrapped her cheesecake in a paper napkin, for Groucho to have after his dinner.
"Now her," he said, "I keep throwing her out, she keeps coming back."
"You told me you didn't mean it, baby," Erin said playfully
"She always comes back on Tuesdays. Tuesday is payday. Don't worry, sweetest. Your check is at home."
"I know, Grouch."
"She's so sentimental"
"Why don't you tell your story about Wolcott at the Algonquin, sweetheart?"
"I think I will." He took a big bite of cheesecake and chased it with black Sanka.
"Wolcott was sitting at the Round Table, and...that's a good idea, I'm glad you reminded me. When I play Carnegie Hall, I think I'll stay at the Algonquin."
"But that's so far from Bloomingdale's. Why can't you stay at the Carlton? Like you were going to?"
"No, no, I think I'll stay at the Algonquin."
"But babe," Erin said, "if you stay at the Carlton and I stay at my apartment..."
"Who said anything about anybody staying at your apartment?" Groucho said "I'll get you a room at the Algonquin. The guy who owns it is a very close friend of Gummo's. They'll be happy to have me there. And the whole theatre district is between Forty-third and Forty-fifth streets. It's a wonderful idea. I think I'll call them this afternoon."
"We'll talk about it later," Erin said firmly.
"You know," said Groucho, "I can always get a broad in New York, you know."
He reached inside his coat and came out with a cigar. "You want a cheap cigar?"
I don't smoke, I said.
"Don't change the subject."
Silence at the table. Groucho lit up while casting an appraiser's eye around the room.
"Maybe one of these ladies...one of these muffs...that's a lovely word, muff...I hate that other word. Muff is a lovely word. I can't insult anyone. They all think I'm kidding."
Silence again. I hear you're keeping a diary, I said at last.
"I'm not keeping a diary. She is." He studied the end of his cigar.
"I am really," Erin said "I hope to sell it to the New Yorker. I write one page a night I start at ten and write until three, doing it over and over until every word is right."
"It'll be filthy," Groucho said. "Why don't you title it My Free Trip to Cannes and Other Assorted Schweinerei."
"Schweinerei?" Erin said.
"It's what you find in the bottom of a garbage can."
"I thought I'd call it Groucho: The Living Legend."
"I like Benchley's The Life of Christ and Other Short Stories," Groucho said. He finished his Sanka. "I try to exercise a little every day," he said. "I like to take a walk. And I do try to sing a little every day. The throat is a muscle and if you don't use it, like any other muscle it goes to hell."
The luncheon was over and as we walked toward the door Groucho passed the time of day with the ladies at the tables: "Which way to Beverly Hills? Are you on alimony? How much do you get? Never mind -- it's not enough. I'm very expensive."
Late that afternoon, the telephone rang in my hotel room. It was Erin, with the name and number of the person to contact in Ames, in case I could get out to the State University of Iowa.
"We spent some time this afternoon with Warren Cowan," she said. "From Rogers, Cowan and Brenner? Groucho has hired them to do his public relations, with this big thing at Carnegie Hall and Cannes coming up. I think there might be a move underfoot to give Grouch an honorary Academy Award, like they're doing for Chaplin."
That would be a great idea, I said.
"The Marx Brothers were funnier than Chaplin," she said. "And besides, they weren't leftists. And there's this feeling, you know, that he might as well get it before he croaks, et cetera. Before I came along, he never got out of bed. It gives him a goal to aim for. He's so funny. And so American, too. But in the article, just call me his secretary, okay? Instead of he's eighty-one and I'm some young chick. He's really been taken by a lot of sharp chicks But we would never get married. Just call me his secretary, or his constant companion, or something. I do go with someone else, really."
II. Le Bistro, Saturday evening, eleven days later
The upstairs room had been reserved for a private party. Marshall Field, the publisher, and Bailey K. Howard, the former chairman of Field Enterprises, were throwing their annual pre-Academy Awards bash, and the cool alimony ladies at their sunny tables were nowhere to be found.
The party had been planned along Hawaiian lines, and waiters with Polynesian hors d'oeuvres pressed through a crush of the most incredibly diverse types. Alfred Hitchcock and Willie Shoemaker, Helen Gurley Brown and William Friedkin, Hugh Hefner and Ann Miller and Sig Sakowicz and King Vidor and Rhonda Fleming and Mike Frankovich. In the inner room a four-piece group played "Sweet Leilani."
Groucho and Erin arrived a few minutes before nine, and Erin staked out the first table inside the door of the inner room. Several chairs were tilted against the table to reserve them in anticipation of the Warren Cowan party, expected to arrive momentarily. Warren had a lot of ideas about what to do with Groucho's account, Erin said.
Groucho, meanwhile, was paying no attention to the chairs or to Erin, either. He was looking around the room with a mildly lecherous eye, and he perked up when Edy Williams walked in. She was wearing a floor length white gown that was...you couldn't be sure...from certain angles...see-through.
"Wanna dance?" he asked, softly.
"Aren't you Groucho Marx, the living legend?" Edy breathed, running a finger under his chin.
"It's not my fault all the others are dead," Groucho said.
Edy floated on through the room, Groucho following her progress closely.
"Want me to get you your food, darling?" Erin asked.
"I don't know what they have, baby. If it's this Hawaiian dreck, forget it."
Erin went to see what they had.
"I'm looking forward to this college date," Groucho said. "In vaudeville, we did all those little cities in Iowa, Illinois, the Midwest. I was brought up in smalltime vaudeville. These days, there's no chance to try out your act in front of an audience. Television isn't much. I watch the political programs. Otherwise it's all junk except for a few shows. The two schvartzes, I watch them, and 'All in the Family.' That's it."
Edy Williams drifted up on Groucho's other side and whispered: "What do you think about birth control?"
"I didn't get the name."
"Who in the hell is that? Are you in code?"
"Birth control, Groucho...what's your opinion on it?"
"What do I -- Jesus Christ! You broke my toe!"
Erin, who was trying to place Groucho's plate in front of him, jumped: "I'm sorry, honey, I was just trying to give you your..."
"You stepped right on my toe. Watch where you're stepping next time." He turned back to Williams. "Birth control? I don't have to use it. I believe in it, though I hate kids. They're a nuisance. They always want money."
He poked at the shrimp on his plate.
"What about women's lib?" asked Edy "Should I burn my bra?"
"You'd sag," Groucho said. "After a while, you'd sag. You'd have to get them lifted. A lot of them are doing that, but not enough. Women look awful after they're forty or fifty. Nobody wants to lay them. Not even the milkman. I think that's why they don't have milkmen anymore. Women that age should be sent off to fight the war."
"Come with me to my water bed," Edy said, tweaking Groucho's right earlobe between her thumb and finger.
"I'm willing," Groucho said. "I don't know how many devices you have."
"I have two pretty good devices right here," she said, thrusting out her chest.
Groucho manipulated his eyebrows and reached for a cigar, enjoying himself. In a loud aside, he said: "She's talking dirty -- I'm not. I don't mind. We could go home and whip the bishop together."
Edy Williams smiled. "That's the biggest cigar I've ever seen," she said.
"It's a Cuban cigar. A Monte Cristo. I happen to be a smuggler. It is rather phallic. I hope it excites you."
On the other side of the table, John Russell Taylor, the film critic of the Times in London, had settled in with two friends. They had all big plates of food and the waiter was pouring wine for them.
From behind me, I heard Erin's voice in an urgent whisper: "Those places are saved!"
But that's John Russell Taylor, from the Times of London, I said. And he's with...
"Those are saved for Warren Cowan! He'll be furious!"
Well, you can't ask them to leave, I said. They were here first and they have a right to...
"Ohhhhh," said Erin, and left the room, possibly in search of Warren Cowan and his party.
A waitress approached Groucho with a tray of pineapple slices. He took one with his fingers.
"You want a fork?" she said.
"Your place or mine?" Groucho said.
Edy Williams moved in and snuggled on his shoulder. "Isn't the music wonderful?" she said. "Don’t you just sort of want to lay on the beach and..."
"That music has kept me out of Hawaii four different times," Groucho said. "They made it up in a day."
"What should a girl do if she's oversexed?" Edy asked.
"Put your lips real close to mine," Groucho said, moving the Monte Cristo to one side.
"How does it feel to be rich and famous?"
"Good. I like money. I support a lot of people I don't have to. I do exercises. I walk every day."
A voice in my right ear was saying, low and quickly, "Who are those people? It won't be any problem to have them moved. We can get rid of them in a minute." It was Warren Cowan, eyeing the film critic of the Times of London with a hungry vengeance. "I could clear them out," he said. "I could clear them out of those seats in no time..."
John Russell Taylor and his friends, who had become aware of the situation, averted a crisis by saying that they were finished anyway. They left and Erin directed a platoon of waiters who moved in with fresh tableware. Warren Cowan and his party sat down.
"They're running a series of Marx Brothers pictures on the BBC and they want to interview me," Groucho told Cowan. "They had the effrontery to offer me two thousand dollars for a day's work. I answered them that it's been some years since I worked for that kind of money. For one night at Carnegie Hall I'll get ten thousand." Groucho turned back to Edy. "I'm crazy about money," he told her. "You can buy good shoes, shirts, go to good restaurants, and smoke heavy, good cigars."
"Groucho was photographed in sunglasses for Esquire, " Warren Cowan said. "Groucho? Did you keep the sunglasses after they took your picture, I hope?"
"He gave them to the maid," Erin said.
"I sold them to the maid," Groucho said.
"What do you think about jury trials?" Edy Williams said.
"Jesus, she's dumber than I thought she was," Groucho said.
"Should I really burn my bra?"
"Why not? I love tits. I'm a leg man, but I love tits. For saying that, I certainly hope I get a cheap feel before I go home tonight." "What about the rest of a girl?"
"I love hair, I love teeth, waists."
"If she has a mustache?"
He sang. Oh give me something to remember you by, when I'm far away and gone. Warren Cowan conducted an imaginary orchestra.
"Is there a prosthetic doctor in the vicinity?" Groucho asked
"What kind is that?" Edy said.
"I have a doctor, the best urologist in the USA."
"Should he examine me?"
"He'd love to. Tomorrow he's gonna give me a shot, put me out. Maybe he wants to fool around with my netherlands. I'm making a long journey and he wants me to be in topflight condition."
During all of this Erin had been sitting sideways in her chair, looking around the room. Now she tapped Groucho's elbow. "Groucho...you see that man over there? Right over there? With the velvet shirt and the pipe? I've always wanted to meet him so badly. He's Hugh Hefner, and if you could just sort of say you've always wanted to meet him, and then introduce me..."
"Why don't you say you wanted to meet him, and introduce me?" Groucho said. He leaned toward me and said, "Are you with that girl? The starlet?"
No, I said, I'm not.
Groucho drew on his cigar. "If I were alone tonight," he told Edy, "I'd attack you. But I'm not alone." He ate a shrimp.
"This girl back here," he said, indicating Erin, "she loves me, and I don't blame her. I'm witty, I'm charming...I live in a beautiful home, filled with oil paintings -- expensive ones. I have a lot of money. I own a piece of the good pictures. ‘Room Service,’ ‘A Night at the Opera,’ ‘A Day at the Races,’ ‘Duck Soup’...they're playing more now than they did then. We're the biggest thing in the movie industry. And I live a good life. My idea of a good evening is to be at home, alone, listening to good political arguments on the television, reading...I put on my pajamas, fill a pipe with very good tobacco, and I soliloquize while the world slides by."
Groucho rolled his Havana between his fingers. "I only want to live as long as I have my wits about me," he said. "When that goes, I quit. Chaplin said to me one day, I wish I could talk on the screen the way you do. I told him, What are you worrying about? You got fifty million.
"They're giving him an award at the Academy Awards, and he deserves it. I'm getting one at Cannes, and I deserve it. I'm as good a comedian as Chaplin. Better, because I can talk and he can't. Sound ruined him. He made a couple of talking pictures and they were clinkers."
He looked at his cigar, and he looked around the room. He looked at his watch, and he said it was time to go.
“You really ought to learn to enjoy a good cigar," he said. "When Maugham was ninety-one he still smoked fifty or sixty cigarettes a day. The doctors warned him to quit. I'll quit, he said, when you give me something to replace it. It's not easy to be a homo. Wolcott was almost a homo. He was accused of it, but he never made the grade He was a very close friend of Harpo, and he never made a pass at Harpo. He never made a pass at me, either."
Groucho and Erin got up, and Groucho gave Edy Williams a peck on the cheek. Erin led Groucho over to the Hefner table, where Groucho gravely shook Hefner's hand. And then while Erin talked to Hefner, Groucho released her hand and bent to kiss the hand of Barbi Benton, Hefner's girlfriend. He said something and she smiled.
At the checkroom, he let the girl help him on with his coat. "You're a great broad," he said "I hope you own this place sometime."
He paused on the stairs, Erin a few steps below him, and then walked back up to the landing.
"You know," he said, "I'm going to Iowa. The students are going to honor me there. Then I'm appearing at Carnegie Hall, it's sold out. Then I'm sailing to France to be honored by the French government."
He let that hang in the air.
"I'd give it all up for one erection," he said.
He paused again.
"Sex isn't that important, you know. It's a very transient thing. It's a fleeting pleasure, elusive and temporary. Sex is very overrated."
And yet you'd trade in all those awards for one erection?
"They could give me the awards next year."
Copyright by Roger Ebert Originally appeared in Esquire magazine
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