Groucho Gave Secretary High Marx
Author Steve Stoliar recalls his days as Groucho Marx’s secretary.
Web2Carz Staff Writer
Published: January 29th, 2013
n January 1974, an articulate and seemingly harmless 19-year-old college student named Steve Stoliar strolled through the office doors of the Dean of Student Affairs at UCLA and politely asked permission to use one of the 20 or so tables on Bruin Walk so that his organization could start a petition drive.
To the Dean’s relief, Stoliar had no plans to take on the system—at least not UCLA’s system. And, erring on the side of democracy, the university granted him the permission he was seeking.
That winter quarter in the student commons, seated somewhere between Stop the War, Gay Rights activists and the Hare Krishnas, were Stoliar and friends, or CRAC as they called themselves -- The Committee for the Rerelease of Animal Crackers -- out to collect enough signatures so that Universal Studios would release the 1930 black-and-white film starring the Four Marx Brothers.
Steve Stoliar: “I’m very happy to be meeting you after all this time."
Groucho Marx: “Well, you should be.”
Only a wide-eyed optimist with an untainted world-view, not to mention a Marx Brothers fanatic, was capable of spearheading such a campaign and Stoliar happened to be all three.
The motion picture Animal Crackers had been in copyright limbo for at least two decades, on a shelf collecting dust, and in possible danger of deterioration. Bootleg prints of the classic film circulated around the art-house cinema circuit, although die-hard cineastes complained about the shoddy audio and the blurry images on the screen. Moreover, in 1974, executives at Universal were more concerned with their recent releases, Airport 75 and Earthquake, and were of the mindset that it wasn’t worth their time or money to untangle the legal knots necessary to rerelease a forty-four-year-old movie.
Stoliar, a native of University City, Missouri, moved to Los Angeles with his parents and two older sisters in 1962. His mother, a movie buff, could recite lines of classic movie dialogue from memory and passed her love of old Hollywood to her only son. But there was something about those four vaudevillians from New York that slew him more than most.
“I probably discovered the Marx Brothers when I was in high school and I wondered where they had been hiding all my life,” Steve Stoliar said in a recent interview with us.
“They were such a wonderful blend of physical comedy and clever wordplay -- either Groucho’s wordplay or Chico’s mangling of the language. Groucho was my favorite of the brothers and I felt much more akin to his sense of humor and the whole deflating pomposity and exposing hypocrisy thing.”
Stoliar, however, wasn’t alone in his worship of Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and sometimes Zeppo. Marx mania swept college campuses in the late '60s and early '70s. Their anarchic shenanigans resonated with baby boomers who weren’t even alive when the Marx Brothers were making movies.
Even radicals such as Abbie Hoffman and Paul Krassner strived to incorporate the lunacy of Duck Soup and The Cocoanuts into their own form of absurdist political theater. Abbie Hoffman once said, “Groucho Marx had more to do with my subversion than Karl Marx."
But where Hoffman and his Youth International Party (known to most as the Yippies) failed to bring down the United States Government, Stoliar and friends succeeded in impacting studio policy.
The campus campaign led to a campus visit from Groucho himself, who sat down and chatted with a damn-near levitated Stoliar. After collecting a few thousand signatures, Universal announced that they would strike two prints of the film and premiere it in Westwood and New York. It broke the box-office record at the United Artists Westwood that had been set by the French Connection several years earlier.
Then the third-year history major experienced the unimaginable.
At the end of the spring semester, Groucho hired Stoliar to work out of the comedian’s Beverly Hills home to handle fan mail and organize all of the memorabilia -- an extraordinary job that would last three years and become the basis for one of the more honest and complex show-biz memoirs in modern memory: Raised Eyebrows: My Years Inside Groucho's House.
Nowadays, a slick Hollywood screenwriter might ascribe a tidy, marketable log-line summary to a story like Stoliar’s —probably bearing a funny title such as On Your Marx—which might read like this: A coming-of-age tale about a young fan and his hero, Groucho Marx, who teaches the boy how to be a man as the curtain rings down on the old comedian's life and career.
Raised Eyebrows is much more than that.
Granted, on the surface it is an entertaining tale, especially for Grouchophiles, because of the book’s many “pinch-me” moments (which Stoliar describes in riveting detail) of dining with George Burns and Mae West, meeting Bob Hope, getting writing advice from S.J. Perelman, attending a Passover seder led by George Jessel, or helping Zeppo Marx get a date with a UCLA co-ed (who happened to be Stoliar's ex).
But Stoliar’s storied tenure as Groucho Marx’s secretary is tempered with highs and lows, bookended by the psychotic Erin Fleming—Groucho’s young and mercurial life manager and companion who hitched her wagon to the star in his declining years. But before the shadow of Erin Fleming would darken the day—at least for Stoliar—at 1083 Hillcrest Road, it was an auspicious start to a young man’s dream-come-true.
“Erin helped me set up the campaign to get Animal Crackers rereleased,” Stoliar said.
“She would call me at all hours and just start talking about whatever was on her mind. It was strange, but I was so flattered and amazed that this woman, who I'd seen on The Dick Cavett Show with Groucho and was on the cover of Esquire with Groucho, was talking to me, and I felt like I had been specially selected that she’d share all of this information with me. She couldn’t have picked a more devout fan.”
Most extraordinary was Stoliar’s free rein around Groucho’s house, not to mention Groucho’s egalitarian lunch policy which allowed staff to dine with him and freely interact with celebrity guests.
“Because I was such a fanatical Marx Brothers fan, my brain was like a Rolodex of these personages from the films and also from The Groucho Letters,” said Stoliar.
“When I’d meet these people with strange names like Nunnally Johnson and Nat Perrin, my brain would flip to: Perrin, Nat – co-wrote Monkey Business, Duck Soup, one of Groucho’s oldest friends, nicknamed ‘The Deacon.’ I was just drinking in and appreciating who these people were.”
And although several strokes had diminished Groucho’s caustic swagger significantly, there were still many flourishes of the wit that made him Groucho—something which never went unnoticed or unappreciated by his secretary.
“There was certainly a wall broken after my initial intimidation of being in the house and sitting next to him at the kitchen table. It got to the point of comfort where he’d shuffle into my office and he’d hand me a copy of Bruce J. Friedman’s The Dick and he’d say, 'Read this, I think you might enjoy it.'" He used to love it when I brought him the mail because he subscribed to the Hollywood trade papers,” said Stoliar. “One time he came to the table and said, ‘Wonderful mail today, nothing but requests for money.’ I said, ‘You got a Variety didn’t you?’ ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘A variety of requests for money.'"
And it was more than gratifying for Groucho to have such an enthusiastic and knowledgeable employee in Stoliar, who obviously approached his job with the same reverence and delicate care an archaeologist would have handling the Dead Sea Scrolls.
“Groucho had told me that there was a guy who worked for him that I would probably get a kick out of meeting,” Dick Cavett told us recently. “It was nice to meet somebody like Steve. As Woody [Allen] said about someone once, ‘He knows his Perelman, he knows his Benchley, he knows his Thurber, and he knows his Kaufman'—lamenting the fact that, unlike Stoliar, young people at the time didn’t know who any of them were.”
Yet, for Stoliar, his tenure at Chez Groucho could best be described as a best- and worst-of-times scenario.
“The only limitation was that I was also fighting against time," said Stoliar. “He was getting hazier and having health problems. It wasn’t as though the longer I stayed there, the closer we got, because he was pulling away against his will. It was kind of a strange juggling between time and intimacy.”
“Steven was being very parental, almost like he was Groucho’s bodyguard,” recalled Groucho's nephew and Harpo's son, Bill Marx.
“He was a very important figure in Groucho’s life at that time from the standpoint of caring.”
And then there were the many moods of Erin Fleming, which kept everyone—cooks, nurses, maids, and secretary/archivists -- on eggshells and off-balance.
“It really was only when I got the job and started working there every day that I realized there was a lot more to Erin than what was on the surface," Stoliar said. "Three weeks into working there, Groucho had a stroke on her birthday and she blamed him for having a stroke on purpose, to upstage her birthday."
“She would fly off the handle, slam her fist, and slam doors. We used to tell what kind of mood she was in by how hard she’d throw her keys in the dish. The house heaved a sigh of relief when you would hear the door close and she’d gun the motor and zoom off in her 450 SL. You never really knew what you were in for and it was a release of tension when she’d leave.”
Even Bill Marx, a musician and busy composer at the time for film and TV, had his own strong opinions about Erin.
“Erin had a way of destroying people," Marx said.
"One night, my then girlfriend, Marilyn, and I were invited out to the theater with Erin and Groucho. Later that night, the two women got into an argument and Marilyn started to state her case when Erin says to her, ‘You don’t exist.'
Marilyn said, ‘What do you mean I don’t exist? I’m telling you that this is the way I….’
‘You’re not here. I don’t see anybody,’ Erin interrupted.
The more Erin said, ‘You’re not here,’ Marilyn was reduced to tears. Erin just destroyed her. It was the longest four minutes of my life.”
There were others who hadn’t seen Fleming’s dark side and had an altogether different take on her -- at first.
“I didn’t see anything wrong with her when I met her,” Cavett said.
”“She was a little overwrought, always a little on edge -- or had an edge on from something -- but she seemed rather nice and charming and devoted to Groucho. After You Bet Your Life ended and his third wife divorced him, he was relatively forlorn. There were stories that he would walk his dog, hoping that someone would invite him to dinner. He would walk the streets of Beverly Hills and talk to total strangers who he hoped would realize how lucky they were. He was pretty lonely and his children were not all that available.”
“Groucho was a performing seal,” Bill Marx said. "He wasn’t performing anymore and if he didn’t have an audience he was ‘dead man walking.’ Finally, Fleming got him revved by appealing to his ego and she revved him for the next seven years, dreaming up things for him to do, having parties, celebrations, the Oscars, all pointing to the celebration of Groucho Marx. There was an old line about [Broadway producer] David Merrick—‘Anything that anyone has ever said about David Merrick is true, the good and the bad,’ and Erin certainly did extend Groucho’s life, purposely and selfishly on her part."
Stoliar was wise enough beyond his 19 years to strike a balanced view of the situation. It certainly wasn’t an ideal life-lesson to be exposed to someone as toxic as Fleming, but somehow he didn’t let it sully the limitless gratification that being near Groucho afforded him.
Stoliar always remained mindful of the fact that it was Fleming, after all, who made the dream possible and who allowed him access to Groucho and his famous friends.
One star-studded event Stoliar writes about in Raised Eyebrows is Groucho’s 85th Birthday party, a who’s who of Hollywood royalty including Bob Hope, who showed up to test out his latest monologue on party guests and engage in verbal acrobatics with the birthday boy; Jack Lemmon and Bill Marx provided the musical entertainment to an audience as diverse as Peter Sellers, Liza Minnelli, and All in the Family cast members Sally Struthers and Carroll O’Connor, who climbed into bed with Groucho at the end of the night.
“What is fascinating to me about this story is just the combination of these old-timers at Groucho’s house and people like actors Bud Cort, Elliott Gould, or Sally Kellerman coming to hang out,” said Larry Karaszewski, co-writer of such films as Ed Wood, Man on the Moon, and The People vs. Larry Flynt.
“You get this sense that Steve was witnessing this collision of old Hollywood and new Hollywood. There’s always an easy connection to Ed Wood and Raised Eyebrows which are both about meeting a showbiz hero who’s now old and no longer that guy but still is that guy. People might think you’re exploiting him but you’re celebrating him. And the contradiction in the Erin Fleming story, which basically becomes Steve’s story, is fascinating.”
However exciting it might have been for any fly on the wall, it was impossible to ignore Groucho's diminishing mental and physical condition, which concerned friends and family and only intensified Fleming's megalomania. She alienated him from his children and continued booking him for appearances, despite his failing condition, and members of the household witnessed Erin yelling at Groucho until he cried.
“I began to hear Arsenic and Old Lace-type references to Erin and, of course, lived to find that most of it was true,” Cavett said. “Steve was a good source of information and we were friends enough that it wasn’t as if he was distributing gossip to a stranger who might make damaging use of it.”
On June 22 of 1977, Groucho was hospitalized at Cedars-Sinai for pneumonia, and he remained in the hospital almost continuously for several weeks, his health steadily diminishing.
“He said to my dear friend [biographer] Hector Arce in the hospital towards the end, ‘This is no way to live,’" Stoliar said. "He was painfully aware of how bad things had gotten. It was time and yet still you hate saying goodbye."
Groucho Marx died on August 19, 1977.
In the months before Groucho’s death, his son, Arthur Marx, took Fleming to court for temporary conservatorship of his father. Stoliar was also subpoenaed to give a deposition about Groucho’s treatment at the hands of Fleming. A California Superior Court judge appointed writer Nat Perrin to handle his dying friend’s affairs and Perrin tasked Stoliar to not only watch the house on weekends, but gave him the authority to keep Fleming from entering the premises. A battle over Groucho’s estate raged on for nearly six years before the case came to trial in 1983, but the judge ruled in favor of Arthur Marx, ordering Fleming to repay $472,000 to the Marx estate, including $221,000 the Bank of America claimed she had swindled from Groucho.
The future was kinder to Steve Stoliar. For more than 25 years, he’s enjoyed success as a professional writer and voice-over artist. In the ‘80s, Dick Cavett hired Stoliar to work on an HBO show in New York, before a lucrative writing opportunity called him back to Los Angeles. He has written episodes of Murder, She Wrote, Simon & Simon, The New WKRP in Cincinnati, Legend and Sliders, and he has been a consultant on a number of books and documentaries about Groucho and his various siblings.
His book Raised Eyebrows: My Years inside Groucho’s House, originally published in 1996, has since been revised and expanded with a new afterword detailing Groucho's children's and grandchildren’s responses to the book, Stoliar’s return to Groucho’s house in recent years, as well as a compelling update on the sad fate of Erin Fleming. Stoliar, whose dead-on imitations of old Groucho and many others are not to be missed, recently recorded an audio version of his book, which should be available sometime in February.
Woody Allen has called Raised Eyebrows: "One of the best books about a show-business icon I've ever read," and even an artist as unlikely as heavy-metal rocker and film director Rob Zombie (on the other end of the spectrum, alphabetically and otherwise) recently called Raised Eyebrows: My Years Inside Groucho’s House the best book he’d ever read. Stoliar’s memoir clearly cuts across generational lines.
“Stoliar was in a unique position, that he did not exploit in a tawdry way—which he could have done—but wrote a reasoned, factual, engrossing version of a very novelistic story, almost partaking in the best qualities of fiction, which it is not,” Cavett told us.
“I think it will take its place, as they say, as a really important part of the canon of things about The Marx Brothers. It takes people into something they would never dream of learning anything authentic or inside about Groucho Marx. There’s certainly a movie in there."
To order a signed copy of the new edition of Raised Eyebrows: My Years Inside Groucho’s House go to Steve Stoliar's web site. This newly revised edition, published by BearManor Media, and the Kindle version are also available on Amazon.com.