The New Yorker’s Lee Siegel manages to make a hash of an article you’d expect would be impossible to mess up: a report on the friendship between Groucho Marx and T.S. Eliot.
Siegel is writing a “short critical biography” of Groucho, and while I’m happy to see any new material on this major figure of 20th century American culture, Siegel inspires no confidence by getting two things way wrong — one of them a straightup error of fact — in just two consecutive clauses. He describes Eliot as “the confident product of St. Louis Wasp gentry, and an elliptical Catholic royalist.”
A Missourian who becomes a British subject, declares himself a royalist, and (per the recordings I’ve heard of him) fakes an English accent is anything but “confident” — unless Madonna’s English accent was a sign of the material girl’s confidence. Eliot maybe was less socially maladjusted than he gets credit for, but his complete lack of confidence is what made him interesting. Don’t take my word for it. Eliot is still in most anthologies. Read his work (of which I am a fan) and see if your first reaction is, “Wow, I love this guy’s confidence!”
And Eliot was never a Catholic at all. He was born into Unitarianism and was baptized (or baptised, as that son of St. Looey would say) in the Church of England as a grownup.
Siegel makes much of the ill-will that he believes underlay the pen-pal relationship (they met once for an underwhelming dinner) between the modernist poet and the titan of mid-century comedy. You can judge for yourself whether Siegel’s bracketed insertions in Marx and Eliot’s exchanges make a persuasive case that the two were trying to “reduce” each other’s “individuality.” I find Siegel’s claims preposterous and the evidence completely at odds with his theories. People who don’t like each other don’t express their hatred in witty subtexts. They stop communicating.
But Siegel also drags in National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr. for some flagrant misrepresentation:
When Groucho appeared on an episode of William F. Buckley’s “Firing Line,” in 1967, an enmity sprang up between the two men almost immediately, with Groucho characteristically going on the attack the minute he perceived Buckley’s air of privilege and authority. At one point, as Buckley was trying to expose Groucho as a hypocrite for not voting for F.D.R. in 1944, Groucho turned suddenly to the moderator and said, of Buckley, “Do you know that he blushes? And he’s constantly blushing. He’s like a young girl. This is a permanent blush, I think.” The Marxes’ preternatural vulnerability to power and authority made them reach for their genitals the moment they ran up against the slightest impediment to their freedom.
Buckley was certainly a major player in American conservatism, but if you think an author, magazine editor and TV personality is a figure of “power and authority,” you need to spend a night in police custody to learn what those words mean. More to the point, video excerpts of the Firing Line episode, including the moment Siegel describes, don’t show any “enmity” at all. The show’s set-up was combative by design. Groucho, while not precisely an insult comic, made a routine out of needling people. (The whole format of You Bet Your Life was to have hapless heartland morlocks come up and get subjected to Groucho’s ungentle mockery.) And Buckley’s public persona (I never met him personally) was famously dry and mordant. Here they both are getting along just fine for the cameras:
Here is the dustup Siegel describes:
Maybe we need Siegel to insert some subtitles to explain the real meaning of what appear to the casual observer to be trading of quips and even (on Buckley’s part) some hearty laughter. I just hope Siegel isn’t working on a book about Gore Vidal.