Lee Siegel commemorates a new volume of T.S. Eliot's collected letters by noting a series of exchanges that aren't included in the book: the missive exchanged by Eliot and Groucho Marx, two sharply different men fascinated with each other.
The letters began in the early 1960s, Siegel writes for The Economist's More Intelligent Life, and began with a simple request. Eliot wrote to Groucho, asking for a headshot.
A shocked Groucho sent back a studio photograph of himself, only to receive a second note from the icon of modern poetry requesting instead a picture of the iconic Groucho, sporting a moustache and holding a cigar. A second photograph was sent out and a happy Eliot wrote to thank Groucho: “This is to let you know that your portrait has arrived and has given me great joy and will soon appear in its frame on my wall with other famous friends such as W.B. Yeats and Paul Valery.”
The letters show that Marx did not shy away from their obvious differences. He pointedly emphasized Eliot's hot buttons, reminding the poet of his Jewishness, and tweaking the Anglophile by reminding him of his American roots.
The precious handful of letters that have been published reveal mutual warmth and respect—on the surface. Underneath there is a mutual fascination and wariness. They speak of getting together for three years before Groucho and “Mrs Groucho”, as Eliot gamely calls her, arrive at the Eliots’ apartment in London for dinner one evening in 1964. Throughout their correspondence, Groucho is almost alarmingly provocative with Eliot. “I get away with saying some pretty insulting things,” he told one of his biographers. "People think I’m joking. I’m not.” In his new pen pal, Eliot might have recognised Thersites in Shakespeare’s “Troilus and Cressida”, perhaps the most famous case of parrhesia—compulsive frankness—in literature. It seemed that simply being invited by Eliot into his club, as it were, incited Groucho not to want to be a full member.
Groucho cannot resist the compulsion to remind one of literature’s most famous expatriates of his origins: “Dear Tom…I think I read somewhere that your first name is the same as Tom Gibbons’, a prizefighter who once lived in St Paul.” He is quite open about his ignorance of the very public details of the poet’s life: “My best to you and your lovely wife, whoever she may be.” He pushes Eliot’s origins in his face. In another letter he calls him an “early American, (I don’t mean that you are an old piece of furniture, but you are a fugitive from St Louis)…” In the same letter he relays to Eliot that “the name Tom fits many things. There was once a famous Jewish actor named Thomashevsky. All male cats are named Tom—unless they have been fixed.” He concludes by assuring the famously buttoned-down author that “I would be interested in reading your views on sex, so don’t hesitate. Confide in me.”
Be sure to read on, for a description of a dinner party that Siegel compares to a scene co-written by Samuel Beckett and Neil Simon, but could also be Larry David in a particularly punishing mood.