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The Secret Word on Groucho

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Date: Wed, 30 Sep 98 11:54:49 -0700
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Subject: The Secret Word on Groucho

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 How the FBI and HUAC tried to get the goods on Groucho in the fifties.

 The Secret Word on Groucho


 No, they didn't confuse him with Karl. In 1953 the FBI really did want to
 know if Groucho Marx was a member of the Communist Party.  Apparently the
 bureau was not familiar with Groucho's famous motto, "I don't care to
 belong to any club that accepts people like me as members." In response to
 my Freedom of Information Act request, the FBI released 186 pages of its
 file on Groucho, who died in 1977 at 82. It contains a lengthy report to
 J. Edgar Hoover dated December 1953 on "the affiliation, if any, of graucho
 [sic] marx with the Communist Party."

 Most of the Groucho file concerns a 1937 copyright infringement case having
 nothing to do with politics. But the file also includes a seventeen-page
 report on the FBI's 1953 "Internal Security" investigation of Groucho's
 politics, as well as letters sent by concerned citizens to the FBI in the
 late fifties and early sixties denouncing Groucho for jokes he cracked on
 his TV show, You Bet Your Life. Sixteen pages of information about Groucho
 have been withheld virtually in their entirety on the ground that they need
 to be "kept secret in the interest of national defense or foreign policy."
 As Groucho said, "Military intelligence is a contradiction in terms."

 The 1953 report's "Synopsis of Facts" begins with a "remark" made by a
 "rank and file member of the Communist Party (CP), San Diego County," who
 had "recently" told a confidential informant that "graucho [sic] marx
 contributes heavily to CP." But "Los Angeles informants familiar with CP
 activity in Hollywood...throughout 1940's state marx was never affiliated
 with CP and never a contributor so far as informants are aware." Case

 No: The report then cites a 1934 article in the Daily Worker quoting
 Groucho on the topic of the Scottsboro Boys defense: "The battle of the
 Communists for the lives of these one that will be taught in
 Soviet America as the most inspiring and courageous battle ever fought."
 This sounds distinctly un-Groucho-like, especially the year after Duck
 Soup, the anarchic, anti-fascist farce widely regarded as the Marx
 Brothers' greatest film, and the year before A Night at the Opera, their
 most successful--Il Trovatore has still not recovered. The Daily Worker
 quote about "Soviet America" might have provided the occasion when Groucho
 first said, "Quote me as saying I was misquoted."

 The same Daily Worker article hailed Groucho as a person "of working class
 origin" who "has never forgotten his origin--and his nonsense contains, as
 many have felt, considerable satire and passionate thrusts at contemporary
 society." The piece quoted Groucho describing the imprisonment of labor
 leader Tom Mooney as "an outrage. There's absolutely no question in my mind
 that he's innocent.... If it wasn't for political reasons he would have
 been released years ago." Tom Mooney was indeed the target of the most
 notorious frame-up of a labor leader in the twentieth century--a socialist
 and prominent opponent of US entry into World War I, he served twenty-three
 years in California prisons for the death of ten people killed when a bomb
 exploded in 1916 during the Preparedness Day parade in San Francisco.
 Eventually the trial judge and jurors publicly stated they had erred, and
 in 1939 the governor of California pardoned Mooney. But apparently the FBI
 in 1953 still considered support for Tom Mooney to be subversive.

 Groucho's other offenses, according to the FBI, included attending a
 benefit concert in 1942 for Russian War Relief; supporting a group in 1945
 that opposed UN recognition of the fascist government in Spain; and joining
 the actors, writers and directors of the Committee for the First Amendment,
 which condemned the House Un-American Activities Committee's 1947
 investigations in Hollywood--a group that included Bogart and Bacall and
 Sinatra.  Although Groucho once said, "Whatever it is, I'm against it," he
 apparently was for the First Amendment--and part of the forties Hollywood

 Why was the FBI conducting an "internal security" investigation of Groucho
 in 1953? That year his television show was Number 3 in the ratings. HUAC
 was holding hearings in Hollywood. One of the witnesses the committee
 called was the bandleader on Groucho's TV show, Jerry Fielding, who was
 named that same year as a Communist sympathizer in Walter Winchell's
 syndicated column. Of the 240 groups on the Attorney General's List of
 Subversive Organizations, Fielding later said he belonged to at least
 sixty. That's impressive--but Fielding was a small fry. Why were they after

 "I think they wanted me to name Groucho," Fielding told Groucho's
 biographer Hector Arce. Bringing down the man with the Number 3 show on TV
 would have been a stunning victory for HUAC and Hoover.  Instead, they had
 to settle for the show's bandleader. Fielding took the Fifth, after which
 the corporate sponsor of You Bet Your Life, DeSoto-Plymouth Dealers of
 America, demanded that he be fired. Groucho did what he was told. "That I
 bowed to sponsors' demands is one of the greatest regrets of my life," he
 wrote in 1976 in The Secret Word Is Groucho. Lots of people did worse--at
 least Groucho never named anybody. And at least he apologized
 publicly--even if it was twenty-three years after the fact.

 A second set of documents in Groucho's FBI file consists of communications
 by loyal Americans to J. Edgar Hoover in 1959-61 complaining about
 Groucho's TV show. One phone caller described the appearance of "a 'stumble
 bum' who admitted being a former pugilist and bootlegger." Groucho
 reportedly asked, "You mean you were a bootlegger for the FBI?" The caller
 said that he "felt that Marx's question was in poor taste" and "wanted to
 call it to the Bureau's attention." In subsequent internal correspondence,
 one FBI official declared, "it was in poor taste but I do not feel that
 any further action is warranted."

 One letter urged Hoover to watch a show on which a guest spoke Russian to
 Groucho. Amazingly, the FBI acted on the suggestion. A memo to Hoover's
 assistant Cartha DeLoach reported that "the show was monitored and there
 was nothing on it concerning the Bureau." It concluded, "It is not felt
 that anything can be accomplished by acknowledging [the] letter, and if we
 do we will undoubtedly promote further correspondence."

 One letter to Hoover complained that Groucho had referred to the United
 States as "the United Snakes," and suggested that the FBI investigate him
 "as being a communist." "By the way, your own book 'Masters of Deceit' is
 a masterpiece." (This one spelled "Groucho" correctly, but came up with a
 last name of "Marks.")

 Hoover's secretary Helen Gandy replied with an acknowledgment and added a
 note to the file that "Marx is the subject of Bufile 100-407258. His real
 name is Julius H. Marx." Six different FBI officials initialed the memo,
 indicating the significance attributed to it.

 The same person wrote again a year later, in 1961, a longer letter
 declaring, "I am outraged by this show which appeared to be full of
 Communist propaganda.... The Red stench was unmistakable. The program went
 out of the way to make the automobile industry in our country appear to be
 silly and the American people weak, incompetent and arrogant." Groucho,
 the correspondent wrote, "said, in speaking of the American people, 'They
 drove around in their arrogance.'"

 The writer went on to declare that Groucho "was a member of the Red Front
 called 'Committee for the First Amendment'" and that he "signed a Cablegram
 of allegiance to Stalin.... Please write and let me know if this is correct
 and what other information I am entitled to as a United States citizen to
 know concerning his Red affiliations, so I can speak with authority when
 discussing him."

 This letter received a personal reply from Hoover: "While I would like to
 be of assistance, the jurisdiction and responsibilities of the
 not extend to furnishing evaluations or comments concerning the character
 or integrity of any individual." Hoover enclosed a helpful pamphlet, "What
 You Can Do to Fight Communism and Preserve America."

 Most of the material in the FBI file on Groucho's politics was previously
 unknown. His authorized biography, written by Hector Arce and published in
 1979, contains a few references to "Groucho's deep convictions...about
 national and world conditions" in the thirties, and remarks about the
 forties that "had he been more generous in support of the liberal, leftist
 causes he believed in, chances are that the postwar Communist witch hunt
 in Hollywood would have blacklisted the Hollywood Eleven instead of the
 Hollywood Ten"--a bit of hyperbole, especially since Arce provides no
 details and no evidence. Arce also asked Groucho's stockbroker whether
 "Groucho, because of his political beliefs, refused to invest in the war
 machine." The broker replied that, "while Groucho may have espoused causes
 that were not right from an economic point of view, jeopardized
 his economic position he would try to protect it."

 Groucho once said, "Those are my principles. If you don't like them, I have
 others." Nevertheless, the FBI file suggests that Groucho wasn't just a
 cynical, wisecracking comedian; he seems to have been a man of the left
 and, later, of liberal principles--for which posterity may thank him. But
 Groucho wouldn't have been impressed; as he once said, "Why should I care
 about posterity? What's posterity ever done for me?"

 Jon Wiener (, a Nation contributing editor, teaches
 history at the University of California, Irvine.

 Copyright (c) 1996, The Nation Company, L.P. All rights reserved.
 Electronic redistribution for nonprofit purposes is permitted, provided
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