The same impulse to dismantle a social or cultural threat runs through Groucho’s exchanges with Eliot. “Why weren’t you offered the lead role in some sexy movies, I can only attribute it to the stupidity of the casting directors,” the movie star wrote to the rather austere man of letters . Recommending his autobiography ‘Memoirs of a Mangy Lover’, Groucho wrote: ‘If you are in a sexy mood the night you read it, it may stimulate you beyond recognition and rekindle memories you never have. not called back for years.” He concluded another letter by writing, “Best wishes to you and your lovely wife, whoever she is.”

Call me hypercritical or unusually dark, but Eliot lived in one of the most complex coded social environments in the world, and it’s hard not to read his response to Groucho’s rudeness as a triumph of genteel passive-aggressiveness. . Two weeks after receiving that last letter, he wrote: “My lovely wife joins me in sending you our best wishes, but she didn’t add ‘whoever it is’ – she knows that. I was the one who introduced him to the Marx Brothers films in the first place. [because she had no idea who you were] and she is now as passionate a fan as I am. Not long ago we went to see a cover of ‘The Marx Brothers Go West’ [one of their worst films]that I had never seen before [though I know that it came out over twenty years ago]. It was definitely worth it. [It was certainly not worth it, or I wouldn’t declare that it was.]

Being manhandled like a feline, Bloomsbury-style, was perhaps too much for Groucho to bear. (His ego was permanently injured but permanently inflated; he wrote his famous phrase “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member” in a letter to said club, not because he hated himself but because he actually felt he was below him for belonging to the club and spoke with characteristic ironic aggression.) Two weeks later he changed course from the reduction of individuality from Eliot to sexual terms to the reduction of his public persona to his social origins.

Like the gender elementality, the social origin elementality was another club the Marx Brothers used to beat down social facades. In “Animal Crackers”, Chico approaches a wealthy guest named Roscoe W. Chandler at Mrs. Rittenhouse’s splendid mansion and asks if his real name is Abe Kebibble. “Nonsense,” shouts Chandler in faux-British tones. Chico then asks him if he’s ever been to Sing Sing. “Please!” Chandler says, and he tries to walk away. “And Joliet? said Chico. “Leavenworth? » “I understood”, said Chico, “you come from Czechoslovakia!” Harpo joins them and Chico says: “Yes, now I remember! You are Abie the fish peddler from Czechoslovakia! Chico remembers that Abie had a birthmark somewhere. Chico and Harpo jump on him, nearly stripping him naked, until they find the mark on his arm, at which point “Chandler” confesses to being Abie the fish peddler from Czechoslovakia, and in a heavy Yiddish accent offers them to money to keep his origins secret.

In response to Eliot’s polite letter, Groucho, who was born Julius Henry Marx, reminded Eliot that his name was Tom, not TS, and that “the name Tom fits a lot of things. Once upon a time there was a famous Jewish actor named Thomashevsky. [An actor like you, you Anglicized, Jew-hating phony.] All male cats are called Tom, unless they have been fixed. [You get the point.]He ends the letter still refusing to acknowledge Eliot’s wife, Valerie, and recalling both Eliot’s less-than-Bloomsbury origins: “Best wishes to you and Mrs. Tom.”

Groucho and Eliot had promised to visit each other for three years before Groucho finally came to dinner at the Eliot’s, in June 1964. According to Groucho’s letter to Gummo – the only extant account of the dinner – Eliot was courteous and accommodating. Groucho, on the other hand, has become obsessed with “King Lear”, in which the hero, Edgar, disguises himself as a madman named Tom. Despite Tom Eliot’s polite indifference to his feverish ideas about “Lear” (“which, too, did not convince the poet,” Groucho wrote to Gummo), Groucho continued. Eliot, he wrote, “quoted a joke – one of mine – which I had long forgotten. Now it was my turn to smile politely. I wasn’t going to let anyone, not even the British poet of St. Louis, ruining my literary evening. Groucho expanded on Lear’s relationship with his daughters. Finally, Eliot “asked if I remembered the courtroom scene in Duck Soup. Fortunately, I had forgotten every word. It was obviously the end of the Literary Evening.

During the “Duck Soup” trial, the language is held above the fire of puns, double meanings and non-sequences until it boils over into nonsense. (Or almost nonsense, anyway: “There are a lot of elephants in the circus,” Chico says at one point.) A filthy demon haunts poor Tom with a nightingale voice. It could also have been Eliot’s inner cry of protest at dinner. But Groucho was so defensive of the “British Poet of St. Louis” that he seems to have missed Eliot’s subtle homage to his intellect. Groucho still couldn’t shake the primal shame that was the sting of his comedic art as well as the source of his self-protective selfishness. “Did I tell you we call him Tom?” he writes at the end of the letter to Gummo. “Maybe because that’s his name. Of course, I asked him to call me Tom too, but only because I hate the name Julius.

While the two men exchanged additional letters between the June 1964 dinner and Eliot’s death in January 1965, none have been found. It is curious that there was no word of thanks from Groucho to Eliot after dinner. Then again, perhaps it’s no surprise that the dinner party convinced each character that his stubborn expectation that the other man was totally different from his public persona had no basis in his actual persona. It turned out that the two men – Groucho the blatant misanthrope and Eliot the sober – were those rare figures in which public persona and private persona aligned.

Lee Siegel is the author of, among other books, two collections of reviews, “Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination” and “Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television”. He is a frequent contributor to Page-Turner.

*Correction: An earlier version of this post erroneously described Eden as Marx’s fourth wife.

Above, top: TS Eliot; photograph courtesy of Bettmann/Corbis. Below: Groucho Marx; photograph courtesy of Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty.