It was a guess, nothing more. But history professor Jon Wiener, a specialist on the Cold War, thought he'd give it a shot. A long-time Marx Brothers fan, Wiener figured he'd check to see if the FBI had kept a file on Groucho Marx.
Imagine, Groucho under government scrutiny as a possible subversive. Could happen. After all, Groucho did wisecrack his way through life, sneering at things sacred. It was Groucho who said: "These are my principles. If you don't like them I have others."
Perhaps such a fellow would arouse J. Edgar Hoover's suspicion. Almost everybody else did.
Wiener, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the FBI. And waited. What was it? Two or three years, he says. One day late this summer a package arrives at Wiener's mailbox, an envelope containing 186 pages of FBI material: the Groucho File.
What Wiener found inside were echoes of a high point in Marx-ist comedy, "Duck Soup," in which Groucho becomes a target of political espionage. As Rufus T. Firefly, president of mythical Freedonia, Groucho is pursued by two spies - Chico and Harpo - hired by his arch-enemy, Ambassador Trentino of Sylvania.
Trentino, J. Edgar Hoover - either way you go, the sleuthing hardly adds up to a 7-cent nickel, which is something Groucho thought this country needed.
Most of the FBI's Groucho File is taken up with a 1937 copyright infringement case that has nothing to do with politics. The meat of the file, such as it is, is a report to Hoover written in 1953. It says a member of the Communist Party in California told an informant that Groucho was a big contributor to the party. But no FBI source could confirm any connection between Groucho and the Communist
Party. The tip was dismissed. Nevertheless, the agency pressed on.
Trentino: "Now, gentlemen, please. Will you tell me what you found out about Firefly?"
Chicolini: "Well, remember you gave us a picture of this man and said: 'Follow him'?"
"Well, we get on the job right away. And in-a one hour, even-a less than one hour - "
"We lose-a the picture. That's-a pretty quick work, eh?"
The FBI report draws a portrait of Groucho as a Hollywood liberal in sympathy with the causes of the day. No more, no less.
The FBI found a 1934 clip from the Daily Worker, which quoted Groucho praising the Communist Party's support of the Scottsboro Boys, nine black youths accused and convicted - falsely, it later turned out - of raping a white woman in Alabama in 1931. In the same clip, Groucho decries the imprisonment of socialist labor leader Tom Mooney.
Trentino: "Now, Chicolini, I want a full, detailed report of your investigation."
Chicolini: "All right, I tell you. Monday, we watch-a Firefly's house. But he no come out. He wasn't home. Tuesday, we go to the ballgame, but he fool us, he no show up. Wednesday he go to the ballgame and we fool him, we no show up. ..."
The FBI also tossed these items into the dossier: Groucho attended a 1942 benefit concert for Russian War Relief; he opposed United Nations recognition of the fascist government of Spain; he sided with actors, writers and directors who publicly condemned the House Un-American Activities Committee investigations in Hollywood.
Chicolini: Thursday was a doubleheader, nobody show up. Friday it rained all day, there was-a no ballgame. So, we stayed home, we listened to it over the radio."
Trentino: "Then you didn't shadow Firefly!"
"Oh sure, we shadow Firefly, we shadow him all day."
"But what day was that?"
"Shadowday! Ha-ha-ha, 'ats-a some joke, eh, boss?"
Nothing illegal, unethical or even fattening turns up in the file, says Wiener, who reported on the file in a recent issue of the Nation, a leftist weekly. Wiener figures Groucho became a target both because of his politics and because his TV quiz show, "You Bet Your Life," was so popular. Disgracing Groucho, maybe driving him off the air, would be a coup for the House Un-American Activities Committee.
The committee didn't get Groucho, but it did snare his bandleader, Jerry Fielding, who was called to testify and claimed Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. Under pressure from the quiz show's sponsor, Groucho fired Fielding, a move he later said he regretted.
Fielding, who acknowledged membership in many organizations the U.S. government considered subversive in the 1950s, later told Groucho's biographer he thought the committee summoned him hoping he would help implicate Groucho.
The FBI was not alone in its suspicions. The file shows that the agency received many letters and phone calls from television viewers who sensed subversive undercurrents in "You Bet Your Life." A snide remark about the FBI, a reference to the "United Snakes," a question about a show in which a guest spoke Russian to Groucho. The FBI actually monitored that particular show. A memo to Hoover's assistant reported nothing worthy of further attention.
As a Marx Brothers fan, Wiener says the file adds dimension to the Groucho persona, facets unseen in the extensive Groucho bibliography.
"We always thought of Groucho before as someone who was anarchic, anti-establishment, but never saw him before as someone who supported leftist causes," says Wiener. "It makes him more interesting and admirable."
If the file deepens our understanding of Groucho, Wiener says it JTC should only reaffirm a negative impression of the anti-Communist fever of the 1950s. Notwithstanding recent scholarship showing that Soviet influence in the American government after World War II was probably greater than many liberals have been willing to admit, Wiener says the Groucho File demonstrates the "extremity and the absurdity of the McCarthy era. ... The FBI here is more like the Keystone Kops than the Gestapo. Still, there is something ominous and frightening about it."
Indeed, it takes a powerful force to throw a dark light on the spy briefing scene in "Duck Soup":
Trentino: "Now, will you tell me what happened on Saturday?"
Chicolini: "I'm glad you ask me. We follow this man down to a roadhouse. And at this roadhouse he meet a married lady."
"A married lady?"
"Yeah, I think it was his wife."
"Firefly has no wife."
"Then you know what I think, boss?"
"I think we followed the wrong man."
Pub Date: 10/25/98