Thursday, April 14, 2022


Groucho Marx is one of the greates comic minds of all time. Everything Julius Henry Marx, better known as Groucho, was comic gold. With his zany brothers Harpo, Chico, and sometimes Zeppo, he conquered American vaudeville, the Broadway stage, motion pictures, radio and television. (There was a fifth brother, Gummo, who was not a performer preferring, instead, to earn his daily bread in the dress business and, after Zeppo opened a lucrative talent agency in Hollywood, representing movie stars for 10 percent of their earnings).

By the time Groucho was an old man, however, he experienced significant problems in his daily activities, medical decision-making and the management of his estate. He suffered from elements of dementia, a heart attack and congestive heart failure, falls resulting in a broken hip, and after that hip was repaired, another fall and broken hip, urinary tract infections, strokes and hypertension.

The legal battles over Groucho’s money and possessions carried on long after he died.

Groucho died over 44 years ago, on Aug. 19, 1977, at age 86 of pneumonia, which is known as “the old man’s friend.” The turmoil of his last few years are all too familiar to adult children everywhere who are concerned with the welfare of their elderly parents and other relatives.

Groucho’s “girlfriend” and consort, Erin Fleming, was accused of elder abuse and, to make matters worse, his relationships with his son Arthur and daughter Miriam (children from his first marriage, to Ruth Johnson, a dancer in the Marx Brothers’ vaudeville act) were strained for various reasons. Arthur wrote several works based on life in the Marx family; at one point, Groucho threatened to sue his son over his depiction in one of Arthur’s memoirs.

Groucho also had a complicated relationship with Melinda, his third daughter from his second marriage to Kay Mavis Gorcey. Melinda often performed on her father’s television show, “You Bet Your Life,” and famously inspired a Groucho quip when he was told that she was forbidden from swimming in a country club pool because the family was Jewish. Groucho wrote the country club president, between puffs of his famous cigar: “She’s only half Jewish. How about if she only goes in up to her waist?”

After he divorced Eden Hartford — his third wife who was about 40 years younger than him — in 1969, Groucho met Erin Fleming in 1971. She played some minor roles in films, including Woody Allen’s “Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask” (1972).

Her most famous role, however, was as Groucho’s secretary-manager and she was responsible for his popular comeback in the early 1970s. He played various colleges and eventually Carnegie Hall, a performance that resulted in the hit album, “An Evening With Groucho” (1972). That same year, there were revivals of his films at movie houses and libraries across the nation.

The problem was that many of Groucho’s friends felt Fleming was pushing him too hard to perform, evidenced by his advanced age and an inability to remember all of his lines. On the other hand, it was Fleming who waged a successful campaign for Groucho and his brothers to receive a special Academy Award in 1974. In his acceptance speech, after thanking Harpo and Chico, the actress Margaret Dumont, his long suffering foil who never understood his jokes, and his mother, Minnie, “because without her we never would have been anything,” Groucho thanked “Erin Fleming, who makes my life worth living and who understands all my jokes.”

That same year, Fleming was appointed his guardian and temporary conservator of an estate worth between $2 million and $4 million. In 1975, Groucho even tried to adopt her, until a psychologist declared he was not mentally competent to do so.

Groucho’s son, Arthur, took Fleming to court and accused her of having a harmful and destructive influence on his father, including threatening his well-being and being abusive. Arthur further alleged that Fleming pushed Groucho to perform, whether he was able or not, for her own financial gain. Groucho’s nurses claimed Erin overdosed the comedian on tranquilizers and called him nasty names like “pig” and “crazy old man.” Accoridng to court testimony, There were other occasions when Fleming reportedly walked about Groucho’s home naked to taunt him. Melinda Marx, too, testified that Fleming terrorized her father, yelled at him, and tried to alienate him from his family. Others, such as the comedian George Burns and actor Carroll O’Connor, disagreed and felt that her presence made an elderly and ill Groucho want to live.

During Groucho’s final days, a judge appointed the 72-year-old Nat Perrin, a close pal of Groucho’s and who co-wrote the Marx Brothers’ most anarchically funny 1933 film, “Duck Soup,” as temporary conservator of Groucho’s well-being and estate. Later, his 27-year-old grandson, Andrew, was named permanent conservator.

The legal battles over Groucho’s money and possessions carried on long after he died and into the early 1980s. Although he left most of his estate to his three children, Groucho left administrative control of his name, image and movie rights to Fleming. This, too, was a source of legal contretemps. Not only were such rights valuable, but they also carried the potential to encroach upon the income of the heirs to Chico and Harpo’s estates. The lawsuits were ultimately resolved in favor of Groucho’s children. A judge ordered Fleming to pay $472,000, which she bilked from Groucho’s bank accounts while she worked for him. Fleming spent much of the 1990s in and out of mental health facilities, suffering from a variety of psychiatric illnesses, and was often homeless. She died by suicide in 2003 at the age of 61.

Back in the late 1970s, the term “elder abuse” had not even been coined. Even though it clearly existed, it was rarely recognized until it was too late. Today, public health agencies, including the World Health Organization, have declared elder abuse to be a growing problem around the world and have detailed a long list of harmful activities, including physical, sexual, emotional and psychological forms of abuse and neglect, as well as the theft or withholding of financial assets needed to survive...

1 comment:

  1. Geez, what a tragic story. I never knew about any of this. It makes me sad to think of it.