In 1961, a letter with a Royal Mail postmark arrived at Julius “Groucho” Marx’s modernist California estate. It was a fan note of sorts from the Nobel Prize-winning, notoriously anti-Semitic poet T.S. Eliot, requesting a photo of the unabashedly Jewish comedian. Marx obliged, and Eliot hung the picture in his London townhouse. Thus began an unexpected and testy exchange between the two brilliant and strikingly different men. Ed Simon recounts their relationship and the ways in which both Eliot’s modernist poetry and Marx’s Jewish humor responded to a growing sense of displacement in the 20th century.
Few figures were as different as the poet and the comedian. Marx was “born at a very early age,” as he wrote in his 1959 autobiography Groucho and Me, to a pair of Jewish immigrants in the Yorkville neighborhood of Manhattan. He dropped out of school in seventh grade to become a Vaudeville performer, though he grew into a self-taught and well-read writer with bylines in the New Yorker. He was brilliant, insecure, and simmered with class resentment.
Eliot, meanwhile, was the scion of wealthy Missouri WASPS, educated at Harvard, and eventually became a British subject. He was precisely the sort who could have been named “Quincy Adams Wagstaff,” [like the university president Marx portrayed in Horse Feathers].
When Marx responded to the poet’s request for a photograph, he was likely aware of Eliot’s history of anti-Semitic comments, even while Eliot seemed genteelly embarrassed by what he had said in the years after the Holocaust. While Eliot’s conservatism never veered into the open fascism of Modernists like [Ezra] Pound, he was still infamous for arguing that “reasons of race and religion combine to make any number of free-thinking Jews undesirable,” as he wrote in After Strange Gods, published a year after Hitler’s appointment as chancellor.
For Eliot, a retreat into pre-modern values acted as balm to meaninglessness, but along with that came hierarchy and order, ancestry and custom. Jews became a convenient metaphor of the rootless cosmopolitanism that he disdained. . . . Jewish comedy ironically reacts to a similar sense of displacement, alienation, rootlessness, and vertigo, but its purposes and prescriptions differ from that of Modernism. Eliot may have felt all that which is solid melting into air, to paraphrase a different Marx, but for the Jews from the shtetls and ghettos of Poland, Ukraine, and Lithuania nothing had ever been solid.