The Strange Correspondence between Groucho Marx and T.S. Eliot—and Their Even Stranger Dinner

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.

Read more at JStor Daily

More about: Anti-Semitism, Groucho Marx, Modernism, T.S. Eliot


When It Comes to Peace with Israel, Many Saudis Have Religious Concerns

Sept. 22 2023

While roughly a third of Saudis are willing to cooperate with the Jewish state in matters of technology and commerce, far fewer are willing to allow Israeli teams to compete within the kingdom—let alone support diplomatic normalization. These are just a few results of a recent, detailed, and professional opinion survey—a rarity in Saudi Arabia—that has much bearing on current negotiations involving Washington, Jerusalem, and Riyadh. David Pollock notes some others:

When asked about possible factors “in considering whether or not Saudi Arabia should establish official relations with Israel,” the Saudi public opts first for an Islamic—rather than a specifically Saudi—agenda: almost half (46 percent) say it would be “important” to obtain “new Israeli guarantees of Muslim rights at al-Aqsa Mosque and al-Haram al-Sharif [i.e., the Temple Mount] in Jerusalem.” Prioritizing this issue is significantly more popular than any other option offered. . . .

This popular focus on religion is in line with responses to other controversial questions in the survey. Exactly the same percentage, for example, feel “strongly” that “our country should cut off all relations with any other country where anybody hurts the Quran.”

By comparison, Palestinian aspirations come in second place in Saudi popular perceptions of a deal with Israel. Thirty-six percent of the Saudi public say it would be “important” to obtain “new steps toward political rights and better economic opportunities for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.” Far behind these drivers in popular attitudes, surprisingly, are hypothetical American contributions to a Saudi-Israel deal—even though these have reportedly been under heavy discussion at the official level in recent months.

Therefore, based on this analysis of these new survey findings, all three governments involved in a possible trilateral U.S.-Saudi-Israel deal would be well advised to pay at least as much attention to its religious dimension as to its political, security, and economic ones.

Read more at Washington Institute for Near East Policy

More about: Islam, Israel-Arab relations, Saudi Arabia, Temple Mount