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A Puff of Smoke

Paul Wesolowski knows the secret word: Groucho

His name appears in almost every book written about Groucho Marx, so much so, he has been given the appropriate appellation by members of the Marx family: Wesso. But Paul Wesolowski is of no relation to the famous clan. He's a man in his 40s who lives outside Philadelphia and, several times a month, works with children who suffer from emotional problems as the result of abuse or neglect--hardly the stuff of which laughter is made. He knows Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Zeppo only from a black-and-white distance--from the late-late-show screenings of Animal Crackers and Monkey Business and Duck Soup that popped up on the television screen during his childhood. He adored the brothers the first moment he saw them, falling in love with Groucho's way with words and Harpo's way without them. A child of the 1970s became instantly enamored of these purveyors of anarchy who were stars and failures and stars again decades before he was born. And long ago, the fan became the expert.

Wesolowski met Groucho Marx only once--in January 1977, shortly before Groucho broke his hip and slipped further into old age, frailty, and eventual death. It's little wonder, then, that Wesolowski treasures those 10 days spent in the company of Mr. Marx. Had he decided to travel west only a few months later--as originally planned, during a summer break from college--there would have been no Groucho Marx to visit.

Groucho had found out about Wesolowski through writer Hector Arce, who was then working on a biography titled Groucho (though Groucho wanted it called Warts and All). Arce traveled from library to library across the country, only to discover this kid had always been there before him. Arce finally phoned Wesolowski and then informed Groucho of this kid in Philly who had devoted his young life to researching the Marx Brothers, photocopying old articles from newspapers long since folded and forgotten. Groucho was impressed, if not a little startled, by the revelation that someone so young would spend his life poring through history, studying not only the brothers' famous films but also their vaudeville and stage productions, most of which hadn't been seen or mentioned since the 1920s.

The tragic clown: Several new books about Groucho Marx tell a familiar story about the man and his cigar.
The tragic clown: Several new books about Groucho Marx tell a familiar story about the man and his cigar.

Groucho wanted to meet the boy, if only to find out what the hell was wrong with him.

"We were having dinner one night," Wesolowski says, "and I preceded a question by saying, 'In 1905, you...,' and Groucho said, 'How do you know? You weren't even born yet!' I think he was as much impressed by the fact I was from Philadelphia. After all, we saved their careers in 1923. They were washed up in vaudeville and had to leave show business and made a silent film [Humorisk] that bombed. Then they debuted I'll Say She Is, which opened here and set a box-office record that has yet to be broken. But after Hector introduced me, Groucho said, 'Show him the servant's entrance. Better yet, show him the servant's exit.' It was hard to tell whether he was happy to meet me or just insulting me. Either way was OK."

When Arce's book appeared in 1979, he thanked Wesolowski for allowing him access to his archives, which then totaled about 5,000 entries. Twenty-one years later, that number has grown to 50,000, from newspaper clippings to long-unseen photographs to writings by and about the brothers that allegedly disappeared. As such, he has become the most invaluable Marx Brothers resource on the planet--the man producers and publishers and writers call when they need one fact or a thousand. Without him, no doubt, the bookshelves would be barren this summer.

Four books about Groucho and the Marx Brothers are set for release in coming weeks; another, filled with rare photos, will follow in December, to coincide with the showing on PBS of a play titled Groucho: A Life in Review. (Wesolowski insists that there is no Marx Brothers renaissance at hand, per se, but that publishers are merely a cynical lot: "The people who make these decisions have no originality," he says. "They hear someone else is publishing a book, therefore they want to publish a book, since someone thinks it's a good idea.")

One book, Stefan Kanfer's Groucho: The Life and Times of Julius Henry Marx, debuted last month. Not so different from Arce's work, which Wesolowski considers among the definitive books on the brothers, Kanfer's biography presents the sad-sack Groucho--the comedian who led three wives and a daughter toward bottles of booze and pushed them in, the son of a domineering Jewish stage mother who pried away her son from books and led him kicking and screaming to the stage, the frugal man who tried to buy his children's love and wound up receiving pennies on the dollar. (In a recent review for Variety, Groucho's grandson Andy chides the book for being derivative, "sometimes heavy-handed," and rife with inaccuracies.)

Groucho is, in essence, a distillation of previous books written about Julius Marx, a thoughtful and comprehensive Cliffs Notes that ends on a sour note, concluding with the legal battles over Marx's estate. It's the soap-opera Groucho--the man who could no longer tell where Julius ended and Captain Spaulding began--and not surprisingly, DreamWorks recently purchased Kanfer's book. The studio has made no formal announcement, but it is preparing a Marx Brothers biopic to be written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (Ed Wood, Man on the Moon) and directed by Danny DeVito.

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