It took me longer than it should have to catch up with the new edition of Steve Stoliar's 1996 memoir Raised Eyebrows: My Years Inside Groucho's House, published late last year. But I've finally done it. Besides feeling moved to equal portions of laughter and tears, I wonder what took me so long.
In brief: Steve Stoliar, in 1974, was a nineteen-year-old devotee of vintage comedy, with a particular fondness for Our Brothers. Through a remarkable series of events, he became an employee and a friend of Groucho during the final years of the great man's life. In Raised Eyebrows, with eloquence and wit, he tells that story. The expanded edition includes an afterword, with updates and new reflections.
What makes Raised Eyebrows unique among Marx Brothers books is its fan's-eye-view of Groucho's final act. The fading star had numerous Boswells in the seventies, and some of their books are excellent, and others are not. But nobody has come close to Steve Stoliar in making us feel as though we were there, in making us understand the literal and emotional realities of Captain Spaulding's last adventures. Stoliar is one of us -- that is, a fan to whom the word fan does no justice. This is not about showbiz. This is about love.
If you know anything about Groucho's life in the seventies, you know that it was dominated by a woman named Erin Fleming. Marxists accord her some credit for reinvigorating his career, and a great deal of blame for the hysteria and abuse to which she subjected him. Other accounts of Fleming's influence (like the last chapters of Hector Arce's solid Groucho) have overwhelmed me with sadness, that my hero's autumn was contaminated by this crazed martinet. But Raised Eyebrows makes me feel better. We may regret that Groucho had Erin Fleming, but we can rejoice, for he also had Steve Stoliar. There was a young man in Groucho's house who genuinely loved him, who cared for him unselfishly, and who, with limited power, did everything possible to give Groucho the joy and peace he deserved. We who love Groucho can never thank him enough.
I did thank him, incidentally. As regular visitors to the Comedy Palace will know, one of the projects I've been working on over the last few years is a book about comedy -- or, more accurately, about my love of certain comedians. (I recently published a short excerpt, about Groucho's Carnegie Hall concert, here.) A couple of years ago, while working on the Marx Brothers section, I reread the entire Marx library, including Raised Eyebrows. Noticing that we had some mutual Facebook friends, I sent Steve a message to say thank you. We had a brief, pleasant correspondence, during which it occurred to me that by contacting him I was following his example. Raised Eyebrows documents his pursuit of autographs and mementos, but he never comes across as a standard celebrity-hound. His intentions are pure and noble, rooted in a genuine desire to simply say thank you to people whose work has enriched his life. How can you not love a twenty-year-old in 1975 who goes out of his way to meet S.J. Perelman?
And that's another aspect of Stoliar's contribution to the Marx mythos. In some of his media appearances promoting the book, he's told anecdotes about people like Perelman and Nat Perrin (who wrote for the Brothers in the thirties, and became temporary conservator of Groucho's estate toward the end), while offering, for example, "a dead-on Nat Perrin impression." The radio hosts laugh at the joke -- how's anyone going to know whether that's really a dead-on Nat Perrin impression? -- but for us, for ever-loving Marxists, it's a revelation. So that's what Nat Perrin sounded like! Steve knows. He was there.
For these reasons, and many others, I'm so glad that Steve Stoliar stepped out of his monochrome Kansas and into the Technicolor madness of 1083 Hillcrest Road, and that he's given us this precious record of what he found there.
And that is why we say: Hooray, hooray, hooray.
Raised Eyebrows is available, in both print and Kindle editions, at the Comedy Palace Gift Shop. Signed and inscribed copies are available through Steve's website.