Dinner Chez Groucho

Otis B. Driftwood

A number of years ago—around the time Pluto was discovered, as I recall—I was browsing in a used-book emporium in New York City’s Greenwich Village, where I found a collection of S.J. Perelman’s essays (I think it was the volume Chicken Inspector No. 23).  When I brought the book to the register for purchase, the cashier raised his eyebrows in a Groucho-Marxist manner and noted, in slightly acidic tones, that Perelman had been a longtime contributor to The New Yorker magazine.  I don’t know why he said that.  Was Perelman such a rare choice for purchase that the cashier, with heightened eyebrows and tartened vocals, felt he had to inform me just who Perelman was?  Perelman must have been a rara avis indeed.

By now, if you’ve stuck with me this far, you’re all wondering just who the hell was S.J. Perelman and why I am devoting a post to him.  I will tell you, of course.  S.J. Perelman was indeed a rare bird.  He’s one of the funniest writers ever, his writing known, says the Library of America, for “witticism, spoofery, self-deprecation, and plain zaniness.”  The technical term bestowed is ‘humorist, but that word is too academic, too genteel, to get to Perelman’s gist—trust me, the guy’s laff-out-loud funny.  Not surprisingly, he also happened to write two of the Marx Brothers’ funniest movies from their Paramount era, Monkey Business and Horse Feathers.  So raise your eyebrows and tighten your vocal cords at that.


Looking at a Perelman photo, I wonder if there could have been a genetic component to his Marxist-style humor.  Is it no accident that Perelman resembled Groucho—to where they could almost pass for twins? Separated at birth, perhaps? One can imagine the scenario: Each unaware of the other’s existence, yet sensing something has been missing from their lives…until, so many years later, they discover each other on a Paramount soundstage…Then picture that touching moment—as recognition dawns, the tears spill, and, like calling to like, they fall into each other’s arms: “Mon semblable, mon frère!”


Ya might even make a movie on it…

Beyond the movies (or even the DNA), there is something Marxian about Perelman’s humor, which Wikipedia attributes to his sense of “wordplay”—how his writing is “infused with a sense of ridicule, irony, and wryness,” heightened by “obscure words and references, metaphors, irony, parody, paradox, symbols, free associations, clang associations, non-sequiturs, and sense of the ridiculous.”  In other words—it’s funny.  Perelman’s writing is ‘play’ in its most ludic sense.  His essays will often pose an everyday situation or occurrence, and then spin it into eyebrow-raising fantasies that reach the absurd, surreal, and screamingly hilarious.  The style mixes in references from high and popular art and low culture (advertisements are a frequent target), to form a startling, and discombobulated language of its own, an alternate universe of sound, sense, and meaning—creating in the reader a sense of did-I-just-read-what-I-just-read.  (Ah, but you just did.)

Though when it comes to the Paramount screenplays, maybe I should qualify how much is actually Perelman’s, since it’s rare for Hollywood movies to have a sole scenarist.  The film capital was notorious for assigning writer after writer to screenplays, in a constant—even obsessive—rewriting process (a practice hilariously captured by P.G. Wodehouse in his short story “The Castaways,” based on Wodehouse’s own bizarre film-colony experience).   Per another Wikipedia entry, Perelman and Will Johnstone were the original, credited writers on Monkey Business, of whose finished script Groucho declared “it stinks.”  Several months and up to 12 writers were then consumed by rewriting; how much of what remains is Perelman?  Horse Feathers has a credited four writers, but how many more might have been involved?  Picking out Perelman’s contributions to each film would be like searching for that proverbial haystack needle, an activity that occupies Groucho at Monkey Business’s finale.  (He doesn’t seem to find it, either.)


Ah, well.  I like to think that the following two samples, one from each film, might, after all the cuts, changes, and compulsive rewrites, be Perelmanic survivors.  The first are the names of the rival colleges in Horse Feathers, that of Huxley and Darwin, references to the famous naturalist and his advocate (Groucho’s complaint against the Brown University-educated Perelman was that he was too “intellectual”).  The second is Groucho’s line from Monkey Business, when a gangster asks him for the guns, or ‘gats,’ Groucho had earlier ditched in a pail of water.  “We had to drown the gats,” Groucho solemnly answers, “but we saved you a little black gitten.”

That should put a lift in your eyebrows…

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I’ll give you a certified Perelmanic bit from one of my favorite Perelman essays, “Frou Frou, or Vertigo Revisited” (from his collection Crazy Like a Fox).  Its premise is Perelman’s reading of a regularly appearing fashion column in Harper’s Baazar, which gives style advice to its readers.  Named “Why Don’t You”, the column offers such stimulating counsel as “’Why don’t you try the effect of diamond roses and ribbons flat on your head, as Garbo wears them when she says good-by to Armand in their country retreat?’”  Inspired by such deathless guidance, Perelman responds by “Piling my head high with diamond roses and ribbons, I pulled on a pair of my stoutest espadrilles and set off, my cat frisking ahead of me with many a warning cry of ‘Here comes my master, the Marquis of Carabas!’”  Witnessing this display is an “elderly Amish woman hoeing cabbages in her garden,” who is “immediately turned to stone” by what she sees.  “She is still standing there,” Perelman concludes, “slightly chipped but otherwise in very good condition.”

Did I just read what I just read?  Within a couple of paragraphs Perelman takes us from fashion-magazine advice to a reference to Garbo in Camille, to an allusion to the Puss in Boots fairy tale, to a Medusa-like petrification (or maybe a Lot-like pillar of saltification?) of an innocent bystander, and then to an assurance that the calcified statue stands (“in very good condition”) for all to view.  For all we know, the monument is still there—a little the worse for wear but recognizably whole.

I wonder if one reason Groucho and Co. may have balked at Perelman’s dialogue is his writing’s own obsessive-compulsive quality—how the words, flowing like uncorked wine, pour out compacted allusions, right and left, almost too lavishly to catch and comprehend.  To give another Perelmanic example, here’s one about a dinner during which a speaker protests at one diner’s request for “Gravy, gravy!”:

“Everybody wants gravy!  Did those six poor slobs on the Kon-Tiki have any gravy?  Did Scipio’s legions, deep in the burning African waste, have gravy?  Did Fanny Hill?”

“Did Fanny Hill what?” I asked.

“Never mind, you cad,” he threw at me, “I’m sick to death of innuendo, brittle small talk, the sly, silken rustle of feminine underthings.  I want to sit in a ball park with the wind in my hair and breathe cold, clean popcorn into my lungs.  I want to hear the crack of seasoned ash on horsehide, the roar of the hydra-headed crowd, the umpire’s deep-throated ‘Play Ball!’”  So graphically had he limned the color and excitement of the game that the three of us hung there with shining eyes, too rapt even to spurn the paper-thin, parsimonious slices of meat he had served us.

Kon-Tiki, Scipio at Carthage, Fanny Hill—there’s even baseball and ladies’ undies.  My eyebrows fly upwards at the breadth of allusion here.  The served dinner may be frugal, but that’s the only frugal thing about it.

What’s also of note in the above passage—from “I’ll Always Call You Schnorrer, My African Explorer,” in The Road to Miltown or, Under the Spreading Atrophy—is that the speaker is Groucho Marx.  Perelman had been visiting Groucho on the set of the latter’s 1952 film, A Girl In Every Port, and how much of the resulting essay is true, I have no idea, although I’m sure much has been exaggerated, embellished, even twisted for humorous effect—including a description of Groucho and co-star William Bendix filming a scene, in which they ride two “amazingly lifelike steeds” as they “strai[n] forward into the camera to steal the scene from each other.”  (…Maybe not that far from the truth.)

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Sometimes, however, the essay’s humor tangs with the slightly acidic.  Per Miles Kington in The Independent, Perelman and Groucho disliked each other in real life (each referring to the other as a “son of a bitch”).  Perelman grumbled about the public associating him with only his two Marx Brothers films, while Groucho thought Perelman “condescending,” claiming he “couldn’t even write lines which were easy to say.”  You sense, in their mutual resentment, the clash of two similarly intense, combative, high-strung, self-absorbed personalities—both intelligent, driven, competitive artists, fixated on being funny (next to brain surgery, about the hardest thing in the world to do), via a stylized comic language.  One suspects that, under the comedy, the laughs, the timing, the linguistic brilliance, each man was trying his damnedest to score off the other.

Some Perelman points are scored in the above essay, right to the Animal Crackers-alluding title (“Schnorrer” is Yiddish for “beggar”).  “Let’s get together before you leave town,” Groucho greets his erstwhile scenarist, “I’d like you to poison some moles on my lawn.”  He takes Perelman to lunch, where, says Perelman, Groucho “seized the opportunity to couple his check with mine.”  (Groucho does the same at a later restaurant repast, asking Perelman to “’square that tab on the way out.’”)  Groucho did have a reputation for stinginess (one story is that his stage name was derived from the term ‘grouch bag,’ a money-holding bag hung around the neck for safekeeping), an attribute Perelman won’t let you forget.  More than once he slips in such observations such as Groucho’s “passionate avocation” for the “collecting and cross-fertilization of various kinds of money,” and his invitation for Perelman to visit him in Hollywood—“at your own expense, of course.”


Yet beneath the cutting commentary, Perelman was also, and obviously—a Marxist fan.  (Even a sentimental one, albeit leavened with a dash of bitters—describing Groucho as “a gallant freebooter” whose “skulking, predatory figure fad[es] from view.”)  Perelman begins his essay with a recollection of when, age 12, he braved a winter storm to see the Four Marx Brothers (Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and the mysterious Gummo) at a performance matinee.  The routine began with Groucho’s entrance as a disembarking shipboard passenger:  “’I’m certainly glad to set my feet on terra firma,’” run his opening lines, “’Now I know that when I eat something, I won’t see it again’”—an observation, says Perelman, “evok[ing] a paroxysm from the audience.”  Even as early as this 1916 show, the humor brims with Marxisms:  Chico speaks in an accent “heard off Mulberry Street”; Harpo disgorges “the entire ship’s cutlery from his sleeves”; and Groucho “irrupt[s] onstage” in “his time-honored claw-hammer coat, his eyes shifting lickerishly behind his specs and an unlit perfecto in his teeth.”  As I had noted in an earlier post, Perelman having seen the Marxes on stage probably gave him a special insight into writing for them.  Certainly both Monkey Business and Horse Feathers capture something of Groucho’s ‘lickerish’ persona onscreen.  (“You call this a party?”, he complains at one point in the first film, “The beer is warm, the women cold, and I’m hot under the collar.”)


And then there’s Perelman’s other, not-so-fannish Marxian encounter, detailed in “Moonstruck at Sunset” (from Baby, It’s Cold Inside), a reminiscence about his stay, in early 1930s Hollywood, at the famed ‘Garden of Allah,’ when “I was undergoing my novitiate as a screenwriter.”  Among his vernal memories is one of a fire breaking out one night and “some two dozen occupants of the Garden converg[ing] excitedly” to watch.  “They were all officially married,” Perelman dryly notes, “but not to their present roommates.”  His neighbors included a “wizened homunculus” who was “beset by process servers trying to collect the alimony he owed five women,” a “gray-haired poetess who strummed a lyre outside her door for inspiration,” and an Englishman who owned “a haunted Rolls-Royce,” which “persisted in rolling out of the garage with nobody at the wheel.”  Life at the Garden was demonstrably unique.

But the one Allah-ed episode that stood out in Perelman’s memory was when he and his wife invited “a quartet of buffoons,” for whom Perelman was “crocheting [a script] at Paramount,” to dinner at their bungalow.  Perelman never names the foursome (“the ringleader,” he hints, “affected a sizable painted mustache and a cigar”), but he does note their private lives “were as bourgeois as their behavior onscreen was unbridled.”  The invitation included all four wives (“an ill-considered burst of generosity,” Perelman says), and, with flowers, canapés, elaborate invitations, liquor, and the main course carefully planned by Mrs. Perelman (the hope being that everyone would consume such an alcoholic “skinful” that “they won’t know what they’re eating”), the great night came.


The resulting banquet might have come straight out of a Marx Brothers movie.  The quartet appeared, their wives “exhibiting noticeably sullen faces.”  As the Perelmans innocently served drinks and appetizers, the four ladies “began exchanging barbs so venomous that I was afraid homicide might follow.”  Only later did Perelman find out that “these kinswomen were at daggers drawn and never saw each other socially.”  While the four brothers “glumly drain[ed] their cocktails,” the wives engaged in acid-laced exchanges that would have made painted eyebrows curl.  “I love your hat, darling,” one wife says to another about her feather-decked headgear, “It makes you look exactly like a little brown hen.”  To which the in-law replies, “Well, it’s a long time since anyone called you a chicken.”  In such a charged atmosphere, Perelman began mixing drinks stronger “than was prudent,” to the point he fell under the happy (if inaccurate) illusion that the evening was a success.  The capper came when the guests, preparing to leave, discovered the Perelmans’ pet schnauzer wrapped in the mink coat belonging to Groucho’s wife, her feathered hat between its paws—from which the dog had “stripped [away] the very last feather” and “was smirking at us with the pride of an artisan whose work is well done.”

Talk about a Dinner From Hell.  All that’s needed is for Margaret Dumont to open the bungalow door and have everyone spill pell-mell out.  Including the feathers.


However, on a more optimistic note—We can only be glad that Perelman was able to salvage such Groucho-ized dining moments to dine out on, for years to come.  And to be written up in a scintillating essay for our reading pleasure.  Right down to the very last feather.

Give a raise or two of your eyebrows at that.

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P.S.  Yes, A Girl In Every Port is a real movie (about two sailors with twin race horses…what is it about Perelman, Groucho, and Twins?); and the double horse-riding scene with Groucho and William Bendix that Perelman describes does appear.  You can watch a not-bad print of the film on YouTube here.

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  1. Bravo! I absolutely loved this wonderful piece, and laughed until I cried.

    It was a direct injection of joy into my day…at the same time I was thinking did I just read what I thought I read? Indeed I did.

  2. Susan Beth Pfeffer

     /  March 17, 2023

    S. J. Perelman’s wife Laura was Nathanael West’s sister. At the time of his death, West was married to Eileen McKenney (of My Sister Eileen fame), which made Perelman and Ruth McKenney extended family, connected through marriage and grief.

    West and Eileen died a day after F. Scott Fitzgerald. Their social circles were extensive enough that there must have been people devastated by the deaths of three such young and seemingly charmed people.

    • Yes, I had heard of Perelman’s family connections, both with Nathanael West and the McKinney sisters. Very sad that all those deaths happened so close together, and to such talented people. Thanks for commenting.


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