I avoided reading Steve Stoliar’s Raised Eyebrows: My Years Inside Groucho’s House when it was first published in 1996 because I didn’t want to learn about an aging, diminished Groucho Marx, and I wasn’t interested in rehashing the exploits of Erin Fleming, the controversial woman who took control of the comedian’s life.
Now that I’ve read Stoliar’s updated edition of the book, published by BearManor Media, with an evocative cover illustration by Drew Friedman, I realize that my fears were unfounded. Groucho never had a more devoted fan, and this book documents his extraordinary experiences as the comedian’s latter-day secretary and archivist.
Stoliar has no axes to grind. That’s why the first edition of his book earned him the gratitude and praise of Groucho’s daughters, who appreciate his straightforward account of life in the Marx household during the mid-1970s. Woody Allen, no less, calls it “one of the best books about a show business icon I’ve ever read.”
Fleming hired him after he and some fellow UCLA students mounted a successful campaign to get Universal Pictures to reissue the Marx Brothers comedy Animal Crackers. He won her trust, and Groucho’s, and became such an active part of the comedian’s Beverly Hills household that he even got to meet Zeppo and Gummo Marx, and many of Groucho’s illustrious friends, from George Burns to S.J. Perelman and Nunnally Johnson. He describes some of his more memorable encounters in loving detail, and explains how he answered Groucho’s fan mail and took dictation from time to time. Even when Stoliar thought the comic’s mind had clouded over, Groucho could occasionally summon the energy and wit to compose some delightfully funny letters.
Stoliar provides us with a diary of life in the Marx orbit as his comedic hero dealt with the indignities of old age, and the vicissitudes of his would-be protector, the volatile Fleming. (The author doesn’t portray her as a villain, explaining that she did him a great deal of good at different times, but as time went on her behavior became increasingly erratic and counterproductive.)