Groucho Sent Me

KYLE CRICHTON was for fifteen years a staff writer on Collier’s, specializing in stage and screen subjects. He is the author of a biography of the Marx Brothers, and a novel recently was published by Crown.

by KYLE CRICHTON

WE’VE had a lot of famous people visiting us lately, and some of them have been good enough to take us into their confidence. Almost invariably they have a word of advice for us before leaving the house. William Bendix put it on a personal basis. He looked us straight in the eye, urged us to drop in at the nearest Gulf station, and assured us that Peg and the children would appreciate it.

We’ve often seen Peg and the children but really don’t know them very well, and it was quite a thing for us to know that they were concerned with anything we did. When television first started there were cynics who predicted that man’s last refuge, his home, his castle, was being invaded, but I imagine they’re singing another tune now that they see how their list of acquaintances has grown. It must be difficult for even the most hardened curmudgeon to turn down the friendship of a fellow like Ed Sullivan, who recently offered to intercede personally for us with a man who sells Lincolns and Mercurys. Those are the little favors that make a man proud to be a member of the human race.

Making new friends is pleasant enough, but I’ve picked up the thread of some old friendships that were broken back in Pony Express days. When we were boys, Groucho Marx and I used to keep up an impassioned correspondence, with quill pen on foolscap, but as I went up in the world and he became more illiterate there followed the inevitable lapse. I think the last letter I had from him was the one in which he said he was on his way to join the Rough Riders. In the ensuing years I often thought of writing to find out what happened to that venture, but there is always the possibility that the other end of such a correspondence has deserted under fire or run off with the Colonel’s wife, and I have found it best not to chance these embarrassments.

But I could see how wrong I had been in the case of Groucho when recently I turned on the end of his television program and found him addressing me directly. In his usual cautious way, he didn’t call me by name, but it wasn’t hard for me to see that he had recognized me and was getting a message across to me. “Drop in at your De Soto-Plymouth dealer,”he was saying, “and tell him Groucho sent you.” Well, that was hint enough for me. In the old days we used to hide messages in the trunks of trees, but I can grow up in progress along with the rest. Groucho’s message was a secret, signal that could be meant only for me, and I took steps immediately to contact the dealer.

That was not as simple as it may sound, for we live in a Connecticut town so small that the New Haven bus will stop only if prospective passengers throw themselves in front of the wheels. But from the classified section of the telephone book, I located a dealer in the next town and could only assume this was the one Groucho had in mind. When I arrived at the place one wintry afternoon, I found a man wandering vaguely about in what passed as a showroom.

“Are you my De Soto-Plymouth dealer?” I asked.

“What’s that?” he said sharply.

“Are you,” I repeated, “my De SotoPlymouth dealer ? ”

He looked at me for a moment, and a touch of fear seemed to come into his voice.

“Mebbe you want to see the boss,” he said, and disappeared into a mysterious region in the rear. After a prolonged wait, he returned with a man in blue jumpers. The man’s hair was ruffled and there was a smudge on his cheek.

“Are you my De Soto-Plymouth dealer?” I asked in a friendly way.

“Well, I sell De Sotos and Plymouths,” he admitted rather sullenly.

I leaned toward him and spoke in a confidential whisper, rather a light subdued hiss. “Groucho sent me,” I whispered.

The man in the blue jumper stepped back two paces, in what might be termed a minor panic. Just when I thought he was about to take flight, he drew himself up proudly and faced me. “Just what was it you had in mind?" he asked.

It was apparent we were confronted with an innocent misunderstanding.

“You don’t quite understand,” I said. “It isn’t what I have in mind; it’s what you have in mind.” I leaned toward him again and whispered significantly: “Groucho sent me.”

He received this with obvious alarm, but stood his ground.

“We’re making some good trade-in offers this week,” he said, much like an attendant mollifying one of the demented. “ What one you particularly interested in?”

I laughed. “Good heavens,” I said. “I’ve got a perfectly good car now. I wouldn’t think of trading it in.”

“What make?” he persisted.

“Groucho told me to call on you and say that he had sent me,” I explained slowly, “but that seems to make no impression on you. It’s plain to me,” I added disgustedly, pulling my coat about me and preparing to leave, “you’re trying to deceive me. You’ve pretended to be my nearest De Soto-Plymouth dealer and it’s obvious you’re not. Good day to you, sir! ”

When I got home I set about triangulating our position with respect to the neighboring towns with a view to getting our nearest dealer, but two further excursions into the larger towns have failed to get me Groucho’s message, and now I hardly know where to turn. Groucho keeps signaling me, I keep trying to locate the informant who will impart his tidings, and in the meantime my own car has developed clutch trouble.