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Groucho And The Age Of Viagra

Back in 1972, Esquire magazine published a cover story on Groucho Marx. The tone of the article was set by the cover itself, which featured a picture of the famous comedian's face wearing a sly and lascivious smile, as though he had just done something naughty. And gazing up at him with a knowing grin on her face is an attractive woman who is clearly young enough to be his granddaughter.

To underscore the point of the picture, the words selected for the caption were Groucho at 81: The Good Life of a Dirty Old Man. And the article that ran in that issue more than lived up to the cover's promise.

The author of the piece was Roger Ebert, who would go on to achieve his own measure of celebrity as a member of the popular movie-reviewing duo, Siskel and Ebert. When they met for lunch at a Beverly Hills restaurant, Groucho promptly told Ebert that he hated doing interviews because "they keep asking you questions. I could be brought up on a rape charge."

He then went on to ask: "Could you pin a rape charge on me? Could you try? I'd appreciate it."

Accompanying Groucho to lunch that day was Erin Fleming, the young woman on the Esquire cover, who told Ebert she wished to be identified as "Mr. Marx's secretary, or his constant companion, or something."

At one point over lunch, she turned to Mr. Marx and asked, "Grouch, do you remember how you met me?"

"In my bedroom five minutes ago," he replied.

But Groucho's amorous attentions were not confined to Fleming. When a waitress approached the table with a tray of pineapple slices, he took one with his fingers.

"You want a fork?" the waitress asked.

"Your place or mine?" Groucho shot back.

To the longtime fans of Groucho Marx, such rapid-fire zingers — and the preoccupations that inspired them — were perfectly in character.

This, after all, was the man whose slinking moves, hyperactive eyebrows and spicy double-entendres captured the essence of comic lechery in the classic Marx Brothers movies of the 1930s.

And this was the man who once noted, in a letter to Dick Cavett, that the stylish English thespian Peter O'Toole was "the only actor in the world with two phallic names."

In other words, Groucho had been carrying on like this for 50 years or so, and at first glance the Esquire piece provided some heartening evidence that age had not withered nor custom staled his zest for randy one-liners. (The old comic himself would have appreciated that paraphrase, for among other pleasures, Groucho enjoyed a bright line from Shakespeare.)

Yet on a closer reading, one could not help but detect an unmistakably rueful tone in Groucho's breezy remarks. At another point during the lunch, when Erin Fleming raved about the whitefish she had ordered, Groucho turned to Ebert and said, "You see why she loves me? Not for what she can get at night, but for what she can get at lunch."

Then latr, when lunch was over, he talked about some of the things he did to keep in shape at the age of 81: "I try to exercise a little every day. I like to take a walk. And I do try to sing a little every day. The throat is a muscle and if you don't use it, like any other muscle it goes to hell."

It was obvious what muscle Groucho thought had gone to hell, and just in case there was still any doubt, he finally let it all hang out, so to speak.

In the closing paragraphs of the article, Groucho referred to the various honors he would be receiving over the next few months, including a special award from the French government to be presented at the Cannes Film Festival. But then, after pausing for effect, Groucho blurted out a dramatic disclosure.

"I'd give it all up for one erection," he said.

He let that dangle in the air for a moment, and then, as if to refute what he had just said, he suddenly took a very different tack, one that was not at all in character.

With an air of mock dignity, he declared: "Sex isn't that important, you know. It's a fleeting pleasure, elusive and temporary. Sex is very over-rated."

Poor Roger Ebert was understandably confused, and seeking clarification, he reminded Groucho that he had just said he was willing to give up all the awards about to be bestowed on him in exchange for one erection.

Having set the reporter up, Groucho now hit him with the final zinger: "They could give me the awards next year," he explained.

So here's to Groucho Marx, the consummate lecher who, sadly, was born 30 years or so too early to have benefited from the wonder drug Viagra in his sunset years.

If Viagra had been on the market at the time of the Esquire interview, the old comic just might have achieved what he so fervently yearned for: a chance to truly experience "the good life of a dirty old man." And if so, he might also have seized the opportunity to quote one of his favorite lines from Shakespeare in a special context near and dear to his heart.

One can imagine Groucho entering the bedchamber of his ladyfriend in his revitalized state and encouraging the object of his desires to make some admiring remark about his new-found virility.

Then, having set her up, he would have tossed off the appropriate line from Marc Antony's famous speech: "I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him."


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Groucho And The Age Of Viagra

Written by Gary Paul Gates. Graphic courtesy of Esquire magazine