Groucho Marx vs. Irving Berlin

Everyone needs to have a copy of The Groucho Letters. Groucho Marx, aside from being very funny, was a great letter writer: he corresponded with many of the memorable people of his day, including (incredibly) T.S. Eliot. This collection is on my shelf next to Mozart’s letters. And when I say shelf, I really mean bathroom.

My fave so far is Groucho’s exchange with Irving Berlin, in 1956:

Dear Irving:
I have taken to singing songs on my show; cute or funny ones, preferably. A few weeks ago I did “I Love a Piano” with Liberace, and last week I did “Cuba.”
I know that you have many songs of this type and if, one of these days, you could stray far enough from your money to peruse your catalogue, perhaps you could instruct one of your hirelings to send me a few of them. They don’t seem to be available in the music shops. I did get “I Want To Be Lazy” — but that’s about all I could find.

Dear Groucho:
Your letter was read to me over the telephone in Florida.
My office has chosen some songs and are sending them to you but I also instructed them to send you a catalogue so you can roll your own. If there’s anything you want that we haven’t got in stock, I will have it made up for you.
Outside of “The Cocoanuts,” I’m still grateful to you for doing “Simple Melody” with Bing Crosby which ended up in its revival.
I see your show often and you remind me very much of the fellow who came to Atlantic City and heard George Kaufman read the first draft of “The Cocoanuts.” I’m delighted with your success. 
As always,

Dear Irving:
First of all, thanks for the parcel of songs, plus the catalogue and your invitation to “roll my own.” Little did you know! While perusing it, I found some fifty-odd pieces (list attached) that I’d like to add to my repertoire.
Next time let me have your address so that my thanks can reach you directly, rather than be strained through a telephone wire from New York.
Warmest regards,

Dear Groucho:
Frankly, there are some songs I would be tempted to pay you not to do. For instance, “Cohen Owes Me $97” would not be taken in the same spirit it was when I wrote it for Belle Baker when she opened at the Palace many, many years ago. “The Friars Parade” is a bad special song I wrote for the Friars Club and you certainly would never have occasion to use that.
But why mention individual titles? Let me tell you of my favorite Groucho Marx story the way I tell it: “There’s a song I wrote during the First World War called ‘Stay Down Here Where You Belong’ of which Groucho knows all the lyrics. Any time he sees me, when I am trying to pose as a pretty good songwriter, he squares off and sings it. I’ve asked him how much money he will take not to do this but so far he will not be bribed.”

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4 Responses to Groucho Marx vs. Irving Berlin

  1. Paul Hamburg says:

    Hi Dan — Did you know that there is a great recording of Cohen owes me $97 on “The Sidewalks of New York: Tin Pan Alley” produced by Uri Caine on Winter and Winter. Get the Audio CD from Amazon rather than on iTunes or an mp3. The Winter and Winter discs are beautifully produced with a good number of archival photos.

    I hope you have safely survived the storm. Had to have been quite terrifying to be in the midst of it.


    • dantepfer says:

      I didn’t know Uri had recorded that… Seems appropriate. Will check it out! On another note, I’ve spent the storm in Europe on tour, and it feels very strange to be away from home right now.

  2. Janet Klein says:

    thank you for posting these notes and letters! I had heard that “Cohen Owes Me” was on a short list of songs that Groucho loved by Berlin and that Berlin was mortified by. Now I Gotta look up the other tune mentioned.. “Stay Down Here Where you Belong”
    I perform “Cohen Owes Me $97” often and I’ll now quote from that letter besides.. priceless!

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