North Country Girl: Chapter 53 — Hello Groucho, Good-bye James

Formore about Gay Haubners life in the North Country,read the other chaptersin her serialized memoir.

Even though I was working semi-steadily, I didn’t offer James money. It was never a relationship between equals; my piddling and erratic modeling checks for $90 or $225 would not have made a dent in his problems, only blasted out a hole in his pride.

I was stashing my get away money in case the worst happened, whatever that might be. Maybe James would rob a bank, or kill himself, or go back to selling Cadillacs in Des Plaines. When I moved in with James he was fun, generous, exciting. Now I was living with a hollow man and insanely hoping that the old James was not gone for good.

The market fell, and then continued falling. James turned into a zombie, a zombie who was now having trouble scraping up enough money to pay the rent. I came home one day to a pink “Late Payment” notice shoved under the door, which I placed on the coffee table; it went unmentioned and unmoved.

When James had cash in his pocket, it came from his backgammon winnings. The backgammon club was the only place James went at night; there were no more meals in nice restaurants or disco dancing at Faces. The last night I was ever there, I watched James distractedly pat at his pockets while asking his opponent if he would take his IOU. The winning player gently reminded James that the club did not allow IOUs, all bets were to be paid in cash or check. When James began lifting off his heavy gold chain, the man, whose only jewelry were onyx cufflinks, quickly demurred, murmuring, “Just this once.” After that I couldn’t bear to go back, and spent my evenings alone, pretending to be asleep when James got home, not wanting to know if he had won or lost.

At this point the stress unhinged me. I thought, “You know what will make things better, Gay? A dog,” though I had never had a dog in my life. I didn’t bother asking James, I just went to the closest animal shelter. It was filled with the sounds and smells of dogs, dogs who were locked away in row after row of cages, stacked to the ceiling, each dog looking more pitiable than the next. I was torn; they all looked so undesirable, all destined to be put down. A three-legged dog briefly stole my heart, before I saw the Dog Least Likely To Be Adopted: a hairless, toothless Yorkshire terrier with cataracts.

The pound guy told me that the Yorkie had been owned by an elderly woman who had barely been able to take care of herself and seemed to have completely forgotten that she had a pet; the dog, who would have been long in the tooth had they not fallen out from malnutrition, was recovering from a case of mange that left him mostly bald. I gave the pound guy $20 and he gave me the dog, who I named Groucho, along with a collar, leash and some canned dog food suitable for toothless dogs.

Yorkie. (Osan Air Force Base)

I guess Groucho had not been walked much; when I pulled on the leash, he lay down on his side so I had to drag him out of the animal shelter. I drug him a bit down the sidewalk, then realized I couldn’t do this all the way back home, so I picked him up and carried him. He weighed less than a loaf of bread.

James hated Groucho on sight, not that there was much to like. But Groucho may have been my guiding animal spirit sent to get me out of that awful situation. Pound guy had assured me that Groucho was housebroken; he did poop every time I took him out for a drag. But Groucho also pooped the second I left the apartment, varying where he left those little Tootsie Roll turds that James always managed to step in; if James made it safely out of the bedroom, there would be a tiny poop hiding in the white shag of the living room rug.

“This #$@%ing dog has to go,” James said. I agreed. I had to go with it.

My modeling career was puttering along well enough that I could rent a $140 a month studio, get the phone and electric hooked up, and furnish it from Goodwill.

Gay modeling.

James barely noticed as I packed my clothes and books and Groucho; he was riveted to bottom part of the TV where the stock market ticker slid along with its tale of woe. There was no steamy last kiss, no tears. I pecked his cadaverous, stubbly cheek and said “Goodbye.” “See you around,” said James. But he didn’t. We lived a ten-minute walk apart from each other, yet I never saw him again.

Groucho and I moved into our tiny studio on quiet, leafy Burton Place. Every day when I came home, Groucho would be sitting on my second-hand bed, waiting for me, his tongue lolling out of his toothless jaws. He never pooped in that apartment once.

I was landing enough modeling jobs that I had stopped having nightmares about being locked in a coat check. Almost every other month I had a solid week of work at the Chicago Convention Center, handing out brochures at the Furniture Show, running a towel folding machine at the Hotel and Restaurant Trade Show, and at the Auto Show, luring prospective car buyers in range of voracious car salesmen.

Ford Motor Company loved me; I had that beamy, fresh, All-American look, the look of a girl who belonged in the passenger seat of a Mustang. When they hired me I was sure they would put me in a pretty gown and stand me up on a revolving platform next to their newest model, and all I would have to do is grin and wave.

The man from Ford looked at the bevy of models assembled in the basement of the Convention Center, pointed at me, and said “You. You’re gonna be the magician’s assistant.”

Auto show. (Wikimedia Commons)

He did not see an innate talent for sleight-of-hand; he saw a girl small enough to disappear inside a magic box.

Every car company at the Auto Show had some kind of come-on. Ford had a fifteen-minute magic show, every hour on the hour that brought families into the exhibit and kept the kids entertained while the salesmen swooped down on the parents. I didn’t even get a cute, sparkly magician’s assistant outfit; I wore a plain jane blue dress with “Ford” stitched in white. I stood next to the magician on the postage-stamp-sized stage and handed him scarves and hoops and held his top hat. For the final trick, I stepped into a black box, which looked like an upright coffin. The magician closed the door on me and intoned a few magic words while I scrunched down as fast as possible into the bottom of the box, pulling three mirrored panels away from the back and sides so they encased me in a tiny triangular space. The magician opened the door for a split second, the mirrors reflected the interior’s matte black paint, and poof! I had vanished. Cue applause. I sprung up, the coffin door opened, and I stepped out to take my own quick bow before I headed back out to the convention floor to pass out “Free Show: The Magic of Ford!” flyers.

The next year Ford had a different gimmick: Models, dressed in those same plain jane blue dresses, buttonholed all the grown-ups who walked into the Ford exhibit and asked  “Would you like to win $100?”

“What’s the catch?” every suspicious attendee wanted to know.

“No catch at all! Here’s a raffle ticket. Find someone with the same number and you’ll both win $100!”

For the ten days of the Chicago Auto Show the Ford exhibit was complete pandemonium, as people dashed about comparing raffle tickets. Gangs of kids picked up tickets that had been tossed on the floor or begged grown-ups for theirs, and ran riot, yelling numbers at each other and anyone holding a small piece of paper. It was supposed to be for adults only and then only one raffle ticket per person, but it didn’t matter, you could take a thousand tickets and not win.

The game was as rigged as any carny con, and I was the shill, dressed in civvies almost as homely as those dresses by Ford. It was designed to get foot-dragging buyers on to a car lot to close the deal. When one of the salesmen had a hot prospect for a Family Truckster, he sent someone out to find me. My job was to approach the potential car buyers, ask them to read the number on their raffle ticket and then squeal “Wow! That’s my number too!” I immediately handed my ticket to the salesman; the prospects never realized there wasn’t really a match; they were too excited about winning. But instead of a crisp $100 bill, what the suckers got was a certificate in that amount. The $100 was waiting for them at their local Ford dealership. Before they could complain, I would gush, “Oh thank you so much! I can’t wait to go to Skokie Ford and collect my $100!” Then I dashed off and hid in the crowd until the next set of chumps appeared.

Trade shows kept me in Campbell’s soup, Groucho in kibble, and paid the rent, but were anything but glamorous. I spent eight-hour days standing on a concrete floor, next to adding machines or surgical supplies, trying to ignore my throbbing feet, looking as cute and approachable as possible, which was ninety percent of the job. The other ten percent was passing out samples or pins or pens or brochures, and fending off amorous salesmen and conventioneers, “C’mon honey, it’s just dinner. Put a little meat on those bones!” I turned them down with a nice girl smile, and gently removed their hands squeezing for either meat or bones on my butt.

As much as I missed my brief former life of champagne cocktails and Dover sole, of being a regular in places where your drink arrives immediately and there’s a nice woman to hand you a towel in the ladies’, I had no desire to eat a chopped up steak at Benihana’s with the biggest manufacturer of stainless steel cutlery in America. I went home to soak my poor feet, heat up a can of tomato soup, and take Groucho out for a drag.

In June, the gigantic Consumer Electronics Show came to Chicago, taking over all three floors of the convention center and every trade show model in town. Sanyo hired me to pose next to a wall of car radios and lure buyers from Radio Hut and Pep Boys into the showroom. The guy in charge of the models taught us a few words of Japanese, none of which were useful in warding off the Japanese executives, who firmly believed that all of us models were hookers paid to entertain them, at the convention during the day and at their hotel at night.

Radio from a 1980 Dodge St. Regis. (Flickr / Greg Gjerdingen)

On my first day, I was rescued from one small, insistent Japanese man by an American in a well-cut suit, who took the guy aside and spoke to him in Japanese. The Japanese man glared and shook his finger at me, and I prepared to be fired on the spot. But he walked away and my rescuer came over to talk to me.

“Sorry,” he said. “These guys have already been set up with girls, but Mr. Moto really likes you. I can’t promise he won’t be back. I’m Gerry,” and he stuck out a small, delicate hand. “When’s your break? Can I buy you a sandwich?”

Gerry was just a few inches taller than me and as adorable as a cocker spaniel; he looked like a human Rowlf the Dog from the Muppets. He had soft curly brown hair that he wore just long enough to be hip and a funny little matching mustache that I knew would tickle. His eyes were a startling sky blue, innocent, almost transparent. I wanted to take Gerry home, put him on the couch next to Groucho and snuggle and pet the two of them.

Gerry wasn’t a salesman, he was an engineer who had come along on this Chicago junket in case a buyer had a difficult technical question about a car radio, which never happened, so Gerry just hung around the Sanyo exhibit, looking at me. I looked back and we both smiled.

A sandwich in the basement of the Convention Center turned into evenings out in those wonderfully expensive Chicago restaurants I had been missing. Sanyo gave Gerry a generous expense account, which he spent taking me out to dinner, after making sure that all the Japanese execs were happily set up with their hookers.

“Do not date guys you meet at the conventions,’’ my agent Ann had warned me. “It’s unprofessional and when it ends, poof, you’re out a client.” But Gerry was young and cute and I was tiring of Campbell’s tomato soup. I insisted that he not talk to me during the day, and after dinner I made him come to my apartment. I did not want to run into my Japanese suitor at the Hilton or have to do the El ride of shame at dawn.

Gerry was twenty-eight, and from California, which I thought automatically made you cool. He was funny enough and smart enough and smitten with me, which I always find attractive. He was a born tinkerer, one of those kids who reads Popular Mechanics cover to cover and takes apart every electrical appliance in the house. After being hired by Sanyo, he decided on his own to learn Japanese. Gerry taught me several interesting Japanese curses then warned me never to use them within earshot of the Sanyo executives. (I wish I could remember how to say, “You are a man who has to buy a sheep to service your wife” in Japanese.) The best part was that after five days, Gerry went back to California, leaving Groucho and me with a nice assortment of doggie bags from fancy restaurants.

I was pleased but not surprised when Gerry called to invite me to California for the Fourth of July. Summer is Chicago’s second worst season, when the sodden heat rolls off Lake Michigan accompanied by the smell of alewives, their fishy life cycle complete, dying and rotting by the millions on the shore. My sweet little studio was stifling; I would have gone anywhere that wasn’t a hundred degrees. The one girlfriend I had made, a model I met in an “Acting for Commercials” class (we bonded when we found out that the lech of a teacher had offered both of us free private tutoring, sessions that were very hands on) had married and moved to the suburbs. I didn’t want to spend the Fourth drinking cheap beer in Frank the photographer’s loft, which was as un-air-conditioned in the summer as it was unheated in the winter. I was hot and sticky and lonely.

I wasn’t in love. I wasn’t bedazzled as I had been with James. But I liked Gerry: he was cute, he made me laugh, and was okay in bed. So I said yes and Gerry sent me a ticket. I dozed on the plane out to California, dreaming of devouring hot dogs and hamburgers on the beach, gazing out at my old friend, the Pacific Ocean, and cuddling on a blanket with Gerry as a million fireworks exploded above our heads: a perfect Fourth of July.


Groucho Turns 120

Originally published September 18, 1954. 

Of all the people you know who were born in 1890, how many can still make you laugh? It’s been 80 years since Groucho Marx first appeared in a movie, but he’s still cracking up audiences. Something about his humor — with its rapid-fire, irreverent wordplay — continues to appeal to the American sense of humor.

The character of “Groucho” was born on the vaudeville circuit sometime in 1919. He bore a certain similarity to the Julius Henry Marx born October 2, 1890. Both were unpredictable and sharp-witted, but Julius was far more sentimental and anxious than his comedic counterpart. As his son wrote in an eight-part biography of “My Old Man Groucho,”

He’s a sentimentalist, but he’d rather be found dead than have you know it. And he’s a dreamer, although he likes to pass himself off as a disillusioned realist.

Arthur wrote the biography in 1954, when Groucho was the enormously popular host of the television show, “You Bet Your Life.” His father added to his son’s efforts by sticking in occasional footnotes.

If I’ve given you the impression that my father is a miser, I’d like to correct that notion at once. (“You’d better, or I’ll cut you off without a nickel.” Groucho) He’s one of the most generous men I’ve ever known. (“Now you’re talking.” Groucho)

Arthur recounted several key moments in Groucho’s career, including the day he abandoned his primarily musical act with “The Fourth Nightingales” and moved into comedy.

[They] embarked on a tour of the South and Midwest. Harpo was still singing off-key, Janie O’Riley was still missing the high notes, and least once a month they found themselves stranded without funds in some whistle-stop town. Somewhere during all this, they changed the name of the act to the Marx Brothers & Co. Presumably this was to hide their identity, but essentially the act was the same. They were fooling no one, and by the time they pulled into a place called Nacogdoches, Texas, they were prepared for a last-ditch stand.

Their first performance in Nacogdoches was at a matinee. It was a real honky-tonk kind of theater, with an audience of big ranchers in ten-gallon bate and small ranchers in five-gallon hats. In the middle of the act the audience got up en masse and disappeared through the front exit to view a run-away mule. My father and his brothers were accustomed to insults, but for some reason this one made them furious. When the customers filed back into the theater, all the Marx brothers wanted to do was get even.

A rough-house comedy bit evolved, with the Marxes, led by my father, flinging insults about Texas and its inhabitants to the audience. Since this happened over thirty years ago, my father is not very clear about details, but he does remember calling this Texans in the audience “damned Yankees” and throwing in lines that went something like:

“Nacogdoches…… Is full of roaches.”

If that’s a sample, perhaps it’s just as well that my father can’t remember any more. At any rate, he was launched on a successful career of ad-libbing. The audience loved the Marx brother’s clowning, and greeted the crudest insults and the most tired jokes with laughter.

And so the brothers were suddenly comedians…

And then, there’s the story of how the Marx brothers got their nicknames.

On one of their vaudeville tours, my father and his brothers found themselves on the same bill with a monologist named Art Fisher. Fisher’s hobby was giving people nicknames. A few hours spent with my father convinced Fisher that he ought to be called Groucho. The origin of “Harpo” [the harp-player] is, of course, obvious. “Chico” evolved from the fact that he was a lady-killer, ladies in those days being known as “chickens.” Gummo was so called because he wore “gum shoes” whether it was raining or not. Soon my father and his brothers found themselves using the new names in place of their real ones.

Although Arthur Marx is careful to show the difference between his father, Julius, and the character Groucho. Yet he also relates several incidents where any difference disappears. After the Marx Brothers had become celebrities, for example,

My father made his first extravagant purchase, a seven-passenger sedan that cost six thousand dollars. (“No, it was a six-passenger sedan that cost seven thousand dollars.” Groucho)

The car seemed as tall as it was long; it had window separating the driver’s compartment from the back seat, and it was loaded with nickel-plated trimmings. At one stage of his vaudeville career my father and his brothers had owned motorcycles, and traveled from town to town on them, sometimes transporting chorus girls on the handle bas. (“Sometimes? Always!” Groucho) But this was his first full-sized motor vehicle.

Chico was on the stage doing his piano solo when the new car was delivered to the stage door of the Casino Theater. Figuring that Chico would be on for another ten minutes, father hopped in the car and, dressed as Napoleon, went for a spin around the block. When his Napoleon sketch was due to go on, he was wedged in a traffic jam three blocks away.

“Chico had to play fourteen encores,” my father recalls. “And this was difficult, since he only knew three numbers.”

In his desperation to get hack to the theater, my father made an illegal left turn, and a policeman stopped him. One look at my father dressed as Napoleon was enough to convince the gendarme that he was a refugee from Bellevue’s psychiatric ward.

“But I’m one of the Marx brothers,” father insisted, “and I’m due on the stage right this minute.”

” If you’re one of the Marx brothers,” said the cop, “let’s hear you say something funny.”

“If you’re a policeman, let’s see you arrest somebody!” retorted my father. That line should have landed my father in jail, but evidently the policeman felt that only a Marx brother would have the nerve to say such a thing. He escorted Groucho back to the theater…

My mother never quite understood my father’s sense of humor. Her first warning of things to come occurred at their wedding, in 1919. The ceremony was to take place in her mother’s apartment in Chicago. They were turned down by five different clergymen before Jo Swerling, their best man, found a minister willing to marry a show-business couple.

My father showed his gratitude to the minister by heckling him all through the ceremony. Harpo can attest to this, because he was hiding behind a potted plant at the time, and was moving the plant around the room to make it appear to be walking.

Coming down the home stretch, relieved that the ordeal was almost over, the minister asked, “Do you, Julius, take this woman to be your lawful wedded wife?”

“Well, I’ve gone this far,” replied my father. “I might as well go through with it.”

Very few women would stand for that sort of thing, much less think it funny. My mother put up with it for twenty-one years…

He always felt fine when he took the family to a restaurant tor dinner. Then mother could count on him for jokes, especially if the headwaiter didn’t recognize him.

A page from the September 18, 1954 edition of the Post.
A page from the September 18, 1954 edition of the Post. “Fay McKenzie and Groucho Marx pull an old vaudeville routine on one of his wartime radio shows.”

“Name, sir? There’ll be a short wait.”

“Jackson,” father would reply. “Stonewall Jackson. And this is Mrs. Jackson, and there are the little Jacksons.”

Mother would do a slow burn, knowing that his real name would get us a table immediately.

“Grouch,” she whisper, “Tell them who you are.”

“Why should I?” he’d reply. “If I can’t get in under the name of Jackson, then I don’t want to eat here. I don’t like restaurants where you have be a celebrity to get in.”

“Then you should have made a reservation,” she’d say. “You can’t walk into a restaurant on Thurdsay night without a reservation and—“

At this point we’d leave for another restaurant, or my father would tap the headwaiter on the arm. “My wife wants me to tell you who I am,” he’d say. “My name’s not really Stonewall Jackson. It’s Abe Schwartz, and I’m in the wholesale-plumbing supply business. And this is Mrs. Schwatz and all the little Schwartzes.”

If the headwaiter thought he was peculiar, the waitress, when we’d finally be seated, would consdier completely mad.

“Miss,” he might begin, glancing up from the menu, “do you have frog’s legs?”

“I’ll ask the chef,” she’d reply.

“No. You’re not supposed to say that,” father would explain in a patient tone. “When I say, ‘Do you have frog’s legs?’ you’re supposed to answer, ‘No, rheumatism, makes me walk this way.’ O.K., now let’s try it again. Miss, do you have frog’s legs?”

Her face would go blank. “It isn’t on the menu. I’ll have to ask the chef.”

“Now you’ve spoiled it. We’ll have to start all over aga—“

“Grouch,” my mother would interrupt, “this girl is busy. Who do you waste her time with such foolishness?”

“It’s not foolishness. It might come in very handy to her someday. Supposing vaudeville comes back and she wants to get up an act. Look at the shape she’d be in with this sure-fire material.”

At the risk of sounding traitorous, I suspect that the comedy was a way of drawing attention to himself, without actually revealing his identity. He had a fixation about not wanting to get any special privileges just because he was a celebrity…  At the same time, he couldn’t reconcile himself to being unrecognized. So he made himself conspicuous by other methods. (“Take it easy with that probing. If I want to be analyzed, I’ll go to a psychiatrist.” Groucho)