Mutual Admiration and a Few Jokes
The Correspondence of Harry Truman with Groucho and Harpo Marx
Spring 2001, Vol. 33, No. 1
By Raymond H. Geselbracht
President Harry S. Truman's improbable relationship with the zany Marx Brothers of vaudeville and movie fame began as a young man in Kansas City and extended into Truman's tenure in the White House and afterward. But it was not all jokes and laughs—by either the brothers or the thirty-third President—as correspondence in the files of the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library in Independence, Missouri, reveal.
Harry Truman's association with the Marx Brothers began at some unrecorded time fairly early in Truman's life. From the time he was a young man in his teens, Truman loved vaudeville. He loved almost every kind of live theater, but his favorite was vaudeville. That meant that he went often to the Orpheum Theatre and the Grand Opera House in Kansas City. "Between the time I was about 16 to 20," Truman said when he was President, "I used to go to every vaudeville show that came to Kansas City at the old Orpheum, and at the Grand."1 He even ushered for a time at the Orpheum so he could get into the show for free. After he started courting Bess Wallace in 1910, he took her to the vaudeville shows.
The Marx Brothers started coming to Kansas City shortly after they moved to Chicago from New York in about 1910. Truman probably came in from the Grandview farm as often as he could to see them. He remembered many years later, when vaudeville was long gone and he was an old man, that he almost never missed a chance to see the Marx Brothers when they were in town.2
When Truman became President in the spring of 1945, one of the first problems that came to him was what to do about the survivors of the Holocaust who were living in displaced persons camps in Europe. He had great sympathy with the displaced persons, and he issued a directive in late 1945 intended to allow some of them to immigrate to the United States. Among the many Americans who were concerned about the displaced persons and were following Truman's actions with regard to them was a former vaudevillian whom Truman certainly remembered. On October 8, 1946, Groucho Marx sent Truman a clipping of a Life magazine editorial, "Send Them Here! Europe's Refugees Need a Place to Go and America Needs to Set a World Example." The article claimed that Truman's attempt to help displaced persons to immigrate to the United States had failed. "In God's name[,]" the editorial concluded, "can we go on doing nothing about these DPs?" Groucho asked Truman to consider the article. "I am sure that you are deluged with mail of this sort," he wrote, "but even a president at times can be confused." He added a PS: "Despite all this I propose voting for you in 1948."
Truman responded by sending Groucho a copy of a letter he had recently sent to Senator Walter George of Georgia. "I sincerely wish that every member of the Congress could visit the displaced persons camps in Germany and Austria," Truman wrote, "and see just what is happening to Five Hundred Thousand human beings through no fault of their own." Truman thought if the members of Congress did witness the misery of the displaced persons, they might help him bring some of these people to the United States and find other homes for them. "Your ancestors and mine," Truman concluded, "came to this country to escape just such conditions. There is no place for people to go now unless we can arrange it."
Groucho must have been at least partly satisfied with Truman's response; as he told Truman later, he voted for him in 1948. He must have been pleased to see that the President had apparently taken a personal interest in his letter and had added a postscript in his own hand: "Please regard Sen. George's letter as confidential."3
Truman's next encounter with the Marx Brothers—with Harpo this time—came late in the night of October 12, 1950. Truman was on his way to Wake Island to meet with Gen. Douglas MacArthur. The Korean War, which had begun the previous June, had turned into the most difficult trial of Truman's presidency, and he was hoping to receive assurance from MacArthur that it would end soon. His plane landed for refueling at Fairfield-Suisun Air Force Base in California. Harpo Marx was there that night too, entertaining men at the base hospital who had been wounded in Korea. The two met at the residence of the base commander. A photograph was taken of Truman and Harpo sitting together, clearly enjoying a happy moment.
Later, after Truman had left the presidency, Harpo sent a copy of the photograph to Truman and asked him to autograph it. "Someplace," Harpo added in his letter (in which he addressed the former President as "Dear Ex— "), "there's an opening for a harp and piano duet. How are you in the key of D-Flat?"4 Truman responded with a handwritten letter and, unfortunately, did not keep a copy in his files. He must have asked Harpo to autograph a copy of the photograph for him too, for one arrived two months later. "I'm just wild about Harry," Harpo wrote on it. Truman cared enough about this memento of a meeting that was probably more enjoyable than the one that was to follow two days later with MacArthur to write along the bottom of the photograph, "Taken at Suisen-Fairfield Air Port on the way to Wake Island." Harpo also sent Truman a record of himself playing the harp and a piece of sheet music, together with some advice. "My mother always said 'Give them a little music and keep them laughing,'" he wrote.5 He sent a book too, The Marx Brothers, by Kyle S. Crichton (1950), which carried an inscription: "From the Marx family, no relation to Karl. McCarthy please take notice." Truman started reading it right away. "I'm having the best time I have had in a long time reading the [book]," he wrote Harpo. "I haven't had so many laughs since I saw the 'Big Show' with all of [the Marx Brothers] in it."6
Groucho wrote Truman a letter a day after the President returned from his Wake Island trip. A joke had appeared in the October 2 issue of Newsweek, in the "Crack of the Week" column, and it was attributed to Groucho. "We wouldn't have this mess if Truman was alive," it read. "I never made the remark," Groucho assured Truman. "I voted for you the last time and propose to do so the next time you run."7 "I appreciated your note most highly," Truman responded. He said he knew the joke could not be Groucho's. "You can make much better ones than that, as I have heard you on many an occasion."8
Harpo contacted Truman a little less than a year after their meeting at the air base. There was much speculation at the time whether Truman would run again in 1952, and Harpo thought he had a good idea. "If you don't run in 1952," he wrote, "how about Margaret? I could swing a lot of votes."9 "I think that is a very important question about 1952," Truman responded, not willing to give anything away regarding this very sensitive matter. "At a later date I will be glad to discuss the matter with you."10
Sometime after this exchange of letters, probably in 1953, Groucho had lunch with Truman in the Muehlebach Hotel in Kansas City. He didn't write again until the summer of 1954, when Truman went into the hospital for an operation. "I don't know if you will remember me," he wrote, "but I am the chap with the black moustache, glasses and increasing baldness who, I hope, convulses you every Thursday night on television." He wished Truman a speedy recovery from his operation, and then he extended an invitation. "I think that one of these days you ought to pay a visit to the Coast. . . . If you want to come I can put you up. I have a swimming pool and a pool table. I shoot very badly and if you are any good with the cue, you could possibly win enough to pay your expenses."11 Truman declined the invitation, but he assured Groucho that he could never forget the Marx Brothers.12
Groucho didn't write Truman again until 1967, when he sent him a copy of his new book, The Groucho Letters. Truman acknowledged receiving the book. "I have been flipping through the book with a great deal of amusement," he wrote, "and plan to read it at the first opportunity."13 This did not satisfy the touchy author. "I read your letter," Groucho replied sardonically. "You said that you have been flipping through the pages [of my book] with a great deal of amusement. Read it, Harry. It's full of wisdom and if you can't stand the heat in the kitchen, read it in the living room."14
Harpo's last letter to Truman—not dated, but sent in about May 1963— enclosed a photograph of himself standing in the Harry S. Truman Forest in Israel. "There were several reasons for taking this photo—mostly my great pride in there being such a place [as the Truman Forest] and such a man as you," Harpo wrote. "My reason for sending it is simpler—I thought you might not know how tall and strong the trees have grown. Hope its symbolical." Truman thanked Harpo for the photograph, and he told him how much he admired his accomplishments as an entertainer. His admiration was deeply personal. "I remember when the Marx Brothers started," he wrote, "and I never missed one of their shows when I was in a position so I could attend."15
Harpo died a year later; Truman died in 1972 and Groucho in 1977. Harry Truman and the two Marx Brothers had gone through their lives together, distantly aware of one another for at least some important part of their lives. There is a mutual warmth and admiration evident in the correspondence between Truman and Groucho and Harpo Marx that goes beyond what one would expect from correspondents so slightly acquainted. Truman was genuinely fond of Groucho and Harpo, and they were sincerely respectful of his conduct of his presidency.
Truman felt the allure of the Marx Brother's zany view of life from the time he was a young man, and he never forgot or renounced it. His memories of the Marx Brothers' riotously irreverent attitude to authority and to all the people and institutions that embodied it might well have contributed to the remarkable humility that he maintained during all the time he held high office. His youthful encounter with the Marx Brothers certainly encouraged him to recognize, as he always did, that life, among its other mysteries, is fundamentally humorous.
For the Marx Brothers, on the other hand, Truman was the President whose heart was rightly positioned on the refugee issue after World War II and who recognized and supported Israel. Though it is not recorded in the correspondence in the Truman Library's holdings, they must have recognized that Truman felt strongly the need to bring social justice to all Americans and to bring what was best in American life to people all over the world. In any event, Groucho voted for Truman the only time he could, in 1948, and would have voted for him again; one thinks the same is true of Harpo.
1. President's news conference of Sept. 8, 1949, Harry S. Truman Library, Independence, MO.
2. Harry Truman to Harpo Marx, June 5, 1963, Truman Library.
3. Truman to Groucho Marx, Oct. 19, 1946, Truman Library.
4. Harpo Marx to Truman, Nov. 12, 1953, Truman Library.
5. Ibid., Jan. 22, 1954, Truman Library.
6. Truman to Harpo Marx, Jan. 30, 1954, Truman Library.
7. Groucho Marx to Truman, Oct. 20, 1950, Truman Library.
8. Truman to Groucho Marx, Oct. 27, 1950, Truman Library.
9. Harpo Marx to Truman, June 6, 1951, Truman Library.
10. Truman to Harpo Marx, June 12, 1951, Truman Library.
11. Groucho Marx to Truman, Aug. 16, 1954, Truman Library.
12. Truman to Groucho Marx, Aug. 21, 1954, Truman Library.
13. Ibid., Mar. 31, 1967, Truman Library.
14. Groucho Marx to Truman, Apr. 27, 1967, Truman Library.
15. Truman to Harpo Marx, June 5, 1963, Truman Library.