Thursday, October 5, 2017

Did Groucho believe in ghosts?


The website marxbrothers.net has a terrific article (here) on the vexed (and bizarrely vexatious) subject of Groucho and ghost writers.
As well as fascinating, it is in many respects heartening. The author at one point says of Julius: "Did he use (a ghostwriter) on occasion? Certainly."
Later on he adds, "a publicist or press agent may have written an occasional piece under his byline. (Groucho) may or may not have had input on these pieces."
This is all a welcome advance on the position adopted in the introduction to the anthology Groucho Marx and Other Short Stories and Tall Tales, which calls the whole idea of his using ghosts "an incorrect and unfair assumption."
As you read and enjoy the piece, however, I should point out that some parts run the doubtless inadvertent risk of seeming a little misleading. So it may be worth my briefly returning here to the subject discussed in pages 23 to 25 of That's Me, Groucho.

The post begins by discussing Groucho's intriguing working relationship with Arthur Sheekman. It is uncontested that Sheekman wrote a number of magazine articles in the 1940s that appeared under Groucho's byline. The author here repeats his assertion that this was done by Groucho altruistically, because Sheekman was at that time finding it hard to get published.
No question that this is basically what was happening here: the documentation exists detailing the arrangement and the reasoning behind it. Nonetheless, it remains odd that Groucho did not have them published as collaborations: a single sale would have been less useful to Sheekman in the long term than the regular appearance of his name in popular magazines.
What we seem to be seeing to my mind, therefore, is a mutually beneficial arrangement. A hard-up Sheekman is being well paid, and that is unquestionably the primary point of the enterprise. But at the same time, Groucho is getting something out of it too. Otherwise he could easily have shared the byline; it simply makes no sense to me that he did not, if his sole desire was to help out his friend. Other Short Stories rightly concludes that "The reasons for some of their collaborative efforts not being credited as such remains unexplained," and that is where the matter has long rested, and rests still.

More contentious are the portions of the article dealing with the suggestion that Sheekman wrote Groucho's first two published books, Beds and Many Happy Returns. This assertion, the post tells us, can be found in "at least a couple of good books, and a couple of bad ones".
That's Me, Groucho, we must assume, fits neither profile, since its position on this question is entirely undecided. All it does is note what's already been said: that Hector Arce claimed he was told this unequivocally by Groucho, that Steve Stoliar was convinced by it at the time, and that it is, on the face of it, odd for anyone, and Groucho especially, to have claimed that someone else wrote their books when they didn't. (Not impossible, but odd.) And that's as far as it sticks its neck out on the matter.
Then there is the additional matter of Gloria Stuart's autobiography, in which she also states it as fact. Noting that Stuart's book was ghosted by her daughter, the article wonders if she actually used Arce's book as a source. If so, "We’ve got ghostwriters quoting ghostwriters about who used a ghostwriter!" 
But Stuart's book is not ghosted in the extreme sense of being written by one person and spuriously attributed to another. It's an 'as told to' book, typical of showbiz memoirs (including Harpo Speaks), shaped by a writer based on conversations with the subject. It's possible additional sources were consulted for back-up and validation, of course, but the overwhelmingly likely source of the original claim is Gloria Stuart, even though (as the article notes) she married Sheekman after the writing of Beds (but not, as it doesn't, after the writing of Many Happy Returns).
As I note in the book, Stuart's memoir makes absolutely nothing of the claim, just states it and moves on, and seems to have no idea whatsoever that it is contributing anything to an extant and contentious debate. Its sheer matter-of-factness is compelling. That doesn't in any way mean it's true - Stuart could be exaggerating or mistaken - but one surely needs a vested interest to not see this as the most likely chain of events, as far as how it ended up in Stuart's book goes. (We'll come back to that vested interest later on.)

As the article makes clear, Groucho and Sheekman worked together on the books, with Sheekman honing and editing material sent to him by (or previously published by) Groucho. My own guess is that Groucho was simply being generous when he told Arce that Sheekman had written them, only meaning that Sheekman's input was decisive and vital, and that Sheekman himself, beavering away on a book for which he received no official credit, may have given his wife the incorrect impression that he was doing all the work and being exploited. This, again, presents no real point of quarrel I can see with the author of the article, who writes: "Should Many Happy Returns have been credited to both authors? Perhaps, but there’s also a good chance that the commercial value of the book might have been reduced by adding Sheekman’s name to it."
Absolutely. it does seem reasonable to consider Sheekman an uncredited co-writer on the books, it nonetheless makes sense that he was not credited, and it is not at all unreasonable to describe such a functionary as a ghostwriter. Arce could actually have meant simply this. It is a term with many shades of meaning.

In any event, I don't think Sheekman wrote the entirety of those books, and mine does not claim otherwise. But while its ambivalence on all matters Sheekman precludes That's Me, Groucho as a possible reference point thus far, the post then goes on to discuss the suggestion that Howard Benedict was hired to ghost for Groucho in 1929.
That's Me, Groucho notes a hitherto un-republished claim in Variety that Benedict had written several pieces on Groucho's behalf, and that they are lined up for publication in The New Yorker, Collier’s, The Saturday Evening Post and The New York Times. The book also notes that one of these pieces was called Press Agents I Have Known. So far, so uncontested. But the article then explains:

 Benedict actually was a press agent, and published his own humorous take on the profession. But the publication of humorous prose about press agents under his own byline does not indicate that Benedict wrote Groucho’s piece about press agents. In fact, Benedict’s press agent piece predates Groucho’s, which raises another question: Why would a famous Broadway star pay a completely unknown writer with no credentials for an essay similar to one that’s already been published? Apart from that, the pages of The New Yorker included at least eleven humorous pieces concerning press agents between the magazine’s 1925 inception and the publication of Groucho’s “Press Agents I Have Known.” It was a popular topic at the time.

Here the piece runs the risk of giving the impression to anyone who hasn't read That's Me, Groucho that this is the entirety of its justification for giving credence to Benedict's claims! In reality, of course, it does nothing so silly. I tracked down a number of Benedict's essays, letters and squibs, and noted several interesting points. One was that he wrote repeatedly about press agents as a source of humour, but another was that he had a recurring tic of presenting the same piece of information in different ways from different perspectives. It was this stylistic device, as much as the subject matter, that leaped out at me in Groucho's press agent piece. Then, of course, there was the matter of its authority, which makes a logical case for relevance that I can see no easy way out of (of which more anon).

The article is keen to create an impression of Benedict as a fringe figure, and something of a fantasist, who self-published a series of dodgy memoirs and lived off tall tales about people he vaguely knew. Benedict was indeed an unknown writer with no credentials when the Groucho association is claimed, but he was also a popular figure on the New York theatrical scene with a reputation as a wit and wordsmith. He hung out with many of Groucho's closest theatrical friends - an obvious point of entry were Groucho making it known among his confidantes that he was in the market for a ghost.
Benedict was also a Broadway press agent whose clients included the Shuberts, Gershwin and Noel Coward, and later a successful film publicist and producer at Universal and RKO. He was by no means a peripheral or inconsequential figure. "Benedict was a successful press agent and later became a producer," the article notes. "But he never worked with anyone else as famous as the Marx Brothers." Well, depends how you rank famousness I guess. It's true he was no Thalberg, but he produced scores of movies, including episodes of the Sherlock Holmes, Saint and Falcon series, and made films with the likes of the Ritz Brothers, Merle Oberon, Lucille Ball, Claude Rains, Franchot Tone, Donald O'Connor and Charles Laughton (as well as one pairing Allan Jones and Kitty Carlisle!)
But, like Groucho, he was also somebody who wanted to be known above all as a writer - maybe that shared frustrated goal brought them together? - and as my book notes, many of his published pieces are in essence self-adverts, notably Sincerest Flattery, which is basically a ghostwriter's request for work, disguised as a humorous essay.

Benedict is always looking out for himself, and for the opening that will get him launched as a writer. In a curious observation, the article notes: "In all three of (a series of Zeppo-related) press notices, Benedict gets his name in the paper by attaching himself to a Marx Brother. A press agent’s job is to get his client’s name in the paper, not his own." 
To which one can only add: Well exactly! Benedict wasn't Zeppo's press agent. He was a man who wanted to be cited in newspapers and magazines at the centre of high society making memorable quips with famous people. "But his books suggest he was an intimate of just about every famous Broadway figure of the 1920s," the author notes. "If his claims are true one wonders how Benedict managed to escape the notice of decades of researchers and writers who have covered this period. In truth, he was a young guy trying to break into the theatrical business, and he had some brushes with famous people."
Well, he was in the theatrical business, and trying to break into the writing business, but otherwise: yes. Yes, that's exactly who he was. That's who my Benedict was. That's who my Benedict would be. And he did know all these people, and appears frequently in their company in the public record at the time. But why on earth would we expect him to be of interest to researchers and writers covering the period? He didn't really do much of anything; he was just there. His absence from retrospective histories is no enigma at all: he left few traces.

There is no question that Benedict was someone who wanted to be a ghost writer, and who was very much in Groucho's orbit. So, given that his appointment is stated baldly in Variety, what are the reasons (other than the a priori desire to) for doubting it? Here the post seems to be a little unsure:
"Maybe Benedict was an editor. Maybe he was a liar. Or perhaps he just followed Groucho around with pencil and paper." 
This latter is a reference to a splendid quote the author has obtained from Benedict's granddaughter (yet another reason to be grateful for this fascinating article): "He said his job actually entailed following Groucho around taking down the jokes that spilled constantly from his mouth, then picking out the ones that were good. Many weren’t, he said. He said Groucho would crack jokes all the time, sort of manically." 
"If that’s the extent of the work Howard Benedict did for Groucho," the author concludes, "the ghostwriter claim is more than an exaggeration. It is simply false." Really? At the risk of being redundant, let me stress again that it could well be that "the ghostwriter claim is... simply false." But I cannot for the life of me see how this quote in any way points to that conclusion. This, rather, is exactly what I imagined Benedict to have done, before I even knew he had a granddaughter! Either independently or in collaboration with Groucho, he comes up with a humorous idea for a piece. He then goes away and writes a skeleton version. He then keeps company with Groucho, notebook either literally or more likely metaphorically in hand, discussing it and much else besides, truffling all the while for authentic bon mots to sprinkle in.
Far from pointing away from his story, it is an exact depiction of just what a ghostwriter of this sort does. The same objection meets this observation:

Specifically, in “Press Agents I Have Known” Groucho comments, “I’m still looking for a press agent who will get me some publicity without making me roller-skate down Broadway.” The 2011 edition of Groucho Marx and Other Short Stories and Tall Tales includes an October 1924 photograph of the Four Marx Brothers roller-skating down Broadway. Would it not be more plausible that the subject of the piece is likely to have come from the recollections of Groucho Marx than the pen of Howard Benedict?

Why on earth is it either/or? We've just been told that he claimed he copied down Groucho quotes for him to use! If he told him he had a piece he could use on press agents, this is exactly the kind of thing Groucho would have contributed. So more than conceivably, it could have come from the pen of Howard Benedict via the recollections of Groucho Marx. Even if that's wrong, even if Benedict was lying and uninvolved, this is how ghost writing of that sort works; this is exactly what we should expect to see if it were true.

So, could he have been Groucho's appointed editor, shaping material Groucho had written first? It's possible. But he had no private reputation as an editor, only as a wit and would-be ghost. (In any event, I think Groucho would have trusted the New Yorker et al's own editors to do their jobs.)
So it would have been an unlikely appointment, and we might have expected Variety's suggestion of his being much more to have been followed with, at the very least, a retraction. Both Groucho and his prestigious employers would surely want to have that stressed without equivocation. If Benedict himself had been the source, the same applies - but also one imagines any association between the two would have been pretty swiftly severed. So how to account for the lack of follow-up? Maybe Groucho had no objection to its appearance in a trade journal, published at a time when the reading matter of industry insiders and that of the general public was far more rigidly separate than today. (It would have provided Benedict with the calling card advertisement that would have been his primary intention in doing the work to start with.) Another possibility is that Benedict overstepped the mark, and there was an altercation between them, that it would be in the interests of all to keep private. But that would only make sense if the claims were true.

So if Benedict the editor is out of the picture, and Benedict the ghost writer is temporarily outlawed, that just leaves Benedict the liar. This is clearly the post's preferred conclusion, even though it responsibly shies from endorsing it without qualification. But look at what the Variety piece actually claims. There's nothing vague or woolly about it. He doesn't say something like, 'Groucho has taken me on as his ghostwriter, and I'll be doing some pieces for him in the future sometime..." He lays claim to four specific commissions, all of which Groucho did honour, and some of which were published after the Variety announcement. This alone makes it hard to dismiss the piece as an outright fantasy.

We'll come back to that. The main problem I have with the article, however, is that it is a meticulous response to a complete straw man. The author's perceived target is someone who has an a priori desire to show that Groucho did not write all his own prose, because he wants that to be the case, because he believes Groucho was incapable of doing so (and was thus a bad writer). But this person is certainly not me. (As it happens I do find Groucho's prose somewhat dry and pedestrian, but that applies to the entirety of his written output, the vast majority of which neither I nor anyone believes to be anything but entirely his own work.)
When the Benedict notice was brought to my attention, I found it intriguing, and looked into it to see if it led anywhere. In my opinion it does. But if I were shown comprehensively tomorrow that it does not, I would not be any the less interested, and not even mildly reluctant to accept the fact. I have no dog in this race. I'm interested solely in where the evidence takes us, and if it takes us as far as proof I'll be delighted, whatever conclusion derives from it.
"While no explanation will convince everyone that Groucho was a capable writer," the author writes, "an examination of the facts should. But there are still people who believe that Hitler escaped to South America and that the moon landing was faked on a soundstage." Indeed there are, just as there may well be people who think Groucho was not a capable writer. But I don't know of any, nor of any means by which I could be confused with one myself. Nor do any of my arguments necessitate that he should be.

Yet the author's reluctance to accept Benedict's claims (along with the idea that Groucho's fronting for Sheekman might in part have been to keep himself supplied with a body of ghosted work), seems to be on the assumption that the only reason such arrangements could ever have been made would have to be because Groucho was incapable of doing it on his own.
If this were anyone's position on the matter, I would join him in rejecting it. But it is no part of my argument that any of the pieces under contention (or, for that matter, any written by Sheekman) are appreciably better than the stuff Groucho did on his own. It's much the same. (The article wants this fact to be evidence for the prosecution, but it's the job of a ghost to sound like his employer. Benedict prided himself on his abilities in this regard - read Sincerest Flattery.)
Yet the article's author writes: "But assuming there’s some smoke in Benedict’s fire, accept also that all four of the items in question are clearly similar in style and tone to the numerous Groucho pieces that had been published prior to the Benedict claim. Additionally, there is nothing extraordinary about these pieces that would suggest Groucho would have been unable to write them." To which the only response is: so they should be similar, and there is no need whatever to for them to be extraordinary, because there is no need to think that the reason Groucho might not have written them is because he couldn't write them.

Why it should be such a source of terror to suggest that not everything published under Groucho's name was his own work I cannot imagine. We all accept that his movie dialogue was written by other people. More pertinently, we accept that his conversation on You Bet Your Life was partly scripted and partly spontaneous. But for some reason the suggestion that his written work might be mainly his but occasionally other people's is to launch a savage attack on his talent and competence as a writer. Looked at more soberly, the fact is that there are any number of other reasons why Groucho might have appreciated assistance at some times and not others. The muse has a habit of visiting fitfully and departing for a while, after all, and deadlines are no respecter of artistic temperament. Less fancifully, Groucho could have simply been very busy at a time when he felt it very much in his interest to be represented in magazines - indeed, when Benedict showed up in 1929 he most definitely was. He might have simply not had time to devote to writing at that point - he never did find it easy - and so made a handshake arrangement with a precociously gifted mimicker of written styles for a half-dozen quick pieces, the first of which, Press Agents I Have Known, may well have already been written (and could even have been his audition piece).

Okay, I'm out of breath. That's quite enough guesswork for one paragraph. All wild supposition? Of course it is. But my point is that when the only evidence you have to interpret is the absence of evidence, plausible explanations are ten a penny - whatever position you want to adopt.
The problem with approaching speculative analysis with a preconceived desire as to the outcome (such as the need to believe that Groucho did write the humorous prose being tentatively attributed to Benedict) is that it can lead to confirmation bias. Here are two interesting examples from the article. At one point, the author writes:

Benedict’s name is not found in any of Groucho’s correspondence, particularly the correspondence between Groucho and his literary agent George T. Bye. Since Sheekman’s situation was clearly outlined in letters, one would think another person involved in Groucho’s writing would be similarly documented. Of course it is possible that Benedict may have had a hand in some of the work. But it is also possible that the Variety item is a lie or an exaggeration. The guy was a press agent, after all.

Now this (always assuming, as we of course should, that it's a fair point, that is to say that there is a good surviving selection of correspondence between Groucho and Bye on other matters from the relevant period) is unquestionably an interesting fact. But it's interesting whatever way we choose to slice the salami - it doesn't point us in any particular direction that I can see. Yes, if Benedict was telling the truth, we might have expected some sort of exchange between Bye and Groucho on the matter. And if it was an exaggeration of a much less significant professional alliance of some sort, we might have expected some sort of exchange between Bye and Groucho on the matter. And if it was indeed an outright lie, a foul and calumny libel... we might have expected some sort of exchange between Bye and Groucho on the matter. So yes, the absence of documentation is intriguing. But it is not suggestive of anything other than mystery. (Of course, if the arrangement with Benedict was made outside of  proper professional channels, it may well have bypassed his literary agent... but that would be me speculating again.)
Then, again, there is this:

There’s no mention in any of (Benedict's) three books of the ghostwriting claim. (Perhaps the job description his granddaughter recalls is accurate, and Benedict knew better than to make the ghostwriter claim in his memoirs.)

We've already highlighted the illogicality of thinking that "the job description his granddaughter recalls" points away from, rather than towards, a valid claim to being a ghostwriter, but how are we supposed to read meaning into the fact that he does not mention it in his books? Again, only if we have a pre-formed agenda. Otherwise it is, again, merely interesting. Yes, if he was Groucho's ghostwriter, we might have expected to see it there. But if he wasn't, we might have expected to see it there. (Especially given that he was wont to claim he was, including in print, seemingly without repercussion, in the most famous showbiz journal of record in the world.) So the fact that we don't is, again, worth our attention, but fairly points us to no conclusion whatsoever.

Of course, if the publication had caused a massive row, with perhaps a legal threat or two thrown in for good measure, that would certainly account for its absence (even when, according to his granddaughter, he continued to assert the claims privately). Certainly the one thing that does seem very, very likely to me is that the Variety piece - be it true, false or anywhere in the middle - was somebody's screw-up. Judging by his other appearances in press stories supposedly about other people, the obvious first assumption is that Benedict blabbed without permission, either naively or recklessly, about an arrangement that should have been kept secret. Groucho's lack of follow-up might have been from the desire to draw as little further attention to the faux pas as possible. Maybe he severed his relations with Benedict immediately after? Who knows? The piece does imply that the work is already written and placed. (This makes questionable the article's assertion: "It would be safe to dismiss the claim on a Collier’s piece, since “My Poor Wife” was not published until December 30, 1930. Presumably if Benedict had been Groucho’s ghostwriter he would have been fired well before that for blabbing about it in Variety a year-and-a-half earlier.")

At the moment, I do think Benedict wrote some of these pieces, and especially Press Agents I Have Known. Why do I think this? Not because I want it to be so, but because, to my mind, that is where the presently incomplete and confusing evidence cautiously points.
It is a vague and shadowy affair, certainly. But the following, at this point, seems to me logically inarguable: Benedict must have had insider knowledge of Groucho's forthcoming magazine pieces. Why? Because the predictions made in the Variety piece were correct. Groucho did immediately go on to publish in those magazines.
So where would he get this insider information? Absent paper trail between Groucho and his literary agent or not, he can only have obtained such detailed information from a professional association of some sort. However vague and insubstantial this seems as an argument - and I fully agree it seems very vague and insubstantial! - it seems obvious to me that this is vastly preferable as logic to the only possible alternative. Which is as follows. If Benedict was lying, then the following must be true:

Variety announces that Benedict is ghosting for Groucho, but this is not true. It lists the famous magazines and journals in which such work will appear. Groucho did publish in all of them, in some cases in the future: sheer guesswork if the source wasn't genuine. Despite it not being true, Benedict manages to claim otherwise without inciting the public response (let alone incurring the public wrath) of Groucho or any of the major magazines he has libeled. And then, on top of all this, one of the articles to which he lays claim is a spoof on press agents, like at least three actual Benedict pieces and with notable stylistic similarities to them. If Benedict's claims are bogus, we have to accept that every single bit of this is sheer coincidence.

Well, yes, it's possible, I suppose. Most things are. But strip away the pressing, passionate, a priori need to believe it didn't happen, and we are led, surely if temporarily, to the likelihood that it probably did.

1 comment:

LAGuy said...

I think you've got the better argument. And, short of the invention of a time machine, we're probably going to have to leave it at that.