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Groucho Marx and Bing Crosby - 23 December 1977

In Christmas week we had two comic proofs, or alarming proofs, according to your point of view that it takes all sorts of free men, and free women, to make what we call the free world.

In Scotland a Presbyterian headmaster, Mr Ian McDonald, took the Christmas tree which the parents of his pupils had lovingly put up and locked it in a shed as what he called a pagan symbol that has nothing to do with Christmas, or with the education of his children, of which he has four and they will not, he says, be indulged with any such pagan nonsense as an exchange of gifts.

And while he was making this brave stand against the wedding of Christian and pagan customs, which the English have for so long taken for granted, an equally indignant lady in Austin, Texas, brought suit against the city to have a model of the nativity scene removed from the base of the Capitol building – Austin is the capital city of Texas.

Mrs Madalyn O'Hair is an atheist and she regards the exhibition of the scene of Christ's nativity as an affront to her irreligious beliefs and a violation of her equal rights as a citizen. She's suing in federal court for $9m in punitive damages.

I ought to add that the nativity scene is overshadowed by a 20ft Christmas tree. Like Mr McDonald she regards the tree as a pagan symbol but, unlike him, she doesn't want it removed. "It is pagan," she says, "and we are happy to see pagan symbols."

Well now, at the risk of seeming to take a short trot through a graveyard – something that only Dickens in one of his morbid moods would do at Christmas – I should like to say something about two tremendous figures, two Americans who in 1977 left a gap which nobody is going to fill.

I hope there was no agonised mourning over the death of Groucho Marx. He was very old and for several years had only lucid intervals in which he knew much about what was going on. My first contact with him was about 25 years ago when he wrote to me and said he'd like very much to be on a television show that I was running. We were delighted to start negotiations and at one point we thought everything was sewed up. But then mysteriously he backed out.

Now, in those days when movie stars were petrified of live television, since they'd have to remember whole speeches instead of 30-second bits, stage stars were only too eager to get a huge exposure over a national network, and you could hire them for a few hundred dollars.

Groucho evidently didn't know this and I heard from our business manager why Groucho would not be with us. The fee he required was enormous.

He wrote a regretful note. He said, "Like Sam Goldwyn I believe in art but my agent – a coarse type – believes only in money. Who am I to argue with such a baboon?"

Well, shortly after that I was in Hollywood and he invited me to lunch, and ever afterwards, whenever we were out on the coast, we saw him and enjoyed him as the freewheeling anarchist he was, in life just as much as he was in the movies.The great pleasure in him came from his fussy respect for the English language.

Now, that at first hearing may sound very perverse. But whatever his style was like when he started out in vaudeville, he had the luck to fall in with the great American humourist, SJ Perelman, who wrote one or two of the early Marx Brothers movies.

I dare say nobody alive has a quicker ear for the oddities and the literal absurdities of the English language, and this gift passed over to Groucho and he made it his own. The most memorable example I can think of happened when we were lunching with him at the most luxurious of Jewish country clubs in Los Angeles.

When the menus were passed round I couldn't help raising an eyebrow at what then seemed like outrageous prices and Groucho said, "Fear not, my friend, it's only money. The initiation fee at this club is $10,000 and for that you don't even get a dill pickle."

When the meal was almost over and the waiter came to take the dessert order he stumbled several times over who was having what. Finally he said, "Four eclairs and four – no, no – four eclairs and two coffees, I think."

And Groucho whipped in with, "Four eclairs and two coffees ago, our forefathers brought forth on this continent a nation dedica... Skip the rhetoric and bring the dessert."

And on the way out Groucho lined up to pay his bill behind a fat and fussy lady who was fiddling around in her bag for change. The young cashier gave a patient sigh and Groucho, his cigar raking the air like an artillery barrage, said, "Shoot her when you see the whites of her eyes."

And the large lady turned round in outrage but then she broke into a delighted gasp, "Oh," she said, "would you be Groucho Marx?" In a flash Groucho rasped out, "What do you mean would I be Groucho Marx? I am Groucho Marx. Who would you be if you weren't yourself? Marilyn Monroe no doubt. Well pay your bill, lady, you'll never make it!"

The other great man was a world apart from Groucho in geography, upbringing, temperament and talent. I'm talking about Harry Lillis Crosby who, for reasons as obscure and debatable as the origins of the word jazz, was known from boyhood as Bing.

Some years ago a friend of mine in San Francisco, a publisher – we were all three members of the San Francisco golf club – thought of persuading Bing to sit down in several sessions with a tape recorder and put out a book of reminiscences. My friend was very steamed up about this project and he came to me one day and said, "I've got the main thing – I've got the title."

"What's that?" I asked him. He cast his eyes to heaven and he said very slowly, "My Friends Call Me Bing. How do you like it?" "Four words too many," I said. And truly, I don't suppose there are, or were, more than two or three people in the world who'd be instantly recognisable and all around the world by a single word.

I first ran into him on the set of one of the early Hope-Crosby road movies and I think I got a false impression of him right away because he was – if not exactly rollicking – saucy, mischievous, almost gabby when he was working, especially with Bob Hope.

They on that day, I recall, ad-libbed so much and broke down in chuckles so often while they were being filmed that at one point Bing turned to a writer, who was sitting beside the camera, and said, "If you hear any of your own lines, shout bingo."

Of course Bing was witty in a droll, wry way – nobody else would have described his face, with its flapping ears, as looking like a taxi cab with both doors open. But the movie image of Bing was a very high-pressure version of the man off the set. Once the lights dimmed and the director said, "It's a take", Bing visibly drooped into a character so quiet, so shambling and low key that I always got the impression he'd had a sleepless night and would soon be off for a nap.

People used to say to me, "What was Bing like playing golf, I'll bet he was uproarious, right?" In fact he was relaxed to the point of boredom, good-natured boredom. It's true he always looked you in the eye but they were the grey, steady eyes of a man who'd seen everything – a lot of fun but also a lot of grief – and was never going to be surprised by anything said or done.

From his early success days with the Rhythm Boys and on into his movie career, there had been all sorts of problems in and around his family and friends – sickness, death, the bottle, truancy, trouble with his boys. Until he came into port at last, after a lot of stormy seas, with his second wife and his new family.

It is possible that he talked about these things to very close friends but to everyone else he put up the quiet defence of offhand, easy-going small talk. I can't think of another man of anything like his fame who was so unrattled and so steadily, unflaggingly modest.

The curse of show business, you know, that strikes even the greatest is prima donnaism – the massive ego. The implication, which they affect to hide, that the whole world is revolving around them and their new picture, their new plans, which they pretend to find delightful but embarrassing.

Not Bing. He was more mature than anyone else I've known in coming to sensible terms with great fame. His mail must have been staggering, with appeals for favours and money from every charity and every crackpot in the world. He never mentioned it. He was polite to every nice fan and every child and every moron who hailed him. Profits from all his later concerts and pro-am golf tournaments went to his own charities.

When he died there was, as you know, a spate of film clips and replayed old interviews and the like. The most startling and revealing of these was one done very shortly before he died by the American news interviewer Barbara Walters, who has a knack for asking the piercing, childlike questions we'd all like to ask but don't dare.

She asked him to sum himself up. And he allowed that he had an easy temperament, a way with a song, a fair vocabulary, a contented life. And she said, "Are you telling us that that's all there is – a nice, superficial shell of a man?"

And Bing said, "Sure, that's about it. I have no deep thoughts, no profound philosophy. That's right, I guess that's what I am." It was so startling, so honest and probably so true that it explained why he'd been able through hard times to stay on an even keel. Why, because he didn't over-identify with other people's troubles, he was able to appear and to be everybody's easy-going buddy.

And because death is so profound and so dramatic, so showy, that's why some of us cannot believe he won't show up in the locker room tomorrow and say, "Well, skipper, how's tricks?"

THIS TRANSCRIPT WAS TYPED FROM A RECORDING OF THE ORIGINAL BBC BROADCAST (© BBC) AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT. BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF MISHEARING, THE BBC CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS COMPLETE ACCURACY.

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