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Tuesday, October 19, 2004

The Only Way I Lettered in High School

I was about 14 or so when I discovered "The Groucho Letters," and it was with that discovery that my checkered career as a correspondent was born. As an adolescent, I didn't have many opportunities for epistolary brilliance, but I bided my time. At the end of my sophomore year of high school, a friend moved from Pawtucket, Rhode Island, to Harrisville, a tiny hamlet out in the sticks. In the meantime, my folks had moved me (with them, of course) from Pawtucket to North Kingstown. Now, that distance may not seem very big for people from big places, but in Rhode Island terms it was the equivalent of lightyears. Since calling her would have meant message units on the phone bill and since message units made my father's blood boil, our best chance for staying in touch was the US mail. At last, my time had come!

From time-to-time, I would shape my half-witticisms into letter form and mail them off. For every two or three of mine, I would get one reply. Life was good.

As time went on, more friends went more places and for a time my correspondence bloomed to its fullest glory. Then, as will happen, the friends slowly became strangers and there were jobs to worry about and lives to figure out, and my correspondence dwindled to mostly a memory.

With one exception. This past weekend, I wrote to the adult version of that young lady I had started corresponding with so many years before. We're down to one or two letters per year now, each. The mad rush of life leaves little time for the well-crafted half-witticism, although the urge to correspond remains. I'm trying to correct that, trying to carve out some time each week for a few people in my life who I don't get to see or speak to as often as I'd like. Like most resolutions, the odds are against this one, but if I don't try at all, it will definitely fail.

And so I reach out, one envelope at a time, waiting for the ever elusive return.


Len said...

This has nothing to do with anything, except that it made me laugh:

"The lease said about my and my fathers trip from the Bureau of Manhattan to our new home the soonest mended. In some way ether I or he got balled up on the grand concorpse and next thing you know we was thretning to swoop down on Pittsfield.

Are you lost daddy I arsked tenderly.

Shut up he explained."

Ring Lardner, "The Young Immigrunts," excerpted at

Robert G. Margolis said...


If nothing else, PRI (not the once hegemonic "political party" of Mexico, the other PRI, the one that has to do with radio) should offer you an opportunity to reminisce and essay. These various pieces you've published here all are examples of what you have to offer in that regard.

I too had an early 'Groucho discovery' (in addition, that is, to the Marx Brothers' movies). My grandparents (my Dad's parents) had a first edition copy of "Groucho and Me", the first of Groucho's autobiographies (and, for me, still the best of them). I was somewhere between 12-14 years old (I've never been able to settle for being exactly one specific year of age), and I found the copy on a bookshelf in the room I stayed in when I visited my grandparents (which, I'm grateful to say, was often). Every page was laugh-out-loud funny, and, I remember, so many of the experiences, the situations, the surroundings, which Groucho described, seemed to me so familiar, though they belonged to a time and world that was already gone, or nearly so, and, in any case, I had never known personally. I loved too how, for Groucho, humor was a way of life.

I still recall the feeling I had when my grandmother, seeing how much I liked the book, gave it to me. But, then again, my grandparents were always giving to me; their constant generosity is one of my most precious memories.

Though it now belongs to a 'past reading life', I did in my earlier, insatiable reading days, give considerable attention to some great published correspondences. Such as the letters of American poet Charles Olson (a beyond prolific letter writer, whose letters to friend and fellow poet Robert Creeley alone have produced several or more published volumes); the letters of Ezra Pound; the correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams; the letters of Samuel Lewis (these I saw in the original, having worked for a time with his papers; they were mostly carbon copies of the originals banged out on a manual typewriter); and many others more which I've since forgotten.

Myself, I've never been one for regular letter writing. Though, in the company of the above mentioned correspondences, I sure did like the idea of myself as one! I've had, and still have, a few regularly irregular e-mail correspondences, which, for me, are more kind of a journal shared with someone else.

It's funny, I'll let myself type on at the mouth in e-mail, but if, instead, I were to pick up a pen, to write a letter on a piece of paper, I'd find that I'd really having nothing that important to say.

Which, I guess, Len, just goes to further prove your point.

Len said...

Groucho is one of the great influences on my life. He taught me the futility of language. He taught me to beware those who would lead us. He helped me become myself (oddly, through impersonation of him). And, most importantly, he made me laugh.

I can do the dance that Groucho did, and I know how to make a "Gookie." If that's not enriching a life, I don't know what is.

If I have a writing style today, it is one that I developed to a great extent by writing letters. I've often had to remind myself to write like I'm writing a letter in order to get the tone right in a story.

I appreciate your comments about inflicting my opinions on public radio. It is a thought that I've considered, and one that I find attractive. There are outlets for short essays, and perhaps the time has come for me to mangle the airwaves with my dulcet (bari)tones.

Robert G. Margolis said...

"The futility of language"--yes, that's well observed. He's Grouchtzu! The same manner of making language expose its own deception and futility. See, right there's another radio minute with Len; or, how about an imagined dialogue between Groucho and Chuang Tzu? Some of the Marx Brothers' film scenes, comedically are almost impossibly lucid, like Spike Milligan's Goon Show scripts. One of my favoritest of favorites: Groucho's scene, in "Day At The Races", where he pretends to be calling the Sanitarium's owner from Florida...

I too can do the Groucho dance, and the Groucho walk as well, while saying "That's the most ridiculous thing I ever heard." And his signature songs, I've learned them too: "Hooray For Captain Spalding," "Lydia the Tatooed Lady," "I'm Against It", and "Hello, I Must Be Going". Have you seen re-runs of the TV game show he hosted, "You Bet Your Life"? There are some hilarious improvised moments.

By the almost related way, the funniest thing I've ever heard in my life--I was 11 or 12, was something Quick Draw McGraw said. I can't remember what it was, but I vividly remember laughing uncontrollably for half an hour, so hard I fell off the bed and lay convulsed with laughter on the floor, so hard I got abdomen cramps.

The connection of continuity you make between letter writing and your writing style, using the former to guide your sense of tone and balance in a story, is most interesting. I easily discern it just from the pieces you've published here. It's a fine storytelling voice, and one that could spin a yarn, or knit a brow, on public radio to please the mind and the ear. We have a fine heritage of spoken personal memoir and reflection storytelling on the radio. I say: Len Me Your Ears!

Robert G. Margolis said...

That line you quote from one of Groucho's letters is so familiar that I remembered I read that collection of his letters. I call that kind of use of language 'Moebius strip language'. (And lest we overlook or not mention it, you can get your kicks on the Moebius strip.)

I listened avidly to Lenny Bruce records--all long since given away (where? to whom? why?), and thus could recite many of his routines (even if they weren't done as "routines"). I think, at one time, I know verbatim all of his famous Carnegie Hall concert. Also I recall having copies of Jonathan Winters bootlegs, which were recorded, but not broadcast, between takes conversation, in which he improvised about all sorts of subjects, using his characters' voices and making up new ones on the spot, but which he couldn't speak about openly and/or satirically on radio and TV.

The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show, as fresh and funny and inventive as the first time I saw them and didn't get half of the jokes. Once, some years ago, I was in a video rental store, which was playing an episode on its TV monitors. None of the other customers paid attention, but I was standing fixed in place and in tears with laughter. I've just flashed on a favorite "Mr.Peabody & Sherman" in which they go back to ancient China, at the time of the building of the Great Wall, because it's been built a few feet wide and hundreds of miles straight up. Those 'anonymous' or little known verbal and visual comedic minds, to me, are somehow analogous to the early country and rural 'blues' performers, or old-time balladeers and the like.

Alas, Len, the only thing close to a producer I know is the fellow I say "hello" to, in the supermarket, who stocks the produce section. But I'll tell ya something else for free: I'd like to hear that sequel to A Christmas Carol you've vowed not to write and made it a rule for yourself that you won't. That's a rule made to be broken!

Robert G. Margolis said...


Did my eyes deceive me--and do they still, or has your last post, to which I responded immediately above, become a ghost in the machine?

Len said...

There exists one other possibility. Posts can be trashed by clicking on the little trash can icon next to the time of the post. Perhaps some miscreat thought that they were being quite the wit by doing so. People think some pretty incredible things sometimes.

When I get home this evening, I can re-enter that post (which will then make it a post script) from the e-mail that I get for every contribution to the blog. Perhaps I need to tighten the security on this thing.

Len said...

On closer inspection (and a visit to a site that tracks the visitors to my blog), it seems like the ghost in the machine is the most likely culprit.

Len said...

The deleted post went as follows:

I've said it before in other places, but I'll say it again. After your read a line like "Time flies like the wind. Fruit flies like a banana" (which is from a letter Groucho sent to his son), you can't look at language the same way again.

I actually wrote a musical play with the Marx Brothers' characters in it, but I have no idea what to do with it and so it sits in a file drawer awaiting its moment. If you happen to know any big-time Broadway producers (if any still exist), feel free to drop a good word for me. Let's make the word, "serendipitous."

I spent my youth so comedy obsessed that I can remember a lot of the minutae of what I watched and thought funny. I saw a comedian on "Ed Sullivan" one Sunday night, a black man who's gimic was that he never cracked a smile. He told my favorite joke of my early years. He said, "My wife's so ugly. She has little circles all over her body from people touching her with ten-foot poles." The next day, I started training myself to keep a straight face.

You can imagine what a revelation it was, some years later, to finally watch Buster Keaton in action.

I remember Myron Cohen, also on "Ed Sullivan," telling a joke about a Texan visiting a kibbutz.

I memorized all of Bill Cosby's mid-60s output and would torture anyone in hearing range whenever the desire to recite was upon me.

The thing that made me laugh the most? The mirror scene in "Duck Soup," later to be joined by the blind hermit scene in "Young Frankenstein."

Len said...

Another post I made yesterday got eaten by the machine. It was very witty, filled with puns and illusions. Probably the single greatest piece of prose ever composed. Certainly the best piece of something. But now it is gone. Gone like the last Milky Way in the freezer of life. And, in this case, what's undone cannot be done again.