In A Nutshell
It’s hard to think of two people more unsuited to each other than T.S. Eliot and Groucho Marx. One was an intellectual expat poet, the other a wisecracking Jew from New York. Yet in the 1960s, the two started a correspondence that would eventually lead to one of the most disastrous dinner dates in history.
The Whole Bushel
In 1961, T.S. Eliot was regarded as possibly the best poet the English language had ever known. His famous “The Waste Land” was already compulsory reading in schools and his “Four Quartets” was regarded as the masterpiece to end all masterpieces. The man himself was no less famous. Boring, repressed, and incredibly dour, he was nonetheless looked upon as England’s finest (adopted) intellectual.
Yet Eliot’s bland exterior hid an enthusiasm for anarchy and silliness; specifically of the sort favored by the Marx brothers. So when he wrote Groucho a gushing fan letter requesting a photo, he must have wondered how the comedian would respond. But he needn’t have worried, because Groucho couldn’t have been happier.
Although we associate him with silliness, Groucho Marx was in reality a frustrated literary man. According to one of his biographers, his biggest regret was becoming a mainstream comedy star instead of a snobbish intellectual. So when a fan letter from the snobbiest intellectual of the day landed on his desk, he saw it as a ticket to the literary life he craved.
The two corresponded for the next three years, Eliot asking about the film business and Groucho inquiring after his poetry. Eventually, they decided to meet. Eliot arranged a dinner at his London home, and both men prepared for the greatest night of their lives. They couldn’t have been more disappointed.
When Groucho arrived, Eliot was horrified to discover he only wanted to discuss books and poetry. In turn, Groucho was mortified to find out Eliot only wanted to talk about the Marx Brothers’ movie Duck Soup. Rather than reach an agreement, the two simply chose to live out their dream evening regardless: Eliot doggedly cracking awful jokes while Groucho tried to impress him with his literary theory on King Lear.
When dinner finally ended, neither man wanted to ever speak to the other again. They stopped writing, and Eliot never mentioned the evening to anyone. It’s since gone down as one of the worst meetings in history.