Documents reveal FBI kept files on Groucho Marx

NEW YORK (AP) — He did more than smoke cigars and leer at women. He defended free speech and U.S.-Soviet friendship. He had opinions on everything from the New Deal to the United Nations.
So when Groucho Marx wiggled those eyebrows and cracked wise about the establishment, a few establishment eyebrows went up as well.
Documents recently made public show the FBI kept detailed files on the comedian, ranging from his supportive quote about the Scottsboro Boys in the 1930s to jokes made on television in the ’50s and ’60s.
With the unintentional humor of a Marx brothers villain, the bureau is still withholding several pages “in the interest of national defense or foreign policy.”
A fine way to treat the beloved leader of Fredonia.
“In 1953, the FBI was told by one of their confidential informants that Groucho was a member of the Communist Party and they decided to do a full review,” said Jon Wiener, a professor of history at the University of California-Irvine, who acquired the files through the Freedom of Information Act.
“Getting the files on Marx was a kind of shot in the dark. I had been a plaintiff in a lawsuit to the John Lennon FBI files,” Wiener said. “We recently settled most of the issues in that case so I thought, ‘After Lennon, why not Marx?'”
The son of Jewish immigrants, Marx grew up in turn-of-the-century Manhattan, in a world where socialism was about as subversive as the Sabbath. He would become a dependable member of Hollywood’s liberal community, supporting the New Deal and other causes.
But what was standard left-wing thinking in the 1930s and ’40s became suspicious thinking in the Cold War era. In 1953, the House Un-American Activities Committee pressured Groucho through Jerry Fielding, band leader for the comedian’s TV game show “You Bet Your Life.”
Fielding, who had been tagged as a Communist sympathizer in Walter Winchell’s syndicated column, would later say the committee wanted him to name Groucho as a fellow traveler. Fielding refused and the show’s sponsor, DeSoto-Plymouth Dealers of America, persuaded Groucho to fire him.
“That I bowed to sponsors’ demands is one of the greatest regrets of my life,” Marx wrote years later.
According to the FBI files, Groucho’s alleged offenses date back to a 1934 article in the Communist Party newspaper, the Daily Worker. The article claims he called Communist support for the Scottsboro Boys an inspiration for “Soviet America.” He was also quoted as defending Tom Mooney, a labor leader then imprisoned, and later pardoned, for the bombing deaths of 10 people.
In the ’40s, Groucho attended a benefit concert for Soviet war relief, helped sponsor a fund-raiser for the liberal magazine, The Nation, and opposed United Nations recognition for the fascist government of Spain. He was also a member of the Committee for the First Amendment, an anti-HUAC organization that included Frank Sinatra, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.
Entries to Groucho’s file ended in the early 1960s. He died in 1977.
“They concluded from their study he was not a member of the Communist Party,” Wiener said. “The party was a very rigid organization; it’s hard to imagine a wisecracking spirit like Groucho’s in it.”