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Dear World: Lighten Up. Sincerely, Groucho

Why are we here? What is our purpose? Is there a God? How can we account for the presence of evil?

These are just some of the questions not answered in The Groucho Letters: Letters from and to Groucho Marx — which is precisely why I keep a copy of it on the small table beside my bed.

On that same small table, there are also books of philosophy, theology and a few that have been blessed enough to qualify as "Literature" (the qualification process is brutal, with a $50 nonrefundable Literature Application Fee and a 17-page questionnaire that must be notarized by James Wood). These books approach life and its myriad questions with seriousness and focus, and after just a few pages, they make me want to kill myself. Which is why Groucho is never far away; I can't do an hour shot of Beckett or Carver without an unstiff Groucho chaser.

You see, I've long been of the opinion that life is too serious to be taken seriously, and if that is my religion, then Groucho is the pope. In his interactions with peers, children, lawyers, actors, writers and politicians, the man simply refuses to take any of it seriously. Shakespeare wrote that life is a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing. These letters make it seem as if Groucho actually lived it that way.

A letter from Warner Brothers threatening legal action for the Marx Brothers' use of the name "Casablanca" in the title of their movie was met not with bluster, counterthreats or even a request for discussion, but rather with a letter from Groucho discussing the history of the name "Warner" and the word "brothers."

"Professionally," he writes, "we were brothers long before you what about the Smith Brothers? The Brothers Karamazov? Dan Brothers, an outfielder with Detroit?"

Subsequent letters from the WB lawyers were met with even more flippancy, and eventually they simply stopped writing and gave up the matter.

In 1963, responding to an admiring letter he received from T.S. Eliot, Groucho replied, "Dear Tom; If this isn't your first name, I'm in a hell of a fix."

In 1959, he wrote Elaine Tynan, the author of The Dud Avocado, to tell her how much he enjoyed her book. She wrote back, thanking him for his kind words and requesting a photo of him for her wall.

"I am delighted," he replied, "that you are delighted that I was delighted about your book. I am sending you a photo of myself at age of seven. You will probably say to yourself, 'Why the cigar?' That's a very good question. Actually, the cigar is a phony, so is the moustache and, to wrap it all up neatly, so am I."

It takes a staggering degree of self-assurance to steadfastly refuse to be dragged down into the pit of worthiness and self-importance. It takes a monumental degree of wisdom to know that life is short and silly and probably ought to be treated that way. Serious is easy. It doesn't take much to stand on a soapbox and bemoan the fall of something, the corruption of whatever, the abuse of everything.

Perhaps the questions of "Why are we here?" "What is our purpose?" and "Is there a God?" are not answered in these letters. But a more important question is: How are we to go through life? How are we to approach this mess of an existence?

Groucho's answer: with laughter.

Biographer Charlotte Chandler recalls that after receiving an honorary Oscar in 1973 — he was 83 years old at the time — Groucho said that he'd wished they'd given the award sooner, when Harpo and Chico were alive.

"Do you know what I say when I go to bed every night?" he said. "Unborn yesterday and dead tomorrow. Why fret about them if life be sweet? Right now is the only moment there is."

"And you're really able to live that way?" Charlotte asked.

"It's the only way to live," answered Groucho.

Amen, Brother.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva.

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Shalom Auslander