By Jon Carroll
The San Francisco Chronicle
Friday, July 22, 2005
Many people, at some point in their lives, think they want to start a magazine. I was at that point some years ago, and with a bunch of friends (most of them refugees from Rolling Stone), I did indeed participate in the starting of magazine. It was called Flash. We put out Issue No. 0 in an effort to attract investors. We attracted no investors. Thus ended Flash.
See, we had the idea that investors wanted to see great writing. So (unlike most "for-purposes-of-raising-money-only" dummy issues), ours had a whole magazine's worth of writing.
This just in: Investors do not care about writing. They care about business plans, advertising commitments, market research and demographic profiles. We had no plan, no commitments, no research, and our demographic profile was us. We wanted to make a magazine for us. We did, of course, contain multitudes, but our multitudes were not an attractive demographic.
If we'd had a trust fund, that would have been cool. But we didn't. If you have (a) an idea for a magazine, (b) great writing and (c) no trust fund, please consider a career in auto parts.
But I did get an interview with Groucho Marx out of the deal. I called him up and asked; his home number wasn't that hard to get. I may have intimated that I was from Esquire. If I'd said I was from Flash, he would have hung up on me. You see the dilemma.
We had an appointment with Groucho at noon at the Bistro in Beverly Hills. My partners in interview (and, may I say, in deception) were the writer Michael Goodwin and the photographer Robert Altman. Being impoverished, we got up at 4 a.m. and drove down to Beverly Hills from San Francisco. When the interview was over, we drove back. That's 16 hours on the road (Interstate 5 had not been finished yet) for two hours of interview. On the other hand, it was an interview with Groucho Marx.
Goodwin had made some driving tapes. He had an extremely fine concept: He would put a song on the tape, then a variable gap of silence, then another song. It was as if the music were taking part in the conversation. I don't think you can program an iPod that way, so the Goodwin High-Concept Driving Music Program has been obsoleted. Too bad.
We drove through tule fog. Because we had an appointment with Groucho Marx, we drove fast. I was terrified. The phrase "50-car pileup" crossed my mind more than once.
It was a pretty great interview. Groucho was 76, but he was entirely Groucho. He wanted to talk about sex, so we talked about sex. He also wanted anarchy. At one point he asked me, apropos of nothing: "Are you a girl?"
"No, I'm not a girl," I riposted.
Groucho: "I thought it was time we settled that."
Me: "Are you talking about my hair?"
Groucho: "No, it was the mustache. Will you pass the pumpernickel, please?"
The pumpernickel was a running gag of the interview. Anytime there was a subject he didn't want to talk about, the pumpernickel made an appearance.
Goodwin asked Groucho if he'd made enough money in his career to live comfortably.
Groucho: "As a rule, I don't answer any questions as personal as that. Suppose I asked you how much you had?"
Goodwin: "In my pocket right now?"
Goodwin: "I'll tell you."
Groucho: "But I'm not interested."
Carroll: "That's why we're interviewing you and you're not interviewing us."
Groucho: "So far all I've had are two slices of pumpernickel."
There was a bizarre not-pumpernickel-related coda to this interview. At one point, talking about the sad state of things in the Watergate years, Groucho said, "The only hope for this country is the assassination of Richard Nixon." This was right at the time the Black Panther member David Hilliard was locked up for "threatening the life of the president."
When it became clear that Flash was going nowhere, Goodwin sold the interview to a Canadian film magazine, and from there it was picked up (illegally, I might say) by the Berkeley Barb.
James L. Browning, an ambitious attorney general, was shown the interview and promptly announced that he planned to arrest Groucho on the same charges that faced Hilliard. Contacted for his response, Groucho said: "I didn't say that. I never tell the truth."
Oh Lord, how I wish that case had come to trial. The cross-examination of Groucho Marx -- that would have been a moment in American history.
Groucho said: "Oh, I know my way around a joke. It's like a guy who builds a cement wall, he knows how to do it. I never had any writers, except in the movies."
Photo © Robert Altman
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