On a hot Labor Day afternoon in 1940, I played Carl Earn in the men's singles finals of the Santa Monica City Championships while Groucho Marx, my father, looked on from the grandstand. Groucho had come not only to root for me, but also to award the trophies after the match.
I lost quite handily. During the award ceremonies my father walked onto center court, licking an ice cream cone and carrying three more. He gave a cone to both women finalists and handed me the third. As my opponent waited for his reward, Groucho said to him with an absolutely straight face, "You don't get any ice cream because you beat my son."
Groucho may have been a comedian, but when I was a ranking tennis player, in the late 1930s and early 1940s, he was as wise and dedicated a "tennis father" as Papa Lenglen, Jimmy Evert and John McEnroe Sr.
He cheered when I won and was deeply analytical of my game when I lost. "Listen, schlemiel," he would say, "you have to stop trying to kill the ball on your approach shots. Put the ball away on the volley." Or "Listen, schlemiel, you're missing too many first serves." If he thought I had let a bad call upset me unduly, causing me to make a fool of myself, he would upbraid me. "Listen, sonny boy, bad calls even themselves up. So don't be a Sarah Bernhardt. Don't ever let me see you cursing or throwing your racket again. Just remember: Whom the gods destroy, they first make mad."
June 22, 1986
As a tennis father, Groucho knew what he was talking about. He had been a tennis fan since he was a young man. He had learned to play on the public courts in Manhattan's Central Park. Self-taught, he was never much better than a "C" player himself, but when we were living on Long Island in the '20s, he never missed an opportunity to go to Forest Hills and watch his favorite players—Tilden, Johnston, Wills, Lacoste, Vines, Doeg, Shields, Allison and Perry. He wanted me to follow in their footsteps.
Groucho first stuck a racket in my hand when I was 8, and by the time I was 13 I was pretty good. I could beat not only all the kids my age at the Beverly Hills Tennis Club but also most of the grown-ups. Now that I look back on it, that wasn't much of an accomplishment. The club's membership roster was loaded with stars: Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Taylor, Nelson Eddy, Frederic March, Laurence Olivier, Harpo and Zeppo Marx, Constance Bennett, Charles Farrell, Janet Gaynor, Gilbert Roland and Errol Flynn. But except for the latter two, they were all average hackers on the court. My father was impressed with my progress, however—especially when Ellsworth Vines told him after rallying with me one afternoon that he thought I had the makings of a champion.
"What should he do to get better?" asked Groucho.
"Just make him play in all the junior tournaments," advised Vines. "Even if he loses in the first round, he needs tournament experience."
Cocky kid that I was, I thought it presumptuous of Vines even to suggest that I might lose in the first round against kids my age. But not only did I lose in the first round of the first tournament I entered, the score was a humiliating 6-1, 6-0. It was little comfort to learn that my opponent, James Wade, was the top 15-and-under player in the United States. Moreover, there were dozens of other talented teenagers playing junior tennis in Southern California. Polished players such as Bobby Riggs and Frank Kovacs were fighting it out every week in the 18-and-under events. The draws in my category were filled with the names of youngsters I'd never heard of—Ted Schroeder, Ted Olewine, Welby Van Horn—but all were capable of beating me as badly as Wade had. Another youngster my father and I had never heard of until we saw his name in a newspaper schedule the night before I was to play him was Jack Kramer.
"Probably a nobody," I said to Father.
"I disagree," he replied, after mulling the name over for a moment. "Sounds to me like a tall blond gentile with a big serve and a smashing overhead."
Of course he was right. As I discovered the next morning, Kramer had a big serve, a big forehand, a big backhand and a big overhead, and he covered the net like a manta ray. He crushed me, 6-1, 6-0, in about two minutes. It took my father to figure out why Kramer was as fresh as a daisy throughout the match while I seemed to be a candidate for a heart attack.
"Schlemiel, no wonder you ran out of gas," he scolded me on the way home. "Between points you rushed to pick up the balls, and then you skipped back to the baseline to serve. Don't be so eager to lose the next point. Did you notice how slowly Kramer walks when he's picking up the balls? He moves like my Aunt Hannah—until the point begins."
It was true. I had been wearing myself out between points. The next time I played Kramer I took my father's advice and deliberately slowed down the pace. As a result, I won one set. I still wasn't good enough to beat Kramer, but then neither were most of the other players in our age group.
By the spring of 1937 I had yet to reach the finals of the smallest junior tournament, but I had made some progress. I usually reached the second or third round and occasionally the quarterfinals. And I had been ranked 13th in my final year in the 15-and-unders.
When the Ojai Valley Championships—the most prestigious of the spring tournaments—rolled around in April 1937, I was still hopeful that by some miracle I would get the kind of draw that would help me to reach the finals and make my father truly proud of me. But a glance at the draw quickly dampened those hopes. Even if all went perfectly in the early rounds, I would have to play Kramer in the semifinals. I also had so many tough opponents before that—including Doug Woodbury, the No. 2 15-and-under player in Southern California—it was doubtful I would even reach the quarters.
The gods were with me, however, though my father was not. Groucho was 70 miles away in Beverly Hills, having decided that Ojai was a good chance to test his theory that I played better when he wasn't in the stands making me nervous. It was a good hunch. Not only did I beat Woodbury, but when I squared off with Kramer on the number 3 court, with no audience except a couple of pigeons, I discovered that he had acquired a major weakness since we last played—his forehand. When I attacked it and came to the net, he either netted the ball or made such a bad passing shot that I could easily volley it away for a winner.
And so I won a major upset that made headlines, and not even a loss to Olewine in the finals could take away the thrill of my victory over Kramer, who clearly was on his way to stardom. My father, too, was excited as he welcomed me home with a hug. "Nice going. I'm very proud of you," he said as he took the runner-up trophy from me and awarded it a prominent place on our mantel. "But just remember, you won't get a quarter for it if you have to hock it, so don't neglect your schoolwork."
A few days after Ojai my father received a phone call from Perry T. Jones, the secretary of the Southern California Tennis Association. Jones was a prissy man with practically no sense of humor, but he wielded enormous power in Southern California tennis circles. If he didn't like you, he could kill your career by keeping you out of tournaments.
If he did like you, he would be sure you were invited to important events that you couldn't get into on your own. Jones was just the kind of priggish authority figure who brought out the devil in Father.
"What's on your mind, Jonesy, old boy?" said Dad.
"Well, first of all, Groucho, I want to congratulate you on that fine win of Arthur's over Jack Kramer. And I want to take him in hand and...."
"You want to hold hands with a 16-year-old boy!" exclaimed Father. "What kind of a pervert are you?"
"Please, Groucho," said Jones. "I just meant I want to groom him for the big time."
"What are you getting at, Jonesy? And speak fast. I'm a busy man. I have to go to the market to buy pumpernickel."
Jones explained that I had worn shorts in the finals against Olewine and that he didn't approve of shorts in important matches. He expected all finalists to wear long white gabardines, and he wanted permission to take me to a tailor.
"You mean, you're footing the bill?" snapped Father.
"Of course not. But they will cost Arthur only seventeen dollars a pair. That's a special rate for my boys. He'll need three pairs if he is going to play on the circuit."
"What's your cut?" asked Groucho. "You can't tell me a busy man like you is going around town hawking pants for the fun of it."
Jones explained that he was interested only in seeing that his boys looked like "gentlemen" on the court.
"If he's your boy, you pay for the pants."
"Out of the question," said Jones with a snort.
"I always suspected you were a cheapskate from the smell of those cheap cigars you smoke," countered Groucho.
"I don't smoke," replied Jones.
"Then you have even less of an excuse to smell that way."
Considering Jones's lack of humor, it's a wonder I wasn't banished from tennis for good. But he took every insult Father dished out and not only didn't ban me, but after persuading Groucho to spring for the gabardines he personally drove me to the tailor and stood by while I was measured.
VIP treatment from Jones made me realize just how important my victory over Kramer had been. Suddenly I had the confidence to beat players like Wade, whom I had never defeated before. Soon I was elected to the Junior Davis Cup team, which was considered by many to be the greatest group of juniors ever assembled on one squad. Moreover, I was put on the Spalding "free list." This meant I would receive Spalding rackets in exchange for using that company's equipment in tournament play. Nothing pleased my father more than not having to pay for my tennis rackets. As much as he wanted me to become another Tilden, he used to complain vociferously to me about the size of our monthly tennis club bills. "Three hundred dollars for rackets, balls and Cokes. Why, that's outrageous!" he would roar. "A family of four could eat for a year on what you spend at the club every month. Can't you play with old balls?"
One day my father said that he had good news for me. "Ellsworth Vines has agreed to coach you." I was in the hands of Vines for my last year as a junior, and my tournament record improved so much that I wound up ranked fifth nationally in 1939.
However, there was one person I could never beat—Ted Olewine. I had come close on several occasions. Once I even had him at match point only to end up blowing it because his passing shots were too accurate. Then, while I was playing him in a practice match one afternoon at our club, I discovered something about his game I had never noticed before. If I went to the net on his forehand, he always cross-courted his passing shot. If I went in on his backhand, he would always go down the line. Armed with that knowledge, it was relatively easy to anticipate his passing shots and put them away. I beat him two straight sets and rushed home to tell Father that I had finally unlocked the secret to Olewine's game. I thought he would be delighted, but instead he launched into a tirade about how I was turning into a "tennis bum."
"You don't think about anything else anymore. You're getting to be a bore. I don't think you've read a book in weeks or practiced the piano or done anything else that will do you any good."
I was stunned. "I thought you wanted me to be the best tennis player," I stammered.
"I do, but not at the expense of everything else. Remember, only one person can be Number 1 in the world. The rest starve to death."
I had discovered long ago that the best way to handle Groucho when he was angry was to say nothing and look hurt. It worked again. He did an about-face: "Now what did you start to tell me about Olewine's passing shots?"
Of course he had no intention of making me quit tennis. He was getting too big a thrill out of seeing his son's name on the sports pages. In 1940 and '41 I reached the finals of several men's tournaments, and I won enough of them to get ranked sixth in Southern California. But I always lost—and badly—whenever my father brought his brothers to watch me play.
Because I was the only Marx ever to make the sports pages, Harpo, Chico, Zeppo and Gummo were enormously proud of their "nephew the tennis player." They would boast of my court exploits to all of their friends, so the pressure on me to win whenever they showed up was tremendous. This was especially true because everyone made a big deal of their presence. The press would try to snap their photos doing something "funny" or try to get them to make amusing remarks about my game if I lost. It was like having five tennis fathers.
Thus, despite his natural fatherly desire to see me play, Groucho grew reluctant to attend my matches. Not only was he convinced that I played better without him, he also knew that if he did appear he would have to contend with pushy fans insisting that he "say something funny"—often at the most crucial stage of a match. Finally, to avoid being pestered, Groucho started coming to my matches wearing opaque dark glasses and a phony beard that made him look like a rabbi.
After I started going east to compete in the important men's tournaments, Father no longer had the problem of whether or not to attend. He may have been an ardent tennis father, but not to the extent of forsaking his own career as a Marx Brother: In the summers of 1940 and '41 he stayed in Southern California to film Go West and The Big Store.
For a few weeks during the summer of 1940 it seemed as if I was going to make my father proud. At the Tri-State in Cincinnati I beat Johnny Doeg in the semis and pushed Bobby Riggs, the reigning Wimbledon champion, to five sets in the finals. I also won the Eastern Freshman Intercollegiates in Montclair, N.J.
Then a funny thing happened to me on my way to the Nationals at Forest Hills. I came down with the mumps in Seabright, N.J., and had to be quarantined in my hotel room for two weeks. Back in Beverly Hills, a concerned tennis father was following my progress through the newspapers and commenting on it in a series of amusing letters to me. One went like this:
"I picked up the paper Tuesday morning and read that you had been eliminated by Gilbert Hunt. A few moments later, I discovered Lin a telegram from me] that you had been eliminated by Gilbert Mumps and were in a hotel at Seabright swollen up with mumps and I imagine pretty well disgusted with the whole thing. At any rate, that's life.
"You will encounter all sorts of these little upsets as you journey along, and you will have to learn to adjust yourself to them or gradually go nuts. According to the wire, you are resting well and being taken care of by a nurse. I hope she is beautiful and that she has red hair. I don't know why it is, but whenever I think of a nurse I always imagine she should have red hair. It makes a man want to recover his health quickly, so that he will have the strength to get up on his feet and get her off hers."
The mumps eliminated me from any further competition in 1940, but undaunted, I was back on the circuit the following year. I played one good rematch at Seabright against the same Gilbert Hunt who had eliminated me the year before. Without the mumps, I eliminated him. But the rest of the summer of '41 isn't worth talking about. In September, following a series of bad losses, I received this solace by mail from my father:
"Don't worry about whether you win or lose; we don't care. The main thing is to have a good time and keep your health. When you win, we love it; when you don't, we love you just the same. Forgive me for becoming so sentimental, but I always have the feeling when you lose that you feel bad for our sake. But it's really unimportant, and with the whole world rapidly catching on fire, it's becoming less important by the day. I got my money's worth out of your game the day you beat Kramer. Anything you did from that point on was pure velvet."
America's entry into World War II a few months later pretty much pulled the plug on my career as a tennis player, and on Groucho's as one of the alltime great tennis fathers. After my discharge from the service in 1945, I took his advice, dropped tennis and went to work full time. However, in 1948 I once played hookey from my radio writing job with Edgar Bergen to play in the Santa Monica Open. That week, at the ripe old age of 27, I finally came through for my father. I won the singles, doubles and mixed doubles titles while Groucho sat smugly in the bleachers, saying proudly to any stranger who happened to be in the seat next to him, "That can't be my son. He always loses in the finals!"
Arthur Marx wrote the recently published "The Nine Lives or Mickey Rooney."