FBI chiefs thought that Marx was a Communist

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The Independent Online
IT MUST have been the name that gave him away. Or maybe it was the gleeful anarchy with which he peppered his every remark. Either way, it now emerges that the Federal Bureau of Investigation took an unusually close interest in Groucho Marx and seriously suspected, during the paranoid Cold War days of the 1950s and 1960s, that the madcap comic was a member of the Communist Party.

In 1953, when McCarthyism was at its height and artists and entertainers were being blacklisted in Hollywood, the bureau wrote a 17-page report to J Edgar Hoover attempting to establish whether or not the other famous Marx was a Commie too. Over the next decade, the FBI monitored his hit television show You Bet Your Life for signs of subversion.

Even the public joined in the hunt. "I suggest that the TV entertainer Groucho Marks [sic] be investigated as being a Communist," one viewer wrote to the bureau in 1960. "Last night on his program both my husband and I understood him to pronounce `The United States' as `The United Snakes'." Clearly, the viewer was unfamiliar with Groucho's line that "whatever it is, I'm against it".

In all, the FBI built a file of more than 200 pages on Groucho, who died in 1977 at the age of 82. In response to a request under the Freedom of Information Act by the California history professor Jon Wiener, the agency has released 186 pages. A further 16 pages have been withheld "in the interest of national defense or foreign policy".

The evidence seems pretty paltry. The report to Hoover comes up with little more than tittle-tattle and remarks attributed to Groucho in a 1934 article in the Daily Worker newspaper. The report notes that Marx opposed Franco in the Spanish Civil War, proclaimed the innocence of the long-imprisoned anti-war campaigner Tom Mooney (later exonerated and freed after 23 years behind bars) and attended a benefit concert for Russian War Relief in 1942.

What really appears to have got the FBI's goat, though, is Groucho's affiliation to the Committee for the First Amendment, a group of actors, writers and directors who opposed the House Un-American Activities Committee's investigations in Hollywood.

By 1953, the bandleader on Groucho's television show, Jerry Fielding, was under investigation and was eventually fired under government pressure. "I think they wanted me to name Groucho," Fielding told Groucho's biographer Hector Arce many years later.

The file is full of the kind of unbridled lunacy that Groucho might have used as comic material, like the time the FBI analysed a show in which a guest spoke Russian to Groucho.