In honor of Groucho Marx’s birthday, we’re bringing you a story from the February, 1981 issue of High Times, in which writer Paul Krassner remembers tripping with the comedy legend.
If you take the name of a certain former vice-president, Spiro Agnew, and scramble the letters around, you can rearrange it to spell out Grow A Penis. Such appropriateness can give your boundaries of coincidence permanent stretch marks. After all, when Sen. Charles Goodell came out against the war in Vietnam, it was Agnew who called him “the Christine Jorgensen of the Republican Party”—thus equating military might with the mere presence of a cock.
Years ago, when Mike Wallace interviewed me for “60 Minutes,” and asked about the difference between the underground press and the mainstream media, I told him about the above anagram and said, “The difference is that I could print that in the Realist, but it’ll be edited out of this program.”
My prediction was accurate, so naturally I took an immediate vow never to appear on any TV show again unstoned. Which in turn explains why eating magic mushrooms was practically a prerequisite for my being interviewed by Tom Snyder.
Now, Andy Friendly had only been doing his job when he was reading the Sex and Dope issue of HIGH TIMES in September 1978. As a producer for the “Tomorrow” show, he was always on the lookout for potential guests, and there was a particularly bizarre interview with me in that issue, so he called up to invite me on the show.
There were a few follow-up phone conversations to explore areas that the televised interview might cover. The subject of drug use came up, and I said, “Well, maybe we could talk about my old psychedelic macho. I’ve taken LSD in all kinds of unusual situations: when I testified at the Chicago Conspiracy Trial; on the Johnny Carson show—Orson Bean was guest host—I was sort of a guide for Groucho Marx once; while I was researching the Manson case I took acid with a few women in the family, including Squeaky Fromme and Sandra Good. It was a kind of participatory journalism….”
The interview was scheduled for November 30.
“That’s my birthday,” said Abbie Hoffman, still on the lam at the time. “Would you wish me a happy birthday on the show?”
The “Tomorrow” show flew me from San Francisco to Los Angeles, and a chauffeured limousine delivered me to a fancy hotel, where I proceeded to partake of those magic mushrooms. My mood was intensely sensual. What I really wanted was an exquisite massage. I called an old friend who is a professional masseuse.
Since she was also an old lover, it was not totally surprising that we began fucking on the bed before she even set up her table. She finally broke the sweet silence of our postcoital afterglow with this whisper: “But I’ll have to charge you for the massage.”
November 1978 was the month of that unspeakable Jonestown massacre and, a week later, the political assassination of San Francisco mayor George Moscone and gay supervisor Harvey Milk by ex-cop Dan White. The mushrooms were really coming on strong when Tom Snyder—who has an FM mind in an AM body and was apparently doing his impression of “Saturday Night Live’s” Dan Aykroyd doing him—asked me, in effect, to justify San Francisco as the locale of such sequential horror.
“Nyah, nyah,” I began, “my city’s more violent than yours….”
When he asked me about the trip with Groucho, I replied, “Well, there’s a whole context—but due to the demands of televised pacing, we barely got into it before Snyder wanted to know about my six months as publisher of Hustler and what it was I said to the Hare Krishna pushers at the airport. Just before the show ended, though, I managed to remember to wish Abbie Hoffman a happy birthday.
Recently, a HIGH TIMES editor recalled seeing that interview on TV and invited me to write the story, which finally completes this media cycle.
The Timothy Leary Connection
Think of this as a piece of combat history. To fully understand the context in which this battle for the will has been taking place, you need only retrace the chronological profile of G. Gordon Liddy—from his role as a Poughkeepsie district attorney who raided the Millbrook mansion where LSD was an experimental sacrament to his function as a CIA operative who offered to assassinate Jack Anderson on behalf of the Nixon administration.
Had Liddy been given the go-ahead, columnist Anderson wouldn’t have been around to embarrass the Carter administration into not invading Iran, and we might be in the middle of World War III at this very moment.
In 1963 in my capacity as editor and Zen bastard of the Realist, I had assigned Robert Anton Wilson to investigate the game being played at Millbrook. In my capacity as stand-up comic and drug virgin, I had been poking fun at all the highs I’d never tried.
Wilson came back and presented me with our cover story, “Timothy Leary and His Psychological H-Bomb.” After it was published, Leary called to invite me for a weekend at Milbrook. Working with him were Ralph Metzner and Richard Alpert. Somehow, despite all the accoutrements of Eastern religion, the scene was quite American. Even this top level of the psychedelic hierarchy consisted of a Catholic, a Protestant and a Jew.
Yet they were performing a cosmic task, this trio of Ph.D. dropouts, helping to spread the expansion of consciousness in the middle of a sadomasochistic empire whose perpetuation depended upon the mass contraction of consciousness.
Originally, the CIA had intended to use LSD as one more means of manipulating the population. That scenario backfired. A generation who trusted their friends more than their government deprogrammed themselves from the society that had shaped them, and then reprogrammed themselves into an infinite variety of incarnations.
The think tanks had not formulated a contingency plan for this counterculture that was refusing to be brainwashed into becoming consumer and military zombies. This—mutation!—would certainly have to be discredited.
LSD influenced music, painting, spirituality and the stock market. Tim Leary let me listen in on a call from a Wall Street broker thanking him for turning him onto acid because it had given him the courage to sell short.
Leary had a certain sense of pride about famous folks he and his associates had introduced to the magic potion. Cary Grant had become a father at age 74, thanks to LSD, and likewise, Herman Kahn of the Hudson Institute now talked about “spasms” of information.
Years later, I gave Kahn a superficial tour of the Lower East Side. We stopped in a bookstore. Among this thinker of the unthinkable’s purchases was LSD and Problem Solving by Peter Stafford.
Meanwhile, I had become a gung-ho acidhead, a public propagandist. I wrote a lot about LSD. Sometimes I would take a tab right onstage at the beginning of a performance, verbally sharing my journey with the audience, hoping I could get a few laughs while simultaneously maintaining my juggling act without dropping any chromosomes and damaging them.
The Charles Manson Connection
There’s a new-wave band whose name itself—Sharon Tate’s Baby—is a tribute to time warps everywhere. For it is now nearly a dozen years since Charles Manson, a victim-executioner sired by the prison system, dispatched his perverted commune to mutilate and kill a group of people in the privacy of their home. Among the slain was Sharon Tate, a pregnant actress.
Her husband, Roman Polanski, director of Rosemary’s Baby, was out of the country at the time. Now he is out of the country again, this time to avoid prosecution for consorting with a voluptuous 13-year-old.
- Jay Sebring, hairdresser, dealer of marijuana and cocaine—earlier that evening, a member of a coke ring had appeared at the house—his body would later be found stuffed in a car trunk in New York;
- Voytek Frokowski, who with Sebring was preparing to become U.S. distributors of MDA;
- Abigail Folger, coffee heiress, girlfriend of Frokowski and campaigner for Tom Bradley, L.A.’s first black mayor—she was a far cry from the conservative image of Mrs. Olson in her father’s TV commercials.
Manson was an eclectic. He borrowed techniques from Transactional Analysis and Scientology alike. There was even a Scientology E-Meter (lie detector) on the blind man’s ranch where Charlie kept his harem. He used sex and music and isolation and ritual and fakery— whatever worked. He was a pimp and a hypnotist. He dispensed LSD tablets as though they were timed-release Dog Yummies.
I interviewed Preston Guillory, who had been a deputy with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department when they eventually busted the Manson ranch. He stated that before the murders, they had been told to leave Charlie alone—despite complaints about his violations of parole (including, ironically, statutory rape)—because “something big was coming down.”
“Why were you given such an order?”
“I don’t know,” Guillory replied. “We didn’t question our superiors.”
“Did you at least speculate as to the reason?”
“Oh, we just figured they were gonna kill Black Panthers.”
Thus did the racism of the sheriffs render them collaborators of Charles Manson, who had wanted to start a race war. He instructed his followers to leave clues making it appear that black militants were responsible for the killings. When the family was arrested, however, it merely served to give hippies a bad name.
Before Willie Nelson made the look respectable again, there was John Linley Frasier, a long-haired, headbanded freak in the Santa Cruz mountains who was involved in an awesome mass murder a year after Charles Manson. He later became a prison mate of Manson, mentioning in a letter that “me and Charlie are still trying to figure out how long our leashes were and who’s been pissin’ on them…
And so it came to pass that Charles Manson was stuck in solitary confinement at Folsom Prison when a new inmate was placed in the adjoining cell. It was Tim Leary, fresh from being hounded around the world. He was eventually captured with Joanna Harcourt-Smith, who later admitted working for the Drug Enforcement Agency.
“They took you off the streets,” Manson informed Leary, “so that I could continue with your work.”
Charlie couldn’t understand how Leary had given so many people acid without trying to “control” them. Still, I remember a certain vested interest Leary had in having been a catalyst for their transformation. He enjoyed whatever influence he had wielded in the change of attitude toward LSD that Henry Luce had brought to Time and Life.
But, Leary once remarked, “I consider Otto Preminger one of our failures.”
The Otto Preminger Connection
The FBI has been getting a bad press lately. They were being accused of hounding Jean Seberg to suicide. Documents proved they had spread a story that she was pregnant by a leader of the Black Panther Party. Then, in order to defend itself, the FBI released their tape of a tapped phone conversation wherein Jean Seberg tells a surprised Panther how pleased he should be that she’s carrying his baby.
It is enough to make the left and right lobes of your brain start humping each other. What will the next layer of reality be? Will yet another document reveal that the Black Panther was actually an undercover agent?
But the FBI was not the first to toy with Jean Seberg’s destiny. She was originally chosen from among thousands of contestants by Otto Preminger for the starring role in his film, Joan of Arc. While she was being burned at the stake, her garments actually did catch on fire. Jean Seberg screamed with such a passion for survival at that moment, it seemed to preclude the possibility of ever taking her own life.
And Otto Preminger, bless his professional heart, knew that this was one scene he had on the first take.
I’ve met Preminger on two occasions. The first was in 1960. I was conducting a panel on censorship for Playboy. Preminger had defied Hollywood’s official seal of approval by not censoring The Moon Is Blue.
In retrospect, it hardly looks courageous, but Preminger refused to take out the word “virgin.”
Anyway, at the end of our interview, he asked, “Ven you tronscripe dis, vill you fix op my Henglish?”
”Oh, sure,” I replied quickly. “Of course.”
He glared at me and shouted,
“Vy? Vot’s drong viz my Henglish?”
The second time I saw Preminger was a decade later. We were both guests on the Merv Griffin show (Orson Bean was guest host again). I had taken mescaline for the occasion. Another guest was comedian Jackie Vernon. Responding to the length of my hair, he said, “Why don’t you take a bath?”
Nobody had ever asked me that on network television before. Later, Monday morning quarterbacking, George Carlin would have an Aikido-like suggestion—”You should’ve said, ‘Why, thank you, Jackie, I hadn’t considered that'”—but at that instant I was caught off balance and just kept silent. So did the audience. The tension was broken by Otto Preminger.
“Dot iss duh seekness ov our society, dis stereo-typical ottitood.”
Now the audience applauded. And then we went to a commercial. There is a definite rhythm a director brings to a TV talk show…
Between those two occasions, Otto Preminger made a movie called Skidoo. It was proacid propaganda thinly disguised as a comedy adventure.
And the part of God was played by Groucho Marx.
Recently Tim Leary cheerfully admitted to me: “I was fooled by Otto Preminger. He was much hipper than I was.”
The Lenny Bruce Connection
Steve Allen became the first subscriber to the Realist in 1958. He sent in several gift subscriptions, including one for Lenny Bruce, who was busy fighting the press label ”sick comic.” Lenny and I developed a close friendship. In 1962, Playboy assigned me as editor of his autobiography, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People, which they were serializing.
Traveling around with Lenny Bruce was an incredible delight. It was a theatrical education to watch him sculpt his offstage perceptions into onstage routines. But, as his environment became more and more the courtroom, so did the contradictions of the law become more and more the canvas for his craft.
Although Lenny was a tremendous influence on me as a performer, I was not at all into drugs at the time. Once I asked him about the apparent inconsistency between his free-form lifestyle and his having to stop everything in order to shoot up. He replied, “Well, you stop to eat, don’t you?”
He described heroin—It’s like kissing God.” And who could fault him for that?
In the winter of 1964, stoned on a combination of DMT and LSD, Lenny fell backward through the window of his San Francisco hotel room. At the precise moment that he was suspended in midair, he uttered: “Man shall rise above the rule!” Then he surrendered to the law of gravity and plummeted to the sidewalk below. Both legs had to be put in casts, and for a while he became the Hermit of Hollywood Hills.
Around that time, Jerry Hopkins—who had opened the first head shop in L.A., and later became the biographer of Elvis Presley and Jim Morrison—was producing the Steve Allen show. He arranged for me to do a one-night stand at the Steve Allen Theater. Lenny Bruce was in the audience, and so was Groucho Marx.
At one point in the show, I was talking about the importance of having empathy for other people’s perversions. During a question-and-answer session that followed, Lenny stood up on his crutches and asked what I had meant by that.
“Well, once I was sitting in the subway—it was rush hour and really crowded—and an elderly lady’s buttocks kept rubbing against my shoulder, and I began to get aroused…”
“You’re sick!” Lenny yelled.
“Thank you, Mr. President,” I responded, ending the show right there.
Later, I met Groucho Marx for the first time.
“That was very smart, the way you finished,” he said. “Besides, I was getting fidgety in my seat.”
The Ram Dass Connection
By the mid ’60s I had become such a dope fiend that I kept my entire stash in a bank-vault deposit box. Once a week I would don my Cosa Nostra sweatshirt (“We aim to please!”) and get my supply of LSD—to give away, sell, swallow, whatever.
It was, for you brand-name fans, Owsley White Lightning—300 micrograms of separate reality. I bought my acid from Dick Alpert to finance his trip to India where his guru renamed him Baba Ram Dass. “Come fuck the universe with me,” his postcard beckoned, but I already had an American guru—Mortimer Snerd, ventriloquist Edgar Bergen’s dummy. One time Bergen asked his main dummy, Charlie McCarthy, “What are you doing?” Charlie answered, “Nothing.” And then Mortimer Snerd said in his goofy buck-tooth country bumpkin style, “Well, how d’ya know when yer finished?”
Anyway, Ram Dass kept seeking illumination and having his feet kissed by strangers, while I stayed home and got a call from Groucho Marx.
He was going to be in an Otto Preminger film called Skidoo, and it was pretty much advocating LSD, and he had never tried it but was not only curious but also felt a responsibility to his audience not to steer them wrong, so could I get him some pure stuff and would I care to accompany him on the trip?
I did not play hard to get.
The acid with which Ram Dass—in his final moments as Dick Alpert—failed to get his guru higher was the same acid that I had the honor of taking with Groucho Marx. As I left the bank vault that week, I was breathing slowly and deeply so that I would not laugh my ass off in the lobby.
The Groucho Marx Connection
We ingested those little white tabs one afternoon at the home of an actress in Beverly Hills.
Groucho was interested in the social background of the drug. There were two items that particularly tickled his fancy.
One was about the day acid was outlawed. Hippies were standing around the streets, waiting for the exact appointed minute to strike so they could all publicly swallow their LSD the exact second it became illegal.
The other was how the tour bus would pass through Haight-Ashbury and passengers would try to take snapshots of the local alien creatures, who in turn would hold mirrors up to the bus windows so that the tourists would see themselves focusing their cameras.
I told Groucho about the first thing I ever sold to the old Steve Allen show. It was a sketch called “Unsung Heroes of Television.”
Among the heroes was the individual whose sole job it was to listen intently the whole half hour for somebody to say the secret word on You Bet Your Life and then to drop that decoy duck when the word was said.
He told me about one of his favorite contestants—”a gentleman with white hair, on in years but a chipper fellow. I inquired as to what he did to retain his sunny disposition. ‘Well, I’ll tell you, Groucho,’ he says, ‘every morning I get up and I make a choice to be happy that day.'”
We had long periods of silence, and of listening to music. I was accustomed to playing rock ‘n’ roll while tripping, but the record collection here was all classical and Broadway show albums. After we heard the Bach “Cantata No. 7” Groucho said, “I may be Jewish, but I was seeing the most beautiful visions of Gothic cathedrals. Do you think Bach knew he was doing that?”
Later, we were listening to the score of a musical comedy, Fanny. There was one song called “Welcome Home,” where the lyrics go something like, “Welcome home, says the clock,” and the chair says, “Welcome home,” and so do various other pieces of furniture. Groucho started acting out each line, as if he were actually being greeted by the clock, the chair and so forth. He was like a child, charmed by his own ability to respond to the music that way.
There was a point when our conversation somehow got into a negative space. Groucho was equally bitter about institutions such as marriage (“like quicksand”) and individuals such as Lyndon Johnson (“that potato-head”). Eventually, I asked, “What gives you hope?”
Groucho thought for a moment. Then he said just one word out loud: “People.”
After a while, he started chuckling to himself. I hesitated to interrupt his revelry. Finally he spoke: “I’m really getting quite a kick out of this notion of playing God like a dirty old man in Skidoo. You wanna know why? Do you realize that irreverence and reverence are the same thing?”
“If they’re not, then it’s a misuse of your power to make people laugh.”
And right after he said that, his eyes began to tear.
When he came back from peeing, he said, “Everybody is waiting for miracles to happen. The human body is a goddam miracle.”
He mentioned, “I had a little crush on Marilyn Monroe when we were making Love Happy. I remember I got a hard-on just talking to her on the set.”
During a little snack: “I never thought eating a fig would be the biggest thrill of my life.”
He held and smelled a cigar for a long time but never smoked it.
“Everybody has their own Laurel and Hardy,” he mused. “A miniature Laurel and Hardy, one on each shoulder. Your little Oliver Hardy bawls you out—he says, ‘Well, this is a fine mess you’ve gotten us into.’ And your little Stan Laurel gets all weepy —’Oh, Ollie, I couldn’t help it, I’m sorry, I did the best I could…'”
Five years later, my book, How a Satirical Editor Became a Yippie Conspirator in Ten Easy Years, was published by Putnam’s. Editor William Targ sent an advance copy to Groucho, and he sent back a postcard that was as eerie as it was complimentary: “Thanks for the book. I am sending this card to you, because I don’t know where Mr. Krassner lives. Or even if he is alive. At any rate, it’s a hilarious book and I predict in time he will wind up as the only live Lenny Bruce.”
The year after that, I was heavy into my Manson investigation. During the acid trip with three of his family members—Squeaky Fromme, Sandra Good and Brenda McCann—I got an even more awesome compliment.
Sandy Good had once seen me perform at The Committee in San Francisco. Now she was saying to me, “When people used to ask me what Charlie was like, I would compare him to Lenny Bruce and Paul Krassner.”
My heart thumped rather strangely.
Sandy had been a civil-rights activist. But Charlie Manson stepped on her eyeglasses, threw away her birth control pills, remolded her personality and transformed her value system. So now she was parroting Charlie’s racism and asking me to tell John Lennon that he should get rid of Yoko Ono and “marry his own kind.”
I’ve never met Charlie Manson, although I’ve corresponded with him. But I have heard a tape of his rap, and he definitely used humor as a tool for evil.
For the first time I understood in my guts what Groucho Marx had meant about misusing the power to make people laugh.
The Jerry Rubin Connection
After our acid trip, I had only a couple of contacts with Groucho.
The first concerned a rumor that he had said, “I think the only hope this country has is Nixon’s assassination.” I wanted to verify whether he had actually said that.
“I deny everything,” he joked, then admitting he had indeed said it over a luncheon interview with a now-defunct magazine, Flash.
“Uh, sorry, Mr. Marx, you’re under arrest for threatening the life of the president. I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed A Night at the Opera. Here, now, if you’ll just slip into these plastic handcuffs….”
I wrote to the San Francisco office of the U.S. Department of Justice, asking about the status of the case against Groucho, particularly in view of the indictment of Black Panther David Hilliard for using similar rhetoric. Here’s the reply I received:
Dear Mr. Krassner:
Responding to your inquiry, the United States Supreme Court has held that Title 18 U.S.C., Section 87) prohibits only “true” threats. It is one thing to say “I (or we) will kill Richard Nixon” when you are the leader of an organization which advocates killing people and overthrowing the government; it is quite another to utter the words which are attributed to Mr. Marx, an alleged comedian. It was the opinion of both myself and the United States Attorney in Los Angeles (where Marx’s words were alleged to have been uttered) that the latter utterance did not constitute a “true” threat.
Very truly yours,
/s/ James L. Browning, Jr.
United States Attorney
The second occasion was at the Los Angeles Book Fair in 1976, where Groucho was scheduled to speak, along with Tim Leary and Jerry Rubin.
Leary was dressed all in white except for a black string tie. He was now advocating suburban space colonies.
“Migration,” he proclaimed, “is the number one tool of the DNA code.”
There was speculation that this might really be a metaphor about the way we ought to behave on earth. Utopian planning for life on a celestial way station is bound to serve as a model for people changing themselves, their institutions and systems on our own planet, whether or not we actually start sending out satellites covered with Astroturf.
Leary took a slight swipe at Rubin, mentioning an ex-radical who said “Kill your parents” and had now written a book on how to contact your deceased parents through astral travel. Rubin had issued a press release requesting the media not to refer to him as a former Yippie leader. Somewhere there must have been a headline: FORMER YIPPIE LEADER ASKS NOT TO BE CALLED FORMER YIPPIE LEADER.
A few years previously, Jerry Rubin had helped organize a press conference to denounce Tim Leary as a snitch, although Leary insisted that he never got anybody in trouble. Now, Rubin was scheduled to appear at the Book Fair on the same evening as Leary but he rearranged it for the next evening in order to avoid a public confrontation—or, worse yet, a public embrace—in front of all those eagerly popping flashbulbs.
Nevertheless, Jerry Rubin served as a unifier at the Book Fair.
It had been announced that Groucho Marx would not speak from the stage in the Ambassador Hotel ballroom, but rather on a one-to-one basis with folks whose books he would be autographing. This turned into a mob scene. So Jerry found Groucho’s companion, Erin Fleming, and suggested that if they walked back around a certain way it would bring them directly onto the stage. She followed his advice.
Groucho looked frail and unsmiling, but he was alert and irreverent as the audience fired questions at him.
Was he working on a film now?
“No, I’m answering silly questions.”
What was his favorite film?
“He should be in jail.”
Is humor an important issue in the presidential campaign?
“Get your finger out of your mouth.”
What does he dream about?
“Not about you.”
What inspired him to write?
“A fountain pen; a piece of paper.”
I couldn’t stand it any longer. I called out, “Groucho, what gives you hope?”
This time he said, “The world.”
There was hardly any standing room left in the auditorium, but one man sat on the floor rather than take the seat occupied by a rubber Groucho Marx doll.