"Words, in case you don't know, are beautiful"

Also, Letters Live is returning to the Royal Albert Hall

Before we get to today’s letter(s), some news. On 30th October, we are taking Letters Live back to the Royal Albert Hall, and tickets are now available here. For the uninitiated, Letters Live is an event at which fascinating letters are brought to life by people who are really good at bringing letters to life, and to give you some idea of the kinds of people I’m talking about, our debut at the Royal Albert Hall (in the before times, Oct 2019) boasted a cast that included Olivia Colman, Taika Waititi, Benedict Cumberbatch, Louise Brealey, Jude Law, Stephen Fry, and Florence Welch. But most importantly, the show will be raising money for the National Literacy Trust, a charity whose work has never been more important. So, should you wish to come, head here, and while you’re there watch the embedded video to get a sense of just how incredible it was, and will be. (Basically, it was, and will be, very incredible. And probably, given the state of the world right now, a bit emotional.)

I had planned to send you something else today, but then, last night, I dreamt about Groucho Marx, a very funny man whose letters are also very funny and are impossible to read without his accent assuming control of your inner voice. I’ve plucked these two letters, almost at random, from The Groucho Letters, a book so rich with treasures that one is able to simply pluck letters from random. In the first, he’s writing to his brother, Chico, who was slacking on his letter writing. The second was written some years later to friend Irving Hoffman, and concerned Groucho’s upcoming child. Enjoy.

August 29, 1942

Dear Chico:

Our correspondence is becoming increasingly strained and I can only attribute it to the curious and mystifying ways you have of answering your mail. In the past three weeks I have written you three times. In return you have sent me a package of cheese, a small barrel of herring and a smoked tongue.

These are eloquent answers much stronger than words—but you must admit they are difficult to decode unless one has spent his early years as a delicatessen apprentice. What is this unholy terror you have for the written word? Were you once scared by a vowel or a consonant?

Words, in case you don’t know, are beautiful. Keats, Shelley and Conrad enriched and gladdened the whole world with words. Is it possible that your odd method of correspondence is more effective? Have you stumbled on something that will replace all the beautiful poems and love sonnets of the centuries? I only ask you this because I’ve heard it told that you conduct your romances in the same manner. It is well known that for years you left a trail of broken hearts and sawn-off shotguns from the Orpheum Theatre in Bangor to the Pantages Theatre in San Diego. Is delicatessen your secret weapon? Do you send soft cheese where others send orchids? When a love-sick girl sends you a perfume-scented note pleading for your kisses, I understand your answer is three slices of pumpernickel. I don’t say that this last present may not be just what she needs, but you must concede it’s a novel slant on a subject that has bewildered experts since Adam and Eve. Romeo was considered quite a lover in his day but I’m sure Juliet’s love for him would have wavered had it reeked so strongly of the pickle barrel. But then your views on love and life have always been unique and bizarre and I guess on you, it looks good.

Unless you answer this letter—and I don’t mean with delicatessen, groceries or alphabet soup, but with plain words (the dictionary, by the way, is full of them)—it will be necessary for me to reduce my correspondence to the same level and my answers in the future will consist of shoestring potatoes, salamis and apple strudel.

Love and garlic from the Hebrew National, Woloshin’s, Levitoff’s, Isaac Gellis’s, Greenblatt’s and Rubin’s.



March 1946

Dear Irving,

Between strokes of good fortune, I have been toying with the idea of making you my impending child’s godfather. However, before doing this officially, I would like to see a notarized statement of your overall assets. I don’t intend to repeat the unhappy experience that befell my parents late in the 19th century

At that time there was an Uncle Julius in our family. He was five feet one in his socks, holes and all. He had a brown spade beard, thick glasses and a head topped off with a bald spot about the size of a buckwheat cake. My mother somehow got the notion that Uncle Julius was wealthy and she told my father, who never did quite understand my mother, that it would be a brilliant piece of strategic flattery were they to make Uncle Julius my godfather.

Well, as happens to all men, I was finally born and before I could say "Jack Robinson," I was named Julius. At the moment this historic event was taking place, Uncle Julius was in the back room of a cigar store on Third Avenue, dealing them off the bottom. When word reached him that he had been made my godfather, he dropped everything, including two aces he had up his sleeve for an emergency, and quickly rushed over to our flat.

In a speech so moist with emotion that he was blinded by his own eyeglasses, he said that he was overwhelmed by this sentimental gesture on our part and hinted that my future—a rosy one—was irrevocably linked with his. At the conclusion of his speech, still unable to see through his misty lenses, he kissed my father, handed my mother a cigar and ran back to the pinochle game.

Two weeks later he moved in, paper suitcase and all. As time went by, my mother became suspicious and one day, in discussing him with my father, she not only discovered that Uncle Julius seemed to be without funds, but what was even worse, that he owed my father $34.

Since he was only five feet one, my father volunteered to throw him out but my mother advised caution. She said that she had read of many cases where rich men, after living miserly lives, died leaving tremendous fortunes to their heirs.

Well, Uncle Julius remained with us until I got married. By this time, he had the best room in the house and owed my father $84. Shortly after my wedding, my mother finally admitted that Uncle Julius had been a hideous mistake and ordered my father to give him the bum’s rush. But Uncle Julius had grown an inch over the years while my father had shrunk proportionately, so he finally convinced my mother that violence was not the solution to the problem.

Soon after this, Uncle Julius solved everything by kicking off, leaving me his sole heir. His estate, when probated, consisted of a nine ball that he had stolen from a pool room, a box of liver pills and a celluloid dickey.

I suppose I should be more sentimental about the whole thing, but it was a severe shock to all of us, and, if I can help it, it’s not going to happen again.

Well, Irving, that’s the story. If you are interested, let me hear from you as soon as possible and, remember, a financial statement as of today will expedite things considerably.

Love and kisses.