Let me tell you about the first time I saw Groucho Marx, who happens to be the subject of my very first portrait. But my story begins before I took up photography.
Protect your bagels; put lox on them. It sounds like something Groucho might say. But it was just a clever admonition from the locals to visit Nate ’n’ Al’s Delicatessen in Beverly Hills. I was there eating brunch with several buddies before heading over to the Fairfax Theater in West Hollywood for a Marx Brothers double feature. Their zany humor from the Depression era was enjoying a revival on the silver screen that took my generation by storm. I was 17 years old, just out of high school, and, in 1969, grateful for my 2-S college deferment that kept the Vietnam draft from blowing my way.
Nate ’n’ Al’s was — is — an antediluvian eatery favored by discerning fressers. Notwithstanding Jacopo’s Pizza Parlor and Dolores’s Drive-in (with carhop service, no less), it was also a hangout for Beverly Hills High School kids. It was my go-to place for corned beef with swiss on rye, washed down with a can of Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray celery soda. Of course, nobody makes chopped liver or chicken soup with matzoh balls like your mother. But here they serve sandwiches piled sky high with thinly sliced meats — hold the tongue; and, if you’ve got room, latkes, blintzes, knishes, gefilte fish, and kasha. The dill pickles are endless. The whitefish, once cured as much by Romeo y Julietta and Chesterfields as by woodsmoke, still makes my mouth water. The Formica tabletops, brown as coffee stains, are flanked by tuck-and-roll banquettes. At the cash register, grooves worn through the laminate surface reveal bare wood where customers have, for eons, scraped off loose change.
We were a motley bunch, long-haired but on the conservative side of hippie couture. One of us stood out, though; the youngest member of our quartet, Jeff. Picture Jeff as a cross between Louis XIV of France, the Sun King, and Keith Richards on a bender. His coiffure was parted straight down the middle and hung in thick black curls across his shoulders, crowned with a stovepipe opera hat — kind of like what Groucho’s brother Harpo wore. His flounced shirt was unbuttoned down to his navel, allowing the placket to frame an overabundance of beads and gold chains. To cap that off, so to speak, was the vestige of a bicycle accident that left Jeff with two silver incisors in the center of his high-wattage smile. And, in that guise, he could also launch into a perfect Wolfman Jack impersonation.
Just when our waitress brought the check, who should walk in but Groucho Marx himself accompanied by fellow comedian Milton Berle. (Oy, are there stories about “Uncle Miltie!”) Both men were smoking like chimneys, their cigars creating a cumulonimbus halo diffused by neon lighting overhead. Showbiz types, particularly old-school vaudevillians and Jewish comedians, frequented the place, so entrances like theirs were taken in stride — but for Jeff. He spotted them first. His exuberance was volcanic.
“Look!,” he said, “Can you believe it? I mean — it’s GROUCHO. What a coincidence!”
We tried to shush him up.
“I’ve got to tell him we’re on our way to go see ‘Duck Soup’ and ‘Animal Crackers.’ He’ll love that.”
We implored Jeff to leave the man alone. He was not only entitled to privacy, we said, but given Jeff’s fashion statement, he probably wouldn’t make out well with the master of comedic calumny. Groucho was famous for off-the-cuff remarks that cuffed the unwary right in their self-esteem. But Jeff would have none of our advice. He got up and stood in the aisle, intercepting Marx and Berle before they were seated.
“Groucho,” he said, “Wow! We’re on our way to go see ‘Duck Soup’ and ‘Animal Crackers’ right now. Can you dig it?”
Jeff just dug his own grave.
“Kid,” Groucho replied, tipping an ash on the floor with his characteristic twiddle, If I were you, I’d go see my dentist first. Wait! Let me comb my hair while you’ve got that smile on your face. Oh! I don’t have any hair. Enjoy the movie, kid.”
Jeff slouched back to our booth, and the rest of us got up to pay our check. We waved meekly at the two comics as we retreated past their table on our way out. They waved back with their cigars, expecting us to know, I think, that life, for alter cockers like them, imitated art — their shtick, that is. No hard feelings.
Two years later I was learning how to use a camera. I was also working a summer job between semesters at USC, shlepping in the mailroom at a Beverly Hills PR firm where Groucho happened to be a client. I was more intern than employee. But the firm, Rogers & Cowan, allowed me to photograph some of their music industry clients (I was the right generation). They gave me backstage passes with unrestricted access to rock ’n’ roll bands performing in concert. Our arrangement was quid pro quo because they were in the business of getting publicity for their clients, and I was getting my pictures published. I also shot “press parties” when, say, an actor-client’s new movie was released and the Hollywood press was invited to a gala that was peppered with personalities. I’d show up, usually at a fancy restaurant like The Bistro, or sometimes a private home, with my simple flash-on-camera gear, ready to shoot “grip-and-grin” pictures. With the exclusive access I was afforded, I got pictures that could readily be “placed” (i.e., get published). I got paid through the auspices of photo agencies like Gamma, in the Americas and Europe, and Imperial Press, in Japan.
My interest in photographic portraiture had just begun to grow. I was deadly earnest to make my first real portrait — not a snapshot or a headshot but a portrait in the sense of deliberately posing someone, preferably someone of importance to me, to reveal, or allude to, some aspect of that person’s character. Given that I was now stirring up a professional career while I was at Rogers & Cowan, I begged Groucho’s publicist, Paul Bloch, to fix me up with an introduction and a photo session. I got some extra help from my sister, Dede. She worked there, too, as Warren Cowan’s personal assistant. He was the boss at Rogers & Cowan. My importuning paid off.
I had recently discovered the larger film format of a Rolleiflex twin lens reflex camera, larger than 35mm, sometimes used by portrait photographers whose work I’d seen published. I wasn’t robbing banks, so it must have been my photo licensing sales that allowed me to buy a brand new Rollei. With the acquisition of my first credit card, I also had the means to buy my first whole box of cigars: Montecruz Nº280. It set me back a bundle at Dunhill’s, but I wanted to show up with a gift for Groucho.
I drove to Groucho’s house from my studio apartment in West Hollywood — literally a studio because my tiny photo studio-cum-darkroom was downstairs; a converted garage reachable by a brass pole that ran from my bedroom ceiling through a three-foot hole in the floor and on down. That was a barroom conversation starter! I knocked on the front door of Groucho’s modern single-story house, high on a plateau overlooking Beverly Hills, amongst a covey of custom architected homes called Trousdale Estates. I knocked on the front door. It opened just a crack, and a frail man wearing glasses and a black beret poked his head out and spoke.
“Who are you?”
“I’m Tom Zimberoff,” I said to Groucho Marx; then kind of nervously, “I’m here to photograph you.”
“That’s funny,” Groucho said. “You don’t look anything like him. Come in.”
He stepped back to swing the door open, paused a beat, then added, “You’re sure you’re not the plumber?
Groucho’s controversial female companion and putative manager, the very much younger Erin Fleming, joined him in greeting me and gave me a tour of the house; she, by the way, who was accused by Marx’s family of abusing Groucho and angling for his financial estate.
Groucho may have been physically worse for wear but he could still knock your socks off with his wisecracks; as funny for how he said things as for what he said. I remember laughing a lot. That’s good because I hardly knew what to say myself. I mentioned to the brief encounter two years earlier at Nate ’n’ Al’s without expecting him to remember. He didn’t. In retrospect, I would have enjoyed talking to Groucho about his professional and personal relationships with the likes of Alexander Wolcott, S.J. Perlman, George S. Kaufman, Dorothy Parker, and Herman Mankiewicz; the whole bunch of them, a self-described “Vicious Circle” who fenced with literary foils while seated at a round table, eating lunch in New York’s Algonquin Hotel. Too bad, I was still a dumb-ass 19-year old. But Groucho went on to recount some stories about growing up on the East Side of Manhattan in the early 20th century with his four brothers: Leonard, Adolph, Milton, and Herbert; Chico, Harpo, Gummo, and Zeppo respectively. Groucho — Julius was his real name — was right in the middle, chronologically. He said that, back in vaudeville days, lots of stage acts had names that ended in o. He and his brothers initially came up with their stage names, for that reason, as a gag. But, happily, it stuck.
As a background for the portrait I chose a Carnegie Hall poster, framed on the wall, advertising Groucho’s recent one-man retrospective performance — but for Marvin Hamlisch on piano to accompany Groucho’s ditties, like “Lydia the Tattooed Lady.” It was inscribed with good wishes by dozens of other luminaries of stage and screen, including Woody Allen, Laurence Olivier, and Charlie Chaplin. Its title, “An Evening with Groucho,” was also the title of his debut double LP, which consisted of recordings spliced together from several venues leading up to the Carnegie Hall gig. It topped the charts for fifteen weeks, blowing away The Partridge Family, Elton John, Rod Stewart, Black Sabbath, and Cat Stevens. Groucho become a pop star six decades after his show business debut. His fellow comedian and octogenarian George Burns was heard to say, “This album could make a big star out of Groucho Marx. There’s nothing going to stop this kid.”
I set my Rollei on a tripod. I didn’t have any lights. I offered the box of cigars to Groucho. But he told me, ruefully, he had to quit; doctor’s orders. “Why?” I said, “You’re 81.” That was the funniest thing I said. We agreed that I would do the smoking, get a good ash going, and give him the cigar to hold as a prop. He stuck it in his mouth, anyway.
Who could imagine a photograph of Groucho Marx without his signature stogie? Who would have imagined that he would have no cigars in his house? Why would I have even thought to inquire? It’s a damn lucky thing, though, I brought those cigars. I had no ulterior motive, obviously, but I got to keep the rest of those Dunhill’s. The box had become a gift from Groucho to me.
I love to channel Groucho’s wisecracks, trying to imitate his run-together cadence and the pronunciation of words like word as “woid.” Say the secret woid ’n’ winnahunerdahlas! was Groucho’s TV quiz show tagline on “You Bet Your Life.” He conjured up non sequiturs like, “Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend but inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.” He invented the greatest self-deprecating quip ever spoken: “Why would I join a club that would have me for a member?” My favorite chain-yanking ad-lib was about a man who professed ardent love for his wife and their thirteen children: “I love my cigar,” Groucho said, “but occasionally I take it out of my mouth.”
You had to be on your toes to face-off with Groucho Marx, whether he was in the guise of Rufus T. Firefly: “The T stands for Edgar;” or Dr. Hugo Z. Hackenbush: “Either this man is dead or my watch has stopped;” or Captain Spaulding the African Explorer who claimed to have shot a polar bear on safari: “He was a rich bear and he could afford to go away in the winter.” He added, “One morning, I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don’t know. . . Of course, in Alabama the Tuscaloosa, but that is entirely ir-elephant.” It’s harder for me to channel his wit these days because there are fewer places where I’m allowed to twiddle my cigar in public. But I found yet another way to pay tribute to Groucho.
Later in my career I segued into photojournalism because I had a nose for news. Inspired by Groucho, I had a nose for portraits too. On assignments, after I nailed the shot for my client, I exercised every photographers’ time-honored exigency: Just one more! And I would sign off with a visual humoresque: a pose with the Nose. With its black rims, bushy brows, mustache, and a big honking schnoz, that novelty shop mask, notwithstanding the duckwalk and rapid-fire one-liners punctuated with a wagging cigar, is recognized throughout the world as Groucho Marx.
Using the Nose as a coda to my portraits became a successful marketing campaign: a series of chucklesome postcards. Every few weeks I mailed a new card to clients and prospects. Each one depicted a different celebrity hiding behind the plastic proboscis. It was always obvious who was hiding, despite the goofy disguise but the headline riddle — Who NOSE Tom Zimberoff? — made the gag work. The obvious identity of the subject combined with the pun kept my name and phone number displayed on the desks and bulletin boards of photo editors and art directors who could hire me to shoot more portraits. So,I’ll always be grateful to Groucho for lighting the fuse.