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Life Arts

How Groucho Marx Got Me an Editorial Job at Playboy

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The year was 1971, and I had just graduated from Tufts University with a useless degree in English. My goal was to become a magazine editor, but Nixon's recession was in full bloom and, even in the best of times, getting a publishing job was about as easy as winning a trifecta by betting on two horses. So, after a desolate year of living with my less-than-exciting parents, I moved to Nantucket and rented a shack with my college roommate, Jeff Brawer and three women, all of whom snubbed me.

Jeff was an ardent Marx Brothers fan, and could do a passable imitation of Harpo, which isn't that hard since Harpo didn't talk. Anyway, one day he brought home the latest copy of Esquire, which featured Groucho on the cover. In that particular issue, the magazine's editor, Harold Hayes, announced that the magazine was searching for a new editor. Anyone who was interested was encouraged to submit story ideas or write a convincing letter or throw themselves at his feet.

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I had nothing to lose, so I wrote an idiotic letter, outlining how I was totally unfit to be a magazine editor. I added a few completely moronic story ideas, such as a profile of Alfonso Bedoya, the bandit in Treasure of the Sierra Madre, who is primarily known for uttering the now-famous line, "I ain't gotta show you no stinkin' badges." My letter must have tickled Hayes because two months later, I received a badly typed letter from him inviting me to come to New York for an interview.

It was raining when I arrived in NY and upon entering Hayes' office I tripped over my umbrella and landed on his desk, suavely knocking over a lamp, a telephone and a loaded inbox. Not a promising start, but Hayes had a sense of humor, because he proceeded to interview me in spite of my maladroit entrance. Apparently, the editor's job had been taken and he asked me if I was interested in a position in the fact-checking department. I said yes I was happy to take anything to get my scuffed Frye boot in the door -- and was lead to another set of offices for another interview.

For some reason, my conversation with the grim head of the research department wasn't going well, until one of the researchers entered the office with a problem. The question that stumped her was this: According to Bishop Ussher a 16th century Irish cleric -- when was the earth created?

The happy coincidence was that I had just seen the movie "Inherit the Wind," on TV, and I recalled the scene in which the sanctimonious William Jennings Bryan (Fredric March) declares on the witness stand to the avuncular but sly Clarence Darrow (Spencer Tracy) that Darwin's calculations were wrong and that, according to Bishop Ussher, the earth had been created on October 23rd, 4004, at precisely nine o'clock in the morning.

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I casually offered this tidbit of information to the rattled researcher, as if it were common knowledge. Jaws dropped. Bells rang. I got the job.

I started during Esquire's heyday. George Lois's outrageous covers, many of them inspired by Hayes, were the talk of the nation. It was an exciting time to be there. Writers like Tom Wolfe would pop in periodically. I gawked a lot. Unfortunately, I received the underwhelming sum of $65 a week, which didn't go far in the Big Apple.

Working in the fact-checking department was arduous and painstaking work. The four of us were required to check every miniscule detail of the manuscripts we received on our desks. This meant verifying quotes, facts and even establishing the accuracy of de'cor in restaurants.

Occasionally, we would call a high-priced eatery and explain to the manager that we were calling on behalf of Esquire. Nine times out of ten we were invited to check out the premises ourselves and treated to lunch. It was a lot better than the automat.

At the time, Nora Ephron was writing a column for the magazine. I don't remember how, but we became friends and she took me to literary parties, many of them attended by New York's most illustrious writers. Needless to say, I was star struck.

But then Harold Hayes resigned and my hopes of becoming an editor were dashed. Nora saved me. Apparently, Playboy had an editorial position available. She landed me an interview with the head honcho and I was hired as an assistant editor.

Needless to say, Playboy was not exactly the kind of publishing environment H.L. Mencken might have envisioned. Half-naked females ran around everywhere, expense accounts had no roof, and every Sunday night there was a movie screening at Hef's mansion, where Sea World was duplicated Playboy-style with tropical fish that bore uncanny resemblances to young unclad females with surgically-enhanced breasts.

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My first assignment at Playboy was a little bizarre. The interview editor, Murray Fischer, strolled into my tiny office and plopped a twenty-pound manuscript on my desk. "This is an interview with Groucho Marx," he said. "He's old and it's not funny. I hear you're a humorous guy. Make it funny." When I said, "Umm"" he replied that it was due yesterday.

This was not exactly the Woodward and Bernstein approach to journalism, but I did as I was told and made the interview as comical as I could by adding a few of my own, mostly stolen, one-liners and some of Groucho's old movie dialogue, as well as a few of his impromptu remarks from You Bet Your Life.

After the interview appeared, Groucho wrote a gushing letter to Murray, saying that it was the best interview he'd ever given. Murray should have given the letter to me, but he didn't. Nevertheless, my star was on the rise. Groucho had done it again. Because of him, I was promoted. I'd say more, but I'm off to see A Night at the Opera for the fifteenth time.


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John Blumenthal has been a professional comedy writer for 25 years. A former associate editor and columnist at Playboy Magazine (following a short stint at Esquire), he's written 8 books and 2 produced movies. His films include "Short Time," (major (more...)

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