Literary Daybook, June 3

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

Published June 3, 2002 7:00PM (EDT)

Today in fiction

On June 3, 1936, Coronation of Charles II, King of Zembla.
-- "Pale Fire" (1962)
by Vladimir Nabokov

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
occurred? Send it to

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Today in Literary History
On this day in 1964, T.S. Eliot wrote to Groucho Marx to confirm that a car would be waiting at the Savoy to pick "you and Mrs. Groucho" up for dinner. Eliot also noted that Groucho's announcement of having "come to London to see me has greatly enhanced my credit in the neighbourhood, and particularly with the green grocer across the street." Eliot began corresponding with Marx several years earlier, having first sent a fan letter saying how much he enjoyed his movies. They exchanged photographs -- Eliot had to ask for a second of Groucho as his first one had no cigar -- and over several years tried to arrange an occasion for dinner or, as envisioned by Groucho, an evening wherein "you and I will get drunk together." Their letters show an increasing familiarity, though perhaps more so on Groucho's part: Eliot's salutations evolve from "Dear Groucho Marx" to "Dear Groucho," while Groucho, having been encouraged to use "Dear T.S.E." goes one better to "Dear T.S.," and soon arrives at "Dear Tom" to start and "My best to you and Mrs. Tom" at the close.

Their much-postponed dinner took place just seven months before Eliot's death at the age of 76. In his letter the next day to Gummo, Groucho describes finding his "celebrated pen pal" to be "tall, lean and rather stooped over ... from age, illness, or both," but "a dear man and a charming host." Though "a memorable evening," all did not go as expected:

"At any rate, your correspondent arrived at the Eliots' fully prepared for a literary evening. During the week I had read 'Murder in the Cathedral' twice, 'The Waste Land' three times, and just in case of a conversational bottleneck, I brushed up on 'King Lear.'

Well, sir, as cocktails were served, there was a momentary lull ... So, apropos of practically nothing (and not with a bang but a whimper) I tossed in a quotation from 'The Waste Land.' That, I thought, will show him I've read a thing or two besides my press notices from vaudeville.

Eliot smiled faintly -- as though to say he was thoroughly familiar with his poems and didn't need me to recite them. So I took a whack at 'King Lear' ...

That too failed to bowl over the poet. He seemed more interested in discussing 'Animal Crackers' and 'A Night at the Opera.' He quoted a joke -- one of mine -- that I had long since forgotten. Now it was my turn to smile faintly ...

We didn't stay late, for we both felt that he wasn't up to a long evening of conversation -- especially mine.

Did I tell you we called him Tom? -- possibly because that's his name. I, of course, asked him to call me Tom too, but only because I loathe the name Julius.

Tom Marx"

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," e-mail Steve King.

By the Salon Books Editors

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