Facial Hair Friday: A mustache, a funny man, and a President

Page of the World War I draft card for Groucho Marx, from the holdings of the National Archives

Julius Henry Marx–better known by his stage name Groucho Marx–passed away on August 19, 1977. He left behind a legacy of humor on stage, radio, and film. I was not able to find to find any images of him in our holdings, which was disappointing as his trademark mustache was a fine candidate for Facial Hair Friday.

However, I did find something unexpected. Groucho had been corresponding with President Truman.

What would a funny man and a President have in common? Well, it turns out that the young Harry Truman was an avid vaudeville fan, attending shows at the Orpheum Theatre and the Grand Opera House whenever he was Kansas City. He even took his future wife Bess to vaudeville shows on dates. Truman especially enjoyed the Marx Brothers, later recalling that he never missed a chance to see them when they were in town.

So Truman was a fan of the famous brothers, but how did he come to correspond with Groucho (and later Harpo Marx)?

It started with the displaced persons, the survivors of the Holocaust who had lost their homes and families and were now living in temporary camps. Truman had issued a directive in 1945 to allow some of them to immigrate to the United States. In 1946, Groucho Marx–the son of Jewish immigrants–sent Truman a newspaper clipping of an article claiming Truman had failed to in efforts to help the “DPs” immigrate. Marx included a letter in 1946 asking that the President address the needs of the displaced persons, and assuring the President that  “Despite all this I propose voting for you in 1948.”

Truman responded by sending a copy–marked as confidential–of a letter he had written to Senator Walter George of Georgia in which Truman wished that members of Congress could see these camps and be inspired to action on behalf of the displaced persons living there.

Their correspondence, though fitful, continued. In the 1960s, Grouch sent the President a copy of his book The Groucho Letters. Truman sent him a thank-you note saying he looked forward to reading it. Groucho was not amused at the former President’s slow approach.  

“You said that you have been flipping through the pages [of my book] with a great deal of amusement. Read it, Harry,” commanded the comedian. “It’s full of wisdom and if you can’t stand the heat in the kitchen, read it in the living room.”

This post was based on “Mutual Admiration and a Few Jokes: The Correspondence of Harry Truman with Groucho and Harpo Marx” published in Prologue magazine. 

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