In the summer of 1974, Steve Stoliar was out of a job — which proved to be a lucky break. The UCLA student soon found himself employed as an assistant to his childhood idol, Groucho Marx. “Initially, I worked seven days a week, because I couldn’t get enough of it,” Stoliar tells Closer. “It had been such a years-long dream, just to shake Groucho’s hand and thank him for all the laughs. And here I was inside his house!”

By that point, the radio, TV and film comedian, born Julius Henry Marx, was in his 80s and already a legend. He’d started in vaudeville, made 13 films with the Marx Brothers, and became the longtime host of TV’s You Bet Your Life. As a senior citizen, Groucho had lost none of the wit that made him so famous. “Even after strokes and other infirmities, he still had more than a lot of people have when they’re in their prime,” says Stoliar, author of Raised Eyebrows: My Years Inside Groucho’s House. “Groucho didn’t want to just rattle around in his house. He liked to get out and about.” 

And when Groucho was home, old friends like Jack Lemmon and Mae West often dropped by. Guests also included his surviving brothers, Zeppo and Gummo, whose casual repartee seemed straight off a Paramount set.


Despite the laughs, Stoliar also remembers a darker side to Groucho’s final years: the looming influence of his secretary and manager, Erin Fleming. An aspiring actress with a volatile temper, Erin ruled Groucho’s life and career with an iron fist. “She’d scream at him and he’d cry, which broke my heart,” Stoliar recalls. “But he was so fond of her and dependent on her.” 

No matter how cruel Fleming became, Groucho’s attachment to her could not be broken. She even drove a wedge between Groucho and his three children — Arthur, Miriam and Melinda — which Stoliar believes was a source of unspoken regret for the comic. In the mid-’70s, Groucho and his biographer Hector Arce watched a documentary about Charlie Chaplin, which ended with scenes of Chaplin and his wife playing with their grandchildren. “Hector said when the lights came up, there were tears in Groucho’s eyes,” Stoliar recalls, “and he wondered if he wasn’t thinking, ‘I wish I had that kind of thing with my family.’”  

Through it all, Groucho’s sparkling wit never wavered. Stoliar recalls a moment when Groucho was on his deathbed, drifting in and out of lucidity. “The nurse said, ‘I want to see if you have a temperature.’ And he said, ‘Don’t be silly. Everybody has a temperature!’ It’s fairly extraordinary. But I think it was like a reflex — you hit his knee and his foot goes up,” says Stoliar. “The mechanism that made him Groucho stayed there until the end.”