I was stunned. "I thought you wanted me to be the best tennis player," I stammered.
"I do, but not at the expense of everything else. Remember, only one person can be Number 1 in the world. The rest starve to death."
I had discovered long ago that the best way to handle Groucho when he was angry was to say nothing and look hurt. It worked again. He did an about-face: "Now what did you start to tell me about Olewine's passing shots?"
Of course he had no intention of making me quit tennis. He was getting too big a thrill out of seeing his son's name on the sports pages. In 1940 and '41 I reached the finals of several men's tournaments, and I won enough of them to get ranked sixth in Southern California. But I always lost—and badly—whenever my father brought his brothers to watch me play.
Because I was the only Marx ever to make the sports pages, Harpo, Chico, Zeppo and Gummo were enormously proud of their "nephew the tennis player." They would boast of my court exploits to all of their friends, so the pressure on me to win whenever they showed up was tremendous. This was especially true because everyone made a big deal of their presence. The press would try to snap their photos doing something "funny" or try to get them to make amusing remarks about my game if I lost. It was like having five tennis fathers.
Thus, despite his natural fatherly desire to see me play, Groucho grew reluctant to attend my matches. Not only was he convinced that I played better without him, he also knew that if he did appear he would have to contend with pushy fans insisting that he "say something funny"—often at the most crucial stage of a match. Finally, to avoid being pestered, Groucho started coming to my matches wearing opaque dark glasses and a phony beard that made him look like a rabbi.
After I started going east to compete in the important men's tournaments, Father no longer had the problem of whether or not to attend. He may have been an ardent tennis father, but not to the extent of forsaking his own career as a Marx Brother: In the summers of 1940 and '41 he stayed in Southern California to film Go West and The Big Store.
For a few weeks during the summer of 1940 it seemed as if I was going to make my father proud. At the Tri-State in Cincinnati I beat Johnny Doeg in the semis and pushed Bobby Riggs, the reigning Wimbledon champion, to five sets in the finals. I also won the Eastern Freshman Intercollegiates in Montclair, N.J.
Then a funny thing happened to me on my way to the Nationals at Forest Hills. I came down with the mumps in Seabright, N.J., and had to be quarantined in my hotel room for two weeks. Back in Beverly Hills, a concerned tennis father was following my progress through the newspapers and commenting on it in a series of amusing letters to me. One went like this: