May 09, 1977 12:00 PM

If Shakespeare were a Hollywood screenwriter, one of his major tragedies could have been King Leer. It would be based not on a mythical British monarch but on America’s maestro of repartee, Groucho Marx. He is now 86, comparatively comatose and restricted to a wheelchair. The denouement to his drama, which has been squalidly playing out in Santa Monica Superior Court, is scheduled to begin next week.

The antagonists are his writer son Arthur (representing also the comic’s two daughters) and Erin Fleming, a 40ish thwarted actress who for five years has been Groucho’s secretary/manager/soulmate. Each is seeking to be declared his permanent guardian. The stakes are estimated at $2 to $4 million. And perhaps Groucho’s life.

Earlier court hearings were ugly. Two private detectives Erin hired to determine if Arthur was bugging the Marx mansion turned on her, claiming that she had threatened to kill them. (Now they are busily trying to peddle paperback rights to their story.) The single heartening and positive witness was the only other surviving Marx brother, Zeppo, 74, who maintains: “Groucho is in love with her [Erin]. It would be detrimental for Groucho if she were taken away from him.”

The judge, after hearing the violently opposing testimony, called a three-week recess and, for the interim, replaced Fleming as Groucho’s legal-financial conservator with old pal Nat Perrin, 72, who co-wrote Duck Soup, among other Marx vehicles. The judicial waffling was perhaps understandable. Son Arthur, also now in litigation over a biography of Carroll O’Connor (PEOPLE, April 11), had written two less-than-dutiful books about his dad. “Over the past 25 years they have fought, both privately and publicly,” says one friend. “I guess it’s accurate to say that Groucho was never in the running for Father of the Year.” On the other side, nurses who have attended Groucho (in recent years he has suffered a heart attack, three strokes, hypertension, a urinary tract disorder, pneumonia and, most recently, hip replacement surgery) testified that Fleming “threw things at Groucho, yelled at him, cursed him and pushed him.” Another claimed she shot him full of tranquilizers.

Yet Groucho has said repeatedly that he wouldn’t be alive if Erin Fleming hadn’t moved in on him, and many old colleagues tend to agree. “Erin’s certainly not all altruism,” says one of them. “It wasn’t love that drew her to him in the beginning, but she has grown quite fond of him in the end. She promoted him, washed him, fed him and restored him to the public consciousness. She would not let him fade quietly away.”

When they first met in the fall of 1971, Marx was just a job to her. “She had heard he needed a secretary,” another friend of Groucho’s says, “and went after it.” She found his house and life a shambles. He had lately been divorced for the third time and his family wasn’t taking care of him. He never got out of bed, and there were 75,000 unopened fan letters and business propositions strewn about. She worked at first without pay, and gradually took over. She got him out of bed, hired a staff, brought in doctors, took him off alcohol and put him onto a strict salt-free diet (tasting his food to be sure). She threw out the old hangers-on and invited in the New Hollywood: Minnelli, Reynolds, Gould. Finally and simply, says an insider, “She told him, ‘You are not dying. Come on, Grouch, why don’t you accept some of the offers?’ ”

She set up a Marx Brothers archive in the house, got Animal Crackers and his old You Bet Your Life TV shows rereleased. She arranged an affecting one-night appearance at Carnegie Hall. She started hounding the Academy board of governors to give him a special Oscar. They did, and Groucho, accepting it in 1974, thanked Erin “who makes my life worth living and understands all my jokes.” He also declared about that time, “Our relationship is purely physical.” It was a painful joke—she never even lived in his Trousdale Estates house. Erin did get a salary after a while, and annual bonuses as his earnings resumed.

But did Fleming push him around? “Groucho is 86,” says a business associate. “Old men behave a lot like children. And Erin was a strict, even abrasive, Irish disciplinarian. There has probably never been a woman in Groucho’s life who was so firm with him for his own good since his mother Minnie.” How aware is Groucho of all the furor? Probably barely. “I don’t intend to acquaint him with the seriousness and the ugliness,” says conservator Perrin. Notes another friend: “The saddest part of all of this suit is that everyone is arguing about money. Except for Groucho, that is. He’s talking about love.”

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