Groucho Marx was at center stage again, but there were no laughs when the beloved 86-year-old comedian, rendered helpless by a stroke and hip surgery, became the focus of a bizarre court battle 15 years ago this week. Erin Fleming, then 36, Groucho’s companion of six years, was fighting his children for control of the old man’s life — and estimated $2.6 million estate — and the ugly details meant no one emerged a winner.
A former actress who met Groucho in 1971 when she heard he needed a secretary, Fleming got most of the press. She insisted that Marx had proposed marriage but she had turned him down because he wanted to adopt a child and she wanted to have her own. She claimed she loved Groucho (he was not present at the hearings), but his nurses called her an abuser who plied Marx with tranquilizers and called him ”pig” and ”crazy old man.”
Groucho’s children, Arthur, Melinda, and Miriam, didn’t fare very well either. Arthur, a successful playwright (he cowrote The Impossible Years), had written two books that showed him to be less than sympathetic toward his father. Miriam was a recovering alcoholic whose drinking had soured her relationship with Groucho. Neither side persuaded the judge, who put Groucho in the care of Arthur’s son, Andrew, then 27.
Marx died of pneumonia just a few months later, on Aug. 19, but the warfare wasn’t over. Wrestling over the great comedian’s estate continued sporadically for nearly six years before the case came to trial in January 1983. George Burns and Carroll O’Connor testified on Fleming’s behalf; experts argued over whether Fleming’s parading around the house nude was a boon to Groucho or a form of cruelty, and Fleming decked a bailiff with her purse. While noting that her ”care and affection sustained [Marx], prolonged his life, and helped to keep him at home,” the judge ruled that Fleming had to pay $221,000 to the Bank of America, executor of the estate. The bank claimed Fleming had bilked that amount from Groucho before his death.
Today, Fleming still lives in California. She is single and unemployed. According to an assistant to her Century City, Calif., attorney, Robert Finkelstein, Fleming was recently hospitalized for an un-disclosed illness and will not speak to the press.
Time Capsule: May 15, 1977
Gail Sheehy’s Passages climbed to the top of the nonfiction best-seller list, and Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours was the No. 1 album. Laverne and Shirley was TV’s most-watched show, while Annie Hall broke new comedy (and fashion) ground at the movies.