Grock the Clown

Grock_1928Or Grock: Où, ça? [trans.: How’s that?]
(J’ai une idée.) [trans.: I have an idea.]
Grock: Où, ça’?

The Cantos of Ezra Pound, LXXXVII 589

I learned of Grock the Clown through the back door—Luciano Berio’s Sequenza V. Berio wrote of Sequenza V, “What weaves its way in and out of Sequenza V is the memory of Grock (Adriano Wettach), the last of the great clowns.” Sequenza V is an “homage to Grock and to the English version of his warum – why – which is the generative nucleus of the piece.” [citation]

Prompted by shoreacre’s intriguing comment in an earlier post, I wanted to know more about the “why.” A Companion to the Cantos of Ezra Pound provided a clue in an explanatory note to Cantos LXXXVII. “The French dialog is typical of the non-sequiturs [Grock] used with his straight-man partner.” [A Companion to the Cantos of Ezra Pound, Volume 2 490] I nonetheless requested a copy of Grock, King of Clowns, Grock’s memoir, from interlibrary loan to see what else I could find out.

Grock opens the book with a brief précis:

I am a Swiss and belong to three countries. I speak German and feel I am German; I speak French and feel I am French; I speak Italian and feel I am Italian.

And I have three passions, too: motoring, boxing, and billiards . . .

I have been a clown too. Even now, in private life I can’t resist playing the clown. . . . it amuses me to pull people’s legs and make them laugh. I like to ask my famous “Why?” when it is least expected. . . .

Try it for yourself. Those puzzled faces will be a sheer delight.

But take my advice: don’t ask why when why is indicated. [Grock 9]

Grock once had a partner who wore “an outsize moustache” that Grock couldn’t abide. When the fellow refused to cut it off himself, Grock snuck up behind him and cut half of it off, thus forcing his partner finally to remove the other half. (Grock engineered things to assure all ended happily.) [Grock 125-126] Grock was also an astute businessman. This may seem like a Grockian non sequitur, but it’s actually not.

Grock was once informed by the Swiss Consulate that, as a “Swiss subject living abroad and excused military service,” his tax assessment had doubled. Grock commented on this, “I don’t know how it may affect others, but I feel the same about taxes as I do about moustaches. I cannot tolerate either.” [Grock 139]

Now, this may well be a non sequitur—Grock doesn’t indicate any connection between his aversion to mustaches and the story told next (and he was friends with Charlie Chaplin)—but in 1934, while performing in Munich, his producer rushed into Grock’s dressing room to announce that “Hitler has taken box seats for fifty—himself, Goebbels and the party chiefs.” To which Grock replied, “Why?” His producer “gave a start before he ran out again laughing.” [Grock 178]

At the interval, Goebbels summoned Grock to meet Hitler.

. . . the whole house craned their necks to watch Goebbels and me make our way along. It was indeed no ordinary sight.

First the little Minister for Propaganda, in brown uniform and swastika arm-band, taut with pent-up energy and the effort of disguising his limp. I suddenly saw him as a sinister marionette, devoid of human feeling. His jerky movements when, for example, he gave the so-called German salute, and the deliberately intense, piercing look of his large brown eyes, fixed on the distance beyond (or was it through?) his fellow-men, spread a clammy chill abroad of which I and, unless I am mistaken, the public was uncomfortably aware.

And behind him walked I, Grock, the clown, in my ample trousers and boat-like shoes. I gave a look at my public. Yes, even now, it was my public; and I gave them a smile; and even if they did not reply with a “Heil, Grock!” the relief and pleasure which lit up their faces was owing to me. I think I felt very proud at that moment, and very happy. . . .

[I]n Indian file we ascended to the first tier where Hitler and his guests were sitting, a phalanx of brown uniforms and laced shoulder straps. They all stood up as though at the word of command, and Hitler, whom I at once recognized, came forward to greet me.

“Herr Grock, this is the thirteenth time I have been to see you,” he said as he held out his hand, “and it will not, I hope, be the last.”

“Why?” I let slip unawares. [Grock 179]


Listening/Watching List

Grock, son Grand Numero (1931)

Go to 2:55 for conversation in various languages. At 3:10, upon learning that his partner, in this case Max van Embden, is speaking English, Grock asks, “Pourquoi?” (“Why” in English). Another “trademark” phrase, at about 3:20, is “sans blague” (roughly “no kidding,” though Grock felt there wasn’t an English equivalent). [Grock 142] At 3:26, in an effort to determine Grock’s nationality, Embden asks, “Qu’est-ce que vous êtes?” (roughly, “what are you?”). Grock answers, “Catholique.” And all of this with a beatific smile on his face.

Go to 18:39 for a musical routine between Embden and Grock that requires no translation, and if you’re very short on time, go directly to 22:00-24:16.

Luciano Berio’s Sequenza V (Listening to the Berio on the heels of the Grock musical routine makes for a fascinating comparison.)

What Happened to Grock?


Credits: The images in the post may be found here and here. The quotations may be found at the sources linked and otherwise indicated in the text.


10 thoughts on “Grock the Clown

  1. Friko

    Ah, Grock.
    It’s hardly possible, but I have the distinct impression that at some time in my childhood I saw/heard him perform. Perhaps in a film, or perhaps it was the radio? I no longer know for certain. It could, of course, just be that he was famous enough to be referred to and shown in the fifties still.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Friko: It seems possible, at least on film or radio. His last live performance was in Hamburg in 1954. I was just reminded, in looking that up, that he had been at one point “the most highly paid entertainer in the world”!

  2. Mark Kerstetter

    He’s freaky looking in today’s hi-def world–definitely a product of the pre-cinema stage. It seems inconceivable that Jack Benny wasn’t inspired by him, but boy, good timing and rhythm and musicianship.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Mark: I had the same thought about Jack Benny, though I haven’t been able to chase down anything beyond the reference on the Cantos Companion Guide noting that he originated the routine “developed later by Jack Benny and Victor Borge . . .”. I agree with you completely about his timing, rhythm, and musicianship–and the sense of being sent back to a different world when watching him. I’m glad there was at least some footage available that displayed some of his routines so we could get a sense.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Brian: Doesn’t it ever? Of course what I’ve noted here is just a tiny glimpse of what he writes about in the memoir. It’s a breezy read, but he covers a lot of ground, and it certainly provides a window into that lost world.

  3. shoreacres

    It’s intriguing to think there might have been a tangential connection between Grock and Robert Heinlein, the science fiction writer. In “Stranger in a Strange Land,” Heinlein coined the term “grok” to indicate how two separate things (in the book, water and Martians) could become “identical in experiences, goals, history, and purpose.”

    In time, hackers picked up the word. In The Jargon File, the entry for “grok” says, “When you claim to ‘grok’ some knowledge or technique, you are asserting that you have not merely learned it in a detached, instrumental way but that it has become part of you, part of your identity.”

    “For example, to say that you “know” Lisp is simply to assert that you can code in it if necessary — but to say you “grok” LISP is to claim that you have deeply entered the world-view and spirit of the language…”

    That understanding of grokking certainly has the flavor of Grock’s comment that, “I speak German and feel I am German; I speak French and feel I am French; I speak Italian and feel I am Italian,” as well as his assertion that “”The genius of clowning is transforming the little, everyday annoyances… into something strange and terrific…”

    Maybe Heinlein was doing some clowning around of his own. :-)

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      shoreacres: Well, now, that’s an intriguing thought! I see Heinlein coined the term in 1961, so the timing could make sense (Grock died in 1959), even if only as a subliminal prompt to come up with the term “grok.” One thing against it was that Grock made only one tour to the US, and by his lights, it wasn’t a success, so I don’t know how much of a presence he had here in the US.

      Here’s something that may amuse you, out of my brief attempt to see if any correlation might show up: both “grock” and “grok” appear in this book of American slang:

  4. David N

    I keep wanting to get through the half-hour sequence since it’s clearly through composed and work and life keep crashing in. Hence the delayed response. Promise I will watch it all, but in the meantime a) the smile is as scary-insincere as a clown’s can be (clowns are scary, of course) and b) the violin playing is amazing. And I like what you quote from him in real life.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: Well, you’ve been a busy lad, no question! I did find the video of him performing fascinating, and even without sufficient French, I could get the gist. It is amazing, isn’t it, what he draws out of that tiny violin. He was incredibly accomplished, and a shrewd businessman to boot. I wonder who could possibly be the equivalent today.

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