Photo by Son of Groucho
After work, my father usually went to the racetrack or played poker with his pals in the Ansonia Hotel, a few blocks from our pre-war apartment on West 76th Street, so my mother and I were surprised to see him home early one evening. It didn’t take him long to tell us why. “Turn on the television!” he said, excitedly, glancing at his watch before settling on the couch. “Ya gonna see yer sister on Groucho Marx!” he said to me.
I turned it on. My father had mentioned my half-sister, Sylvia, many times over the years. When he was away on “trips”–which meant he was running from Mafia goons or the IRS–she was the one he always stayed with in L.A. Or so he said. Many years later, I discovered this was a lie. He never stayed with her. Never.
It was 1957. My father was sixty-one. I was twelve.
The money Groucho Marx gave away on his program, You Bet Your Life, was meager in this era of big money quiz shows. The guests were mostly foils for his wit. That night while I listened to Groucho’s jokes, waiting for him to interview Sylvia Baron, who was one of the contestants, I didn’t know what to expect.
My first thought when she walked on stage was: She can’t be my half-sister! I glanced at my father who was smiling proudly, nodding as he watched her speak. NO! I thought. She’s not his daughter!
It’s true I wanted to be my father’s only daughter. But that was just part of my shock. How can she be so old? I wondered. I’d been told she was only four years younger than my mother who was forty-five. Though I knew she was the child of his first marriage, I never expected her to look so old! Sylvia’s age would’ve been enough to shock me. But she was also fat! And I mean fat! Worse, on our black and white TV, I could see her dark roots; her hair was dyed blonde. And the heavy make-up she wore! She even had a heart-shaped lip she’d drawn way above her lip line.
“So, Sylvia, are you married?” Groucho asked, puffing on his cigar.
“Yes,” she said. “I have two children, Richard and Marsha.”
She has a family! I thought in amazement.
Groucho’s trademark brows went up and down briskly and he made a few jokes–they weren’t funny–before he asked, “How old are your children?”
I heard a hint of Brooklyn in her voice when she said her son was eleven. Marsha, however, was fifteen! How can my half-sister have a daughter three years older than me? I glanced at my father. He didn’t seem surprised.
“So what do you do, Sylvia?” Groucho asked between jokes.
“I cater parties,” she said.
“And who are your clients?” he asked.
She mentioned a bunch of names. The only ones I recall are Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, and Dean Martin.
I have a half-sister who caters parties for Hollywood stars! I thought. More shock. I’d seen her business card. My father had shown it to me but it didn’t register until I saw her on Groucho. Parties by Sylvia, the card said in swirling pink script.
My father, who listened intently, didn’t look the least bit upset when she answered every question wrong. He was, in fact, still smiling proudly. She’s not even smart! How can my father be her father? I wondered. I looked at him. He suddenly seemed like a stranger. I thought, Maybe he’s not my father after all.
Roberta Allen is the author of eight books and a visual artist who has exhibited worldwide, with work in the collection of The Met. Allen has just completed a memoir about her
family called DIRTY GIRL. She also teaches Micro Memoirs at The New School and conducts private writing workshops. Her website is robertaallen.com.