The odds are in your favor that you’ve never read a memoir quite like St. Sukie de la Croix’s The Memoir of a Groucho Marxist (Rattling Good Yarns, 2018). With a precision eye, de la Croix takes aim at post-World War II England, his family, the education system, religion, bullies, and far more things than you might imagine could be included in a 118-page book. Known for his cutting wit and unique observations, de la Croix does not disappoint here, providing the reader with countless opportunities to laugh out loud. The best part is that he’s in on the joke, painting as bleak a picture as you’ve seen while never failing to find the humor in practically every unbelievable situation. I spoke with de la Croix about the book at the time of its publication in autumn 2018.
“This book is about LGBT children, and other kids, who don’t fit in. It’s about how I, as an isolated sissy boy, ran away and joined the circus.”
Gregg Shapiro: You relocated to California in 2014. How has your writing evolved since you moved from Chicago to Palm Springs?
St. Sukie de la Croix: I love Chicago, but the city is all about noise. Great when you’re young, but when you’re old—not so much. I find the desert and mountains very calming, perfect for what I’m writing at this point in my life. I’m certainly writing more. I’m happier, too. More relaxed. Chicago can eat you up and spit you out if you let it. Captain Beefheart lived in the desert, and if it was good enough for him, it’s good enough for me.
How does this latest move compare with your move from Bath, England, to the United States?
I moved to the States in 1991, and it was a culture shock. I came from a town built by the Romans, so I knew hypocausts and the goddess Minerva. No skyscrapers or Mexican restaurants in Bath—not when I was living there. America always fascinated me. I jumped in at Chicago’s deep end and swam as hard as I could. Soon after I arrived, I overheard my husband talking to a friend about Donna Reed and how she always vacuumed the carpet wearing pearls. I was thinking, “Who the hell is Donna Reed?”
In terms of your sources of inspiration, how do the Midford Woods of your childhood (which you write about extensively in The Memoir of a Groucho Marxist) compare to the California desert of your current mature years?
Writing this book, I realized that our childhood never really goes away. We think it was something that happened years ago. It wasn’t. I’m still that little boy running through the woods and talking to fairies. Location makes no difference. Now I talk to hummingbirds, jackrabbits, and ravens. At night I float in my pool and watch the bats flying over like Spitfire airplanes during and after World War II. Here, the fairies live in the palm trees. Anyone who doesn’t believe in fairies is a fool.
At the time of this interview, you have three books to your name. Chicago Whispers is a gay history book, The Blue Spong and the Flight from Mediocrity is a novel, and The Memoir of a Groucho Marxist is a memoir. Which of these three genres would be your favorite, and why?
I can’t say that writing comes easily to me. Chicago Whispers was just a hard slog, and appealed to that stubborn part of me that refuses to give up. Chicago welcomed me, and I wanted to give something back. The Blue Spong and the Flight from Mediocrity was just me relaxing and letting the story flow out of me. Fiction comes easier to me. The Memoir of a Groucho Marxist was an old man trying to make sense of the past. Of course, nothing makes sense. Not really. Nor should it.
As someone who spent a lot of time escaping into books as a child (as you write about in this book), do you think you write because you want to provide a similar outlet for others who need to escape?
No. I don’t really analyze why I do anything. I think there’s a tendency in this country to overthink everything. I’m just sharing what interests me and might interest other people, too. I’m not good at determining how other people view my writing, although I’d like to think my writing inspires people to create something of their own. Chicago Whispers inspired other people to write about the LGBT history of Chicago. I’m proud of that. My writing was once described by a reviewer as “the work of a well-read literary thug.” I’ll take it.
Lewis Carroll is referenced in Groucho Marxist, and his influence can be felt throughout. Carroll was known for his young readership. What would it mean to you for this book to find a place among younger readers?
It would be an honor. Childhood is a wonderful and a terrible time. It’s something we all spend the rest of our lives getting over. If young adults read this book and recognize themselves, that would be a positive thing. I’ve already been getting mail about this. The book seems to have rung a bell.
Karl Marx and Groucho Marx are quoted at the opening of each chapter. Was this something that you always planned on doing, or was it something that occurred during the writing process?
It was planned. They were both thinking men—both intellectuals. Karl Marx is just Groucho Marx with the jokes taken out. I don’t think Karl Marx ever performed in a comedy club—“Three men walk into a bar: a member of the proletariat, a Tsar, and a rabbi . . .” And I don’t think Groucho Marx ever inspired a revolution. [But] it would be fun to make a movie of circus clowns storming the Winter Palace with pitchforks in 1917.
From my perspective, Groucho Marxist is a book about an outsider, written for other outsiders. What do you hope that insiders who read the book might learn from it?
When we’re born, our parents attempt to shape us into something acceptable to the society around them. They do this with religion, politics, etc. Some people are square pegs that can’t fit into a round hole. As for the “insiders,” this book isn’t about them. This book is about LGBT children, and other kids, who don’t fit in. It’s about how I, as an isolated sissy boy, ran away and joined the circus. I don’t know what “insiders” would get from this book. I don’t know any.
You write about your mother’s mental illness with gob-smacking descriptions, such as calling it the “festering boil of schizophrenia,” and an “on-again, off-again mercurial relationship with reality,” and saying she “knelt before the Altar of Lunacy.” Can you say something about the challenges of writing about the subject of mental illness?
I was more understanding and forgiving of her at the end of the book than I was at the beginning. I’ve dedicated the book to “My MOTHER, the woman who drove me insane.” If she had been a stranger I met in a bar, we would have had a gay old time. However, her job was to bring up a young child. She was not qualified for that job. Having said that, this book is not about casting blame. This book is a thank-you to her for bringing me up to think outside the box. Any creative gifts I have are because of my mother. No, it wasn’t a challenge dealing with these sensitive issues, because the woman was f–king nuts.
What do you think your parents, Doreen and Stanley, would think of the way that they are depicted in Groucho Marxist?
No idea. They’ve both passed away, so there’s no point thinking about it. In my writing, I’ve never been influenced by other people’s opinions. My mother was alive when I started writing this book. What would they think? Let me speculate. My mother would have a meltdown [and] whip up some mega-drama—nobody did it like she did it. My father would have beaten the crap out of me.
As a parent yourself, do you know if your daughter has read the book, and if so, what she thinks of it?
I don’t think Lucy has read the book yet, but she will. When my mother died, I flew back to England to sort everything out. My daughter and I were at the funeral parlor and the woman said, “Your mother has arranged the funeral so you don’t need to worry about anything, although one thing she didn’t do was pick the music.” My daughter chimed up with, “We were thinking of Meatloaf’s ‘Bat Out of Hell.’” So that will tell you something about the relationship between my daughter and my mother.
Groucho Marxist ends on the morning of your “sweet sixteenth birthday,” although, as you say, “I vowed never to become a teenager, and I didn’t; I became a Groucho Marxist instead.” Have you begun working on the next installment of your memoir, picking up where this book left off?
No I haven’t, but it could happen. I once lived in an anarchist DaDa arts commune for 18 months—that’s got to be worth a book. I’m currently putting the finishing touches on a history book, Out of the Underground: Homosexuals, the Radical Press, and the Rise and Fall of the Gay Liberation Front. Also, artist Roy Alton Wald and I are working on a book called St. Sukie’s Strange Garden of Woodland Creatures. I’ve also completed a novel called The Orange Spong at the Vamp-Art Café, to be published soon.
This article appears in the January 2019 edition of OutSmart magazine.