Wave upon wave of applause filled a circus tent in Hamburg last week as a preposterous, shambling clown, his baggy pants secured by a huge safety pin, his crudely gloved hands the essence of misplaced elegance, finished his turn. Friends and fans had come from as far away as Italy and England to see his act. They stood on their chairs, stomping and cheering. Long after the clown himself had shuffled off, wiping a tear from his dead-white face with a floppy sleeve, the cheers ran on, until at last a loudspeaker blared: "Please, ladies and gentlemen, do not applaud any longer. Grock is not coming back. Grock is never coming back."
The audience of 3,000 found it hard to believe that The Great Grock would ever give up the limelight and the sawdust, but the fact was that at 74, Europe's greatest clown was tired.
As Adrian Wettach, the son of a Swiss watchmaker, he ran away from home at 14 to try his luck in greasepaint. For 60 years he played in circuses and music halls across the length and breadth of Europe and England. On a continent where clowns are universally rated as the top act in any circus, Grock was acclaimed as the greatest of them all. The Queen of Spain once gave premature birth to a royal heir from laughing too hard at his antics. Winston Churchill once urged him to take out British citizenship so that Britons might claim him as their own. Even Charlie Chaplin was once kind enough to concede that Grock was almost as good as he.
Offstage a solemn and fastidious artist who speaks seven languages and boasts an honorary Ph.D., The Great Grock spent hours and years polishing and perfecting the details of his performance. But he never tampered with its essential ingredients, which were as simple and absurd as life itself: a tiny fiddle produced from a monstrous case, the almost miraculous discovery that it is easier to push a stool toward a piano than it is to push a piano toward a stool, his look of ecstatic appreciation at a single sour musical note produced all by himself. In such endless re-enactment of simple and simple-minded truth, everyman could forget his own absurdity and laugh instead at Crock's.
Last week, soon after the curtain fell for the last time on his act, Grock and his devoted Italian wife headed for retirement and a 50-room villa on the Italian Riviera. He had earned his rest without question, "but who," asked one of the million-odd friends he had left behind, "will ever be able to make us laugh like that again?"