Childhood and pre-Hollywood career
The Marx family grew up in the Yorkville neighbourhood of the Upper
East Side (E 93rd Street) of New York City, in a small Jewish neighborhood
sandwiched between Irish-German and Italian neighborhoods. Groucho's
parents were Minnie Schoenberg Marx and Sam Marx (called "Frenchie"
throughout his life).
Minnie's brother was Al Schoenberg, who shortened
his name to Al Shean when he went into show business. He was half
of Gallagher and Shean, a noted vaudeville act of the early 20th
century. According to Groucho, when Shean visited he would throw
the local waifs a few coins so that when he knocked at the door
he would be surrounded by child-like adoring fans. Marx and his
brothers respected his opinions and asked him on several occasions
to write some material for them.
Minnie Marx did not have an entertainment industry
career, but she had intense ambition for her sons to go on the stage
like their uncle. While pushing her eldest son Leonard (Chico Marx)
in piano lessons, she found that Julius had a pleasant soprano voice
and the ability to remain on key. Even though Julius's early career
goal was to become a doctor, the family's need for income forced
Julius out of school at the age of twelve. By that time, Julius
had become a voracious reader, particularly fond of Horatio Alger.
Throughout the rest of his life, Marx would overcome his lack of
formal education by becoming very well-read.
After a few comically unsuccessful stabs at entry-level
office work and other jobs suitable for adolescents, Julius took
to the stage as a boy singer in 1905. Though he reputedly claimed
that in the world of vaudeville, he enjoyed only "modest success"
but was "hopelessly average," it was merely a wisecrack.
By 1909, Minnie Marx successfully managed to assemble her sons into
a low-quality vaudeville singing group. They were billing themselves
as 'The Four Nightingales', Julius, Milton (Gummo Marx), Adolph
(Harpo Marx) (later changed to Arthur), and another boy singer,
Lou Levy, traveled the U.S. vaudeville circuits to little fanfare.
After exhausting their prospects in the East, the family moved to
La Grange, Illinois to play the Midwest.
After a particularly dispiriting performance in
Nacogdoches, Texas, Julius, Milton, and Arthur began cracking jokes
onstage for their own amusement. Much to their surprise, the audience
liked them better as comedians than singers. They modified the then-popular
Gus Edwards comedy skit "School Days" and renamed it "Fun
In Hi Skule". The Marx Brothers would perform variations on
this routine for the next seven years.
For a time in vaudeville all the brothers performed
using ethnic accents. Leonard Marx, the oldest Marx brother, developed
the Italian accent he used as Chico to convince some roving bullies
that he was Italian, not Jewish. Julius Marx's character from "Fun
In Hi Skule" was an ethnic German, so Julius played him with
a German accent. However, after the sinking of the RMS Lusitania
in 1915, public anti-German sentiment was widespread, and Marx's
German character was booed, so he quickly dropped the accent and
developed the fast-talking wise-guy character he would make famous.
The Marx Brothers became the biggest comedic stars
of the Palace Theatre, which billed itself as the "Valhalla
of Vaudeville". Brother Chico's deal-making skills resulted
in three hit plays on Broadway. No comedy routine had ever infected
the hallowed Broadway circuit, but reports are unanimous that the
Broadway audiences were just as convulsed with laughter as the vaudeville
ones had been. The Marx Brothers were now more than a vaudeville
sensation; they were a Broadway sensation.
All of this predated their Hollywood career. By
the time the Marxes made their first movie, they were major stars
with sharply honed skills, and when Groucho was relaunched to stardom
on You Bet Your Life, he had already been performing successfully
for half a century.
Groucho is the first on the left.Marx developed a routine as a wise-cracking
hustler with a distinctive chicken-walking lope, an exaggerated
greasepaint moustache and eyebrows, and an ever-present cigar, improvising
insults to stuffy dowagers (often played by Margaret Dumont) and
anyone else who stood in his way. As the Marx Brothers, his brothers
and he starred in a series of extraordinarily popular stage shows
In the 1930s and 1940s, Marx also worked as a radio
comedian and show host. One of his earliest stints was in a short-lived
series in 1932 entitled Flywheel, Shyster, and Flywheel, co-starring
Chico, who was the only one of his brothers also willing to appear
on the show. Most of the scripts and discs were subsequently destroyed,
turning up only in 1988 in the Library of Congress.
In 1947, Marx was chosen to host a radio quiz program
entitled You Bet Your Life broadcast by ABC and then CBS, before
moving over to NBC television in 1950. Filmed before a live audience,
the television show consisted of Marx interviewing the contestants
and ad libbing jokes, before playing a brief quiz. The show was
responsible for the phrases "Say the secret woid [word] and
divide $100" (that is, each contestant would get $50); and
"Who's buried in Grant's Tomb?" or "What color is
the White House?" (asked when Marx felt sorry for a contestant
who had not won anything). It ran for eleven years on television.
One quip from Marx concerned his response to Sam
Wood, the director of the classic film A Night at the Opera. Wood
was furious with the Marx Brothers' ad-libs and antics on the set
and yelled to all in disgust that he "cannot make actors out
of clay." Without missing a beat, Groucho responded, "Nor
can you make a director out of Wood."
A widely reported, but likely apocryphal, ad-lib
is reportedly a response to a contestant who had over a dozen children.
In response to Marx asking why they had so many children, the contestant
is said to have replied either "I love children." or "I
love my husband.", to which Marx responded, "I love my
cigar too, but I take it out of my mouth once in a while."
Hector Arce inserted the claim into Marx's memoir The Secret Word
Is Groucho but Marx himself denied that it ever happened.
Throughout his career he introduced a number of
memorable songs in films, including "Hooray for Captain Spaulding",
"Whatever It Is, I'm Against It", "Hello, I Must
Be Going", "Everyone Says I Love You" and "Lydia
the Tattooed Lady". Frank Sinatra, who once quipped that the
only thing he could do better than Marx was sing, made a film with
Marx and Jane Russell in 1951 entitled Double Dynamite.
Moustache, eyebrows and walk
As much as Harpo and Chico were difficult to recognize
without their wigs and costumes, it was almost impossible to recognize
Groucho without his trademark glasses, or fake eyebrows and moustache.
The greasepaint moustache and eyebrows originated
spontaneously prior to a vaudeville performance when he did not
have time to apply the pasted-on moustache he had been using (or,
according to his autobiography, simply did not enjoy the removal
of the moustache every night because of the effects of tearing an
adhesive bandage off the same patch of skin every night). After
applying the greasepaint moustache, a quick glance in the mirror
revealed his natural hair eyebrows were too undertoned and did not
match the rest of his face, so Marx added the greasepaint to his
eyebrows and headed for the stage. The absurdity of the greasepaint
was never discussed on-screen, but in a famous scene in Duck Soup,
where both Chico and Harpo are disguising themselves as Groucho,
they are briefly seen applying the greasepaint, implicitly answering
any question a viewer might have had about where he got his moustache
Marx was asked to do the greasepaint moustache once
more for "You Bet Your Life," but refused, opting instead
to grow a real one, which he wore for the rest of his life.
The exaggerated walk, with one hand on the small
of his back and his torso bent almost 90 degrees at the waist was
a spoof of a fad from the 1880s and 1890s. Then, fashionable young
men of the upper classes would affect a walk with their right hand
held fast to the base of their spines, and with a slight lean forward
at the waist and a very slight twist toward the right with the left
shoulder, allowing the left hand to swing free with the gait. Edmund
Morris, in his biography of President Roosevelt entitled "The
Rise of Theodore Roosevelt" describes a young TR, newly elected
to the State Assembly, walking into the House Chamber for the first
time in this trendy, affected gait, somewhat to the amusement of
the older and more rural Members who were present. Groucho exaggerated
this fad to a marked degree, and the comedy effect was enhanced
by how out of date the fashion was by the 1920s and 30s.[citation
He did paint the old character moustache over his
real one on a few rare performing occasions, including a TV sketch
with Jackie Gleason on the latter's variety show in the 1960s (in
which they performed a variation on the song "Positively Mr.
Gallagher, Absolutely Mr. Shean," written by Marx's uncle Al
Shean) and the 1968 Otto Preminger film Skidoo. In his 70s at the
time, Marx remarked on his appearance: "I looked like I was
embalmed." He played a mob boss called "God" and,
according to Marx, "both my performance and the film were God-awful!".
Marx was married three times, all of which ended in divorce. His
first wife was chorus girl Ruth Johnson (married 4 February 1920,
divorced 15 July 1942). He was 30 and she 19 at the time of their
wedding. The couple had two children, Arthur and Miriam. His second
wife was Kay Marvis (married 24 February 1945, divorced 12 May 1951),
former wife of Leo Gorcey. Groucho was 55 and Kay 24 at the time
of their marriage. They had a daughter, Melinda. His third wife
was actress Eden Hartford (married 17 July 1954, divorced 4 December
1969). She was 20 when she married the 64 year old Groucho.
Often was the case, for instance, when the Marxes
would arrive at a restaurant and be greeted by an interminable wait.
"Just tell the maître d' who we are," his wife would
nag. (In his pre-moustache days, he was rarely recognized in public.)
Groucho would say, "OK, OK. Good evening, sir. My name is Jones.
This is Mrs. Jones, and here are all the little Joneses." Now
his wife would be furious and insist that he tell the maître
d' the truth. "Oh, all right," said Groucho. "My
name is Smith. This is Mrs. Smith, and here are all the little Smiths."
Similar anecdotes are corroborated by Groucho's
friends, not one of whom went without being publicly embarrassed
by Groucho on at least one occasion. Once, at a restaurant (the
most common location of Groucho's antics), a fan came up to him
and said, "Excuse me, but aren't you Groucho Marx?" "Yes,"
Groucho answered annoyedly. "Oh, I'm your biggest fan! Could
I ask you a favor?" the man asked. "Sure, what is it?"
asked the even-more annoyed Groucho. "See my wife sitting over
there? She's an even bigger fan of yours than I am! Would you be
willing to insult her?" Groucho replied, "Sir, if my wife
looked like that, I wouldn't need any help thinking of insults."
Also, Groucho's son, Arthur, published a brief account of an incident
that occurred when Arthur was a child. The family was going through
airport customs and, while filling out a form, Groucho listed his
name as "Julius Henry Marx" and his occupation as "smuggler".
Thereafter, chaos ensued.
Later in life, Groucho would sometimes note to talk-show
hosts, not entirely jokingly, that he was unable to actually insult
anyone, because the target of his comment assumed it was a Groucho-esque
joke and would laugh.
Off-stage, Groucho was a voracious reader. He often
pointed out that he had only a grammar school education, and he
compensated for this by reading everything he got his hands on.
His knowledge of literature from all eras was extraordinary. Typical
of his achievements, this one was discussed only demurely by Groucho
himself: "I think TV is very educational," he once said.
"Every time someone turns on a TV, I go in the other room and
read." His friend Dick Cavett, speaking of Groucho and referencing
a certain philosopher's writing, said "I, with my college education,
had merely heard of the book, but Groucho had actually read it."
Cavett also remarked that Groucho could never end a letter; there
was always at least one postscript. In one letter he recalls, Groucho
wrote "P.S. Did you ever notice that Peter O'Toole has a double-phallic
Despite this lack of formal education, he wrote
many books, including his autobiography, Groucho and Me (1959) (Da
Capo Press, 1995, ISBN 0-306-80666-5), and Memoirs of a Mangy Lover
(1963) (Da Capo Press, 2002, ISBN 0-306-81104-9). And he was personal
friends with such literary figures as T. S. Eliot and Carl Sandburg.
Much of his personal correspondence with those and other figures
is featured in the book The Groucho Letters (1967) with an introduction
and commentary on the letters written by Groucho, who donated his
letters to the Library of Congress.
You Bet Your Life
Groucho's radio life hadn't been as successful as his life on stage
and in film, though historians such as Gerald Nachman and Michael
Barson suggest that, in the case of the single-season Flywheel,
Shyster, and Flywheel (1932), the failure may have been a combination
of a poor time slot and the Marx Brothers' returning to Hollywood
to make another film.
In the mid 1940s, during a depressing lull in his
career (his radio show Pabst Blue Ribbon Town had failed to hold
on, and the Marx Brothers looked finished as film performers), Groucho
was scheduled to appear on a radio show with Bob Hope. Annoyed that
he was made to wait in the waiting room for 40 minutes, Groucho
went on the air in a foul mood. Hope started by saying, "Why,
it's Groucho Marx, ladies and gentlemen. (applause) Groucho, what
brings you here from the hot desert?" Groucho retorted, "Hot
desert my foot, I've been standing in the cold waiting room for
40 minutes." Groucho continued to ignore the script, and although
Hope was a formidable ad-libber in his own right, he couldn't begin
to keep up with Groucho, who lengthened the scene well beyond its
allotted time slot with a veritable onslaught of improvised wisecracks.
Listening in on the show was producer John Guedel,
who got a brainstorm. He approached Groucho about doing a quiz show.
"A quiz show? Only actors who are completely washed up resort
to a quiz show." Undeterred, Guedel explained that the quiz
would be only a backdrop for Groucho's interviews of people, and
the storm of ad-libbing that they would elicit. Groucho said, "Well,
I've had no success in radio, and I can't hold on to a sponsor.
At this point I'll try anything."
You Bet Your Life premiered in October 1947 on radio
on ABC and then on CBS and finally NBC and ran until May 1961 --
on radio only 1947-1950, on both radio and television 1950-1956,
and on television only 1956-1961. The show was an utter sensation,
one of the most popular in the history of radio and television.
With one of the best announcers and, as it turns out, straight men
in the business, George Fenneman, as his faithful foil, Groucho
slayed his audiences with extraordinary improvised conversation,
usually with the most ordinary of guests.
Groucho's competitors became so livid by the comedian's unexpected
and colossal success that they circulated rumors that You Bet Your
Life was completely scripted and Groucho wasn't ad-libbing at all.
They felt vindicated when a photo surfaced, taken from backstage,
showing Groucho looking at a transparent screen.
The critical consensus is that while some of Groucho's
jokes were either planned or semi-scripted, most were ad-libbed.
Admittedly, the staff did contain two writers who would contribute
a few jokes. Nonetheless, the truth is that the scripting was not
only minimal, but also more for the contestants' benefit. Groucho
never once had a contestant on the show that he'd met previously,
except for the occasional celebrity guest. The staff thus fed Groucho
the questions they thought he should ask these unfamiliar people,
but Groucho himself never knew what the answers would be.[citation
By the time You Bet Your Life debuted on TV on 5 October 1950, Groucho
had grown a real mustache (which he had already sported earlier,
in the 1950 film Love Happy), the lack of which had earlier been
an effective means of hiding himself from fans.
During a tour of Germany in 1958, Marx, accompanied
by his then wife, Eden, his daughter, Judith and Robert Dwan, climbed
a pile of rubble that marked the site of Adolf Hitler's bunker,
the site of Hitler's death, and performed a two minute charleston.
Another TV show hosted by Groucho, Tell It To Groucho,
premiered 11 January 1962 on CBS, but only lasted five months. On
1 October 1962, Groucho, after acting as occasional guest host of
The Tonight Show during the six-month interval between Jack Paar
and Johnny Carson, introduced Carson as the new host.
In 1965, Groucho did a weekly show for British TV
titled Groucho which was poorly received and only lasted 11 weeks.
He appeared as God in the movie Skidoo (1968), co-starring Jackie
Gleason and Carol Channing and directed by Otto Preminger. The film
got almost universally negative reviews. Four years later came Groucho's
last theatrical film appearance; a brief, uncredited cameo in Michael
Ritchie's The Candidate (1972). As a side note, writer Paul Krassner
published a story in the February 1981 issue of High Times, relating
how Groucho Marx prepared for his role in the LSD-related movie
by taking a dose of the drug in Krassner's company, and had a moving,
largely pleasant experience.
In the early 1970s, largely at the behest of his
companion Erin Fleming, Groucho made a comeback of sorts doing a
live one-man show, including one recorded at Carnegie Hall in 1972
and released as a double album, An Evening with Groucho, on A&M
Records. He also made an appearance on a short-lived variety show
hosted by Bill Cosby, who idolized Groucho, in 1973. He also developed
friendships with rock star Alice Cooper (the two were photographed
together for Rolling Stone Magazine), and television host Dick Cavett,
becoming a frequent guest on Cavett's late-night talk show. He met
and befriended Elton John when the British singer was staying in
California in 1972, insisting on calling him "John Elton"
because "Elton John" was the wrong way around. According
to writer Philip Norman, Groucho jokingly pointed his index fingers
at Elton John as if holding a pair of six-shooters. Elton John put
up his hands and said, "Don't shoot me, I'm only the piano
player," so naming the album he had just completed. Elton John
accompanied Groucho and the family hosting him in California to
a performance of Jesus Christ Superstar, where Groucho offered two
witticisms. As the lights went down in the theater, Groucho called
out, "Does it have a happy ending?" During the Crucifixion
scene, he declared, "This is sure to offend the Jews."
Groucho's previous works once again became popular
and were accompanied by new books of interviews and other transcribed
conversations by Richard J. Anobile and Charlotte Chandler. He had
become quite frail by this time and his last few years were accompanied
by descent into senility and a controversy over a companionship
he had developed with Erin Fleming, which consequently raised disputes
over his estate.
He also accepted an honorary Academy Award in 1974,
his final major public appearance, at which he took a bow for all
the Marx Brothers. While lucid, his frailty was evident.
Marx's children, particularly his son Arthur, felt strongly that
Fleming was pushing his weak father beyond his physical and mental
limits. Writer Mark Evanier concurs with this. Marx was hospitalized
for pneumonia on June 22, 1977 and died on August 19, 1977 at Cedar
Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.
He was cremated, and the ashes were interred in
the Eden Memorial Park Cemetery in Mission Hills, Los Angeles, California.
Aged 86 at death, Groucho lived the longest out of all the Marx
Brothers and was survived only by younger brother Zeppo, who outlived
him by two years. His death only received passing attention, due
to the fact that it occurred three days after that of Elvis Presley.
In an interview, he jokingly suggested his epitaph read "Excuse
me, I can't stand up", but his mausoleum marker bears only
his stage name, a Star of David, and the years of his birth and
Many Groucho-like characters and Groucho references
have appeared in popular culture, some long after his death and
even aimed at audiences who would never have seen a Marx Brothers
movie, providing a testament to the character's lasting appeal.
Groucho's glasses, nose, and moustache have become icons of comedy—to
this day, glasses with fake noses and moustaches (referred to as
"Groucho glasses," "nose-glasses," and other
names) resembling Groucho are still sold by novelty and costume
Actor Frank Ferrante has performed as Groucho Marx
for several years under rights granted by the Marx family in a one-man
show entitled "An Evening With Groucho" done in live theater
throughout the United States. With piano accompaniment, Ferrante
takes the audience from Marx' early years in Vaudeville to his final
days, incorporating songs from several Marx Brothers movies. Gabe
Kaplan has appeared in a filmed version.
Alan Alda often vamped as Groucho on M*A*S*H and
a minor semi-recurring character in the series (played by Loudon
Wainwright III) was named Captain Calvin Spalding in a nod towards
Groucho's character in Animal Crackers, Captain Geoffrey T. Spaulding.
Rob Zombie also uses several Groucho Marx character names for main
characters in his movies, House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil's
Two of Queen's albums, A Night at the Opera (1975)
and A Day at the Races (1976) are named after two of the Marx Brothers'
films. The band had to ask permission for this. Groucho himself
wrote to the band with his blessing, adding that his next movie
would be called 'The Greatest Hits Of The Rolling Stones'.
Writer/artist Dave Sim revived Groucho as Lord Julius,
the smooth-talking "Grandlord" of the fictional city-state
of Palnu in Sim's epic 300-issue comic book Cerebus.
Groucho is referenced in the comic Dylan Dog by
Tiziano Sclavi, via an impersonator who, suffering from memory loss,
believes himself to be the real Groucho Marx. He is Dylan's sidekick
on his supernatural-themed adventures.
On the famous Hollywood Sign in California, one
of the "O"s is dedicated to Groucho Marx. Alice Cooper
contributed over $27,000 to remodel the sign, in memory of his friend
In a tribute to Groucho, the BBC remade the radio
sitcom Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel, with contemporary actors
playing the parts of the original cast. The series was repeated
on digital radio station BBC7.
Scottish playwright Louise Oliver wrote a play named
"Waiting For Groucho" about Chico and Harpo Marx waiting
for Groucho to turn up to the filming of their last project together.
This was performed by Glasgow theatre company Rhymes with Purple
Productions at the Edinburgh Fringe and in Glasgow and Hamilton
Marx and Lennon
The liberal political views of Groucho Marx and singer John Lennon
were not lost on satirists, who capitalized on the coincidence of
their surnames' similarity to Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin:
A book called 'Marx & Lennon: The Parallel Sayings'
(ISBN 978-1401308094) was published in 2005. As the title implies,
it recorded the parallel sayings between Groucho Marx and John Lennon.
In 1994 the Republic of Abkhazia (an unrecognized state that is
officially part of Georgia) issued two postage stamps featuring
John Lennon and Groucho Marx, spoofing Abkhazia's communist past.
The cover art for the Firesign Theatre's 1969 album How Can You
Be in Two Places at Once When You're Not Anywhere at All featured
a Communist icon banner with pictures of the two enjoining "All
Hail Marx and Lennon" printed in pseudo-Cyrillic lettering.
In his book It All Started With Columbus, first printed in the mid-1950s,
humorist Richard Armour discussed Karl Marx and referred to him
as "the funniest of the Marx Brothers".
In the comedy role-playing game Paranoia, the Communist faction
carries pictures of Groucho Marx and sings John Lennon songs because
of a lack of knowledge of communism itself.
Some members of the Parti Rhinocéros call themselves Marxist-Lennonist,
(A parody of the Marxist-Leninist Party of Canada), in reference
to Groucho Marx and John Lennon.
Quotations about Groucho Marx
Groucho Marx"Groucho Marx was the best comedian this country
ever produced. [...] He is simply unique in the same way that Picasso
or Stravinsky are." —Woody Allen
A famous French witticism (often attributed to Jean-Luc Godard)
was, Je suis Marxiste, tendance Groucho, that is, "I'm a Marxist
of the Groucho variety". This line was notably heard in the
1972 comedy by Claude Lelouch "L'aventure c'est l'aventure",
(starring Lino Ventura, Aldo Maccione, Jacques Brel, Johnny Hallyday
and Charles Denner) where the would-be heroes get involved with
a Central American guerilla; it spread to other nations as well
in the 1960s and 1970s. In the United States, the Youth International
Party, a 1960s-1970s ad-hoc political group of Anarcho-Marxists
known for street theatre and pranks, were denounced in a Communist
newspaper editorial as "Groucho Marxists".