October 2, 1890, is the birthdate of Groucho Marx, Jewish-American comic extraordinaire. In a career that spanned three-quarters of the 20th century, part of it with his brothers but much of it alone, Marx wisecracked his way through vaudeville, the Broadway stage, movies, radio and television, only becoming more of a national icon as the decades progressed.
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Julius Henry Marx was born in New York, the third of the five surviving sons of Minnie and Sam Marx. Minnie, originally Miene Schoenberg, was a Jewish immigrant from Dornum, Germany; Sam, born Simon Marrix, was Alsatian-born, a not-very-successful tailor who, according to the family website, refused to work with a tape measure. The Marxes lived on Manhattan’s East 93rd Street.
Minnie had a brother, Al Schoenberg, in vaudeville. She was determined that Groucho (the stage name Julius eventually received) and her other sons – Chico (Leonard), Harpo (Arthur), Gummo (Milton) and Zeppo (Herbert) – would follow their uncle into show business, which she believed would provide the family with a stable income.
Medicine's loss, Nacogdoches' gain
Although Julius had dreams of becoming a doctor, his education ended when he finished elementary school and went to work. Gifted with a fine voice, by 1905, he was traveling with a singing trio called the Leroy Bros. He followed that by performing in various family musical acts, with names like the Four Nightingales, managed by his mother Minnie.
In 1909, the family moved to La Grange, Illinois, outside Chicago, where they began touring the Midwest vaudeville circuit.
In 1914, Groucho, Harpo and Gummo were performing before an audience in Nacogdoches, Texas. So inattentive was the crowd that the boys began hurling insults at them – lines like “Nacogdoches, it’s full of roaches.” Surprisingly, the audience found this amusing, and it is said that it gave the Nightingales the impetus to move from musical performance to comedy.
Groucho in particular, with his greasepaint mustache, fake eyebrows, and omnipresent cigar, became the master of witty comebacks and clever insults.
By 1923, the Marx Brothers – sans Gummo – opened in Philadelphia, in a full-scale play called “I’ll Say She Is.” So successful was it that it moved to Broadway the next year. It was followed, in 1925 and 1928 respectively, by two more stage plays, “The Cocoanuts” and “Animal Crackers,” both of which were subsequently adapted for the screen.
As the Marx Brothers, the boys made another 13 movies together (Zeppo stopped performing in 1933), including “Horse Feathers,” “Duck Soup” and “A Night at the Opera.”
Can't broadcast him live
In 1947, Groucho Marx found new fame, and a second career, as host of the quiz show “You Bet Your Life,” which, between radio and television, ran until 1961. Although the questions were scripted, Groucho’s non-stop quips were nearly all ad-libbed, and often risqué, which is why the show was not broadcast live.
Though he did once host a contestant, Charlotte Story, who had 19 children, it is urban legend that Groucho, when he asked her why so many, and received the explanation, “I love my husband,” responded by saying, “I love my cigar too, but I take it out once in a while.”
Marx was married three times, and had three children. When the youngest, Melinda, the daughter of his second wife, Catherine Gorcey, was told that she could not swim at a friend’s birthday party at a country club because her father was Jewish, Groucho reportedly sent a note to the club saying, “Since my little daughter is only half-Jewish, would it be all right if she went into the pool up to her waist?”
Toward the end of his life, Groucho was cared for by a “secretary-companion,” Erin Fleming, who was more than 50 years his junior. With her encouragement, he took to the stage again, and made a number of public appearances. Fleming also had herself made his principal heir, and during the last months of Marx’s life, his children battled it out with her in a Los Angeles court over an estate estimated to be worth $2.5 million. She lost, and had to repay the estate $470,000.
Groucho Marx died on August 19, 1977, at the age of 86.