This Day in Jewish History / The 'Curly' Third of the Three Stooges Was Born

With his funny sounds and slapstick awkwardness, Curly Howard of the Three Stooges charmed millions. But Curly, born Jerome Lester Horwitz in 1903, found less laughter in his private life.

David Green
David B. Green
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David Green
David B. Green

On this day in 1903, Jerome Lester Horwitz -- better known by his stage name, Curly Howard – was born. Howard was the most beloved member of the American comedy act the Three Stooges, a performer whose screen presence was as laugh-inducing as his real-life biography was pathetically sad.

Curly Howard was not actually part of the original Three Stooges; rather, he was the younger sibling of brothers Samuel “Shemp” and Moses “Moe” Howard (ne Horwitz), who together with Larry Fine (ne Louis Feinberg) started in 1925 as a vaudeville act that performed with headliner Ted Healy. The Howards had been brought up in Brooklyn, the children of working-class Jewish immigrants from Ukraine. When Shemp had an opportunity to go off on a solo career, in 1932, Moe and Larry needed a new partner. Moe’s baby brother Jerome had been hanging around watching their act for years, and he had an obvious stage presence and physical grace. It didn’t take long for Healy to offer him the job as Shemp’s replacement. His condition, however, was that the newest Stooge shave off his thick red hair and handlebar mustache, which inspired his stage name, and thus the rotund Curly appears in all the trio’s productions with a shaved head or his hair closely cropped.

Whereas another fraternal Jewish comedy act of the first half of the 20th century, the Marx Brothers, were known for their clever wordplay and sometimes subtle sophistication, the Stooges were unadulterated slapstick, employing an exaggerated cartoon-like violence on one another that is definitely an acquired taste for viewers.

Curly appeared with them in more than 100 shorts, and 14 feature films. He always portrayed a gentle, almost childlike numbskull of a character who specialized in a variety of funny sounds and gestures that tens of millions of American children to the present day (watching the Stooges in reruns) have grown up imitating. In their 1986 book “The Columbia Comedy Shorts,” writers Ted Okuda and Edward Watz described Curly’s persona as “merriment personified, a creature of frantic action whose only concern was to satisfy his immediate cravings. When confronted with a problem, he would grunt, slap his face, and tackle the obstacle with all the tenacity of a six-year old child.”

Offstage, Curly Howard was known as shy, if not socially withdrawn. He was a heavy drinker, who couldn’t resist either women or dogs, and who spent all the money he earned. His four marriages included one that lasted only three months, and only with his last wife, Valerie Newman, did he find a partner who seemed to care for him. His physical decline began in 1946, forcing him to leave the comedy team the following year. Curly died on January 18, 1952, after a series of strokes and other debilitating illnesses. He was replaced by Shemp, for whom he had taken over 14 years earlier. After Shemp’s death, in 1955, several other comic actors took over the role of the third Stooge, and the trio continued working together through the 1960s. Larry Fine died in 1970 and Moe Howard in 1975.

Curly’s gravestone at the Home of Peace Cemetery, in Los Angeles, is marked with his full Hebrew name: Yehudah Leib ben Shlomo Natan Halevi.

Curly Howard, born Jerome Lester Horwitz in 1903.Credit: Columbia Pictures via Wikimedia

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