Groucho Marx (October 2, 1890 – August 19, 1977)
(You can read more about the Marx Brothers at our sister site, Marx Brothers – Groucho, Chico, Harpo, Zeppo)
Julius Henry Marx, better known to the world as Groucho Marx, was born on October 2, 1890, to Samuel “Frenchie” Marx and his wife, Minnie Schoenberg Marx. The third child, Groucho felt tension with his oldest brother Chico. Chico was technically the second born, as an older brother Manfred had died in infancy. Minnie doted on Chico, the next child, and Groucho became jealous of that affection. The Marx’s home was unusual in several respects. Minnie and Frenchie’s roles were somewhat reversed. Frenchie worked out of the home as an unsuccessful tailor, and Minnie working outside, as a promoter for her brother, the famous vaudeville comedian Al Shean (“Absolutely, Mr. Gallagher” “Positively, Mr. Shean”). They were poor, with numerous family members liable to drop in for dinner, taxing Frenchie’s creativity with his cooking to the limit — but the family was loving, and Groucho grew up feeling loved.
Unlike his brothers Chico and Harpo, Groucho enjoyed school and learning and was a lifelong voracious reader. Groucho was also a gifted singer and enjoyed singing throughout his life. It was that trait that led to his being the first of the Marx Brothers to appear on the stage. With the blessing of his mother Minnie, the ultimate stage mother, the 14-year-old Groucho began performing as a boy soprano with a group called the LeRoy Trio. This was nearly his last stage experience when he was stranded in Colorado while on tour and had to work his way back home.
Groucho was willing to give up performing and pursue a dream of becoming a doctor. However, Minnie organized Groucho, his younger brother Gummo, and a girl named Mabel O’Donnell into a vaudeville act called The Three Nightingales. Before long, Groucho’s older brothers Chico and Harpo joined the act, which eventually metamorphosed into The Six Mascots. Minnie and the boys’ Aunt Hannah rounded out the sextet. The Marx Brothers changed overnight into a comedy group, taking advantage of Minnie’s absence.
After several years of subsistence living as a singing troupe, in one performance away from Minnie’s watchful eye, the Marx Brothers’ singing act broke out into some of the madcap comedy for which they would later become famous. In response to a request for a different act for a second week’s engagement, they started performing a sketch titled “Fun in Hi Skule” (1912) which they had seen performed many times in vaudeville. This musical comedy gave them room to test out their comedic muscles. A later sequel, “Mr. Green’s Reception” (1913), followed afterward, as did “Home Again” (1914), “The Cinderella Girl” (1918), “On the Mezzanine Floor” (1921).
Starting with “Fun in Hi Skule,” all the brothers performed in ethnic accents, with Groucho doing a German accent as “Herr Professor.” However after the sinking of the RMS Lusitania in 1915, anti-German sentiment flared, and Groucho quickly dropped the accent and developed the fast-talking wise-guy character he would make famous.
With their change from a musical group to a comedy act, their fortunes had improved, to playing the highest venues, culminating in performing at the Palace. Groucho courted and married Ruth Johnstone on February 4, 1920. The marriage was somewhat rocky, although it lasted over 20 years, and gave Groucho his son Arthur and daughter Miriam.
Next in Groucho’s professional life came an English tour, where the Marx Brothers were extremely successful, including command performances for royalty. When they returned to America, their success had gone to their head, leading to their alienating E. F. Albee, the most influential man in vaudeville. Groucho and the other Marx Brothers were blacklisted.
With vaudeville closed to them, there was only one legitimate venue left to them — Broadway, thanks to a contact that Chico made during a card game.
The Marx Brothers opened a new stage show, “I’ll Say She Is,” and after 18 months of testing and fine-tuning they opened in New York to great reviews, and they were launched into fame and fortune. The next several years saw Groucho and his brothers working on a series of Broadway shows (“The Cocoanuts” in 1925, “Animal Crackers” in 1928), and hobnobbing with the luminaries of New York City.
1929 should have been a wonderful year for Groucho. He and his brothers had completed their first film, “The Cocoanuts,” a filmed version of their stage show. However, two cataclysmic events occurred that year. In a personal tragedy, Groucho’s mother, Minnie, died after suffering a severe stroke. Also in 1929, Groucho and his brothers lost virtually everything in the stock market crash that signaled the beginning of the Great Depression.
Many years later, Groucho was invited to take a tour of the New York Stock Exchange. While in the observation booth, he grabbed the public address system handset and began singing “Lydia the Tattooed Lady“. Upon hearing silence coming from the trading floor, he walked into view, was given a loud cheer by the traders, and shouted, “Gentlemen, in 1929 I lost eight hundred thousand dollars on this floor, and I intend to get my money’s worth!” For the next fifteen minutes, he sang, danced, told jokes, during which time the Wall Street stock ticker ran blank.
Groucho and his brothers, however, were better off financially than most of America. In 1930, their second film “Animal Crackers” was filmed, and in the next years “Monkey Business“. In between, Groucho and his brothers continued appearing on Broadway, as well as appearing in the London Palace Theater early in 1931, followed by the famous Marx Brothers’ film “Horse Feathers” in 1932.
However, the Marx Brothers’ film career was in a rut, and in a downward spiral. Groucho and his brothers needed a change in their film career, and quickly. They found one, named Irving Thalberg. Chico found Irving in, where else, a card game. Irving Thalberg saw vast untapped potential in the Marx Brothers and was convinced that, with the right handling, they could again be major attractions.
Irving Thalberg was right; with his aid, Groucho and his brothers made some of their most memorable films ever. These films included “Duck Soup” in 1933, “A Night at the Opera” in 1935, and “A Day at the Races“ in 1937. Unfortunately, Thalberg died in 1936; he had been the Marx Brothers’ leading supporter at MGM, and without him many of their next movies were of mixed quality, including “Room Service” in 1938, “At the Circus” in 1939, “Go West” in 1940, and “The Big Store” in 1941.
Groucho Marx – marriage, children, A Night in Casablanca? You Bet Your Life!
The Marx Brothers effectively disbanded at this point. The next year, his first marriage ended in divorce. Three years later, on February 24, 1945, he remarried, to Katherine Marvis Gorcey. The Marx Brothers reunited in “A Night in Casablanca” in 1946, which was their finest film in nearly a decade. Interestingly, the Warner Brothers studio legal department sent the Marx Brothers a warning letter about infringing on their well-known movie, “Casablanca,” starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. You can read Groucho’s reply to the Warner Brothers as a classic example of Groucho’s wit.
Starting in the next year, Groucho expanded onto radio, with a quiz show, “You Bet Your Life.” Groucho was initially uneasy about attempting a radio show, having failed in that field twice previously. However, the third time was apparently the charm, and “You Bet Your Life” ran on radio through 1956, as well as on television from 1950 to 1961, returning Groucho to national prominence.
Groucho Marx – final years
He also began a solo career in films, starring in “Copacabana” (1947), reuniting with his brothers for their final movie in “Love Happy” (1950), and then back to solo work in “Mr. Music” (1950) and “Double Dynamite” (1951). His personal life again suffered, divorcing Katherine Marvis Gorcey, the mother of his daughter Melinda, in 1951.
Groucho continued his career, acting in “A Girl in Every Port” (1952), writing for the TV series, “The Life of Riley” (1953) and “General Electric Theater” (1953). In 1954, he married for the third time, to Eden Hartford. He continued working, with “The Story of Mankind” (1957), reuniting for the final time with Chico and Harpo for a television movie, “The Incredible Jewel Robbery” (1957), “The Mikado” (1960), “Tell It to Groucho” (1962), “Skidoo” (1968), and was a presenter at the 22nd Annual Tony Awards (1968).
His latest marriage, however, ended in divorce in 1969. His professional life had a resurgence, however, as a new generation of people rediscovered the Marx Brothers’ films. By this time, Groucho’s health had deteriorated after a stroke. With the encouragement of his secretary and companion, Erin Fleming, he resumed active performing. Groucho made guest appearances on various television shows, as well as a sold-out appearance at Carnegie Hall in 1972. With Fleming at his side, Groucho received a special Oscar at the 46th Annual Academy Awards in 1974.
Groucho Marx died from pneumonia on August 19, 1977, at the age of 86. He is interred in the Eden Memorial Park Cemetery in Mission Hills, California.
- “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 was “Je suis Marxiste, tendance Groucho.”; “I’m a Marxist of the Groucho variety”.
Trivia about Groucho Marx
- Was told by studio executive Walter Wanger to lose the greasepaint moustache as it was an “obvious fake”. (Source: Joseph Adamson III in his book Groucho, Harpo, Chico and sometimes Zeppo (1973)
- Groucho was to have played the title role in a TV movie of L. Frank Baum’s “The Magical Monarch of Mo”, with a teleplay by Gore Vidal, which was never produced.
- Died three days after Elvis Unfortunately, due to the furor over Elvis’s death, the media paid little attention to the passing of this comic genius.
- Interred at Eden Memorial Park, San Fernando, California, USA.
- When talking about Margaret Dumont the actress who frequently played the inept dowager who acted as a punching bag for Groucho’s verbal insults, he claimed the secret to their chemistry is that she never understood what he was saying.
- Once during the run of “I’ll Say She Is” (The brothers’ first Broadway play) Harpo tried to play a practical joke on Groucho by chasing a chorus girl onto the stage while Groucho was in the middle of his act. Not to be outdone, he simply pulled out his watch and said “The Five Fifteen is right on schedule”.
- Had a fourth brother, Gummo, who performed with the other brothers in Vaudville. He left the act before the brothers started to make movies. He none the less remained close to Groucho for the rest of his life.
- He suffered from insomnia, which he claimed was due to a financial loss in the stock market. When he suffered from insomnia, he used to call people up in the middle of the night and insult them.
- The FBI had a file on him after he made some jokes about communism.
- Shortly after his death, his children found a gag letter written by Groucho that stated that he wanted to be buried on top of Marilyn Monroe.
- A famous gag toy was modeled after his face – the dark black glasses with big orange nose and mustache “disguise” toy.
- There are at least two versions of how Julius Henry Marx got his more famous nickname. One is that it came from his general disposition. The other, that, during the Marx Brothers’ early days in Vaudeville, he was the keeper of the act’s “grouch-sack,” or money purse. Groucho, himself, said, on one occasion, “my own name, I never did understand.”
- George Fenneman, Groucho’s announcer on “You Bet Your Life,” was once asked if Groucho ever embarrassed him on the air. “Each and every show,” Fenneman replied.
Bibliography for Groucho Marx
- Groucho and Me, by Groucho Marx
- The Groucho Letters: Letters from and to Groucho Marx, by Groucho Marx
- Love, Groucho: Letters from Groucho Marx to His Daughter Miriam, by Miriam Marx Allen
- Memoirs of a Mangy Lover, by Groucho Marx
- Monkey Business: The Lives and Legends of the Marx Brothers
- My Life With Groucho, by Arthur Marx, Groucho’s son