When you think of the Marx Brothers, it’s usually the legendary wit of Groucho or the zany antics of Harpo that come to mind first—but those are far from the full story. Often overlooked by casual fans, Chico Marx was the eldest Marx Brother and, in many ways, the group’s leader behind the scenes for much of its illustrious run. He also lived a fascinating and tumultuous life worthy of the wildest gossip columns Hollywood has ever known. From the hilarious to the sad, here are 50 must-read facts about the one and only Chico Marx.
1. He Felt Young At Heart
Leonard “Chico” Marx entered the world on March 22, 1887—but that’s a fact he didn’t want you to know. While alive, Marx claimed to have been born in 1891. This led contemporary news outlets to falsely report that he only lived to the age of 70, rather than the age of 74 that he actually lived to. Talk about taking years off someone’s life!
2. He Was The Second To Be First
Fans widely know Chico as the oldest of the Marx Brothers—but this was not originally the case. Chico actually had an older brother named Manfred. Sadly, this firstborn Marx did not live past infancy, leaving Chico destined for the first born’s role. But although Chico was supposed to be the elder brother, he wasn’t much of a role model…
3. He Developed Bad Habits Early On
Due to the humble and impoverished origins of the Marx family, Chico developed some less than ideal survival tactics from a young age. As a kid, he became an expert at swiping things from anyone and everyone. This ranged from things he thought his family could use to things he just plain wanted. As against the law as this skill was, it served him well on the streets of late 19th-century New York.
4. He Took From Everyone
Young Marx’s swiping habit became so commonplace that he didn’t restrict his targets to strangers. According to how Groucho remembered it, Chico would frequently swipe materials from his own father’s tailoring business, including his father’s money and scissors. Ironically, this probably placed great stress on the dad’s ability to earn an income—further perpetuating Chico’s need to take other people’s stuff.
5. He Hung Around Shady Characters
Marx spent a lot of his childhood trying to outsmart and swindle delinquents on the streets of New York City. He spent a great deal of his time in poolrooms, even at a very young age. By the time he turned 13, his friends already included “street idlers and gamblers.” Sadly, this experience would later prove to be a tragic influence in his life.
6. He Developed A Lifelong Problem
Marx’s time in poolrooms as a kid would later prove to be one of the most destructive influences in his entire life. It kickstarted what would become his very extreme gambling problem. From his early youth on, anyone who knew Chico or followed his private life would associate him with this habit more than just about anything else. It was only a matter of time before it came back to bite him.
7. His Parents Liked Him Best
Perhaps due to the tragic passing of Manfred during his infancy, family accounts recall that the Marx Brothers’ parents treated Chico with an extra level of shelter and affection—leading many to conclude that he was their favorite son. I guess people at the time didn’t realize just how destructive playing favorites with your kids truly is…
8. He Had No Boundaries
On one occasion, a young Harpo Marx got very excited over having earned a dime. To prevent Chico from finding it and taking it, Harpo hid it in a hole in the wall and told no one. Yet, inexplicably, by the time Harpo woke up the next morning, Chico had ripped through the hole in the wall and made off with the coin.
The only explanation Harpo could come up with is that Chico could literally “smell money through wallpaper.”
9. His Problem Created Their Identities
Despite all the suffering it caused, one good thing did come out of Marx’s gambling habit. A friend of Chico’s created the Marx Brothers’ now-irreplaceable nicknames during a poker game. This friend simply thought it would be fun to come up with rhyming names for each brother, representing something unique about each of their personalities. But these names did have double meanings.
10. His Nickname Had A Surprising Origin
Each of the brothers’ nicknames represented something distinct about their individual personalities or interests. In Chico’s case, he got his nickname for a less-than-flattering reason. From a young age, he’d always had an unhealthy obsession with pursuing intimate encounters with women—or “chasing chicks” as the slang goes.
So, if not for his wild and unstable love life, we might have known him by a whole other name.
11. You’ve Been Saying His Name Wrong Your Whole Life
Now that you know the origin of Chico’s nickname, it might interest you to realize that you’ve probably been pronouncing it wrong all this time. Unlike the common Spanish name of the same spelling, which is pronounced “Cheek-o,” Marx’s name is meant to be pronounced “Chick-o,” so as to represent his interest in “chicks.”
12. He Had A Second Talent
The Marxes are known for their comedy, but some of them also had impressive musical talents, Chico chief among them. Over the course of his life, he became fairly well-respected and appreciated as a piano player. Even dyed-in-the-wool fans who have seen him play piano in Marx Brothers movies are surprised to learn he worked for much of his life as a pianist. Then again, his piano playing did have a dirty little secret.
13. Piano Wasn’t His Idea
Due in part to Mama Marx, who desperately wanted to see her boys succeed in show business, Marx started taking piano lessons at a young age. There was a small problem though. His teacher only knew how to play with one hand! So, she taught him to just fake it with the other one. I guess the poor family couldn’t afford a better teacher. And that wasn’t the only downside to these cheap lessons.
14. He Found A Life Hack
Marx’s younger brother Harpo also wanted to learn piano, but the family was unable to afford lessons for more than one child. That didn’t stop them, however. They developed a system where, after each lesson, Chico would immediately repeat everything his teacher had just taught him for Harpo, essentially getting two kids lessons for the price of one.
This left only one problem—Chico hated piano lessons and never bothered to stick around for the promised follow-up lessons.
15. He Almost Missed Out On The Family Business
Despite having grown up to be one of the three main on-screen Marx Brothers, Chico originally wasn’t part of the family act at all. Due to his piano lessons, he had started a solo show business career as a travelling musician long before the rest of his brothers began their group act together on the Vaudeville circuit. And when that family act did begin, you can bet Chico made sure he was front and center.
16. He Joined With A Bang
So how did Chico go from solo musician to core member of the family’s comedy act? It all started one night in Illinois, when the schedules of Chico’s musical act and his brothers’ comedy act happened to coincide. When Chico realized this was happening, he decided to give his brothers a little “surprise.” And what came next was as vintage Marx Brothers as it gets…
17. He Stole The Show
While his brothers performed on stage, Chico hid his face and pretended to just be a piano player in the theater’s backing orchestra. Then, in the middle of the performance, one of the brothers recognized him. Hardly a few seconds had passed before Chico and his brothers interrupted the planned show to horse around in front of the audience.
18. He Had A Way With The Ladies
In addition to his gambling habit, Marx spent his entire life compulsively chasing intimate encounters with as many women as he could. He became the first brother to marry when he tied the knot with Betty Karp in 1917—but he could never manage to remain faithful to her. According to some accounts, he even cheated on Betty as early as their honeymoon.
Eventually, his tactics got even greasier.
19. He Couldn’t Help Himself
Chico could never go more than a short while without having some kind of an extramarital romantic affair. Whenever the brothers were on the road for a tour or show, Chico would make his way to the lobby of whatever hotel they were staying in and just start playing piano until a female guest came over to listen. More often than not, this ploy worked. Other times, however, Chico had to get downright rude about it.
20. His Wife Tried Her Best
Despite Marx’s chronic unfaithfulness, his wife Betty did everything in her power to try and make their marriage work. The couple had one child—a daughter named Maxine, born a year into their marriage. Many recall Betty’s immense patience and willingness to forgive. These attributes of hers are probably the sole reason that this unstable marriage lasted for a full thirty years.
But even her best efforts couldn’t prevent certain issues…
21. Betty Didn’t Approve Of His Career
Although Betty first met Marx as a teenage fan of his, his profession proved to be another source of tension within their marriage. She had a very puritanical and conservative personality, which made her want to keep young Maxine as far away from the stage as possible. That didn’t stop the Marx Brothers from parading the cute little child around for some quick applause and cheers. Maybe it’s no wonder the marriage was doomed.
22. His Second Marriage Has A Surprising History
Marx and Betty finally divorced in 1942. By that time, in addition to his many other short-term affairs, Marx had developed an ongoing relationship with a woman named Mary De Vithas. It would be nearly 20 years before Chico finally tied the knot with “Mary Dee,” just three years before his passing. The weirdest part of all? Chico liked Mary due to how much she looked like Betty, the very woman he left for her.
23. He Even Surprised Himself At Times
Marx took his lack of piano practice to such extremes that it even left a mark on one of his movies. In 1937’s A Day at the Races, you can see Marx subtly jumping in surprise as a flute solo comes in during his piano song. According to his nephew, this reaction was totally genuine—Chico had never rehearsed the song before filming this scene, and legitimately did not know that it included a flute solo.
It’s hard to think of a moment that better captures his true quirkiness than that.
24. He Blurred Fact And Fiction
Also during the shooting of A Day at the Races, Marx’s gambling habit reared its ugly head in a very bizarre way. When Chico realized that a horse with the same name as a horse in the film was running in real life, Marx couldn’t resist placing a bet on it. I guess no one had the heart to tell him that, according to the film script, the horse in question lost its race…
But betting on fictional horses turned out to be the least of Chico’s problems…
25. He Bet On Anything And Everything
The horse incident is far from the strangest gambling story out there about Marx. You’d be hard-pressed to think of an example of something he didn’t bet on at some point in his life. In addition to the typical things like cards, pool, and races, Marx would bet money on things as minor and unpredictable as what letters would appear on the license plates of passing cars, or even what direction raindrops would fall in.
26. His Brother Was His Doppelganger
Despite looking nothing alike in their iconic costumes, Chico and Harpo looked very similar in real life—so much so that people often confused them for one another. Chico often used this to his advantage—impersonating Harpo for both good and for bad. At times, this actually prevented Harpo from being able to get jobs, since places that had bad experiences with Chico would assume they were the same person.
Years later, Chico successfully impersonated Harpo in a TV appearance and the audience never caught on. One of the people he fooled with that performance? None other than their brother Groucho. But that was just some lighthearted fun—he pulled much nastier tricks on one of his siblings as well.
27. The Sleaziness Also Started Early
Marx spent much of his youth engaged in sleazy behavior and schemes. On one occasion, when Harpo became aware of a deal available on cuckoo clocks, he tried to buy some to re-sell for a profit—only to discover that Chico had already used this information to sell defective clocks all over town, ruining Harpo’s business before it began.
28. He Served As The Leader
A lot of fans are surprised to learn that, despite his recklessness and instability, Chico acted in many ways as the leader of the Marx Brothers behind the scenes. After their mother retired as the group’s manager, Chico took over those duties and handled all of their business dealings—including landing their movie opportunities and negotiating their contracts.
But as good a negotiator as Chico was, his other problems still came back to haunt him…
29. It Wasn’t Enough
We think of most business managers as savvy with money—but as you may have suspected by now, Chico is the exception. His compulsive gambling got so bad over the years that by the early 1940s, he had already declared personal bankruptcy, despite having just come out of the most successful decade of the Marx Brothers’ career.
30. They Made A Movie Just For Him
The Marx Brothers planned on retiring after their 1941 film The Big Store, and they even advertised the film as their big farewell. Nevertheless, due to Chico’s compulsive gambling, he desperately needed money. So, to help their brother out, the team got back together in 1946 and made the film A Night in Casablanca, solely for the benefit of his bank account.
I guess fans of that movie should be happy he had a gambling problem!
31. He Had A Second Career
When the Marx Brothers slowed down from performing as a group, Chico began a now largely forgotten second career path as the leader of his own Big Band, known as the Chico Marx Orchestra. He found some success with this group, but that’s not all—this group also discovered and introduced the world to future singing star Mel Torme when Torme was only 17 years old.
Yet despite this success, Chico was still up to his old tricks.
32. His Dedication Wavered
Consistent with his attitude towards his marriage and his piano playing, Marx never took his job as a comedian too seriously. He often showed up late and unprepared, frequently leaving his brothers scrambling to try and cover for his absence. On some occasions, he came out on stage and couldn’t even remember his lines.
33. He Had A Sixth Sense
Money and gambling never failed to motivate Marx. Backstage before a show one night, Groucho challenged Chico by briefly holding up a dollar bill. He then hid it to see if Chico could recite the entire serial number from memory. To everyone’s surprise, Chico succeeded at this task. In vintage Chico style, he then went out on stage and forgot his lines.
34. He Never Got Over The Habit
Tragically, Marx never managed to lick the gambling problem that he developed during his youth. Decades later, someone asked Chico how much money he had lost gambling over the course of his life. Chico remarked: “Ask Harpo how much money he has. That’s how much I’ve lost.” And he often had to resort to desperate measures to keep his concerned family at bay.
35. He Helped The Family In Unique Ways
At one point during his youth, Marx got a job working for a paper company. However, this is Chico we’re talking about, so of course he recklessly gambled away his paycheck. Knowing that his father would be furious, Marx came up with a plan. He brought home a surprise gift to distract attention from what he had done. That gift? A roll of toilet paper made by his employer—a luxury that his impoverished family could rarely afford.
36. The Favoritism Caused Tension
What kind of a Hollywood family would the Marxes be if they didn’t have at least some internal strife and drama? Despite having gotten along well as adults, Mama Marx’s favoring of Chico caused Groucho to feel some resentment towards him during their childhood. Their mother even nicknamed him “the jealous one” because of this.
37. He Ruined Harpo’s Christmas
Marx’s thinking revolved so heavily around his gambling that he even once discouraged his young brother Harpo from engaging in the customary practice of placing a stocking on the mantle for Santa Claus. His reason? That the odds were too low of Santa having time to visit their humble abode out of all the houses in the world.
38. He Didn’t Take Music Too Seriously
Despite having been well-respected as a musician, Marx never really seemed to care that much about the piano. Perhaps due to his lackadaisical attitude towards the concept of taking responsibility, he never practiced his instrument and just relied on his raw natural talent—something he apparently had a lot of. In fact, performing was just one of Marx’s many gifts.
39. He Had Even More Hidden Talents
Although he lacked a studious side, many say that Marx had a natural talent for understanding mathematics. He also had an impressively accurate photographic memory (just not with lines I guess). Groucho once remarked that had Chico chosen to go into academia, he could have been a very successful mathematician. That would have been quite an interesting alternate reality.
40. He Stayed In School…Sort Of
Chico may have been the least disciplined and least stable Marx Brother in his private life, but he was actually ahead of the others in one surprising way. He was the only brother to get as far in school as the sixth grade. Evidently, he didn’t end up caring too much about anything he learned there. Still, he earned those lifelong bragging rights fair and square.
41. He Created His Character Out Of Necessity
The most identifiable part about Marx on the screen is the exaggerated Italian accent that he always spoke in. Needless to say, his voice did not really sound that way. He merely used the accent as part of his on-screen persona—but that wasn’t the reason he originally created the voice. Long before his show business career began, a young Chico learned to imitate the accents of the various ethnic groups that lived around him in New York City, in order to fit in wherever he went.
42. His Musical Style Is One Of A Kind
Perhaps the bizarre way Marx learned to play the piano is responsible for the unique and unusual playing method that he is now famous for. In every video of Chico’s playing, the first thing you’ll probably notice is the way he appears to “shoot” the keys with his fingers, rather than press down on them the typical way a piano player would.
43. He Had Friends In Low Places
One of the most shocking moments in Marx’s life came completely out of the blue. When officers examined the body of Bugsy Siegel, the famous old-time gangster who built the first Las Vegas casinos, they found a check from Chico Marx in his pocket. It remains unclear why Chico had written this shady character a check, and his shooting remains a major unsolved mystery to this day.
But Siegel’s violent end was actually a very good thing for Chico…
44. He Probably Got Off Easy
Groucho felt relieved on Chico’s behalf to know that Bugsy Siegel had lost his life before attempting to cash Chico’s check. He felt that this narrowly allowed Chico to avoid disaster—since, knowing his brother well, the check probably would have bounced. If Bugsy had lived on to discover this, he probably would have sought mob-style retribution against the unfortunate comedian.
45. He Wasn’t Good At Everything
After a lifetime of gambling, you’d think Marx would have gotten pretty good at card games. Yet, somehow, when he participated in a “Championship Bridge” contest on TV in 1961, his playing did not go well at all. He lost the game, and it wasn’t even close. On the bright side, he at least had some of the greatest pinochle skills of his era according to most who saw him play.
46. His Brothers Eventually Took Control
Towards the end of Marx’s life, his gambling got completely out of control. It became clear to his entire family that he’d never overcome the bad habit. As a result, his brothers banded together and took control of his finances. They managed all his money in his final years and only gave him access to a specific, fixed allowance each month.
47. He Finally Broke Character Just Before The End
Marx famously did not make excuses or apologies for his wild behavior—but he did make one exception. Just days before his passing, after a long and jovial phone call with his daughter Maxine, Chico’s emotional side came out unexpectedly. He apologized to his daughter for the stress and deprivation his gambling caused their family during her childhood.
Maxine warmly and tearfully replied that she “wouldn’t have traded having you for a father for all the money in the world.”
48. Drama Went Down At His Funeral
On October 11, 1961, Chico became the first Marx Brother to pass. His family and friends were understandably upset when attending his funeral. But things got weird fast when a man that none of them recognized stood up to give a eulogy. Things got even weirder when the man’s eulogy described Chico’s life and personality in completely inaccurate ways.
Shocked and confused, Harpo reacted by telling Maxine: “When I go, do me a favor and hire a mime.”
49. He Gets A Bad Rap
Even though Chico remained one of the three main Marx Brothers for as long as the group performed together, and even though he lived a life full of legendary shenanigans, a lot of fans still overlook his role in the group to this day. In an online fan poll by Turner Classic Movies, Chico surprisingly finished last in terms of which brother the public finds the funniest.
He even finished behind Zeppo, the brother who played minor, non-comedic roles in only the first few Marx Brothers films.
50. He Went After Stars, Too
Marx’s pursuits of women knew no bounds. On one occasion, he attended a party where he met Old Hollywood star Tallulah Bankhead. Bankhead also happened to be the daughter of a Congressman. Yet, none of that fame and prestige slowed Marx down one bit. As soon as they met, right in front of everyone, Chico bluntly informed Bankhead that he wanted to sleep with her. Incredibly, this also worked: Bankhead reportedly replied, “And so you shall, you old fashioned boy.”
This story is now the stuff of Hollywood legend.