One of the most famous comedians of the 20th century, Groucho Marx was a member of the Marx Brothers, a comedy troupe who ruled supreme in the worlds of both vaudeville and early cinema. In addition to his work with his brothers, Marx also developed a reputation for improvisational skills and quick wit that few have rivaled since. But, like many comedians, Marx’s life wasn’t as full of laughs as some people might assume.
1. Welcome to the World
Julius Henry Marx was born on October 2, 1890, in Manhattan. He was the third of five brothers born to Sam “Frenchie” Marx and Minnie Schonberg.
2. What’s in a Nickname?
More than one explanation exists for how Marx got his famous moniker. One story claims that Marx was in charge of the money purse back when he and his brothers were starting out in vaudeville. In those days, a money purse was also known as a “grouch bag.” On the other hand, the more well-known explanation is Marx’s overall grouchy demeanor towards the people around him during performances.
3. My First Mentor
Marx and his brothers weren’t the only members of their family to make their names in show business. Marx’s maternal uncle was Abraham Schoenberg, better known as Al Shean from the vaudeville duo Gallagher and Shean. Marx greatly admired his worldly and talented uncle, and Shean even did his nephews a favor by writing some of their comedic material.
4. Bring on the Royalties!
As some of you will know, Marx inspired one of the most well-known toys you can find in a joke shop. The toy in question is the Beaglepuss, comprised of black glasses, a fake orange nose, and a large mustache. The appearance of the Beaglepuss was modeled after Marx’s face, leading to their more common name: Groucho Glasses.
Perhaps the trait for which Marx was best known was his incredible skill at delivering one-liners and quips. One anecdote about Marx took place in Montreal, while he was visiting the city. A priest shook Marx’s hand, stating, “I want to thank you for all the joy you’ve put into this world.” Without missing a beat, Marx cheerfully retorted, “And I wanna thank you, for all the joy you’ve taken out of this world!”
6. Sure, I Said That. Why Not?
Marx’s quick wit was so well known and celebrated that he ended up getting credit for jokes he hadn’t actually written. Marx himself was aware of this; on one occasion, he claimed to have received “$25 from Reader’s Digest for something [he] never said.” We can imagine he kept the money anyway!
7. Entertainment Mom
In a bizarre reversal of cliché, Marx’s mother pushed him into the world of entertainment, ending his dream of becoming a doctor. This was partly because Marx’s family lived in poverty and couldn’t afford to keep him in school, so he began working at age 12.
8. When Life Gives You Lemons…
Although Marx and his brothers fulfilled their mother’s ambitions to become popular vaudevillians, it didn’t quite work out the way she’d expected or planned. Originally, Marx and two of his brothers formed a singing group. This was met with underwhelming responses from audiences, but on one occasion, the brothers found their true calling.
After a singing performance failed to win an audience over, Marx tried cheering up his brothers with some jokes while they were still on stage. When all the young men joined in with wisecracks, the audience began applauding! Thus, their comedy careers were born.
9. Shy Strings
One of Marx’s lesser-known talents was playing the guitar. He was so passionate that he devoted hours to learn classical pieces of music on the instrument, impressing anyone who heard him. However, unlike his brothers, Marx was very rarely musical on stage or on film. He only played the guitar in two of his films (1932’s Horse Feathers and 1940’s Go West).
10. Queen and the Marx
While not everyone had the privilege of hearing Marx perform music, one group of people who did was none other than the band Queen. In the 1970s, the aging Marx performed a song for the up-and-coming rock band after he’d befriended them. Queen was certainly grateful to have become Marx’s acquaintances, given that they named two of their albums after Marx Brother film titles (A Night at the Opera, A Day at the Races).
11. Growing Pains
Before Marx and his brothers had figured out their comedic style, the original idea was that each one of them would play a different ethnicity as a gag. For example, Marx initially performed with a thick German accent, his brother “Harpo” acted like a stereotypical Irishman, and his brother “Gummo” put on an Italian accent. Marx’s gimmick playing a German was highly unpopular by 1915, however, as World War I was raging and many Americans had died after German U-boats sunk the RMS Lusitania.
From then on, Marx reverted to the fast-talking wisecracker character for which he became famous.
12. Knowledge is Power
Marx strongly regretted that he’d dropped out and never gotten a high school or college education. During his adulthood, Marx tried to compensate for that by becoming a complete book worm. Not only that, he became an acquaintance of several famed authors, regularly communicating with them.
13. Oh Well…
Speaking of those author acquaintances, Marx was close friends with William P. Blatty, who penned The Exorcist. When the book was adapted into a film during the 1970s, Marx allegedly planned to play a joke on the lead actress Ellen Burstyn by appearing on set dressed as one of the other characters. Unfortunately, the prank was never pulled.
14. Going Over Her Head
Aside from his own brothers, one of Marx’s most recurring co-stars was actress Margaret Dumont. In the films they made together, Dumont was the foil to Marx’s character and the target for his most withering verbal insults. No matter how cruel Marx got, audiences responded enthusiastically to his patter with Dumont. Reflecting on their success years later, Marx suggested that the reason it worked so well was that Dumont never actually that understood the jokes he was making were at her expense. So at least her feelings weren’t truly hurt, we guess?
15. Certainly Not the Last, Either
Marx was the very first guest to appear on the iconic talk show The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson when it first aired in 1962.
16. Well Represented
Due to his profound impact on pop culture, Marx has often been portrayed in various forms of media. These include appearances in a 1939 Donald Duck comic by Disney, a Merrie Melodies cartoon by Warner Bros. in 1941, and a painting by Andy Warhol in 1980. More recently, a character in a 2000 episode of Pokemon, Quincy T. Quackenpoker, not only had his voice and appearance based on Marx, but also paraphrased Marx’s classic “elephant in my pajamas” joke.
17. What’s Up, Groucho?
By far the most well-known figure to be inspired by Marx was none other than Bugs Bunny. While Bugs went through several changes in personality over the years, Marx was a direct influence on his manner of speech and comedic put-downs. Bugs even quoted Marx directly on occasion. His famous quip “Of course you realize this means war” was originally said by Marx in both Duck Soup and A Night at the Opera.
18. What a Snoozefest!
If there’s one sport that Marx hated, it was cricket. In June 1954 he was visiting England when a friend invited him to watch a cricket game. The friend assumed that since Marx loved baseball, then he’d surely love cricket too. Instead, Marx said of the game, “What a wonderful cure for insomnia. If you can’t sleep here, you really need an analyst.”
19. Somewhat Ironic?
The Marx brothers appeared in their first silent film in 1921. However, it was never released, and no copies of it survive. Though, given that Marx was famous for his one-liners, we can’t imagine his comedy worked well in a film without sound!
20. Please Welcome…
Aside from his work with his brothers, Marx was the most popular host of the quiz show You Bet Your Life. Marx’s quick wit and snappy jokes were so beloved by television audiences that he hosted the show for 11 seasons.
21. Look at Me Now!
As with so many other famous comedians, Marx’s style and gift for humor stemmed from deep-rooted insecurities. The middle child of five brothers, Marx was often overshadowed as a child by his older and younger brothers. Moreover, Marx was never a ladies’ man either. As a result, Marx developed his razor-sharp wit and improvisational skills in order to stand out and make a name for himself.
22. When Stars Meet
In an interview with Dick Cavett, Marx told an anecdote about how he was once in an elevator when a woman wearing an oversized hat joined him. Annoyed by the hat, Marx grabbed it and lifted it so that it covered the woman’s face. Furious, the woman confronted Marx, and it was only then that he recognized her as being the famous film star Greta Garbo!
In true Marx fashion, he quipped, “I thought you were a fella I knew from Kansas City.”
23. Sweet Tooth
If you’ve ever been curious to know what sort of dessert Marx went crazy for, it was cheesecake, but from a very specific place. In 1972, Marx met with emerging film critic Roger Ebert at Le Bistro in Beverly Hills. While he was being interviewed, Marx loudly proclaimed that the café made “the best cheesecake I’ve ever had.” He ended up ordering three while they were there, and Ebert ended up using one of his cheesecake-themed quips (“The only great party is a boy and a girl and a whole cheesecake”) as the title for his subsequent article.
24. Too Good to be True
One of the most famous anecdotes about Marx’s wit revolved around an interview he did for You Bet Your Life. When contestant Charlotte Story revealed that she’d given birth to 20 children, Marx allegedly asked why she’d had so many kids. When she responded, “Because I love my husband,” Marx was said to have replied, “I love my cigar, but I take it out of my mouth once in a while.”
Sadly, for fans of Marx, although Story really did appear on You Bet Your Life, Marx has denied he ever said such a thing. Rather, he said, “I like pancakes, but I haven’t got a closet full of them!”
25. Cradle Robber
Just like his contemporary, Charlie Chaplin, Marx had an eye for women who were much younger than he was. His first wife was ten years younger than him, his second wife nearly 35 years younger, and his third wife a full 40 years younger than him. In the least shocking twist imaginable, all three of his marriages ended in divorce.
26. Strange Tribute
In yet another case of Marx befriending famous musicians, he was close with classic rock star Alice Cooper. The two men frequently visited each other to watch TV late at night. Not only did Cooper put a drawing of Marx onto the cover of his Greatest Hits album, but when the original Hollywood letters were auctioned off, Cooper bought the large “O” in memory of his friend Groucho.
27. Was He Crazy??
While most actors and comedians would love an offer to work with a famous film director, Marx wasn’t one of them. Legendary Italian director Federico Fellini was a huge fan of the Marx Brothers and tried to cast Marx in two different films. Marx wasn’t having it, however. He really didn’t like the idea of living in Rome for a year during production (which sounds like a pretty awesome vacation to the rest of us, honestly!).
28. Hail, Groucho!
Marx was never nominated for any major film awards during his career. However, in 1974, the aging Marx was given an honorary Academy Award to great fanfare. His acceptance of said award was his final public appearance on television before his death.
29. Check, Point, Game
Although Marx famously made countless people laugh with his ad-libs and improvisations on film sets, one person who wasn’t laughing was the famous director Sam Wood. In case that name isn’t familiar, Wood directed the Marx Brothers film A Night at the Opera and he was infuriated by Marx’s frequent joking around when he was trying to maintain a filming schedule.
One day, Wood had enough of Marx and shouted, “You can’t make an actor out of clay.” Without missing a beat, Marx retorted, “Nor a director out of Wood!”
30. Quite the Literate Fellow
Marx was an accomplished author, writing eight books during his lifetime. Despite all his accomplishments, Marx claimed that the one for which he was most proud was having a book selected by the Library of Congress for cultural preservation.
31. Rage Quitting, Old Style
Speaking of his written work, Marx was deeply respectful of high art and classic literature, and it led to one of his most famous quips. At one point, Marx was inducted into a club located in Beverly Hills. At first, Marx was highly intrigued, as he hoped that he could debate and discuss art with other members of high society. However, Marx was devasted when he showed up to the club and found that they were more interested in drinking, card playing, and being “on the phone with each other’s wives.”
Disgusted, Marx wrote a letter of resignation which included the phrase, “I would never want to be part of a club that would have me as a member.” It has gone on to be one of his most frequently quoted lines in pop culture.
32. That’s Our Groucho!
In 1943, Marx was asked to write a letter to American soldiers fighting abroad. Marx obliged, though his letter was a bit less patriotic and encouraging than the government would have liked. In the letter, Marx described how meat was no longer available for purchase (he dismissed this as “nothing of any importance”) and he japed that the only vegetable that was growing in his victory garden was marijuana!
33. Farewell to the Grouch
On June 22, 1977, the 86-year-old Marx was hospitalized due to complications with pneumonia. Sadly, the illness proved fatal, and Marx died less than two months later.
34. I Still Got It!
Marx was a consummate showman to the very end of his life. Friends of his have talked about how the ailing Marx never failed to make a joke, no matter how ill he became. According to George Fenneman, who’d worked with Marx on You Bet Your Life, he visited a very frail Marx in the hospital and needed to walk him from his wheelchair to his bed. As they slowly went across the floor, Marx whispered, “Fenneman, you always were a lousy dancer.”
35. Light Up!
Throughout his life, Marx famously smoked cigars, in both his public and personal life. This made Marx rather careless about the dangers of smoking. On one occasion, he caught his son, Arthur, smoking a corncob pipe in his room. While Arthur expected some kind of punishment, Marx offered Arthur a briar pipe instead, claiming that it would serve him better.
According to Arthur himself, Marx declared, “Smoking won’t hurt you. I’ve been smoking for years, and aside from the fact that I feel terrible all the time it hasn’t hurt me, either!”
36. Resting in Peace
Marx is buried in Los Angeles’s Eden Memorial Park Cemetery. Although his gravestone bears no epitaph, Marx suggested one just before he passed away: “Excuse me, I can’t stand up.”
37. Groucho Who?
Despite the impact he had made upon the entertainment industry, Marx’s death was remarkably underreported. The main reason why that occurred was that Marx died just three days after Elvis Presley, the king of rock & roll. As a result, the media and public were too wrapped up in that death to recognize Marx’s passing for what it was.
38. That’s Not Funny
Despite his ability to make millions laugh, Marx proved less successful as a father. According to his son Arthur, Marx refused to be emotionally close, preferring to “make some sort of wisecrack instead to keep from getting involved.” Arthur even equated this behavior and attitude to “cowardice” on his father’s part.
39. From Cold to Colder
It’s worth pointing out that the above quote was actually from the second book that Arthur Marx wrote about his famous father. He wrote the first one while Marx was still alive, and although it wasn’t nearly as negative as the second book later became, the elder Marx threatened legal action if substantial changes weren’t made. Arthur called his pop’s bluff and had the book published as he’d originally written it. Marx relented and never took the matter further.
40. Who’s Laughing Now?
In 1964, Marx traveled with a few friends to East Germany and visited the village where his mother was born. To the shock of the group, they learned the Jewish cemetery there had been violated by the Nazis during the Second World War. Enraged, Marx hired a car to take him back to Berlin to visit the bunker where Adolf Hitler had taken his life. In an act of vengeful spite, Marx climbed on top of it and furiously danced on the bunker.
He literally danced on Hitler’s grave. As his friend later described, “Nobody applauded. Nobody laughed.”
41. Bitter End
During the late 1960s, Marx hired Canadian actress Erin Fleming to be his secretary. From then on, she not only became his constant companion (as noted by Roger Ebert and others) but also his manager. Fleming organized several one-man shows for Marx. While this revitalized his popularity in his later years, Marx’s children accused Fleming of exploiting an elderly man for personal gain.
After Marx’s death, Fleming fought several legal battles with Marx’s three children and was eventually ordered to repay nearly $500,000. Fleming spent the rest of her life struggling with mental illness and abject poverty before taking her own life in 2003.
42. Lost Brother
Of his brothers, Marx was very close with Milton (who performed on stage as Gummo before Zeppo replaced him). Gummo and Marx remained close for their entire lives. After Gummo died in April 1977, the family didn’t have the heart to tell the ailing Groucho, who was already incredibly frail. He died four months later never knowing that his brother had predeceased him.