Groucho Marx: Facts You Didn't Know About Comedy's First Huge Star With A Mustache And Glasses
You know the greasepaint mustache and the big glasses, but there's so much more to Groucho Marx than his signature look. As a member of the Marx Brothers comedy troupe, he somehow corralled this chaotic band of brothers and led them off the rails through a series of riotous films, and as a solo performer, he was quick witted and playful but always with a bite. From his friendship with Alice Cooper to his messy final years, this caricature contained legions.
He Wanted To Be A Doctor, Then A Singer
Born in Manhattan in 1890, Groucho Marx was christened Julius Henry Marx, the third of four brothers who grew up in what's now known as Carnegie Hill on the Upper East Side. The young Groucho wanted to be a doctor, but he needed to work for his impoverished family, so he dropped out of school at the age of 12. Inspired by his uncle, comedian Al Shean, Groucho tried his hand at show business as a boy singer with the Gene Leroy Trio before joining his brothers in a singing vaudeville troop that attracted little press. It wasn't until they were in the middle of a particularly horrendous performance in Nacogdoches, Texas that they started joking around on stage. The audience preferred their comedy to their singing, so the brothers pivoted.
Groucho's Stage Persona Was Originally German
Before the Marx Brothers settled into their roles, they played around with their personas. Chico used an Italian accent, Harpo did an Irish thing until his uncle suggested he mime his performances, and Groucho decided his character was extremely German. He had to drop the German accent, however, after the sinking of the RMS Lusitania in 1915 and the anti-German sentiment that resulted from it. Audiences began to boo Groucho's character, so in a display of quick thinking, he switched mid-performance to the fast-talking, wisecracking character that he used for the rest of his life.
Groucho Got His Nickname During A Card Game
At the beginning of their careers, the Marx Brothers performed under their real names—Julius, Leonard, Arthur, Milton, and Herbert—but comedian Art Fisher bestowed upon them the noms de performance they carried for the rest of their lives during a card game. Julius was nicknamed "Groucho" not because of his demeanor but because of his tendency to carry a grouch bag everywhere he went. He used it to stash cash, candy, and all manner of miscellany. If you ask Chico, it's where the group kept their weed.
That Famous Mustache
In his early performances, Groucho glued his famous mustache on in the dressing room before a show, but that changed one day when the star was running late to the group's set, flew into the dressing room, and drew a mustache onto his face using greasepaint only moments before he took the stage. The mustache got such a laugh that he ended up keeping it. He later grew a real mustache because he was tired of painting it on. His glasses were also initially fake, but by the time You Bet Your Life premiered in 1949, Groucho actually needed them.
Groucho's Mental Health
The Marx Brothers shot to stardom fairly quickly, still performing on stage while making most of their early films. The breakneck pace gave Groucho insomnia during the filming of The Cocoanuts, and combined with his financial loss in the stock market crash of '29, his mental health deteriorated drastically. Marx suffered through his depression and insomnia to film a movie every year for the next five years. By 1935, his output gradually slowed down, but he didn't take a real break until 1941, when the Marx Brothers released The Big Store, which was intended to be their final film.
Groucho Danced On Hitler's Grave
During a six-week tour of Europe in 1958, Marx and his fellow travelers found themselves in Berlin. After Groucho announced that he wanted to see what was left of Hitler's bunker, the group's chauffeur took them to the remains of the Führerbunker, where Marx leaped out of the car, climbed on top of Hitler's final stronghold, and did what his daughter called "a frenetic Charleston for at least a minute or two in a gesture of defiance."
Groucho's Troubles With Women
Marx was was known to be a misogynist who frequently aimed his cruel humor at women for the crime of being women, but he somehow managed to marry three times. All of his wives were significantly younger than him, and each marriage ended in divorce, but he had two children with his first wife and another with his second, all of whom went on to be fairly successful writers and performers.
Groucho Marx, Friend Of Alice Cooper
Shock rocker Alice Cooper, with his closet of elaborate top hats and penchant for stage theatrics, obviously has a love for vaudeville. It might seem strange that he and Groucho Marx would ever find themselves in the same room, but once it happened, it's not hard to see why they became close. Marx was even a fixture at Cooper's concerts. Cooper told NPR:
Groucho would come to the show and he'd see it, and he'd go, 'Ah, rawr rawr rawr.' You know, he'd insult everybody there. 'Excuse me, I got to go insult the maitre d'.' You know, that kind of thing. We were best of friends, Groucho and I were.
Groucho Hosted The Tonight Show For A Week
Groucho's greatest talent was thinking on his feet, which is a crucial skill for a talk show host. After Jack Paar retired from The Tonight Show in 1962, NBC offered the hosting gig to Marx, but he turned them down. They eventually gave it to Johnny Carson, but he had to fulfill his obligation as the host of ABC's Who Do You Trust? before he could officially take up the post. In the meantime, the show was taken over by a series of guest hosts, a gig that was more suited Marx's lifestyle. He hosted the show for a week before it was taken over by Art Linkletter and Joey Bishop.
Groucho's Final Years
Marx never stopped working, even as he entered his seventies and eighties. He staged a one-man show at Carnegie Hall in 1972 and penned several books, largely at the behest of his girlfriend and pseudo-manager, Erin Fleming. The 1974 Academy Awards, where he received an honorary award, marked his last public appearance. Soon after, his health began to deteriorate, and three years later, he died of pneumonia at the age of 86.
Legal battles over his estate carried on into the 1980s. Much of his money went to his children, but Fleming retained administrative control of his name, image, and movie rights, which angered his children, who believed Fleming to be a predator who took advantage of the older man. They sued and won, and Fleming was ordered to pay $472,000 to the estate.
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