Groucho Marx (Born, Julius Henry Marx),
was an American comedian, working both with his siblings,
the Marx Brothers, and on his own.
The Marx family grew up on the Upper East Side of
New York City, in a small Jewish neighborhood sandwiched
between Irish-German and Italian neighborhoods. For
a time in vaudeville, all the brothers performed in
ethnic accents; Leonard Marx, the oldest Marx brother,
developed the "Italian" accent he used as "Chico" to
convince some roving bullies that he was Italian, not
Jewish. Groucho did a German accent. However, after
the sinking of the RMS Lusitania in 1915 public anti-German
sentiment was widespread, and Groucho's "German" character
was booed, so he quickly dropped the accent and developed
the fast-talking wise guy character he would make famous.
Groucho developed a routine as a wise-cracking hustler
with a distinctive chicken-walking lope and an exaggerated
greasepaint mustache, improvising insults to stuffy
dowagers (often played by Margaret Dumont) and anyone
else who stood in his way. He and his brothers starred
in a series of extraordinarily popular movies and stage
shows, often departing from the scripts they were using.
The use of greasepaint originated spontaneously before
a vaudeville performance when he did not have time
to apply the pasted-on mustache he had been using.
In the 1930s and 1940s Groucho also worked as a radio
comedian and show host. In the late 1940s, he hosted
the popular radio program You Bet Your Life, which
moved over to television in 1950. The show consisted
of Groucho interviewing the contestants and ad libbing
jokes. Then they would play a brief quiz. The show
was responsible for the phrases "Say the secret
woid[word] and divide $100" (that is, each contestant
would get $50); and "Who's buried in Grant's Tomb?" or "What
color is the White House?" (asked when Groucho
felt sorry for a contestant who hadn't won anything).
It would run 11 years on television.
Throughout his career he introduced a number of memorable
songs in films, including "Hooray for Captain
Spaulding", "I'm Against It", "Hello
I Must be Going", "Everyone Says I Love You" and "Lydia
the Tattooed Lady". Crooner Frank Sinatra once
quipped that the only thing he could do better than
Marx was sing.
Off-stage he was bookish and stated late in life
that he lamented the fact he had never finished school
or gone to college. Despite his lack of formal education
he wrote several books, including the autobiographical
Groucho and Me (1959) (Da Capo Press, 1995, ISBN 0306806665).
In later years he grew a real mustache, the lack
of which had earlier been an effective means of hiding
himself from fans.
His stage name was said to have been bestowed on
him because while in vaudeville he kept his money in
a bag around his neck known as a "grouch" bag.
An alternate story is that he was grouchy. The comedian
himself wrote that he did not know the nickname's origin.
In any case, he was a master at improvising clever
insults and became well known for this. One of his
frustrations in later years was that when he insulted
people who annoyed him they tended to laugh, thinking
it was just part of the famous comedian's act.
In the early 1970s, Groucho made a comeback of sorts
doing a live one-man show, including one recorded at
Carnegie Hall and released as a double album, An Evening
with Groucho, on A&M Records. His previous works
once again became popular and were accompanied by new
books of interviews and other transcribed conversations
by Richard J. Anobile and Charlotte Chandler. He had
become quite frail by this time, and his last few years
were accompanied by controversy over a companionship
he had developed with Erin Fleming and consequent disputes
over his estate.
Groucho Marx died on August 19, 1977. He was cremated,
and the ashes were interred in the Eden Memorial Park
Cemetery in Mission Hills, California. Aged 86 at death,
Groucho was the longest-lived of all the Marx brothers,
though younger brother Zeppo survived him by two years.
His death undoubtedly would have received more attention
at the time had it not occurred three days after that
of Elvis Presley.