by David Holzel
They were the bad boys of Broadway and, as the film record shows, of Hollywood as well. Chico, Harpo, Groucho, Gummo and Zeppo Marx, with their now iconic names and personas left a mark on the culture much greater than the sum of their work. As The Four Marx Brothers (Gummo left the team early on, replaced by baby brother Zeppo), they made five major films between The Cocoanuts in 1929 and Duck Soup in 1933. Sans Zeppo, they appeared together in another eight pictures through 1950.
They grew up poor in New York City, sons of an immigrant family that already had made inroads in show business. Oddly for showbiz Jews of that era, the Marx Brother kept their last names, but changed their first names. Here are 10 lesser known lessons about their lives.
1. There would have been six.
There was a sixth Marx brother, although he actually was the first. Manfred Marx was born in 1885 and died in infancy, probably of tuberculosis, according to The Marx Brothers Encyclopedia, by Glenn Mitchell. The oldest surviving brother, Leo aka Leonard aka Chico, was born in 1887.
While all the brothers became known by their more famous show business names, only Harpo changed his given name. His German-Jewish immigrant parents originally named him Adolph, which, long before the rise of that other Adolf, Harpo Americanized to Arthur.
3. Here's your dialect, what's your hurry?
As was common on the vaudeville circuit, the early Marxes portrayed ethnic stereotypes. Chico was the Italian, a persona he never dropped. Harpo was an "Irish boob," reports Simon Louvish in his Marx biography, Monkey Business. Groucho's character was sometimes Dutch, sometimes German.
That changed on May 7, 1915, according to Stefan Kanfer's biography Groucho. That was the day German submarines torpedoed and sank the passenger ship Lusitania. Between the afternoon and evening shows, when news of the attack reached the theater, Groucho's accent metamorphosed from German to Yiddish. Eventually Groucho dropped the accent entirely.
4. A Day at the Farm
Raised in the Upper East Side German ghetto of Yorkville, the Marxes were as urban as they came. That helps to explain why they made such lousy farmers. When conscription was instituted during World War I, materfamilias Minnie Marx learned that farmers were exempt from the draft. She promptly purchased a 27-acre homestead in La Grange, Illinois, and moved the family there.
In a farce equal to their best work, the Marxes started a poultry farm. Each night, rats made off with the day's eggs, Kanfer writes. The Selective Service finally caught up with the Marxes in 1917. One by one the brothers were rejected. Only Gummo, who had been part of the act, was drafted -- but spent the war serving in Illinois. Zeppo, the youngest brother, then joined the team.
5. Filler up?
6. "Take a letter."
Although Groucho was forced by his mother to quit school at age 13 and go to work, he was the most intellectually inclined of the brothers. In 1964, the Library of Congress sought to obtain Groucho's extensive correspondence with show-business pals, friends and family. Groucho even exchanged letters with President Harry S Truman, Mitchell writes, "with whom [he] seems to have enjoyed a surprising rapport."
7. Speaking of presidents
Calvin Coolidge was in the audience one night to see the Marxes' Broadway show Animal Crackers, according to historian David Greenberg, author of Calvin Coolidge. Noticing the president, who enjoyed sleep as liberally as his politics were conservative, Groucho cracked from the stage, "Isn't it past your bedtime, Calvin?"
8. Arthur Marx and the Round Table
Although Groucho possessed literary aspirations, it was the semi-literate Harpo who found a welcome seat at the Algonquin Round Table of Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley. Invited by drama critic Alexander Woollcott, Harpo, "who sat, listened, played cards, and who was at ease anywhere," writes Louvish, survived "unscathed" what brother Groucho described as "sort of an intellectual slaughterhouse."
9. Getting Thalberg's Attention, 101
In the beginning, their attempts just to meet with the notoriously unavailable wunderkind resembled a Marx Brothers film. They arrived punctually for appointments, only to find Thalberg's office shut. Once, they tried to signal their presence by blowing cigar smoke under his door and yelling "Fire!" After they finally made it into his office, Thalberg excused himself to consult with Louis B. Mayer. When he returned after an interminable delay, he found the brothers "squatting nude, roasting potatoes in his display fireplace," Kanfer writes. Several weeks later, Thalberg kept the Marxes waiting again. "On this occasion they barricaded his door with heavy filing cabinets," according to Kanfer. "These took an hour to remove. Never again did the Marx Brothers cool their heels in his waiting room."
10. Nixon's the One
Groucho spent his career deflating the rich, the pompous and the clueless "“ and got away with it. But in 1971, a thoughtless comment put him in duck soup with America's most humorless president.
Lunching with reporters from Take One, a San Francisco Bay-area underground newspaper, Groucho was asked, "Do you think there's any hope for Nixon?" Kanfer writes. Groucho, his judgment dimmed perhaps by cocktails and his own advancing age, shot back, "No, I think the only hope for this country is Nixon's assassination."
By the next day the wire services had the quote, and so did the FBI, which promptly investigated him. Kanfer writes, "The octogenarian was officially listed in File No. CO 1297009207 as a potential threat to the life of the chief executive."
Writer David Holzel keeps a 17-inch-tall plaster statue of Groucho in his office at all times. Groucho unwittingly also helped inspire David's ezine, The Jewish Angle. His last mental_floss story was a celebration of Franklin Pierce.