What They Are Really Like — The Marx Brothers (1931) 🇺🇸
They are simply crazy on the screen. But what are they like at home? What sort of next door neighbors would they make? This article tells you
When the delightfully funny Marx brothers leave the stage they doff their make-up but their wise-cracks go right on without end
by Thyrer Samter Winslow
One of the advantages of living in Great Neck, Long Island, is that you may meet socially one or two or three or four Marx Brothers. Which is a treat, if you think it is. And I think it is.
Great Neck, Long Island, is no different from a dozen other substantial, “smart” New York suburbs or from any small prosperous American town. It’s business street is called, originally enough, neither Main Street nor Broadway but, instead, Middle Neck Road, and is full of the same branch grocery stores and gift shoppes and cleaning establishments and Italian fruit stands found in all other small towns. Great Neck, being near New York, is the home of those who must do business in the city but who, because of small town proclivities, prefer a small community. On its tree-lined streets are the homes of professional and business men, writers, theatrical people and, toward the end of the town are estates of millionaires. The Sam Hellmans live in Great Neck and the Whitney Boltons and the Gene Bucks and the George Cohans and the Arthur Hopkins’. And lots of other folks you’ve heard about.
On one of the well-kept streets in a house that is in quiet good taste, large, but not nearly in the millionaire class and certainly lacking the ornamentation and ostentation which go with some screen stars’ Hollywood homes, lives Groucho Marx, perhaps the most brilliant of the four Marx brothers. And in summer Harpo takes a house nearby. And Chico and Zeppo live in the neighborhood or come out for visits. When the Marx brothers aren’t working they live the life of very quiet and apparently very contented suburban folk, the type that have always had money and a nice home and the usual comforts of gracious living. Zeppo is likely to drive by in his Lincoln or Groucho in his new Packard — with a couple of his own or neighborhood children on the back seat. Which would all be natural enough, save that it happens to be the latest chapter in one of the always interesting folk stories of Of course you know the Marx Brothers. Perhaps you saw them in vaudeville or in one of their stage successes even before you saw them on the screen. On the screen they have starred in “The Cocoanuts” and Animal Crackers and are even now preparing for another show.
Groucho is the garrulous comic with the large painted false moustache and the innumerable wisecracks. He looks the oldest. As a matter of fact he is second to youngest of the quartette.
Harpo, whose family occasionally call him by his given name of Arthur, is the oldest. If he needs be identified to you, he is the boy with the comical red wig and the sometimes evil and lascivious smile and the very talkative harp — though he, himself, says never a word. Harpo’s silence didn’t come, as you may have imagined, because of his great gift of pantomime. That gift developed after he didn’t speak! When the act was new in vaudeville, Harpo was thrust unprepared into it — and he was too timid to say a word! And when the audience laughed at his antics it was thought wiser to let him remain silent.
The next brother is Leonard, much better known as Chico. Chico is the boy who gives the Italian impersonations. He, too, has a rather strange and weird gift for music, playing the piano in a way that it was perhaps never intended to be played and quite improving on the general run of playing.
Third, then, is Julius — Groucho himself. Groucho, I’m sure, was a born comedian. His repartee is so quick that when he is in the mood, off-stage, he can turn any casual conversation into gifted banter without showing off or making his hearers feel that he is hogging the stage. On the contrary, this very talented fellow has a way of making you think that you are part of the brilliancy of the evening. But look out for him! He has a way, in his humor, of taking you down, putting you nicely in your place, killing any attempt you may have for showing off. One night at a party I wore carved silver earrings which
I thought strangely effective and vastly becoming.
“Where did you get them?” someone asked casually.
Perhaps I had been waiting for just that very inquiry.
“Oh, something I picked up in Algiers,” I said.
And before I had time to get away with anything, if indeed that had been my object, quick as a flash Groucho asked innocently:
His cleverness doesn’t interfere with his being excellent company. He is a thoughtful host. He likes good food and has such a hearty appetite he is a real delight to any hostess, especially if she feels that her cook is a good one. He took three helpings of fried chicken at the Sam Hellmans! It was awfully good chicken! And wouldn’t I have felt bad if he had neglected a third helping of Edna’s chicken when he dined here?
If Groucho doesn’t write most of his own stuff — and he gives more than generous credit to his playwrights — I’m sure that he assists them mightily. I have seen too many comedians who were stupid, socially, without their authors. The last of the quartette is Zeppo. Zeppo is the handsome boy who plays straight. The general opinion is that Zeppo doesn’t amount to much on the stage or screen and is kept on because it is hard to get good looking straight men and because the boy ought to do something. I think that is a hundred per cent wrong diagnosis. Perhaps Zeppo isn’t as good a comedian as Groucho nor as good a harpist as Harpo nor is his Italian accent and piano-playing equal to Chico’s. But, personally, I think he is the second brightest in the family. Next to Groucho, I think he has the keenest wit, the most analytical mind, the most understanding humor. More of the comic effects that the Marx brothers put across are due to Zeppo, I’m quite sure, than you may at first be willing to credit. And besides this, he is an awfully interesting fellow.
The home life of the Marx brothers? As I insinuated, it’s far more normal and human than you’d believe — seeing them on the screen, or having read about comedians.
Three of the four brothers are married. Chico has a daughter, young Maxine. And Groucho has two children, Arthur, who is nine, now, and Miriam, three.
I don’t know what method they use but the Marx brothers succeed in marrying beautiful women. And all three married girls they met on the stage. Chico’s wife was Betty Karp. Zeppo’s wife was the attractive Marian Bender. And she could make a fortune any day if she would sell the secrets — if there are secrets — of her flawless and glowing complexion. Groucho’s wife was Ruth Johnson before her marriage, a dancer in one of the Marx Brothers’ earlier successes. She is charming and understanding — a lovely girl. Ruth admits to ten years of marriage — but when she stopped in to see me a day or two ago, clad in the gayest of red suits collared in badger, with a hat of the exact warm shade as the suit, and her blonde hair just disheveled enough from a drive in an open car to be fascinating, she looked a very young eighteen. There must be something about these Marx Brothers!
In the winter, Zeppo and Chico live in town, Chico near the Ethical Culture School on account of Maxine, and Zeppo in quite an impressive duplex apartment in the East seventies, which, he pointed out to me, in spite of its smart location, was quite near a very good delicatessen store. Groucho lives all year in Great Neck in the very comfortable English style house with its gracious rooms and sense of hospitality.
Which is quite a rise, an understandable, American sort of rise, from small cramped dark rooms in an East Side tenement.
The boys were born on New York’s East Side — but the love of the show business was born in them. Back in Germany, Herr Lafe Shonberg, their grandfather, was a traveling musician. And their grandmother traveled with him in the wagon from town to town and helped out a bit in the show. Herr Shonberg played a harp and that large, unwieldy instrument remained, somehow, in the family, though silent for years. Perhaps it was only natural, then, that Harpo... Mr. Marx was a tailor and not a very good one. He mended clothes and pressed suits — and made new suits when there were opportunities, which were infrequent. But there were many mouths to feed and he lacked the business ability that led other East Side tailors to spread out, brilliantly, into “cloaks and suits.” So the mother of the Marx boys, dreaming perhaps of the Shonbergs, and contrasting the lives of her parents and the wagon show in the old country to that East Side tenement, put it into the minds of her boys that perhaps the show business was the place for them. An uncle had gone into the show business. And hadn’t their ancestors been show people? They were smart boys, weren’t they? The family and the neighbors were always laughing at their humor.
Chico started first, in a musical act. It went over in a way, on very small time. Then Mrs. Marx organized the family into a sort of entertainment. And got bookings for them! And they really were as funny as she had thought them! Here was one case where a fond mother hadn’t overrated her boys’ talents.
For years, though, they didn’t have an easy time of it. Humor like theirs isn’t recognized immediately unless some prophet, with a public press at his disposal, discovers them. And in those early days no one discovered the Marx Brothers. Their acts — for they changed their material whenever necessity and unkind theatrical managers demanded — were billed under half a dozen different names on half a dozen minor circuits. There were long jumps to get to towns where, seemingly, the audiences didn’t even care if the four performers arrived.
But it was fun around the theater. Poker games. Gossip in the wings. Jokes to be played on the less suspecting. And there was the blood of the Shonbergs! Through a dozen years of trouping, the Marx Brothers kept their family pride and their ambition and their sense of humor.
I don’t know whether they ever thought they’d be stars of a Broadway revue or on the screen. I doubt it. I believe the farthest they ever dreamed was that dream of every good vaudeville performer — a little farm some place and a week at the Palace. I think that now, sometimes, they have to pinch themselves to know that things are real — big cars and luxurious homes and friends who laugh appropriately at their jokes. Time for a leisurely family life. Pretty wives. Children growing up.
If you knew the Marx boys you’d like them. I’m sure of that. The same things that makes you laugh at them on the stage would make you howl at them in their homes. Ridiculous fun. Mad antics. Wholesome humor.
There are no Pagliaccis here, no clowns with hearts breaking beneath the motley. Oh, they have their troubles. When the stock market crashed last year —. But isn’t that all a part of the American scene? After all, they were getting rich, had money to invest in stocks —
Strangely enough, Groucho, Zeppo, and Harpo are all great admirers of Charlie Chaplin.
“He makes me laugh most and he touches me the deepest,” says Zeppo.
The four Marx Brothers, you see, are in no way unusual. Some consider them the best comedians in America. And others wonder what the racket is all about when they hear the huzzahs after a bit of peculiarly Marxian humor. Well dressed, well read, agreeable, humorous fellows, a bit amazed but pleased, too, because life has treated them so well, inclined to be philosophical over any small misfortunes that come to them and, to a large extent without the underlay of tragedy we sometimes like to find in our comedians. The Marx Brothers are typically American — typical, that is, of what the stage and screen has done for America. Another example of the development and rise of an American family. In a way a saga of America.
A close-up of that moustache which Groucho sports which isn’t a moustache at all but merely a large daub of grease paint.
Mr. and Mrs. Julius Marx, their son Arthur, and the baby. Julius Marx, of private life, is the Groucho Marx of stage and screen.
Ben Bernie, Zeppo Marx, Eddie Cantor, Groucho Marx, his wife, Chico Marx and Harpo Marx. The occasion being the tenth anniversary of Groucho’s wedding.
At the time of Zeppo’s marriage. Left to right: Groucho, a relative, Harpo, Zeppo the bridegroom, Marian Bender the bride, and Chico.
Here is Groucho’s house which Miss Winslow describes as lacking the ornamentation and the ostentation which go with some screen stars’ Hollywood homes.
Source: The Modern Screen Magazine, January 1931