America’s Favorite Wise-Guy

He is considered one of the most iconic and influential comedians in U.S. entertainment history. Marx is most recognizable for his exaggerated greasepaint mustache and eyebrows, round glasses, and his sarcastic, Yankee “wise-guy” humor.

His Early Life

Groucho was born Julius Henry Marx on October 2nd, 1890, in Manhattan, New York City. He was the third son of Jewish immigrants, Miene “Minnie” and Simon “Frenchie” Marx. He and his growing family lived on the Upper East Side for about 14 years in a predominantly European immigrant community. As a teenager, Julius was forced to drop out of school to help his family make ends meet. During this time, he took singing lessons and voraciously read books, particularly the “rags-to-riches” stories by Horatio Alger.

Inspired by the success of his uncle, Al Shean, on vaudeville, Julius auditioned for minor roles until he landed his first gig as a boy singer with a group at the Romana Theatre in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The Marx family later moved to La Grange, Illinois to be closer to the Midwest’s more accessible theatre circuit. Seeing the talent of Julius and his brothers, their mother, Minnie, assembled the boys as an independent vaudeville singing troupe called “The Four Nightingales.” During a disastrous performance in Nacogdoches, Texas, the boys, in character, began hurling insults at the audience for their own amusement. The audience loved it and begged them for more comedy instead of singing. Thus, the group reformatted and named themselves the “Marx Brothers.”

His Career

A video showcase of Groucho Marx’s best jokes.

Julius’s stage name became “Groucho.” For this character, he adopted his iconic greasepaint mustache, eyebrows, and round glasses, spoke in a stereotypical New Yorker accent, and walked in a mocking imitation of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt’s slouching gait. He and his brothers became the biggest comedic stars of the Palace Theatre in New York City during the 1910s to 1920s. They gradually transitioned from the stage to cinema during the 1930s, acting in and producing some of that era’s most successful comedy films, including:

Groucho Marx’s most famous films.

By the end of the 1940s, Groucho’s career was taking a turn for the worse with a series of failed radio shows and stolen job offers. His bad luck ended when he was asked to host a radio quiz show. Originally repulsed by the offer, he was later convinced when informed that the show would be unscripted and entirely ad-libbed by Groucho himself. You Bet Your Life quickly became a smash hit, running on both radio and TV for 11 seasons until it was cancelled in 1961. After the show’s cancellation, Groucho acted in several smaller film roles, including one more Marx Brothers film, and provided guest appearances on late night talk shows until the late 1970s.

His Later Life

Groucho married three women, Ruth Johnson, Kay Marvis, and Eden Hartford. All women were substantially younger than him. Every marriage ended in divorce. He fathered two children, Arthur, and Miriam Marx. He kept close with his brothers and became good friends with contemporary Hollywood elite like Charlie Chaplain, Elton John, Alice Cooper, and Dick Cavett. During his final years, he became sickly and senile yet remained in good humor, often making deadpan jokes with his nurses and friends on his deathbed.

Groucho Marx died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center on August 19th, 1977, from pneumonia. His death was overshadowed by the death of Elvis Presley three days earlier. He died four months after his brother Gummo Marx died. Zeppo Marx died two years later. His gravestone bears no epitaph, but in one of his last interviews he suggested it could be:

“Excuse me, I can’t stand up.”

– Groucho marx

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