The exaggerated walk, with one hand on the small of his back and his torso bent almost 90 degrees at the waist was a parody of a fad from the 1880s and 1890s. Fashionable young men of the upper classes would affect a walk with their right hand held fast to the base of their spines, and with a slight lean forward at the waist and a very slight twist toward the right with the left shoulder, allowing the left hand to swing free with the gait. (Edmund Morris, in his biography The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, describes a young Roosevelt, newly elected to the State Assembly, walking into the House Chamber for the first time in this trendy, affected gait, somewhat to the amusement of the older and more rural members.) Groucho exaggerated this fad to a marked degree, and the comedy effect was enhanced by how out of date the fashion was by the 1940s and 1950s.
Julius Marx was born on October 2, 1890, in the Manhattan borough, of New York City, New York. Marx stated that he was born in a room above a butcher's shop on East 78th Street, "Between Lexington & 3rd", as told to Dick Cavett in a 1969 television interview. The Marx children grew up on East 93rd Street off Lexington Avenue in a neighborhood now known as Carnegie Hill on the Upper East Side of the borough of Manhattan. The turn-of-the-century building that his brother Harpo called "the first real home they ever knew" (in his memoir Harpo Speaks) was populated with European immigrants, mostly artisans. Just across the street were the oldest brownstones in the area, owned by people such as the well-connected Loew Brothers and william Orth. The Marx family lived at this location "for about 14 years", Groucho also told Cavett.
After a few stabs at entry-level office work and jobs suitable for adolescents, Julius took to the stage as a boy singer with the Gene Leroy Trio, debuting at the Ramona Theatre in Grand Rapids, MI on July 16, 1905. Marx reputedly claimed that he was "hopelessly average" as a vaudevillian, but this was typical Marx, wisecracking in his true form. By 1909 Minnie Marx had assembled her sons into an undistinguished vaudeville singing group billed as "The Four Nightingales". The brothers Julius, Milton (Gummo Marx) and Arthur (originally Adolph, from 1911 Harpo Marx) and another boy singer, Lou Levy, traveled the U.S. vaudeville circuits to little fanfare. After exhausting their prospects in the East the family moved to La Grange, Illinois, to play the Midwest.
For a time in vaudeville all the brothers performed using ethnic accents. Leonard, the oldest, developed the Italian accent he used as Chico Marx to convince some roving bullies that he was Italian, not Jewish. Arthur, the next oldest, donned a curly red wig and became "Patsy Brannigan", a stereotypical Irish character. His discomfort when speaking on stage led to his Uncle Al Shean's suggestion that he stop speaking altogether and play the role in mime. Julius Marx's character from "Fun In Hi Skule" was an ethnic German, so Julius played him with a German accent. After the sinking of the RMS Lusitania in 1915, public anti-German sentiment was widespread, and Marx's German character was booed, so he quickly dropped the accent and developed the fast-talking wise-guy character that became his trademark.
The greasepaint mustache and eyebrows originated spontaneously prior to a vaudeville performance in the early 1920s when he did not have time to apply the pasted-on mustache he had been using (or, according to his autobiography, simply did not enjoy the removal of the mustache every night because of the effects of tearing an adhesive bandage off the same patch of skin every night). After applying the greasepaint mustache, a quick glance in the mirror revealed his natural hair eyebrows were too undertoned and did not match the rest of his face, so Marx added the greasepaint to his eyebrows and headed for the stage. The absurdity of the greasepaint was never discussed on-screen, but in a famous scene in Duck Soup, where both Chicolini (Chico) and Pinky (Harpo) disguise themselves as Groucho, they are briefly seen applying the greasepaint, implicitly answering any question a viewer might have had about where he got his mustache and eyebrows.
Their first movie was a silent film made in 1921 that was never released, and is believed to have been destroyed at the time. A decade later, the team made two of their Broadway hits—The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers—into movies. Other successful films were Monkey Business, Horse Feathers, Duck Soup, and A Night at the Opera. One quip from Marx concerned his response to Sam Wood, the Director of A Night at the Opera. Furious with the Marx Brothers' ad-libs and antics on the set, Wood yelled in disgust: "You can't make an actor out of clay." Groucho responded, "Nor a Director out of Wood."
Groucho's radio career was not as successful as his work on stage and in film, though historians such as Gerald Nachman and Michael Barson suggest that, in the case of the single-season Flywheel, Shyster, and Flywheel (1932), the failure may have been a combination of a poor time slot and the Marx Brothers' returning to Hollywood to make another film.
In the mid-1940s, during a depressing lull in his career (his radio show Blue Ribbon Town had failed, he failed to sell his proposed sitcom The Flotsam Family only to see it become a huge hit as The Life of Riley with william Bendix in the title role, and the Marx Brothers as film performers were well past their prime), Groucho was scheduled to appear on a radio show with Bob Hope. Annoyed that he was made to wait in the green room for 40 minutes, Groucho went on the air in a foul mood.
Groucho's three marriages all ended in divorce. His first wife was chorus girl Ruth Johnson. He was 29 and she 19 at the time of their wedding. The couple had two children, Arthur Marx and Miriam Marx. His second wife was Kay Marvis (m. 1945–51), née Catherine Dittig, former wife of Leo Gorcey. Groucho was 54 and Kay 21 at the time of their marriage. They had a daughter, Melinda Marx. His third wife was Actress Eden Hartford.
You Bet Your Life debuted in October 1947 on ABC radio (which aired it from 1947 to 1949), sponsored by costume jewelry manufacturer Allen Gellman; and then on CBS (1949–50), and finally NBC, continuing until May 1961—on radio only, 1947–1950; on both radio and television, 1950–1960; and on television only, 1960–1961. The show proved a huge hit, being one of the most popular on television by the mid-1950s. With George Fenneman as his announcer and straight man, Groucho entertained his audiences with improvised conversation with his guests. Since You Bet Your Life was mostly ad-libbed and unscripted—although Writers did pre-interview the guests and feed Groucho ready-made lines in advance—the producers insisted that the network prerecord it (instead of it being broadcast live). There were two reasons for this: prerecording provided Groucho with time to fish around for funny exchanges and any intervening dead spots to be edited out; and secondly to protect the network, since Groucho was a notorious loose cannon and known to say almost anything. The television show ran for 11 successful seasons until it was canceled in 1961. Automobile marque DeSoto was a longtime major sponsor. For the DeSoto ads Marx would sometimes say: "Tell 'em Groucho sent you", or "Try a DeSoto before you decide".
By the time You Bet Your Life debuted on TV on October 5, 1950, Groucho had grown a real mustache (which he had already sported earlier in the films Copacabana and Love Happy).
Throughout his career he introduced a number of memorable songs in films, including "Hooray for Captain Spaulding" and "Hello, I Must Be Going", in Animal Crackers, "Whatever It Is, I'm Against It", "Everyone Says I Love You" and "Lydia the Tattooed Lady". Frank Sinatra, who once quipped that the only thing he could do better than Marx was sing, made a film with Marx and Jane Russell in 1951 entitled Double Dynamite.
The program's theme music was an instrumental version of "Hooray for Captain Spaulding", which became increasingly identified as Groucho's personal theme song. A recording of the song with Groucho and the Ken Lane Singers with an orchestra directed by Victor Young was released in 1952. Another recording made by Groucho during this period was "The Funniest Song in the World", released on the Young People's Records label in 1949. It was a series of five original children's songs with a connecting narrative about a monkey and his fellow zoo creatures.
During a tour of Germany in 1958, accompanied by then-wife Eden, daughter Melinda, Robert Dwan and Dwan's daughter Judith, he climbed a pile of rubble that marked the site of Adolf Hitler's bunker, the site of Hitler's death, and performed a two-minute Charleston. He later remarked to Richard J. Anobile in The Marx Brothers Scrapbook, "Not much satisfaction after he killed six million Jews!"
Despite his lack of formal education, he wrote many books, including his autobiography, Groucho and Me (1959) and Memoirs of a Mangy Lover (1963). He was a friend of such literary figures as Booth Tarkington, T. S. Eliot and Carl Sandburg. Much of his personal correspondence with those and other figures is featured in the book The Groucho Letters (1967) with an introduction and commentary on the letters written by Groucho, who donated his letters to the Library of Congress. His daughter Miriam published a collection of his letters to her in 1992 titled Love, Groucho.
Nat Perrin, close friend of Groucho Marx and Writer of several Marx Brothers films, inspired John Astin's portrayal of Gomez Addams on the 1960s TV series The Addams Family with similarly thick mustache, eyebrows, sardonic remarks, backward logic, and ever-present cigar (pulled from his breast pocket already lit).
Another TV show, Tell It To Groucho, premiered January 11, 1962 on CBS, but only lasted five months. On October 1, 1962, Groucho, after acting as occasional guest host of The Tonight Show during the six-month interval between Jack Paar and Johnny Carson, introduced Carson as the new host.
In 1964, Marx starred in the "Time for Elizabeth" episode of Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre, a truncated version of a play that Groucho Marx and Norman Krasna wrote in 1948.
In 1965, Groucho starred in a weekly show for British TV titled Groucho, broadcast on ITV. The program was along similar lines to You Bet Your Life, with Keith Fordyce taking on the Fenneman role. However, it was poorly received and lasted only 11 weeks.
Groucho appeared as a gangster named God in the movie Skidoo (1968), directed by Otto Preminger, and costarring Jackie Gleason and Carol Channing. It was released by the studio where the Marx Brothers began their film career, Paramount Pictures. The film received almost universally negative reviews. As a side note, Writer Paul Krassner published a story in the February 1981 issue of High Times, relating how Groucho prepared for the LSD-themed movie by taking a dose of the drug in Krassner's company, and had a moving, largely pleasant experience.
In 1972, largely at the behest of his companion Erin Fleming, Groucho staged a live one-man show at Carnegie Hall that was later released as a double album, An Evening with Groucho, on A&M Records. He also made an appearance in 1973 on a short-lived variety show hosted by Bill Cosby. Fleming's influence on Marx was controversial. Some close to Marx believed that she did much to revive his popularity, and the relationship with a younger woman boosted his ego and vitality. Others described her as a Svengali, exploiting an increasingly senile Marx in pursuit of her own stardom. Marx's children, particularly Arthur, felt strongly that Fleming was pushing their weak Father beyond his physical and mental limits. Writer Mark Evanier concurred.
A meeting with Elton John led to a press photo of Groucho pointing both of his index fingers and thumbs at Elton like revolvers. John's spontaneous response to hold up his hands and replying "Don't shoot me! I'm only the piano player!" was so amusing that Elton John reused it as the title of a 1973 album. An added Marx homage was that a poster for the Marx Brothers' movie Go West was included on the cover art.
Two albums by British rock band Queen, A Night at the Opera (1975) and A Day at the Races (1976), are named after Marx Brothers films. In March 1977, Groucho invited Queen to visit him in his Los Angeles home; there they performed "'39" a cappella.
Sidney Sheldon wrote a roman à clef on Marx and his partner Erin Fleming titled A Stranger in the Mirror, published in 1976. It was made into a television movie in 1993 with actor Perry King playing the role inspired by Marx.
Marx was hospitalized at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center with pneumonia on June 22, 1977 and died there more than a month later at the age of 86 on August 12, four months after Gummo's death.
Actor Frank Ferrante has performed as Groucho Marx on stage for more than two decades. He continues to tour under rights granted by the Marx family in a show entitled An Evening with Groucho in theaters throughout the United States and Canada with supporting actors and piano accompanist Jim Furmston. In the late 1980s Ferrante starred as Groucho in the off-Broadway and London show Groucho: A Life in Revue penned by Groucho's son Arthur. Ferrante portrayed the Comedian from age 15 to 85. The show was later filmed for PBS in 2001. In 1982, Gabe Kaplan filmed a version of the same show, entitled Groucho.
Woody Allen's 1996 musical Everyone Says I Love You, in addition to being named for one of Groucho's signature songs, ends with a Groucho-themed New Year's Eve party in Paris, which some of the stars, including Allen and Goldie Hawn, attend in full Groucho costume. The highlight of the scene is an ensemble song-and-dance performance of "Hooray for Captain Spaulding"—done entirely in French.
Marx & Lennon: The Parallel Sayings was published in 2005; the book records similar sayings between Groucho Marx and John Lennon.
The BBC remade the radio sitcom Flywheel, Shyster, and Flywheel, with contemporary actors playing the parts of the original cast. The series was repeated on digital radio station BBC7. Scottish Playwright Louise Oliver wrote a play named Waiting for Groucho about Chico and Harpo waiting for Groucho to turn up for the filming of their last project together. This was performed by Glasgow theatre company Rhymes with Purple Productions at the Edinburgh Fringe and in Glasgow and Hamilton in 2007–08. Groucho was played by Scottish actor Frodo McDaniel.
Groucho Marx was, and remains, the most recognizable and well-known of the Marx Brothers. Groucho-like characters and references have appeared in popular culture both during and after his life, some aimed at audiences who may never have seen a Marx Brothers movie. Groucho's trademark eyeglasses, nose, mustache, and cigar have become icons of comedy—glasses with fake noses and mustaches (referred to as "Groucho glasses", "nose-glasses," and other names) are sold by novelty and costume shops around the world.
Marx's family was Jewish. Groucho's mother was Miene "Minnie" Schoenberg, whose family came from Dornum in northern Germany when she was 16 years old. His Father was Simon "Sam" Marx, who changed his name from Marrix, and was called "Frenchie" by his sons throughout his life because he and his family came from Alsace in France. Minnie's brother was Al Schoenberg, who shortened his name to Al Shean when he went into show Business as half of Gallagher and Shean, a noted vaudeville act of the early 20th century. According to Groucho, when Shean visited he would throw the local waifs a few coins so that when he knocked at the door he would be surrounded by adoring fans. Marx and his brothers respected his opinions and asked him on several occasions to write some material for them.