The greasepaint mustache, glasses, and long cigar are trademarks of one of the most recognized people in entertainment history: Groucho Marx. His persona was larger than life; his wisecracks left us with a million one-liners. The impression he made on the world is evident; from the stereotypical “disguise mask” to the Vlasic pickles mascot, Groucho’s influence has spread far beyond the reaches of his Hollywood life. But the man behind the laughs was a real person, a collection of insecurities bound together and packaged as a clown. In his book, Groucho: The Life and Times of Julius Henry Marx, author Stefan Kanfer unravels the comedic genius at every level.
Groucho was born Julius Marx to Sam Marx (nicknamed Frenchie) and Minnie Schoenberg Marx. As a young man, Julius lived in the shadow of his brothers, mainly his oldest brother Leonard (Chico), whom their mother favored strongly. Minnie, the matriarch, had come from a show business family; her brother Al Shean was part of a famous Vaudeville duo and Minnie was determined to push her sons into the footsteps of their uncle. In total, five boys comprised the Marx clan: Leonard (Chico), Adolph (Harpo), Julius (Groucho), Milton (Gummo), and Herbert (Zeppo). Following the tales of Groucho’s autobiography, Groucho and Me, and Harpo’s autobiography, Harpo Speaks!, this book chronicles the brothers’ rise to fame through endurance and the steadfastness of Minnie Marx. Small appearances in rural America and shady managers are but a few pieces of the Marx Brothers puzzle.
Kanfer’s book begins in Groucho’s roots, tracing the Marx and Schoenberg families back to their respective countries. He immediately finds Groucho to be the least-favored of the Marx children and uses that as a basis for Groucho’s lifelong self-loathing. Like many comedians, the quick-witted Groucho covered his feelings of anxiety with a thick exterior, firing off non-sequitur in every direction, longing for respect in the literary world, and presenting himself as an unmovable force on stage. But at the foundation of this masquerade was a lonely person who was convinced the world didn’t understand him. His lack of a childhood compromised his entire life; and despite immense fame at the end of the 1920s and into the mid-1930s, Groucho was never fully content. His attempts at marriage failed miserably and the relationships he had with each of his children eventually deteriorated.
As the 1940s came around, the public no longer demanded Marxian humor. Theirs was an archaic brand of comedy; it was theatrical and stagey in an era of big budget musicals and drama. The brothers experienced a sudden collapse, and each went off in their own direction. Chico, a notorious gambling addict, continued to shoot dice and case women into the late hours of the night. Harpo, probably the happiest Marx of them all, went into semi-retirement, married actress Susan Fleming, and raised a family. Gummo and Zeppo had long abandoned their acting careers and pursued other business ventures; Zeppo eventually became a successful Hollywood agent. Groucho, however, just sat and waited in his world of uncertainty.
The advent of television and the popularity of quiz shows provided a much needed resurgence with You Bet Your Life, but Groucho was too set in his ways to become optimistic. He was always waiting for the other shoe to drop, so much in fact that he squirreled away most of his money and only spent lavishly when he had a contingency plan in the back of his mind. With a constant need to prove himself to others (no doubt an echo of trying to please his mother as a child, and always failing to do so), Groucho lived for adoration under the guise of indifference. He had no real life out of character. The mask became the man. When the laughing stopped and the applause faded, Julius Henry Marx again wallowed in the emptiness that had plagued his youth.
Groucho Marx passed away in 1977. In the decades following his death, he has become a cultural icon and a comedy legend. His gift for wordplay, double talk, and backwards logic is evidenced in his film work, and his legacy continues today. Groucho: The Life and Times of Julius Henry Marx is a non-biased examination of the man, paying equal attention to his contributions and his mistakes. This is a must-read for any Marx Brothers fan.