Born Julius Henry Marx on 2 October, 1890, Groucho Marx is a 20th Century icon. His iconic status stems from his distinctive appearance; the bushy eyebrows, the cigar, the funny moustache and thick glasses.
Stepping into the Limelight
After leaving school aged just 11, Groucho got his first job in showbusiness in the summer of 1905 as a boy soprano with the Leroy Trio. From this he joined Gus Edwards' Postal Telegraph Boys at the Alhambra Theater, New York City on 23 April, 1906, performing in many different shows and revues. It was shortly after that the Marx Brothers first appeared on the scene.
Where His Act Came From
Groucho's characteristic style came from him being fed up with his early audiences and so he began throwing jokes and insults into the act, directly addressing the crowd in as hilariously nasty a manner as possible. His painted-on moustache comes from the time when he was unable to find his prop moustache and so he rapidly painted one on with greasepaint. He stuck with the look and this is how he would appear with his brothers ever afterward, despite efforts by certain film directors to make his moustache look realistic.
A Marriage of Marx
I've had a wonderful evening, but this wasn't it.
On the 4 February, 1920, Groucho married Ruth Johnson and on 21 July, 1921, Groucho and Ruth's child, Arthur, was born. The pair divorced on 15 July, 1942, after 22 years together. The saucy devil then married Kay Gorcey on 21 July, 1945, and had Melinda with her the following year. The two then divorced on 12 May, 1950 and on 17 July, 1954, Groucho got hitched yet again to Eden Hartford. Surprise, surprise, on 4 December, 1969, Groucho and Eden divorced.
Dipping his Ink
Groucho always considered himself a writer first, a comedian second, and over the years turned out several witty books and articles. He was gratified in the '60s when his letters to and from friends - funnily enough called The Groucho Letters - were installed in the Library of Congress, quite an accomplishment for a man who never finished grade school. From time to time Groucho also wrote articles and books including Memoirs of a Mangy Lover and Groucho and Me. He also contributed to The Marx Brothers Scrapbook.
Groucho Goes Solo from the Brothers
Please accept my resignation from your club. I cannot be a member in a club that accepts members like myself.
In the 1940s, after the Marx's heyday was over (the brothers were to appear only a few times together after 1941) Groucho kept himself busy with radio appearances and a stint with the Hollywood Victory Caravan.
In 1947 producer/writer John Guedel asked Groucho to host a radio quiz show called You Bet Your Life. Groucho at first refused, not wanting another failure on his résumé1. He accepted the assignment when assured that, instead of being confined to a banal script or his worn-out screen character, Groucho could be himself, ad-libbing to his heart's content with the contestants. Groucho's initial run of You Bet Your Life on the radio was so successful for the sponsor, Elgin American, that they ran out of powder compacts and cigarette cases. The first radio runs (then later TV runs) of You Bet Your Life lasted from 1947 to 1961, winning high ratings and several Emmies in the process. While he was doing You Bet Your Life, he also became involved during 1953 in The Big Show, an NBC attempt to generate more interest in radio variety, hosted by Tallulah Bankhead. The frisson between Bankhead and Groucho was monumental and the bits they did are legendary. After You Bet Your Life Groucho hosted another TV game show, Tell It To Groucho. However, this only lasted a few weeks before being pulled.
Groucho was on television until 1963 and, in the late sixties, the syndication of You Bet Your Life took off. Groucho, before the advent of home video recorders, used to take a nap so he could stay up and watch You Bet Your Life. By that time he'd forgotten most of the answers, many of the questions and almost all of the guests, so it was vastly entertaining to him. Groucho was also the guest host on The Tonight Show in 1962, on the night Johnny Carson took over.
The 1970s and Groucho
Groucho worked less and less as the 1960s came to an end, but he came back into the limelight in the early 1970s when his old films were rediscovered by the young anti-establishment types of the era, who revelled in Groucho's willingness to deflate authority. By this time, Groucho's health had been weakened by a stroke, but through the encouragement of his secretary/companion Erin Fleming, Marx returned to active performing with TV guest appearances and a 1972 SRO appearance at Carnegie Hall. In 1974 Groucho accepted a special Oscar at the Academy Awards ceremony.
Groucho died on 19 August, 1977 from pneumonia, aged 86. By this time all the other Marx Bros were dead, except Zeppo, who died two years later.
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