Many young people today might not be able to identify Groucho Marx, but the famed Groucho Glasses remain one of the most iconic costume props of all time. It’s a shame that while the bushy eyebrows, mustache, and glasses are still around, the man who inspired them is fading from memory. Likewise, many might not know that the complete costume includes a large cigar.
For Groucho, the cigar was no prop. Instead, he was an avid smoker who enjoyed his daily cigars. Here’s a look at the man many consider the most remarkable American comedian.
Early Life With Groucho Marx and Vaudeville
Born Julius Marx in 1890, Groucho Marx’s vaudeville and smoking career started when he was 15. Like other era performers, he began as a singer before moving to comedy. His stogie was a valuable prop when searching for a line. Improv and smoking seem to go hand and hand. George Burns also insisted that his cigar was his favorite stage companion when he needed time to think of a quip. Like Burns, Groucho Marx would become famous for his one-liners.
In the early years of their act, Groucho and his brothers adopted various personas. Chico used an Italian accent. Harpo, who didn’t like to talk on stage, wore a curly red wig. Groucho initially used a German accent. However, he dropped the accent when anti-German sentiment spiked at the start of World War I, and his familiar wise-cracking schtick was born.
It was around this time that Groucho began using his signature look. The mustache and eyebrows were actually theatrical greasepaint. Legend has it that Groucho did not have time to apply a prop mustache before a show one night, so he quickly painted one on his upper lip. Whether the story is true or not, the rest is history. The absurd get-up, complete with eyeglasses, would become classic.
Groucho Marx’s Cigars
When he was starting out and short on money, Groucho smoked nickel cigars. Later, when he could afford it, Groucho smoked expensive cigars. La Preferencias, a Cuban cigar, was one of his regular smokes, but the Dunhill 410 was his favorite. His son, Arthur, also recalls him having Belindas in the humidor for special guests. Belinda was a pre-revolutionary Cuban line. They were discontinued in the 1960s but were a prestigious brand in Groucho Marx’s day.
Groucho once said, “Marriage is the chief cause of divorce.” He was probably an authority on the topic. He married three times. When his third wife, Eden, complained about his smoking Groucho responded, “A woman is just a woman; a cigar is a smoke.” She allegedly banished him from the bedroom for six months.
Groucho Marx: Movies and Television
Groucho honed his comedic routine on stage, and like many vaudeville stars, he and his brothers took their act to the movies. The Marx Brothers made 13 movies in all. Many are considered classics. Duck Soup, A Night at the Opera, and several others were listed on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 Best Comedies. Nearly a hundred years old, Marx Brothers’ movies remain some of the most influential of all time.
Groucho Marx also wrote books and starred on radio and television. Later, fans may know him as the host of You Bet Your Life, a radio and television game show that aired from 1947 to 1961. The popular quiz show was recently revived with Jay Leno as host.
Bantering with contestants was the perfect platform for Groucho’s comedic talents. However, one interaction of the show was the source of his most debated one-liners.
Groucho Marx’s Most Famous One-liner That Never Was
Groucho is known for his one-liners. He could be self-deprecating: “I would never belong to a club that would have me as a member.” Somewhat political: “Military intelligence is a contradiction in terms.” Considering he was a television and movie star, he could also be self-sabotaging: “I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book”.
However, Groucho’s most famous one-liner is one that some historians insist never happened, and plenty of fans insist they remember vividly. But, of course, it was a cigar quip.
It took place during a taping of You Bet Your Life. Groucho was talking with a contestant who told him she had ten children. When Groucho asked her why she answered, “Because I love my husband.” The quick-witted Groucho replied in kind. “I love my cigar too, but I take it out of my mouth every once and a while.”
In interviews late in life, Groucho denied saying it, but it does appear in one biographer’s account. The debate continues. Many fans claim it was a male contestant. They claim to have heard it live, but the year of the show varies. Others say Groucho would have never been so crass. The show was also pre-recorded. A line like that would have never gotten past censors in that era. Unfortunately, no one has confirmed a recording of the comment, so we may never know.
Still, who else could we attribute such a zinger but Groucho Marx? A man who took comedy and his cigars seriously.
Photo credit: “Groucho Marx 1957,” by McFadden Publications, licensed under CC By 2.0