Groucho's life and times

After seeing OSF's "Animal Crackers" and getting a chance to speak with actor Mark Bedard, who plays Groucho on stage, I've been curious about the real Groucho Marx's life. Bedard said he spent nearly a year researching the iconic and influential comedian, including reading biographies about Groucho and the other Marx brothers. For both longtime fans and newbies like me, Bedard recommends, "Groucho: The Life and Times of Julius Henry Marx," by Stefan Kanfer. After reading the book, I can see why Kanfer claims that Groucho may have been the funniest man who has ever lived.

Kanfer, a former film critic, met Marx during an interview for "Time" magazine. His adoration of Groucho's talent and wit is obvious, but he doesn't whitewash the dark parts of Marx's character. Parts of Groucho's story are, of course, hilarious. Kanfer describes the antics of the Marx brothers, both on-stage and off, and the book includes plenty of the comedian's best wisecracks. Parts, however, are also heartbreaking, particularly those focusing on Groucho's personal life and his often destructive behavior toward those who loved him.

A lonely and quiet middle child, Groucho was forced to grow up fast. He and his brothers, sons of a German Jewish family in New York, were pressured by their mother, Minnie, to quit school and sing on vaudeville. Kanfer's descriptions of those early vaudeville years are fascinating. These kids had grueling travel schedules, long hours and had to learn fast how to avoid being robbed in their hotel rooms. While the boys weren't very successful as singers, they found that when they were acting goofy on stage, being the big kids they really were, the audience loved them. Kanfer writes how during one singing performance, their mother "watched horrified as all three of her sons interrupted their own number to follow the progress of a large bug crossing the stage." The audience loved such silliness so much that even the famous W.C. Fields refused to follow their act on stage.

Eventually, the boys crafted the personas we all know so well. Leonard put on a Pinocchio-style hat and polished his stage Italian, Adolph wore a bushy red wig to play an Irish loon, and Julius impersonated a beady-eyed, whiskered German professor in a black swallow-tailed coat. The grease-paint mustache and eyebrows came later. According to Kanfer, they got their names from a performer named Art Fisher during a poker game. It was popular on the vaudeville circuit for performers to have names ending in "o." Fisher nicknamed Julius Groucho because he was dour and carried a grouch bag, a small drawstring purse worn around the neck to keep money safe. Leonard, a compulsive gambler and woman (or chick) chaser, he named "Chicko" later "Chico," and Adolph, who played the harp was naturally called "Harpo." Kanfer also explores Groucho's relations with his brothers. His most difficult relationship was with Chico, a mathematical genius, who in their earlier years often resorted to petty crimes to support his gambling habit. Chico was also their mother's obvious favorite, which Groucho deeply resented. While Groucho and Harpo were far closer, Groucho is often baffled by Harpo's happiness and genuine love of life.

Much of the latter part of the book focuses on Groucho's family and his mistreatment of them. While not physically abusive, he was often neglectful and verbally cruel to his wives and children. By the end, both he and his family are painfully damaged.

Altogether, the story of Groucho the man is a sad one, but the story of Groucho the comic legend is truly amazing, a tale of wild genius, hard work and success that could only happen in America.

Angela Decker is a freelance writer in Ashland and can be reached at decker4@gmail.com.

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