Friday, May 29, 2009

Zeppo and Gambling

Zeppo Marx talking with newsmen after testifying at the grand jury gambling investigation, Terre Haute, IN, August 1958. Photographer: Frank Scherschel

Chico is known as the gambler among the Marx brothers, but Zeppo also did his share of gambling. The difference is that Zeppo was able to pay his debts, while Chico usually was in financial straits. The brothers did what they could to help him out. The last movie featuring the three Marx Brothers was "Love Happy" (1949). It started out as a vehicle for Harpo, then Chico was added to the cast because he needed the money. The producers were having trouble financing the picture. A small role was written in for Groucho, so the movie could be promoted as a Marx Brothers film. Even that wasn't enough, and the producers had to resort to product placement to raise enough cash to finish the picture.

Zeppo's gambling made the news on a couple occasions. In 1958, he was subpoenaed as a witness in a federal grand jury investigation of a nationwide betting syndicate headquartered in, of all places, Terre Haute, Indiana. Zeppo wasn't accused of a crime, but he had placed bets with the syndicate via telephone from Las Vegas or from his home in Palm Springs during the 1957 football season. During his testimony, when asked how he got the syndicate's number, he replied, "You can ask any little girl coming out of a kindergarten in Las Vegas, and she'll tell you how to find a bookie." Ah, the good old days before Vegas became "family friendly!"

Ten years later in 1968, five mobsters were convicted of cheating members of the Friars Club and their guests out of more than $400,00 in a scam carried out in 1962 and 1963. Among those losing money were Zeppo Marx, comedian Phil Silvers, and singer Tony Martin. As reported in Time Magazine, December 13, 1968:
Gin rummy, as played in Hollywood, is not always a gentleman's game. Even so, the games at the Friars' Club over a ten-month period during 1962 and 1963 were something out of the ordinary. Camera Industrialist Theodore Brislcin, for example, lost $220,000, Shoe Millionaire Harry Karl dropped $80,000, and such cool hands as Phil Silvers, Zeppo Marx and Tony Martin lost heavily. An investigation by the FBI followed, and last week five players in the games (two real estate developers, an art collector, an investor and a professional card shark) were found guilty on 49 counts of conspiracy, face sentences of from five to 130 years. Their gimmick: to station a confederate at a ceiling peephole in the Friars' card rooms; the "peeper" would then transmit electronic signals about opponents' hands. But was it necessary? Not really, said Martin. "I'm a pretty poor player anyway. My wife beats me all the time."
Groucho considered Zeppo to be a good player. In the Marx Brothers Scrapbook, which was put together by Richard Anobile from interviews with Groucho and those who knew him, Groucho said, "Zep wants to have the odds in his favor. He is a good gambler and Chico was a bad gambler." Groucho also said Harpo was a good gambler. "He was apparently fearless but was also a very conservative fellow." When asked why he didn't seem to get along with Zeppo, Groucho said, "Because he's always playing cards. That's why his wife walked out on him." When Anobile pointed out to Groucho that Chico also always played cards and Groucho was fond of him, Groucho replied, "But Chico was sort of a rascal and Zeppo isn't. He's just cold-blooded."

Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Divorce of Zeppo and Barbara

Zeppo and Barbara
On the day of their Las Vegas wedding, Sept. 18, 1959

In an earlier post, Zeppo Marx: FAQ, I indicated that Zeppo and his second wife Barbara, who later married Frank Sinatra, were divorced in 1972 or 1973. This was the best I could do at the time, based on information on the internet. Now, I can state unequivocally that the couple separated in 1972 and divorced in 1973. From the Press-Telegram (Long Beach, California), Wednesday, May 2, 1973:
Zeppo Marx wife wins divorce

Mrs. Zeppo Marx, wife of the youngest of the Marx brothers comedy team, has been granted a dissolution of her marriage to the 72-year-old comedian.

Superior Court Judge Frank Moore awarded Barbara Marx $1500 a month for 19 years in granting the dissolution Tuesday in Palm Springs. The woman filed for dissolution of the 14-year-old marriage last December after a five-week separation from her husband.

Zeppo, whose real name is Herbert, succeeded brother Gummo as a member of the famed comedy team of Groucho, Harpo, and Chico. He played mainly romantic roles in film and stage shows of the 1920s and early 1930s.

The vaudeville stage and screen star became an actors' agent in 1933. Zeppo was divorced from Marion Marx in 1954.
I wonder if Zeppo had to continue alimony payments after Barbara married Sinatra.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Mendel Picasso

The first post of this blog explains, in excruciating detail, the people, places, and events depicted on the skin of "Lydia the Tattooed Lady," in the song written by Harold Arlen and E.Y. "Yip" Harburg for the Marx Brothers movie "At the Circus." The one mystery that remains unsolved is the name "Mendel Picasso," as in
Come along and see Buff'lo Bill with his lasso.
Just a little classic by Mendel Picasso.
Here is Captain Spaulding exploring the Amazon.
Here's Godiva but with her pajamas on.

Let's look at the last name first. It seems safe to assume that this is a reference to the great Spanish artist Pablo Picasso, shown to the left in 1962. Although he painted in a number of different styles, its unlikely that he was a tattoo artist. As far as I can tell, he never depicted Buffalo Bill in any medium.

And what of the first name? Picasso's given name was Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Ruiz y Picasso. There is no sign of "Mendel" in there.

So where did Mendel Picasso come from? I have consulted no less an authority than Ernie, the son of lyricist Yip Harburg. Ernie didn't know, but said he would put out feelers to see if anyone does know. So far, as we approach the first anniversary of the original publication of my article "Lydia the Tattooed Lady Revealed," no one has come forward with an answer.

Even though the song "Peasy Weasy" was a favorite of Groucho, and the priest Gregor Mendel performed his genetic experiments with pea plants, it seems unlikely that Yip Harburg was thinking of Gregor Mendel when he wrote the lyrics to "Lydia."

Through intensive research (i.e., typing "Mendel" in the Google search box), I have learned that in Yiddish, Mendel is the pet form of the Hebrew name Menahem. So, was Yip somehow implying that Picasso was Jewish?'s not impossible.

Apparently, there is some speculation that Pablo Picasso's maternal grandmother was Jewish. In a speech made by Gary Schwartz at the opening of the exhibit, "The 'Jewish' Rembrandt" at the Jewish Historical Museum on 9/11/2006:
Not long ago I was surprised to read the following sentence about Picasso's grandfather in John Richardson's monumental biography of the artist: "Next to nothing is known about this bizarre gentleman...beyond the fact that he married a plump young woman from the province of Málaga, Inés López Robles, rumoured to be a Maranna (of Jewish descent)" (p. 22). This was thus Picasso's mother's mother. If the rumour about Inés López Robles were true then even the great goy Pablo Picasso was in fact Jewish according to Jewish law.
Rumors about a woman who lived a couple centuries ago aren't much to go on, but then, wars have been launched on less substantial evidence.

In the end (or at the end of the day, as the talking heads on TV are so fond of saying these days), it really doesn't matter. Maybe Yip just threw Mendel Picasso into the song because it sounded funny, or because he knew it would drive people like me crazy through the ages, and that's good enough for me. I am reticent to pursue this topic any further for fear of being classified as that most unamusing of writers--the "humor analyst."

Sing along with me now:

La la laaa
La la la
La la laaa
La la la

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Save The Marx Brothers Home

179 E. 93rd Street, NYC, where the Marx Brothers spent their formative years, is at risk of being torn down by developers. Please sign the petition to save the building.

For more information, see this article at the New York Times.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

A Marx Sister?

In 1972, 81-year-old Groucho Marx performed at Carnegie Hall. Introduced by Dick Cavett and accompanied by Marvin Hamlisch on piano, Groucho told stories of his life and sang. Out of this show came a two-record album called "An Evening With Groucho," which I still have. It's been a couple decades since I've had a turntable hooked up, so I haven't listened to it for many years. Now, thanks to the internet, transcriptions are available and the recording itself can be downloaded in digital format.

In discussing his family, Groucho said:
Then we had a sister. She wasn't really our sister, she was an adopted sister. The father of that sister had gotten a look at this girl and fled to Canada, and we never saw him again. But the girl stayed with us, and her name was Polly. Polly didn't... She wasn't a bad looking girl, but her rear end stuck a-way out. You could play pinochle on her rear end.
Polly, or Pauline, was the daughter of Groucho's aunt Hannah, who was Minnie Marx's sister. The paternity of Polly is uncertain, but she was probably conceived after the death or disappearance of Hannah's first husband. It is likely that Sam and Minnie Marx adopted Polly, and it appears they fibbed about the date of their marriage to make it look like Polly was was their own legitimate child. The record shows Sam and Minnie were married January 18, 1885, but they moved the date back a year to 1884 in future records, to accommodate the January, 1885 birth of Polly.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009


Riding a wave of success on stage, in 1922, the Marx Brothers were about to embark on a tour of England. In preparation for the trip, they had to apply for passports. The images below are taken from their passport applications. The application process required someone to swear to the identity of the applicant. Harry Billings, of Milwaukee, attested on each form that he knew the brothers for five years, and gave his occupation as "Manager," so I assume he was the act's manager.

The application form also required a description of the applicant. From the handwriting, it looks like the boys filled in some of the blanks themselves, and Mr. Billings filled in the others.

We find Harpo describing his nose as "regular," and his chin as "firm." Groucho, always playing for laughs, described his nose as "Jewish," and his mouth as "pretty good."

Click to enlarge any of the images below.

Betty and Chico

Arthur, Ruth, and Groucho



Gummo's Draft Card

Gummo in Uniform

In 1916, Milton (Gummo) Marx was ready to leave the Marx Brothers act, and joined his father Sam in selling boxes to grocery stores during the day, performing with the brothers at night. When WWI came along, their mother Minnie realized one of her five sons would have to enter the service. Chico was married, and Zeppo, the youngest, would not be expected to go. Harpo and Groucho were essential to the act. Gummo, who later admitted he was the worst actor among the brothers, was told by his mother Minnie, "We can do without you." So he enlisted in the Air Force. There was a shortage of planes, and so Gummo's induction was delayed. In the meantime, his number came up and he was drafted into the Army. He didn't have to go overseas, and had a pretty good time in the Army.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Zeppo Marx: FAQ

Zeppo Marx

In comupterspeak, FAQ is an acronym for "Frequently Asked Questions." This clever diversionary device was created by tech support people to trip up unsuspecting consumers seeking help with computer problems. Let's say your computer freezes up any time you press the tilde key. A more plausible example may be that you don't know what the tilde key is. You go to the tech support page of the computer manufacturer, as you were too cheap to buy a service contract which would permit you to talk to a nice Indian person whose real name is Paramvir, but who identifies himself as "Larry" at work in an effort to put American callers at ease. Arriving at the tech support page, you click on "FAQ," only to find a list of questions and answers that have nothing to do with your problem. Giving up in disgust, you vow never to use the tilde key again--a goal which is surprisingly easy to achieve.

By the way, this is the tilde: &#126. If instead of a wavy line, you see the characters &#-126, you may be using the HTML-4 standard. Please go to our tech support page and click on "FAQ."

In keeping with the spirit of Marx Brothers comedy, this post is based on the absurd premise that questions about Zeppo Marx are frequent. Zeppo is the third most obscure of the Marx Brothers. The most obscure is Manfred, who didn't live long enough to acquire a nickname; he died in infancy. Second would be Milton (Gummo), who left the stage act when he was drafted into the army during WWI, and never returned to performing.

Since interest in Zeppo isn't sufficient to generate frequent questions, we might adjust the acronym "FAQ" to stand for "Fairly Asinine Questions," or "Far Afield Queries," or any number of phrases unsuitable for a PG rated site such as this blog.

Without further ado, let us proceed to the questions.

Where and when was Zeppo born?
The youngest of the Marx Brothers, he was born in New York City on February 25, 1901.

What was Zeppo's real name?

Why did he change his name?
Research has shown that Herbert is one of the least humorous names in the English language. With the exception of Herb Shriner, nobody with the name has had a successful career in comedy.

When did he start performing with his brothers?
Herbert briefly joined the act in 1915, when Julius (Groucho), Arthur (Harpo), Leonard (Chico), and Milton (Gummo) were performing the show written by their Uncle Al Shean, Home Again. Thus Home Again is the only show featuring all five Marx Brothers at once. When Gummo left to join the service in 1918, Zeppo became a permanent member of the act.

How did he get the name Zeppo?
The answer to this is uncertain. Groucho, in his old age, claimed it had to do with the fact that the zeppelin was introduced around the time Zeppo was born. This isn't totally impossible, since the first zeppelin was built in 1898 and Zeppo was born in 1901. It seems unlikely, however. Harpo, in his autobiography, claimed that Herbert was originally called Zippo, after Mr. Zippo, the star of a famous chimpanzee act, because Herbie was "always chinning himself and practicing acrobatics." He didn't like being named after a chimp, and insisted on being called Zeppo. However it happened, he became Zeppo for good. Occasionally, one finds on eBay cancelled checks from his account signed "Zeppo Marx."

In how many movies did he appear?
Five Marx Brothers movies --The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, Horse Feathers, and Duck Soup. Joe Adamson, Marx expert extraordinaire, has reminded me that Zeppo was in two other movies--A Kiss in the Dark (1925) and The House That Shadows Built, a promotional film released by Paramount in 1931. And he was in the long-lost Marx Brothers film Humor Risk, which was never released.

Why did he stop performing?
His stated reason was that he did not enjoy acting. His acting ability has been called into question, although some critics believe his wooden style was intended as a parody of the junevile romantic leads of the day. He proved his acting ability in the stage version of Animal Crackers, when Groucho has hospitalized with appendicitis and Zeppo stepped into the role of Captain Spaulding. Although he played the role at least as well as Groucho, smoking cigars in five shows a day made Zeppo sick.

What did he do after he stopped performing?
He started a talent agency, which was very successful. In 1941, he founded the Marman Products Company, Inc., which produced clamping devices and straps. Marman clamps were used to secure the atomic bombs on the Enola Gay during WWII. The company also built a motorized bicycle, the Marman Twin. Zeppo was also an inventor, and held three patents:
-Vapor Delivery Pad for Delivering Moist Heat
-Method and Watch Mechanism for Actuation by Cardiac Pulse
-Cardiac Pulse Rate Monitor

Was he married?
Twice. First to Marian Benda in 1927. They adopted two boys and divorced in 1954. In 1959 he married Barbara Blakeley. She had a son by a previous marriage, who took the last name of Marx, but was not formally adopted by Zeppo. Zeppo and Barbara divorced in 1972 or 1973, and Barbara then married Frank Sinatra in 1976. They remained married till Ol' Blue Eyes died in 1998.

When did he die?
The last surviving Marx Brother, Zeppo died of lung cancer in 1979 at age 78.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

S.J. Perelman

This post appeared originally at Lugubrious Drollery on February 9, 2009.

S.J. Perelman at his office in Greenwich Village
Date taken: October 26, 1961
Photographer: Carl Mydans
From the Google Life Magazine Image Archives

This morning I was listening to recent podcasts of Garrison Keillor's The Writer's Almanac on the way to work. February 1 was the birthday of comic genius S.J. Perelman, who, among other things, wrote for the Marx Brothers. The sketch of Perelman which Keillor read on his birthday was so good, I'm quoting it here in its entirety:
It's the birthday of humorist S.J. Perelman, born Sidney Joseph Perelman in Brooklyn, New York (1904). His father was a Russian immigrant who tried to make a living as a poultry farmer. Perelman said his father believed "that if you had a few acres and a chicken farm there was no limit to your possible wealth. I grew up with and have since retained the keenest hatred of chickens."
At this point, alone in my truck, I laughed out loud. Having started life as a third-generation duck farmer, I loved Perelman's statement. Keillor goes on:
He worked as a cartoonist when he was in college, but he switched to writing humorous essays, which he published in The New Yorker. His first collection of essays, Dawn Ginsbergh's Revenge, came out in 1929. Groucho Marx wrote him a letter that said: "From the moment I picked up your book until I put it down, I was convulsed with laughter. Some day I intend reading it."

Groucho Marx persuaded Perelman to move to Hollywood to write screenplays. He worked on Marx Brothers movies such as Monkey Business (1931) and Horse Feathers (1932), but he hated Hollywood. So he went back to writing essays for The New Yorker. His many essay collections include The Ill-Tempered Clavichord (1952) and Chicken Inspector No. 23 (1966).

One of his essays begins: "I guess I'm just an old mad scientist at bottom. Give me an underground laboratory, half a dozen atom-smashers, and a beautiful girl in a diaphanous veil waiting to be turned into a chimpanzee, and I care not who writes the nation's laws."

George Seaton

George Seaton
Photo by Allan Grant, date unknown
From the Google Life Magazine Image Archives

Wondering if perhaps the Marx Brothers had played a local theater in their vaudeville days, I indulged in exhaustive research by typing "Marx Brothers" and "South Bend" into the Google search thingamabob. I didn't find any accounts of the boys playing here. If I put forth a little more effort, I wouldn't be surprised to find they performed here, as they did live in Chicago for a while, and Chicago is only about a hundred miles away.

What I found is that a South Bend native was responsible for some of the Marx Brothers comedy. George Seaton was born in South Bend, Indiana in 1911. After college, he moved to Detroit, where he was the second actor to portray the Lone Ranger on the radio. He claimed he originated the phrase, "Hi-yo, Silver" when he was unable to whistle for his horse as was called for in the script. Seaton signed on as a contract writer for MGM in 1933, and contributed uncredited material for the 1935 Marx movie A Night at the Opera, then was asked by Groucho to co-write A Day at the Races (1937), for which he received screen credit. Seaton went on to have a fairly successful career, including writing and directing the holiday classic, Miracle on 34th Street(1947), for which he won an Oscar for best screenplay. He won a second Oscar for the screenplay A Country Girl (1954). In later years, his success was limited, but he was nominated for an Oscar for 1970's Airport. Seaton died in Beverly Hills in 1979.