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."


  1. Such a shame he was a successful gambler - otherwise Love Happy might have had all four of them in it.

  2. Interesting idea. Zeppo probably couldn't have pulled off his usual role as the romantic juvenile in 1949. Maybe could have played Marilyn Monroe's dad, though he probably would have tried to foster a different relationship off camera.