Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Legend of Zeppo's Name

From Zeppo's obituary in the Spokane, Washington Spokesman-Review, Dec 1, 1979:
The legend is that Minnie, the matriarch of the Marxes, wanted to keep her boys out of the Army during World War I. She installed the family on a farm near La Grange, Ill., since farming would exempt young men from service. Chico one day passed Herbert and said, "Howdy, Zeke." His brother replied "Howdy, Zeb." He soon became Zeppo forevermore.
Add this to other stories of the origin of Zeppo's name, such as being named after the zeppelin, or after a chimpanzee named Mr. Zippo (see also "Zeppo Marx: FAQ").

By the way, I haven't been able to document a performing chimpanzee named Mr. Zippo, as cited in Harpo's autobiography, but I have discovered that Zippo the Climbing Monkey was a popular toy produced by the toy company owned by Ferdinand Strauss in the early twentieth century. In 1921, Louis Marx (no relation), bought out his former employer, Strauss. The deal included the tooling to make Zippo, which at that time was considered obsolete. Marx sold 8 million Zippos over a two-year period, which helped to propel him toward acquiring great wealth and building one of the greatest toy companies of the twentieth century.

Zippo the Climbing Monkey

So, could it be possible that Herbie Marx acquired his nickname from this acrobatic little simian?

Link to Zeppo's obituary.

Link to "Zeppo Marx: FAQ"


  1. Very interesting. This blog post also reminded of yet another explanation of the Zeppo name, i.e. one given by Harpo's son Bill in the "Unknown Marx Brothers"-documentary. Bill said that there once was a "freak" called Zippo at the Ringling Brothers Circus and that the older Marxes named their kid brother Herbert after him. According to Bill Marx, Herbert hated that connection.

    While surfing the net I actually found Zippo, or rather Zip. He was an African American named William Henry Johnson, born in New Jersey in 1842/3. Probably suffering from microcephaly, Johnson performed in lots of freak shows from the 1860s up until his death in 1926, variously billed as Zip the Pinhead, The Monkey Man, The Man-Monkey, The Missing Link or the What is it?

    And the thing is that photos of Johnson (found at and shows that Zeppo Marx actually resembled him a bit, at least enough for the older brothers to joke about. So this is what I think happened;

    * in the 1910s, the older Marxes began to call Herbert Zip after the Zip the Pinhead (hence the "Howdy Zeke"/"Howdy Zeb"-story, usually referred to their time at the ranch in Chicago, i.e. 1910-20)

    * Herbert hated it and remade it as Zeppo (with the spelling taken from the Zeppelins)

    * in the 1930s the Zeppelin-connection became the official explanation (as witnessed by backstage photos of the chairs of the brothers from the filming of "Monkey Business")

    * in the early 1960s Harpo hinted on the real origin in his autobiography (hence that reference to the chimpanzee Mr Zippo)

    * in the 1990s, Bill Marx told the true story, even if it went largely unnoticed.

  2. Mikael,
    Very interesting indeed. I never knew the comic book character Zippy the Pinhead, who started out in underground comics in the 60s had any factual basis. Apparently the character was based on Zip and also the microcephalic Schlitzie the Pinhead, who appeared in sideshows and in the cult classic movie Freaks.

    Your theory seems very plausible. Thanks for sharing it.

  3. How does it go up if you pull down?

  4. i am looking at a picture right now of zeppo and my stepmother tara jorgenson, im pretty sure it was taken in mexico or maybe the salton sea. maybe around 1974. zeppo and my father and a really cool ol boy by the name of virgil morningstar fished together. i met zeppo when i was just a boy, virgil knew most of the marx bros. i have always wondered what ever happened to virgil and tara the last time i talked to him he said he was moving to washington state,tara moved back to nevada where she was from originally the last time i seen her was at the tradewinds in bombay beach california around 1983 ,if anyone has any info e mail me at thanks