ZEPPO: How many different ways are there to say “yes”?
(Allegedly overheard during Animal Crackers Broadway rehearsals, 1928.)
“Zeppo Marx is a peerlessly cheesy improvement on the traditional straight man.” — James Agee, legendary film critic.
“Oddly enough, it proved to be Zeppo who was the most difficult to track down in terms of his post-team life. Perhaps if I had more time and money…though I expect that would have a pretty minority appeal.” — Simon Louvish, Marx Brothers biographer.
One thing that comes from a reading list like mine that consists mostly of biographies is you get a glimpse of the difference between a well-known person’s public image and what he is like out of the spotlight. A seemingly simple, straightforward persona can hide immense depths of complexity (and vice versa).
It seems clear that no one is ever likely to write a biography of Zeppo Marx, the fourth Marx Brother and one who proved entirely superfluous and inessential to the act. So much so that he dropped out halfway through their film career and barely anyone noticed. Zeppo, with his entirely normal appearance and lack of any sort of comedic character, has always been described as the “straight man,” but the Marx Brothers never really needed a straight man, at least as that term is normally understood. Their aggressive form of comedy took on authority, pretension, and stuffiness — external targets, which did not require a traditional straight man within the team feeding them set-up lines. And Margaret Dumont was the greatest straight woman in cinema history when one was needed. The Marx Brothers were three Great Comedians — Groucho, with his cigar, painted-on mustache, and endless flow of wisecracks, insults and non-sequiturs, Harpo, the gifted silent clown who communicated through exaggerated facial expressions and horn-honking, and Chico, the piano-playing sharpie with the inexplicable Italian accent — and one leftover.
The leftover has become a footnote in film history, and perhaps nothing more than a mostly-forgotten cultural punchline. “Zeppo” has become a euphemism for “unneeded.” So, who was Herbert “Zeppo” Marx, outside of his limited screen persona? This is a question that kept occurring to me as I’ve read through various Marx books and bios over the years, and Zeppo-the-real-person would pop up now and again and tug at my curiosity.
Zeppo does have his defenders, at least as a performing presence. It was an unwritten (but seemingly ironclad) rule that a musical comedy of stage or screen in the 1920s and 30s, no matter how off-the-wall or zany, had to have a romantic subplot featuring an attractive young couple. These parts are pretty bland and thankless, especially to the eyes of modern audiences, and Groucho, Harpo, and Chico were far too colorful and grotesque to play such a part. You would think that the role would fall naturally to young, relatively handsome Zeppo. In fact he has even been credited with undermining the entire nature of romantic lead, just by virtue of being a Marx Brother.
“Zeppo’s parts were always intended to be a parody of the juvenile role often found in sappy musicals of the 1920s-30s era. Sometimes, he would just have a few lines, and he would otherwise be reduced to standing in the background with a big smile on his face..and always stiff and wooden. In other films, Zeppo would have a more significant role as the romantic lead, but he would still always be stiff, wooden, and, yes, with a big smile on his face. Either way, he could never be considered a real straight man. He was a sappy distortion of the real thing, and sort of the gateway through which we connected with the other Brothers.” — Danel Griffin, film theorist, University of Alaska Southeast.
Joe Adamson goes on to say that Zeppo’s participation in the letter-dictating routine in Animal Crackers displays his obvious importance to the act. And Allen W. Ellis wrote a massive scholarly paper called “Yes, Sir: The Legacy of Zeppo Marx,” (for which I refuse to pay $35 to the Wiley Online Library for “24-hour access” to the PDF, enlightening as I’m sure it must be).
It’s nice to see poor Zeppo get this belated critical respect, but it is not backed up by what we see on the screen. By their own admission, the brothers and their writers didn’t put all that much (or any, really) thought into Zeppo’s role. The letter-dictating routine is one scene in one movie. His presence in any other comedy routine in all the other movies is non-existent. Out of the five movies he did with his brothers, in only two (1931’s Monkey Business and 1932’s Horse Feathers) did he play anything close to a romantic lead…and acquitted himself fairly well. No worse than any other person playing that type of part at that time, and certainly nothing to indicate it was even the slyest of parodies. In his other three films, he played Groucho’s secretary/assistant, with a handful of unimportant lines. Not only did those films not appear to be parodying wooden, stiffly-smiling romantic leads, they went out and got other young actors to play actual wooden, stiffly smiling romantic leads. It didn’t even seem to occur to them to fit Zeppo into that role each time, where maybe he could poke fun at its conventions from within and be a real team member.
No, he didn’t have much to do because, historically, the fourth Marx Brother never had much to do, and no one was interested in changing the long-established procedures.
So, why there was a fourth member to begin with? It must be remembered that even though they are revered today for their brilliant film comedies of the 1930s, their performing origins go back much further. They started in vaudeville as a team around 1910, and their early personas did not match what showed up on the silver screen twenty years later. Their characters were originally rooted in the ethnic stereotypes that were all the rage in vaudeville at the turn of the century. Groucho was the “Dutch comic” mit de German accent, Harpo played a stock character known as “Patsy Brannigan,” an Irish bumpkin or village idiot, Chico was the Italian street hustler, and the original Fourth Marx Brother, Gummo, played the Yiddish-spouting, bowler-hatted Hebrew. (Not much of a stretch, as the brothers were children of Jewish immigrants).
How they got their unique names is a story that’s been told countless times, but I’ll give you the short version because it will be relevant below: During a backstage card game around 1914, a monologist (vaudeville term for stand-up comic) named Art Fisher gave them all nicknames ending in “o,” based on the popular comic strip Sherlocko the Monk. Julius became Groucho due to his cranky personality, Adolph (later Arthur) became Harpo due to his skill at the stringed instrument, Leonard became Chicko due to his proclivity for “chasing the chicks,” and Milton became Gummo because he happened to be wearing gumshoes (rubber overshoes to keep your real shoes dry & clean during wet weather) at the time. The “k” was at some point dropped from Chico, but the pronunciation remained the same. (You can always spot someone with only a casual knowledge of the Marx Brothers when they refer to him as “Cheek-o.” ) They used the new monikers amongst themselves, and they would occasionally be used for their billing, but these nicknames did not become locked in as their official stage names until their act hit Broadway in the 1920s. By that point, even their wives had abandoned the Brothers’ birth names (spouses and close friends usually dropped the “o”s — to intimates, they were Grouch, Chick, Harp, and Zep.)
The original characterizations evolved over time, as broad ethnic stereotypes began going out of style in stage comedy. Groucho dropped the German accent during World War I, and Harpo gradually realized he worked better in pantomime (but he kept the Patsy Brannigan costume, with its curly wig and ratty raincoat). Only Chico’s Italian character survived the transformation virtually intact. With the Yiddish jokes dropped, Gummo ended up at loose ends with no clear character. He was not a particularly gifted performer, and never enjoyed being on stage anyway, so when the opportunity came to get out of the act and join the Army in 1918, he took it. At that point, Groucho, Harpo, and Chico probably could have continued on as a trio and achieved just as much as they did with a fourth member.
But they made their vaudeville reputation as the Four Marx Brothers, and the Four Marx Brothers they would remain, at least according to their domineering stage mother/manager Minnie Marx. When Gummo enlisted with a sigh of relief, the youngest of the brothers, Herbert, age seventeen, was told to drop everything, given an “o” name, and forced into the act — right into Gummo’s nothing-to-contribute role.
Zeppo had already left school, and was working as an apprentice mechanic for the Ford Motor Company. He spent his spare time lifting weights, chasing girls, and running with a bad crowd. He was a juvenile delinquent by his own account, and it has been theorized that Minnie put him into the act as a superfluous fourth solely to keep him out of jail or out of an early grave.
“I was a kid, but I carried a gun and I stole automobiles. I was real bad and there was an older boy…about twenty and we were pedalling around. I loved to be with him because he was so tough and I sort of felt that if I got in any trouble he’d protect me, you know, so we both carried guns all the time.” — Zeppo.
Zeppo’s pal was a drug-dealer named Louis Bass, and right after Zeppo was forced into the Marx Brothers, Bass was either 1) gunned down by police, or 2) spent twenty years in prison after gunning someone down himself, depending on whose story you believe. Either way, Zeppo would likely have been alongside him during this incident if the stage, and his mother, hadn’t come calling.
The Great Name Debate:
There are as many stories about where the name “Zeppo” came from as there are Marx Brothers, since Zeppo was not part of the act when the original names were given. Groucho says it came from the country’s brief fascination with the German airships known as zeppelins during World War I, Harpo says it came from a cigarette-smoking vaudeville chimp named Mr. Zippo who specialized in chin-ups (Zeppo was both an early fitness fanatic and chain-smoked through every waking hour, never seeing a possible contradiction), Chico tells a convoluted story about the Marx family briefly owning a chicken farm outside of Chicago, and reveling in Zeke-and-Zeb jokes, which were apparently “Midwesterners-are-so-dumb” call-and-response jokes featuring the titular hayseed characters. None of these answers really satisfy (“Zebbo”?), but Harpo’s son Bill once told a little-known origin story that I think might have nailed it.
According to Bill Marx, Harpo’s story comes closest. It was not a chimp, but a physically-deformed man suffering from microcephaly, and cruelly displayed at sideshows as a“freak” called Zip the Pinhead. His deformity included a deeply-receded forehead and a large, wedge-shaped nosed that sloped straight into it, without the usual indentation between the eyes. Zeppo also had a very distinctive nose bridge and slightly receding forehead. Certainly not to the point of deformity, but odd enough to be sensitive about. And just the sort of thing that three much-older comedian siblings would delight in mercilessly teasing a little brother about. The taunting nickname “Zip” evolved into “Zeppo,” and various tales were concocted over the years to mask its embarrassing origins. (As delightful as they are onscreen, I can see how it could have been kind of hellish to have Groucho, Harpo, and Chico as older brothers. For example, the fetching chorus girl who became Groucho’s first wife was actually dating Zeppo before the older and more sophisticated Groucho swiped her for himself. Marx family lore is rife with stories like that.)
After five films, Zeppo decided he was through with the act, and announced his departure on March 30, 1934. At the time, they were negotiating a new contract with MGM. The studio managers asked if the brothers still felt entitled to the same pay with one less member. “Don’t be silly,” was Groucho’s response. “Without Zeppo, we’re worth twice as much.” The Three Marx Brothers continued in several more films.
It’s no wonder that Zeppo turned bitter. By everyone’s account, he was actually the funniest of the brothers in private. He could mimic his brothers’ characters flawlessly and understudied all of them at various times on stage, and no one in the audience knew the difference. (And no one noticed the fourth member was totally absent, of course.) In his youth, when he wasn’t stealing cars, he had show business ambitions to be a comedian in his own right. But he dutifully became part of the family act, and in doing so torpedoed his own chances of making a name for himself.
He always denied being really interested in performing, but occasionally he would let something slip in a candid interview.
“Gummo did the straight part, so that’s what I had to do. As a matter of fact, it would have been rather difficult to get another comic in there. I had always wanted to do comedy, but I never had the opportunity, because with three boys doing comedy there wasn’t room for another comedian. So, I played the straight man through vaudeville and New York stage, plus a few of the pictures…The only way I could expand the role was through comedy, but there was no way, no chance.” — Zeppo.
He had a keen intelligence geared toward mechanical engineering, and a head for numbers. Like his brother Chico, he was a compulsive gambler. Unlike Chico, who derived pleasure in taking huge risks against overwhelming odds, Zeppo gambled to make money and wanted the odds in his favor. He joined Gummo in running a talent agency through the 1930s and 40s. Gummo generally handled Marx Brothers business. Zeppo personally made only one deal for his three performing brothers, negotiating a one-picture arrangement with RKO Studios in 1938 for the hefty sum of $250,000. (Groucho’s only comment on the deal was that it should have been $350,000.)
By the 1940s, he seemed to be blossoming. His mechanical aptitude served him well. He tinkered with various inventions, and formed a manufacturing company called Marman Products. His “Marman clamp” was sold to the military at the start of World War II (the atomic bombs that were dropped on Japan were held in place by Marman clamps), and variations on the design are used by NASA to this day. He made profitable investments in many ventures, including a commercial fishing vessel, grapefruit orchards, and a racehorse breeding ranch (co-owned with Barbara Stanwyck, and called, naturally, “Marwyck.”)
The Marx & Marx theatrical agency was one of the most popular in Hollywood, his invention was hugely successful, money was pouring in from shrewd investments, and yet…it all kind of slipped away. He never seemed happy. It is known that he sought relief in psychoanalysis, and alcohol. (Of all the brothers, he was the only one with a reputation as a drinker.) Is it a legacy of those long-ago thwarted comedic ambitions?
Q: Of all your brothers which one are you closest with?
GROUCHO: Gummo. He’s a nice man, and that’s more than I can say for Zeppo.
Q: Why is it that you don’t seem to get along with Zeppo?
GROUCHO: Because he’s always playing cards. That’s why his wife walked out on him.
Q: But Chico always played cards and you were fond of him.
GROUCHO: But Chico was sort of a rascal and Zeppo isn’t. He’s just cold-blooded.
By the late 1950s, Zeppo had left the theatrical agency, sold off Marman Products and his other business interests, and slid into a long retirement. He filed three more patents, but nothing came of them. He coasted on savings and Marman sale profits (which were said to be substantial) and became, in Simon Louvish’s words, a “jaded playboy and gambler,” drifting aimlessly around the golf courses and cocktail parties of Palm Springs, with younger and younger girlfriends on his arm, and occasionally embroiling himself in lawsuits originating from bar fights and bad relations with his neighbors.
His second wife, Barbara Blakeley, wrote a memoir called Lady Blue Eyes (so titled because she later married Frank Sinatra) in which Zeppo is described as an ardent suitor (he lavished her with expensive dinners, flowers, and even a Thunderbird convertible), but an aloof and irritable husband, and an indifferent stepfather to Blakeley’s young son. Zeppo “had no paternal instincts whatsoever” and insisted the boy be sent off to boarding school. (History does not seem to record what became of his two adopted children from his first marriage.) Blakeley does credit him with moments of warmth and humor (and finally becoming close friends with his ex-stepson…after he grew to adulthood), but Zeppo comes across in her memoir as not exactly a lost soul, but certainly restless and ill-tempered. The kind of guy who takes the neighborhood kids’ ball when it goes into his yard.
The few interviewers who were interested enough to question him about the old days received brusque and churlish answers.
When Groucho’s young secretary, Steve Solniak, encountered Zeppo for the first time in the early 1970s, he told him how much he enjoyed his work. “Enjoyed my brothers’ work, you mean,” Zeppo snapped back. (This was only the first encounter. Solniak is one of the few Marx insiders who described Zeppo’s charming, affable side, which he saw later. Admittedly, it was mostly brought out by being around attractive young women.) Solniak also revealed that Groucho was sending Zeppo $1000 a week by the mid-1970s. The Marman money must have finally run out. It turns out even cold blood is thicker than water.
One of Zeppo’s final blips on the radar was another ugly lawsuit. In 1978, an incident that occurred five years earlier finally went to court. Zeppo was accused of physically assaulting a girlfriend, Jean Bodul, in his car. Zeppo shrugged it off in his callous way as “a little pushing and shoving” when Bodul tried to drive off with his keys and credit cards, but was found guilty and paid damages in the low five figures. (Bodul later went on to marry noted Mafia figure Jimmy “The Weasel” Fratianno.)
Zeppo Marx died of lung cancer on November 30, 1979 at the age of 78. By ex-wife Barbara’s account, he was sad and alone, having driven away many of those close to him, and his four brothers already in their graves.
Someone with a work ethic better than mine can probably spin a pretty good full-length biography out of someone who had such potential — in show business or even in science/engineering — yet was kept down by a frequently unpleasant nature driven by his own demons, and by extraordinary circumstances: a potentially great comedian…born into a family that already had three great comedians. Sadly, I would probably be the only who would want to read it.