The Marx Brothers, at the peak of their powers and over the course of their best Broadway shows and Hollywood films (to most fans, that’s roughly a single decade, 1925 to 1935) were an unstoppable juggernaut that essentially invented modern comedy, or maybe post-modern comedy. (Buster Keaton might share that honor, but he existed in his own peculiar silent bubble — the Marx Brothers loudly ran amok in society.)
Some have called their style anarchic. Some have said they are surreal (Salvador Dali was a big fan). Revolutionary. Ahead of their time. Anti-establishment antiheroes. They ended up as all of these things when viewed backwards through the lens of pop culture history, but they wouldn’t have called themselves any of those things at the time. They always said they were only trying to entertain. It just came out that way. And as Marx scholar Noah Diamond says, “They were never angry. They broke the rules just for the sheer joy of breaking the rules. I don’t know that they really had an agenda.”
As I put it in my one-shot Zeppo essay several years back, “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, Chico, the piano-playing sharpie with the inexplicable Italian accent — and one leftover.” (Poor Zeppo.)
For being one of the most famous and successful comedy teams in history, they were certainly the strangest. Those bizarre costumes. The fact that they worked best not as a full team, but in ones and twos (Groucho and Chico, Chico and Harpo, Groucho playing off a clueless victim of his rapier wit). The fact that one Brother was entirely unnecessary, and left the team part way through their film career with no effect whatsoever.
You can be strange, you can break the rules, you can tear down the walls of what’s accepted, but you don’t become a comedy legend unless you bring the goods. You have to be funny, and the Marx Brothers were certainly that. As proof, I submit my several years’ experience as an instructor of cinema studies…at the middle-school level. Talk about a tough crowd. I often did a semester on comedy, and always included a few of the best Marx Brothers movies. After a brief bit of skeptical silence as they adjusted to the creaky old black-and-white antiquity of what they were seeing, they would start to laugh. Yes, even the most jaded, TikTok-sated middle schooler will succumb to the charms of the Marx Brothers, if that middle schooler has at least a modicum of a sense of humor (most of them do).
In this series of essays, my plan is to explore the Marx Brothers’ entire career, but with particular emphasis on their early years and later years (hence the subtitle of “rise and fall.”) Of course, I will be touching on the classic movies that made them legends, but so many others have done that so many times (and so much better), that I feel like adding too much to that particular pile would be superfluous. The Brothers’ career peak may well be the shortest portion here. And I’ll try to avoid the most well-worn stories. Still, this will be the longest sustained piece of writing on a single topic that I’ve ever done, except for “This Used To Be My Playground” Parts 1-24, which were written piecemeal over eight years. (This still might beat that series on actual word count.) So if you’re not into the Marx Brothers, or don’t want to learn about the Marx Brothers, then I’m sorry for what’s going to be happening here for the next several months.
The problem with pursuing a straightforward examination of the Brothers’ lives and careers is that mundane facts are almost totally obscured by myth and apocrypha — mostly spun by the Brothers themselves. They were showmen, born and bred, and never let the truth get in the way of a good story. In their old age, both Groucho and Harpo wrote autobiographies that were chock full of exaggerations, mistaken memories, and outright fabrications, many of which were taken as gospel by fans and journalists of the time. It took a later generation of scholars to peel away the patina of legend and piece together as much of the real story as they could. But misinformation still proliferates, especially on the internet. As much as I can, I will use the most up-to-date, reliably researched sources. (The Holy Bee as amateur armchair researcher is greatly indebted to the legwork of these professional authors, and a full source list will be provided after the final entry of this series.) I will do my level best to get the history right, without relying on Marxian Tall Tales, and if that means there will be fewer funny stories that are only half-true (or less), then so be it. It’ll make for a slightly less entertaining read, but I’ll be able to sleep at night. (And so will you, after reading one of these essays!)
The title of this series comes from the working title of author Joe Adamson’s seminal work on the Marxes, Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Sometimes Zeppo. (Evidently, Simon & Schuster editor Michael Korda hated cutesy, esoteric, or wordplay-based titles. Makes it fair game for the Holy Bee to swipe.)
So this will be, in a description I’ve used in the past, your typical Holy Bee mishmash. Part biography, part cultural history, part critical analysis, part rambling and musing.
Here we go…
The region known as Alsace has always been a victim of geographical tug-of-war. Hugging the western bank of the Rhine River, the area has been regarded at various times as the easternmost territory of France or the westernmost territory of Germany. Culturally, it is very French, but linguistically many of its inhabitants speak plattdeutsch — “low German.” In October of 1859, Alsace was firmly under the control of France, and in a Jewish commune known as Mertzwiller, Simon Marx was born to another Simon Marx (possibly spelled “Marrix”), an illiterate peddler and suspected bigamist who may have been married illegally to two women at the same time. Before the boy was twelve, the events of the Franco-Prussian War annexed Alsace on behalf of the new Imperial State of Germany — the Second Reich — and young Simon went from being French to being German overnight.
In a similar vein, before the Franco-Prussian War, the little seashore town of Dornum, just east of the Dutch border, was considered to be in the independent Kingdom of Prussia. After the Franco-Prussian War, it was considered to be in the newly consolidated German Empire. It was there, in the waning days of the old kingdom, that Miene Schoenberg was born in November of 1864 to distinctly un-orthodox Jewish parents.
Miene’s parents were Lafe and Fanny Schoenberg, who traveled through northern Germany and the Low Countries performing as a ventriloquist/magician and a singing harpist, respectively. Lafe had a reputation as a wily, philandering charmer, always on the lookout for a pretty girl or easy money, traits he would pass on to at least a few of his grandsons. The 1851 marriage of the rascally Lafe and the more proper Fanny was objected to by her parents — and had been scandalously preceded by the 1850 birth of their eldest daughter, Schontje. Schontje was turned over to Lafe’s parents to raise, and for whatever reason the Lafe/Fanny union was not blessed with any more children until 1858 — then they came very close together. In addition to Schontje, there was daughter Sara, who emigrated to New York well ahead of the rest of the family in 1872, daughters Celine (about whom nothing is known) and Jette (died at age three), and at least a few others who didn’t survive infancy. All we need to note for the future are daughter Hanchen (b. 1862), daughter Miene, son Abraham (b. 1868) and son Heinemann (b. 1873).
Fanny and Lafe, 1876, just before immigrating. Hanchen is between them, Abraham is in front of Fanny, and Heinemann is on Lafe’s lap. The fair-haired Meine is on the right.
Looking for greater opportunities, the Schoenbergs came to the melting pot of New York City between 1877 and 1879, and began the process of assimilation among the crowds of fellow immigrants in the Lower East Side. Lafe became “Louis” (although he never mastered English), Hanchen became “Hannah,” Meine became “Minnie,” and the boys, Abraham and Heinemann, became “Al Shean” and “Henry (‘Harry’) Shean.” (Fanny stayed Fanny.) Fifteen-year-old Minnie took a job in a sweatshop, assembling fur coats.
We don’t know if Schontje or Celine made the trip. If they did, it is likely they are partly responsible for the flood of “Schoenberg cousins” the Brothers remember going in and out of their household at all hours. We know that Sara married a Gustave Heymann, and had a bunch of little Heymanns roughly the same age as the Brothers.
Fanny and Lafe, 1880s
Simon Marx made his way to New York in 1880, and was taken in and apprenticed by an older cousin who worked as a tailor. He shed the name “Simon” and became “Sam,” but — although he spoke plattdeutsch and considered himself German — he happily went by the nickname of “Frenchie” for the rest of his days. He never mentioned nor gave much thought to his parents and a multitude of siblings and half-siblings he had left behind in the Old Country. (“Frenchie” or “Frenchy”? Looking through all the sources, it seems to be a 50-50 split. I’ll go with Harpo’s spelling from his autobiography.)
Minnie, at around sixteen years old
By late 1884 Frenchie was barely scraping by as a tailor. But there were other opportunities for a handsome, dapper, and gentlemanly young Alsatian — especially one who was a decent dancer. He picked up extra money moonlighting as an instructor at a dance hall, and that’s where he met the bright, vivacious Minnie, who had moved on from the sweatshop and was now selling straw hats. Romance blossomed, and Sam “Frenchie” Marx, 25, married Minnie Schoenberg, 20, on January 18, 1885. They bounced from apartment to apartment (always moving further uptown — away from the teeming, roughshod Lower East Side), and began to produce their remarkable offspring.
The first Marx brother never got to be a “Marx Brother” at all. Manfred Marx, born in January 1886, was dead by July, a victim of acute “enterocolitis” (inflammation of the digestive tract) and “asthenia” (overall weakness), brought on by either influenza or tuberculosis. Whatever bacteria or virus was at fault, Manfred became another statistic in the annals of urban 19th-century infant mortality. His parents were devastated, but in true immigrant spirit, they persevered — and all their subsequent children lived to see old age.
After poor lost “Mannie” came Leonard, born on March 22, 1887. Then came Adolph on November 23, 1888. The middle child, Julius Henry, was born on October 2, 1890. Little brother Milton arrived on October 21, 1892. (He was another sickly one — Minnie watched him like a hawk.) The “surprise baby,” Herbert, was born on February 25, 1901.
We know them as Chico, Harpo, Groucho, Gummo, and Zeppo.
Although the family always had its eyes on the future, Manfred’s death was not without reverberations that would echo for years. Minnie became incredibly protective. “Sam can cough all night, and I never hear him,” she once said. “But if one of my boys coughs just once, I’m wide awake.” And the first child born after Manfred — Leonard — was undoubtedly his mother’s favorite, spoiled and cosseted unabashedly. All the boys were born with fine blonde hair (and Minnie was known to have mixed peroxide with their shampoo) — except Julius, who sported woolly black locks from the get-go. That, and the slight cast to his left eye, always made him feel like a little bit of an outsider. Minnie referred to him as der Eifersuchtihe, “the jealous one.” His brothers’ hair eventually darkened in adolescence, but for Julius, the damage was already done.
The dominant Yorkville landmark was the massive Hell Gate Brewery. The Brothers’ grandfather taught them to tell time by looking out of their window towards the brewery’s clock tower
Every Marx Brother has a story about what a terrible tailor their father was (he supposedly refused to use a tape measure, preferring to guess his customers’ measurements), and also liked to spin tales about their poverty and life in the tenements. The reality was a little different. Yes, Frenchie preferred cooking and playing pinochle to cutting cloth, but he must have been earning something. By 1895, the family had settled into the top floor of a comfortable four-story brownstone at 179 East 93rd Street in the respectable German neighborhood of Yorkville — hardly a tenement. They stayed there for almost fifteen years, a far cry from the days of fleeing angry landlords in the Lower East Side when rent came due. The Marx family was solidly lower-middle class.
Which isn’t to say the apartment wasn’t very, very crowded.
Let’s take a look at the occupants of this address, circa 1900…
The stoop of the Marx family’s building as it appears today
The occupants of three rooms on one floor of 179 East 93rd Street included Frenchie, who was more likely to be found frying short ribs and cabbage or playing cards than plying his trade. (He didn’t have a shop. His big cutting table and scraps of fabric dominated the dining area during work hours, and were put away when it was time for dinner and/or a round of cards, which came earlier and earlier in the day as he got older.) There was Louis and Fanny (now “Opie” and “Omie” to the grandsons). There was thirteen-year-old Leo and eleven-year-old “Ahdie” — towheaded troublemakers who at the time could pass as twins, and were already showing a proclivity for prowling the neighborhood looking for action. There was nine-year-old “Julie,” somewhat sour and serious, usually to be found with a book in whatever private corner he could claim, or keeping an eye on seven-year-old Milton, who was frail and small for his age. Presiding over all of this was Minnie Marx, pregnant (or very soon to be) with Herbert, and beginning to concoct the dream of putting her precocious boys on the stage. (None of the Brothers bothered with school beyond their bar mitzvah, and their attendance was pretty spotty before that.)
And according to the Brothers’ collective memories, another constant presence was a Marx Sister — Pauline (“Polly”), aged sixteen. Actually, Polly was the daughter of Minnie’s sister Hannah, born in 1884 when Hannah was between husbands, and unofficially adopted by Frenchie and Minnie to keep things respectable. (For what it’s worth, Polly was listed in the 1900 census as residing with her mother and stepfather, but who knows what the actual situation was.)
The Marxes occupied the top floor
A total of eight people — and that’s just the baseline. It seems that Polly was a semi-permanent fixture, and Aunt Hannah and her second husband Uncle Julius were there so often they might as well have been residents. Plus there was an endless stream of Schoenberg cousins, family friends, Frenchie’s customers, and pinochle players trooping up and down the three flights of stairs at number 179. And somewhere among the clutter, human and otherwise, they managed to find room for Omie’s old harp and a second hand upright piano. (One of Julius’ favorite reading spots was draped over the back of the piano.)
The story goes that Minnie was for some reason convinced Uncle Julius was sitting on secret riches, and named her middle child after him in hopes of a future inheritance. The question mark in the story is that Hannah and Julius Schickler did not marry until two years after Julius Marx was born. But who knows, maybe the couple had been “courting” for a couple of years.
Julius and Adolph in front of 179 East 93rd Street, around 1900
The loss of Omie Fanny in 1901 was balanced by the arrival of baby Herbert, but gradually the fourth floor got some breathing room. Polly married young, to the nearest non-related male (one of Frenchie’s card-playing cronies, actually) and got the hell out of there as soon as she could. Teenaged Leo and Ahdie were spending less and less time under the family roof, out until all hours doing who-knows.
Julius was a touring vaudeville singer by the end of 1905. And Julius most assuredly did not get an inheritance from his eponymous uncle when he finally shuffled off sometime in the 1920s. Uncle Julius’ entire estate, grouched his nephew in his colorful autobiography, consisted of “a nine-ball he stole from a pool hall, his liver pills, and a celluloid dickey.” Plus, he died owing Frenchie eighty-four dollars.Continue reading