There was no mistaking that bent-kneed loping walk plus the black greasepainted eyebrows and mustache, wild hair, and razor-sharp wit.
Cigar in hand, he spat out barbed one-liners and zany asides to the camera with devilish irreverence, hamming it up and captivating audiences for 45 years.
“Groucho” Marx and his brothers used sight gags and pratfalls perfected on burlesque stages and movie sets, through two World Wars and the Great Depression, to make people laugh and divert attention from the world’s bad news.
As CBS News’ Lloyd Vries wrote, audiences “were startled, then amused and finally convulsed by a kind of comedy they had never seen before … The four Marx Brothers brought to the screen their own chaotic — and subversive — view of the world.”
At the height of their popularity, Groucho and his parents lived in Great Neck. Local children would line up to watch the madcap brothers dashing around and jumping in and out of windows.
The unruly pack’s leader was Julius Henry “Groucho” Marx. His grandmother was a yodeling harpist, his grandfather a ventriloquist; was there any doubt that the Marx Brothers would be entertainers?
“The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”
Groucho was born in 1890 to European Jewish immigrants and raised in Manhattan’s poor Yorkville section of the Upper East Side. He started performing in vaudeville and burlesque in a singing trio; his brothers later joined the song-and-dance comedy act managed by their mother. Comedian Art Fisher gave them names reflecting their personalities during a 1914 poker game; Groucho was the self-described “moody one.”
By 1924, Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo Marx had perfected the act and were starring in a successful Broadway run in The Cocoanuts. They kept company with the notable elite around the famed Algonquin Round Table, T.S. Eliot, and George Gershwin.
When Groucho was 36, he bought a house at 21 Lincoln Road in Great Neck Villa, near the Long Island Rail Road station, for $27,000. His son Arthur Marx later described Great Neck: “Our house overlooked hundreds of acres of deep forest rich with birch and oak trees, unpolluted ponds and streams, and all sort of wild flora ….”
Groucho played croquet at Sands Point’s Lands End mansion with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, traded witty quips with satirist Dorothy Parker, and partied with Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.
The Marx Brothers continued their winning streak just as sound enhanced silent pictures as “talkies” in the early 1930s. The plots revolved around the brothers bursting in noisily to an elegant soiree, or a cruise ship, or a roomful of stuffy dignitaries, where they would disrupt everything with annoying insults and physical antics.
Life was fun — most of the time.
“I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.”
The New York Times described 1930s Great Neck as “one of the few Gold Coast communities that welcomed or even allowed Jews then, mixed in as they were with the theatrical and literary crowd that flocked” there.
Groucho and his son tried to join the Sands Point Bath and Sun Club on Manhasset Bay, across from Kings Point. He recalled, “The head cheese of the place came over and told me, ‘Well, we’re very sorry, Mr. Marx, but we don’t allow Jews to swim at our beach.’ We couldn’t join because I was Jewish. So I said, ‘My son’s only half Jewish. Would it be all right if he went in the water up to his knees?’’’
Later that day, Marx joined the more expensive Lakeville Country Club in Lake Success, “with all the other showbiz Jews.”
One interviewer asked Groucho about the 1933 Marx brothers film Duck Soup’s attacking anti-Semitism philosophies, which were gaining ground in Europe. Groucho’s response? “What are you talking about? We were five Jews trying to get a laugh.”
“I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening. But this wasn’t it.”
The Marx Brothers made Time Magazine’s cover in 1932; in 2004, the magazine called them “the fathers of every aggressive film comic from the Stooges to Sandler.” They made 13 films, then in 1947, Groucho switched gears. On his radio quiz show You Bet Your Life, the Q&As mattered less than his wisecracks. He won two Hollywood Walk of Fame stars, one for radio and one for TV broadcasts from 1950 to 1956.
In 1974, he was awarded an Honorary Oscar for the brilliant creativity and unequaled achievements of the Marx Brothers in the art of motion picture comedy. He died in Los Angeles in 1977 at age 86.