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You Bet Your Life

Groucho Marx knew the secret word was enjoyment.
Arthur Marx
From the Print Edition:
Groucho Marx, Spring 93

I'm probably the only man alive who can say he was weaned on Groucho Marx's cigar smoke.

Because my father was Groucho, I learned to appreciate the aroma of a good Havana cigar when I was still in a crib. I got my first whiff of cigar smoke when Groucho leaned over the crib railing one evening to kiss me good night. Between his thumb and forefinger was a long, smoldering stogie from which was wafting a large, bluish-white cloud of smoke. Seeing this, my mother bawled out father for not being more considerate of his only son. She felt the smoke would hurt my tender lungs. But of course it didn't. Like Bill Clinton, I did not inhale.

When I was seven, and old enough to sit at the dinner table with my parents, Groucho would turn to me when he was on his dessert and coffee course and say, "Trot upstairs to my humidor, Big Feet (he always called me Big Feet because he claimed my footsteps on the stairs outside his bedroom woke him up early in the morning), and bring me a Dunhill 410." In a large humidor in his upstairs study he kept a trove of the most expensive cigars money could buy--mostly Dunhills. There were light cigars for after lunch, and heavier, more pungent ones for after dinner. The latter were his favorites--especially the 410s. He also kept on hand a box of extra-sized cigars called Belindas. These, I believe, were the kind Winston Churchill smoked. They were long and fat and looked like a miniature Scud missile. These he kept for special occasions, to be given to important guests--cigar aficionados who'd appreciate them--or when he wanted to show off.

Even though I had no desire to start smoking when I was still in grammar school, the rich, fragrant aroma of a Havana cigar always whetted my olfactory senses as I opened the humidor, selected a 410 and carried it downstairs to my father at the dinner table. And I would watch with childish fascination as father clipped off the tip of the cigar with his mother-of-pearl cigar cutter, and then stuck it in his mouth and torched the large end of it with his silver cigarette lighter. As he took a deep, satisfying drag of his 410, and then exhaled a large cloud of smoke in my direction, it didn't seem possible to me that anyone could get so much enjoyment out of putting just smoke in his mouth and then blowing it out. At that age, I would have much preferred a chocolate cigar. But for Groucho, no dinner was complete without his 410, nor a day without at least two of them.

Of course, it hadn't always been that way with him, because he hadn't always been able to lead such a well-ordered existence.

Born in 1890 on the East Side of Manhattan, Julius Marx was the fourth of five sons born to my grandparents, Samuel and Minnie Marx. From the beginning (partially because his father was awkward as a tailor--nicknamed "misfit Sam"--and partially because Minnie had a paternally inherited love for show business) the Marx family lived off the inconsistent profits of the vaudeville stage.

Money was never plentiful. Even when Groucho and his brothers were in small-time vaudeville prior to The First World War, he was lucky to be able to afford an after-dinner cigar at all, much less an expensive Dunhill. As a matter of fact, with the tendency of many theater owners to run off with the weekly take without paying the actors, he was lucky sometimes to have the money to buy a dinner at a cheap Greek restaurant.

When he became a success in vaudeville and on Broadway's legitimate stage, he didn't have the time after dinner to enjoy a leisurely smoke. In order to make the curtain he usually had to gulp down his meal and rush right over to the theater and start putting on his makeup. When he first made it in big-time vaudeville, he wore an

ersatz mustache that had to be glued on under his nose very carefully before every performance. This took time. Once, however, Groucho lingered over his dinner coffee in the restaurant across the street from the theater too long. As a result he was too late getting to the theater to glue on the phony mustache. Instead, he grabbed a stick of black greasepaint from the dressing table and painted on a black mustache under his nose and heavy eyebrows over his eyes, then dashed out on the stage doing his inimitable crouched walk in a sketch called, "Fun in Hi Skule."

"To my amazement I found it didn't hurt my audience acceptance one bit," Groucho told me. "If anything the laughs were even bigger."

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