You Bet Your Life
Groucho Marx knew the secret word was enjoyment.
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Groucho had been an inveterate cigar smoker since he was a 15-year-old adolescent playing in small-time vaudeville. He'd picked up the habit from an old vaudevillian who had tipped him off that a cigar was the most useful prop an actor could carry with him on the stage. "If you forget a line," my father once confessed to me, "all you have to do is stick the cigar in your mouth and puff on it until you can think of what you've forgotten." In his youth, Groucho was too poor to smoke anything but nickel cigars. Only once before he came into big money did he loosen up enough to spend a dime for one. This was the result of an advertisement he had seen for a brand of ten cent pure Havanas called La Preferencias. The ad fascinated him, for it promised the smoker "Thirty glorious minutes in Havana."
Twenty minutes later the cigar had burned down so short that it was scorching his fingertips. Feeling he'd been taken for a ride, he brought the remnants of the cigar back to the man who had sold it to him and laid it down on the counter.
"The ad said 'Thirty minutes in Havana,"' the irate, young Groucho complained, pointing to his watch, "and it's only been 20 minutes. What are you going to do about it?" In the face of such righteous indignation, the cigar salesman had no alternative but to give him a second stogie without charge. The second cigar survived the alarm clock for only 15 minutes. Again Groucho took it back and again the cigar merchant gave him a replacement.
The third and fourth cigars proved no better, and when Groucho trotted in with the fifth one burned down to a nub, hopeful of a sixth La Preferencia on the house, the salesman was convinced that he was the victim of a skin game and booted him out onto the sidewalk.
"You couldn't believe the advertising in those days any more than you can now," commented father, after telling me his sad story.
My father had a reputation for being thrifty, unnecessarily so for a man of his fame and fortune. And he was pretty tight-fisted in strange ways. He wouldn't, for example, check his hat with the hatcheck girl when he was entering a classy restaurant such as Chasen's or '21'. "If I spend all that money to eat in a fancy restaurant," he used to complain to me, "I think it's outrageous for the management to expect me to buy back my hat. At those prices they ought to let me hang it up for nothing."
To get around this "highway robbery," he'd wear a beret instead of his customary Fedora to a restaurant. Then, just before he stepped inside, he'd fold up the beret and stuff it into the pocket of his jacket. That way, he could cheat the hatcheck girl out of a quarter.
He was equally resentful of having to leave his car with the parking attendant at the front entrance, and having to tip him on his way out after dinner. If he could find a parking space on the street, even if it was two blocks away and it was raining, he'd leave his Cadillac there and walk the rest of the way to the bistro. Sometimes he'd leave his hat and topcoat in the car, too, to avoid tipping the hatcheck girl. He discontinued this practice, however, after he parked his car in an unpoliced neighborhood one night. When he came back later he found his car stolen--along with his topcoat and Fedora.
The one area where he wouldn't stint was on buying smoking materials. By the end of his life he was smoking two-dollar cigars without thinking twice about it.
Occasionally he enjoyed smoking a pipe. On a rack on a bookshelf behind his desk in his study he had an impressive collection of straight-grain Dunhills, and a number of different tins of imported British pipe tobacco.
It was Groucho who introduced me to tobacco. When I dropped out of USC after my freshman year, in 1941, I decided to spend my time writing instead of taking required courses like botany and physics, which I had no interest in or talent for. Since every writer I knew smoked a pipe, I thought it might help my prose to have a pipe in my mouth while I was pounding on my Remington.
Without telling father I purchased a cheap corncob pipe at a tobacco store in Beverly Hills and stuck it in my mouth, hoping for inspiration. I didn't have any tobacco in it. I just sucked the stem to give the effect I was smoking.
One morning Groucho walked in unexpectedly and surprised me with the pipe in my mouth. "Who do you think you are with that cheap corncob pipe in your kisser--General MacArthur?!" he exclaimed. "I'll give you a real pipe."
With that he went straight back to his bedroom and returned a few moments later carrying a straight-grain Dunhill--one that cost about $75--and dropped it on my desk. "Try this one on for size," he said. "Just don't smoke until you're finished with your tennis career." At the time I was the fifth ranked 18-year-old tennis player in the United States.
I promised him I'd lay off the tobacco until I was through with athletics. But after two months of sucking on a beautiful pipe that reeked of expensive tobacco and still had the taste in its bit, I could no longer resist the temptation of trying the real thing.
So one morning when I thought father was out walking the dog, I filled the bowl of my prized Dunhill with Dream Castle pipe tobacco that I'd bought at the same store that sold me the corncob, and after several false starts, fired it up with a kitchen match.
I was just getting the knack of keeping a pipe lit when I heard father's footsteps coming down the hall towards my open bedroom door.
Knowing he'd disapprove, I quickly stashed the lighted pipe in the bottom drawer of my desk and closed it. But there was no way I could rid the room of the cloud of acrid smoke hanging over my chair, or the smell of cheap tobacco.
As Groucho entered, he took one whiff of the smoke, stopped in his tracks, and stared at me under raised eyebrows. But instead of bawling me out, he wheeled around and strode back down the hall to his bedroom. When he returned a couple of minutes later I expected him to he carrying a bullwhip. Instead he had a handful of pipes, a can of Dunhill tobacco and a box of Dunhill 410s. He spread all this tobacco paraphernalia out on the desk in front of me and said, "If you're going to smoke, smoke some decent tobacco. That stuff you're smoking smells like horse manure."
"You mean, you want me to smoke?" I asked.
"I don't want you to, but if you're old enough to join the army,
you re old enough to do what you want."
"You mean that?"
"Hell yes. I was smoking when I was only fifteen. And I had the clap when I was sixteen. But if you insist on smoking, promise me one thing--that you do it in moderation. As long as you don't smoke too much, and stay away from cigarettes, it'll never hurt you."
To show that he meant it, three years later, after we were in the war with Japan, and I, as a member of the U.S. Coast Guard, was stationed on a remote island in the South Pacific, Groucho placed a standing order with Dunhill to ship me 50 of its 410s once a month. Of course my boxes of Dunhill cigars didn't always arrive intact. Not after the fleet postmaster, who apparently was a cigar aficionado himself, discovered what was in those mysterious aromatic packages from Dunhill addressed to Yeoman First Class, Arthur Marx.
But enough of my cigars escaped his clutches for me to have a good supply on hand when I was assigned by the Coast Guard Commander to organize a show for the express purpose of entertaining my fellow servicemen in the South Pacific Theater, after General MacArthur had retaken the Philippines. I was told that the big USO shows, such as Bob Hope's and Rudy Vallee's, never quite made it to the small, outer islands; and since the boys in Leyte, where I was stationed, were starved for entertainment, I was chosen--because of my background--to throw a show together, and also perform in it as its comedian/emcee.
Because I wasn't too sure of myself at the mike in front of a couple of thousand screaming servicemen, I tried smoking a cigar and using it as a prop whenever I was on stage--just as Groucho had told me he had done when he was doing a show. To my surprise, it worked like a charm and loosened me up enough to get through a performance without looking like an amateur.
After we'd played the show around the islands for a few weeks, the Coast Guard's PR department got wind of the fact that I was Groucho's son and insisted on photographing me wearing a pith helmet and greasepaint mustache, à la Groucho in Animal Crackers.
In the printed photo, I looked surprisingly like Groucho's Captain Spaulding--so much so that the United Press picked it up and sold it to many of its subscribers back in the States.
A few weeks later I received a stern letter from Groucho.
Dear Big Feet:
When I opened the L.A. Times this morning I saw a picture of you as Captain Spaulding. Well you could have knocked me over with a feather, a horsefeather, that is. Until then I had thought you were in the South Pacific defending your country. Now I find out you're out there stealing my act. Well, I want this to stop immediately, or I will have to take it up with my lawyer.
Doctor Hugo C. Hackenbush
Doctor Hugo C. Hackenbush
He was kidding about suing me, of course, as he generally was about everything. But the one thing he was perfectly serious about was the advice he'd given me about smoking in moderation.
And it must be good advice. He was still smoking cigars in his 80s, in spite of his doctor's admonition that he ought to quit.