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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

(continued from page 2)

While with a group of other stars who arrived in the nation's capital to sell war bonds in 1942, Groucho was shocked to discover that none of the fans waiting at the Union Station train platform recognized him without his makeup. All the other stars, including Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Cary Grant, were besieged by autograph hunters, but Groucho was left standing there with egg on his face. Without his mustache he was a "nobody."

That settled it. As soon as he returned to his home in Beverly Hills he started to grow a real mustache. Never again would he be upstaged by such low-lifes as Hope, Crosby and Grant. And never again would he have to paint on a mustache in order to be recognized. "I can be a real person and they'll still know me," he boasted. "And I won't have to put on makeup to work."

Which is why he looked the way he did when he became America's most successful quizmaster in the '50s and '60s, and the star of You Bet Your Life. The hugely successful ABC radio quiz show was, like most of Groucho's career, the product of serendipity. During what was supposed to be a five-minute radio spot with Bob Hope, Groucho tossed out the script and manufactured his own lines for almost a half hour.

This improvised comedy session eventually spawned You Bet Your Life. The show provided Groucho with the perfect medium for his brand of sardonic wit--his guests playing helpless straight men, suffering under an endless barrage of puns and double entendres.

The show ran for four years on radio and 11 years on TV, and made Groucho Marx a household name.

Contrary to popular belief, Groucho was not a heavy smoker, like, say, George Burns, who until recently smoked at least ten cigars a day. Groucho never smoked before noon and normally, but not always, had one cigar after lunch and one after dinner. If he had to stay up past his usual bedtime--with dinner guests who refused to go home or to attend some function on the town, he might, if he felt especially daring, smoke a third cigar around midnight.

The cigar that movie fans saw in his hands or in his mouth when he was acting was generally unlit. He just used the unlit cigar as a prop, something to stick in his mouth, or to keep his hands busy when he wasn't talking. He did this for two reasons: one, he didn't want to smoke all day when he was shooting a film, and two, it would have been too difficult for the director to match the length the cigar had burned down between shots when it was time for another take. But if Groucho kept his cigar unlit, it was always the same length.

Groucho didn't have many vices, if you can call smoking cigars a vice. He wasn't much of a drinker--one Old Fashioned before dinner and a glass of beer with his meal would generally take him through the evening, unless he was having difficulty sleeping, in which case he'd take a straight shot of Ovaltine before putting on his sleep mask and inserting his ear plugs.

The only time I ever saw him even slightly tipsy was at Chasen's the night he had dinner there after his brother Chico's funeral. He had two Old Fashioneds instead of his customary one. But that was understandable since Chico was the first of the Marx Brothers to go, and Groucho was suddenly feeling his mortality.

Groucho wasn't much of a womanizer, either, or an especially good lover. Though he fancied himself a romantic, it wasn't easy for him to act romantic. When his third wife, Eden, once complained to him that she didn't like the smell of his "stinky old cigar" and ordered him to put it out or else get another wife, he threw Rudyard Kipling's line back at her: "... a woman is only a woman, but a good cigar is a smoke!"

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