You Bet Your Life
Groucho Marx knew the secret word was enjoyment.
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."
But the theater manager was outraged when he saw the painted mustache and confronted Groucho about it backstage after the performance.
"What's with the greasepaint mustache?" he asked Groucho. "I don't like it."
"You don't like it?"
"No. It looks phony."
"Who cares?" Groucho retorted. "It didn't hurt the laughs any."
"I don't care, Groucho. I paid for a real mustache, and I expect to get one."
But Groucho refused to back down, and from that moment on, he painted on the mustaches and eyebrows that soon became his trademark.
The painted mustache stayed with him through big time vaudeville, three Broadway hit shows--I'll Say She Is (1924), Cocoanuts (1926), and Animal Crackers (1928)--and 13 Marx Brothers films, which included The Cocoanuts (1929), Animal Crackers (1930) (both reproductions of the aforementioned Broadway shows), and the classic, A Night at the Opera (1935).
The Marx Brothers films of the '30s and early '40s left Groucho financially comfortable--which was terribly important to a man who lost nearly every cent on Black Monday in 1929. After that shock, Groucho was forever insecure about money--he would have preferred to keep the greasepaint under his nose in case he needed to sell it as oil someday.
It took the Second World War and an incident in the train station in Washington, D.C., to make him give up the greasepaint mustache.
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!"
No fan of Kipling, Eden refused to sleep with Groucho for six months. "If you love your cigar so much, then sleep with it," were her parting words. "But in another room."
But as long as he could have his cigar fix after dinner, he didn't need a charming woman. He was happy. And God help any of us kids who insisted on going to a movie theater where smoking wasn't allowed.
Friday night was usually the night he liked to take my sister and me to the movies. The routine would always be the same. if I, for example, suggested going to the Warner Brothers Beverly Theater because I wanted to see the Jimmy Cagney gangster film that was playing there, Groucho would shake his head and reply, "How can we go there? They don't allow smoking. What's playing at the Marquis?"
The Marquis was a fifth-run movie house in a bad section of town, just outside the Beverly Hills city limits. Generally we would have already seen the movie that was playing there. But that wasn't important to Groucho. What was important was that you were allowed to smoke in the balcony of the Marquis because it wasn't in Beverly Hills, which had an ordinance against cigar smoking.
If we complained about going to the Marquis, Groucho would spend the next 30 minutes looking through the movie section of the paper, trying to find a theater that we all wanted to see and where something was playing where you could also smoke. Trying to please both us and him was virtually impossible. So, in the end, if we wanted to go to the movies we'd either have to sit through some turkey we didn't want to see or stay home and listen to him play Gilbert & Sullivan recordings on the hi-fi. Given the choice of listening to Groucho sing along with the Doyle Carter Company's renditions of "The Mikado" and "H.M.S. Pinafore," or seeing a bad movie we'd already seen or never wanted to see, we'd usually, out of sheer desperation, opt for the latter.
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
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.
"I thought you weren't supposed to smoke anymore," I said to him one evening when he started to light up a cigar at the dinner table.
"Listen, Big Feet," he replied. "When you get to my age you don't have many pleasures left. You can't drink, you can't screw. Smoking a cigar is the only thing left that gives me any pleasure. So I die a few years younger!"
"What about your doctor?" I said. "Did you ask him if it was all right to start again?"
He grinned and exclaimed, "How can I ask him? He died three weeks ago!"
My favorite anecdote about Groucho's cigar smoking occurred a few years before that when he was in Rome, walking through Vatican Square with a group of tourists. He had just lit a brand new $1 cigar, when someone behind him jostled his arm, causing him to drop the expensive Dunhill into a puddle of water.
"Jesus Christ!" Groucho exclaimed.
As he bent down to recover the cigar from the water, a Catholic priest, who was evidently the person who had bumped him from the rear, picked up the cigar first and handed it to him. "Congratulations, Groucho," grinned the priest, "you just said the Secret Word."
Arthur Marx is the author of three books and two plays about his father. He has also just published a murder mystery, Set to Kill.
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