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Shemp's Last Cigar

The original third Stooge, Shemp Howard spent the end of his career in brother Curly's shadow.
Jim Mueller
From the Print Edition:
Danny DeVito, Winter 96

Ponder poor Shemp, the Stooge we never loved.

Dear Shemp, his mangy puss suspended in time on grainy Columbia stock, scowling out from beneath klieg light sweat and dripping Brylcreem. He did his best to make us laugh, this Shemp Howard, with his patented shadowboxing routine and "ee-bee-bee-bee" snuffle snores, though, truth be told, the more Shemp mugged, the more we shrugged.

Our problem with Mr. Howard? He was OK...but he wasn't his brother Curly.

For that reason little has been written about one Samuel Horwitz, a.k.a. Shemp Howard, the eldest performing Howard brother of Three Stooges fame. (Moe, Curly and Shemp had two more brothers at home in the Brooklyn enclave of Bensonhurst, though neither professed interest in Stooging as a profession. Regarding the name "Shemp," it came from his immigrant mother, Jennie Horwitz, who in struggling with "Sam!" often blurted out "Shem!") Shemp Howard would have turned 100 in 1995, a year that also marked the 40th anniversary of his passing in the back seat of a Los Angeles taxicab. Legend has it Shemp was returning home from a fight card at the Hollywood Legion Stadium, when he pitched over dead with a smoldering Havanaclenched between his jaws. Or so goes one version.

Other accounts have Shemp in the act of lighting or unwrapping said cigar, and yet a third story has the Stooge passing away in eerie silence, the only clue to his demise being a slumped shoulder followed by the odor of burnt wool as his cigar brushed gently against the thigh of great friend Al Winston.

Nobody alive today knows for certain what happened the night of Nov. 23, 1955, though in fact Shemp's final cigar remains the lone constant in all accounts. Indeed, even the cause of death has been muddled over the years. Moe's daughter, Joan Howard Maurer, wrote in The Three Stooges Scrapbook that Shemp died of a heart attack. Shemp's daughter-in-law, Geri Greenbaum, maintains he suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage.

Whatever the case, the sad truth is Shemp Howard was gone at 60, and with him went the final Three Stooges comedies worth watching, though Moe Howard and Larry Fine would soldier on gamely for another 13 years, filling out the team with ersatz Stooges Joe Besser and Joe DeRita. (Stooges director Jules White once referred to Besser as "a very cute little man in his own way." Stooges sidekick Emil Sitka remembers DeRita as "difficult to work with; he didn't take direction well.")

Perhaps ironically, it seemed in death Shemp had achieved a measure of public respect, because like it or not, Stooges fans finally had to admit what Hollywood insiders knew all along: Shemp Howard was good...damned good! Yet even so, more than 40 years after his death the simple question remains: Who was Shemp Howard?

Joan Howard Maurer remembers her Uncle Shemp as a gentle, warm-hearted man who loved nothing better than a good cigar and a few laughs with show business cronies. As for his smoking habits, Maurer says: "They all smoked! Moe used pipes, cigars and cigarettes until the day he died. Larry sometimes had a cigar, I think, and my Uncle Babe, which is what the family called Curly, always had a cigar in his hand, as did Shemp.

"My clearest childhood memory of the Stooges and cigars involves my cousin Morton, Shemp's son. Morton idolized his father and would entice both Shemp and Curly to give him their cigar bands, which he collected and wore on his fingers. I seem to recall Morton wearing those cigar bands in one of our old home movies, probably around 1932 or so, but I can't say for sure." Morton Howard, Shemp's only son, died in 1972.

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