You Bet Your Life
Groucho Marx knew the secret word was enjoyment.
From the Print Edition:
Groucho Marx, Spring 93
(continued from page 6)
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."
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