Groucho Marx: Cigar Smoking Comedian

In addition to being a brilliant entertainer with razor-sharp comedic timing, Groucho Marx continues to remain an iconic cigar smoker. He was rarely seen without a cigar during his decades-long career in theater, film, and television, and it became a signature part of his persona. Like many other performers, Groucho initially used cigars as a versatile prop but grew to appreciate them for their flavors and the relaxing mood they promoted. Whether Groucho was appearing in hilarious films with his brothers or delivering endless one liners and double entendres on his own television show, a cigar was always present.

Born Julius Henry Marx on October 2, 1890 on the East Side of Manhattan in New York City, Marx was the fourth of five sons born to Minnie and Samuel. Though the family was poor, they were close and Minnie's brother, Al Shean, was a talented vaudeville performer who instilled the love of performing in the young Marx Brothers. The boys' mother discovered their talents early when her oldest son Leonard was rehearsing a piano piece and heard Julius' pleasant singing voice. The second-oldest son, Adolph, later called Arthur, was a multi-instrumentalist and particularly skilled as a harpist, learning on a harp brought to America by his grandmother. Minnie recognized the potential for her sons as entertainers and because she was reportedly the only one capable of keeping them in line, she became their manager.

The painted mustache and eyebrows were a hit with the audience and it became Groucho's trademark look

Despite the Marx Brothers having the first names of Julius, Adolph, Leonard, Milton, and Herbert, the comedy troupe is best remembered by their nicknames Groucho, Harpo, Chico, Gummo, and Zeppo. Groucho recounted how the brothers got their stage names in The Marx Brothers Scrapbook, though the validity of the story has been questioned since its publication:

Our stage names were given to us by a monologist named Art Fisher. He was in the habit of giving people nicknames and they stuck. He named Leonard Chico because girls were called chicks in those days and Chico loved girls. Arthur became Harpo for obvious reasons, Gummo got his name because he was fond of gum sole shoes, and he named me because I was stern and rather serious. Herbert who became Zeppo was too young at that time and wasn't in the act. He got his name later on. I think Fisher got the names from a cartoon that was appearing in the papers. The Monk Family or something like that. I didn't mind the name because I wasn't too crazy about Julius.

Over time, the Marx Brothers developed a successful vaudeville routine and performed plays on Broadway, an impressive accomplishment for a comedic act. It was during this time that Groucho discovered his signature greasepaint mustache which he used for several years. Early in his vaudeville career, Groucho wore a fake mustache that had to be carefully glued on before each performance. After spending too much time having coffee at a diner across the street from the theater and not having enough time to glue on the mustache, Groucho instead grabbed a stick of black greasepaint laying on the dressing room table and painted on a fake mustache and thick eyebrows before running out on stage doing his quirky, crouched walk.

The painted mustache and eyebrows were a hit with the audience and it became Groucho's trademark look for several years. His distinctive look stayed with him throughout his time on Broadway and can be seen in several of the Marx Brothers' brilliant films such as Duck Soup, Horse Feathers, and A Night at the Opera. The brothers' movies throughout the 1930s and '40s were extremely successful, giving Groucho financial security after losing nearly everything when the stock market crashed in 1929. However, the Great Depression made a strong impression on Groucho's view of money and he remained a frugal man for the rest of his life. Only when it came to cigars and tobacco did Groucho indulge himself.

Groucho decided to retire the greasepaint mustache and grow a real one after a 1942 incident in Washington D.C., where Marx and other Hollywood stars such as Bing Crosby, Cary Grant, and Bob Hope made an appearance to help sell war bonds. None of the fans recognized Groucho without his signature mustache and instead flocked to the other entertainers for autographs. Upon returning to his Beverly Hills home, Marx grew his own mustache and was relieved to finally have his own identity, saying, "I can be a real person and they'll still know me. And I won't have to put on makeup to work."

He retained the mustache as the host of the popular quiz show You Bet Your Life, something that was born from an improvised performance on a radio appearance alongside Bob Hope. Annoyed that he waited in the green room for over 40 minutes as the show ran longer than expected, Marx ignored his scripted lines and instead ad-libbed his own. Famous producer John Guedel was in the studio and witnessed Marx's masterful performance and offered Groucho his own show.

You Bet Your Life debuted on radio in 1947 before moving to television in 1950, with Marx hosting until its end in 1961. A particularly memorable aspect of the show was a secret word that would be introduced to the audience at the beginning of each episode. Whenever one of the contestants said the secret word, a toy duck that resembled Groucho came down from the ceiling and awarded a $100 prize to the two-person team that uttered the word.

One of the most infamous moments from the show's history is one that never actually occurred and has been debunked by people who worked on the show as well as thorough research carried out by the fact-checking website Snopes. Despite being a rumored event, it has continued to be regarded as one of the most legendary comebacks in pop culture history. Supposedly Groucho was interviewing a female contestant named Mrs. Story who had several children and the comedian wanted to know why she had so many as it seemed like a large undertaking.

There are a few variations of the legend but the exchange allegedly went something like this:

Groucho: Why do you have so many children? That's a big responsibility and a big burden.

Mrs. Story: Well, because I love my children and I think that's our purpose here on Earth, and I love my husband.

Groucho: I love my cigar, too, but I take it out of my mouth once in a while.

Marx continued to make film and television appearances throughout the '60s and '70s, with his appearance at the 1974 Academy Awards being quite memorable. Jack Lemmon presented Groucho with an honorary Oscar "in recognition of his brilliant creativity and for the unequalled achievements of the Marx Brothers in the art of motion picture comedy." Groucho was 83 at the time and had experienced declining health after suffering minor strokes and other issues a couple of years earlier. However, when Marx appeared on stage he was greeted by a standing ovation and was grateful for the award, saying, "I wish that Harpo and Chico could be here to share with me this great honor."

Groucho never lost his sense of humor or sharp wit in his final years. He passed away in 1977 at age 86 and though his grave bears no epitaph, he reportedly suggested years earlier it should read, "Excuse me, I can't stand up." In addition to leaving behind an enduring comedic legacy and starring in several iconic films, Marx's love of cigars is well documented.

Jack Lemmon presented Groucho with an honorary Oscar "in recognition of his brilliant creativity..."

A 1993 article in Cigar Aficionado written by Groucho's son, Arthur Marx, explored the comedian's life and smoking preferences, including what cigars he enjoyed. Groucho became a cigar smoker when he was 15-years old after learning from an older vaudevillian that a cigar was the most useful prop an actor can have on stage. Marx explained to his son years later how valuable a cigar could be while acting, saying, "If you forget a line, 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."

As a young man, Groucho could only afford nickel cigars but after earning some money he once spent ten cents on a stick after seeing an advertisement for a brand of pure Havanas called La Preferencias. He was intrigued by the ad's promise of "Thirty glorious minutes in Havana." However, after only twenty minutes, the cigar burned so short that it was singeing his fingertips. Feeling like he was cheated, Groucho brought what was left to the shop owner and laid it upon the counter.

Arthur recounted how his father explained the story to him years ago, writing:

"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.

Arthur was introduced to his father's love of cigars early in life, writing, "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." While having dessert and coffee after dinner, Groucho enjoyed smoking a Dunhill 410 cigar, with Arthur recalling:

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.

When it came to Groucho's pipe smoking, Arthur noted, "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." Groucho notably appeared in a 1948 print ad for Edgeworth ready-rubbed pipe tobacco, in which a letter from his daughter Miriam claims that Edgeworth is his favorite brand.

Edgeworth Pipe Tobacco Advertisement

Groucho was also the one who introduced his son to the world of tobacco. After dropping out of the University of Southern California his freshman year in 1941, Arthur was inspired to take up pipe smoking since he was an aspiring writer, and because every writer he knew smoked a pipe, it seemed necessary. Feeling that a pipe could improve his writing, Arthur purchased an inexpensive corncob from a Beverly Hills tobacconist. He didn't buy any tobacco to smoke but would clench the pipe to simulate the smoking experience.

One morning Groucho walked past his son with the corn cob in his mouth and asked, "Who do you think you are with that cheap corncob pipe in your kisser — General MacArthur?!" He then said, "I'll give you a real pipe," and returned with a straight grain Dunhill that Athrur estimated cost about $75 at the time. Months later, Arthur filled the pipe with a cheap blend he purchased at the local tobacconist, struggling to keep it lit with kitchen matches.

Arthur recalled his father's reaction after smelling what he was smoking, writing:

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 be 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."

While it's commonly believed Marx was a heavy smoker, his son debunked the rumor, writing, "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."

When using cigars while acting, Marx rarely lit them and instead used them as props, something to keep his hands occupied when he wasn't talking. When writing about why his father acted in movies with unlit cigars, Arthur notes, "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."

"... he had an impressive collection of straight-grain Dunhills, and a number of different tins of imported British pipe tobacco."

There are a number of humorous stories involving Groucho and cigars, including one instance involving his third wife, Eden. She once complained about the smell of his "stinky old cigar" and ordered him to put it out or find another wife. Groucho shot back with the memorable line from Rudyard Kipling's poem "The Betrothed," saying, "a woman is only a woman, but a good cigar is a smoke." Eden apparently wasn't a poetry fan and according to Arthur she responded by saying, "If you love your cigar so much, then sleep with it. But in another room."

In the 1993 Cigar Aficionado article Arthur Marx recounted another amusing story:

My favorite anecdote about Groucho's cigar smoking occurred when he was in Rome, walking through Vatican Square with a group of tourists. He had just lit a brand new $3 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."

Groucho Marx was a truly gifted comedian who used his talents and impeccably sharp wit to make people laugh, even throughout some of the toughest times in history. His ad libbing skills and comedic instincts helped set him apart from his contemporaries, cementing his place as one of the world's greatest comedians. Groucho wasn't shy about his love of cigars and he usually had one in hand while delivering some of the funniest lines ever uttered.

Category:   Pipe Line
Tagged in:   Cigars Dunhill Famous Pipe Smokers Film History

Comments

    • Jack+ on January 8, 2021
    • A fantastic article, Jeffrey! I just watched an interview with Groucho on YouTube. He was being "interviewed" by Dick Cavett. It was hilarious! Thanks for sharing this.

    • Dennis bienvenue on January 10, 2021
    • Watch ed GROUCHO ON TV IN THE FIFTIES,ON A SMALL BLK AND WHITE TV. MY DAD WAS A WW2 VET AND SAW GROUCHO MANY TIMES HE WOULD ALWAYS WATCH HIM

    • kevin ruyle on January 10, 2021
    • Just as funny today as it was then. They sure don't make them like they used to. Comedians that is.

    • Marshall Jacoby on January 10, 2021
    • As a young kid, I saw the exchange with the parents of 15 or better children. His line about taking the cigar out is correct. The TV screen went black and the show ended.

    • simon lebon on January 10, 2021
    • ..very good article...

    • Jeffery S on January 10, 2021
    • @Marshall Jacoby, this is the link to the Snopes article that debunked the rumored event. (https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/the-secret-words/) Several people claim to have seen or heard the famous quip, however, it never happened. Snopes did a thorough investigation and tried to find evidence of the event. There are rumored "blooper" reels that reportedly feature the exchange but they're fakes. It's just an urban legend at this point but still quite funny.

    • Shan Williams on January 10, 2021
    • In the 1970s the rock group Queen made two albums, "A Night At The Opera" and "A Day At The Races", both the titles of Marx Brothers films. I read that Groucho found out about this and sent word to the group that his next movie would be "The Best of the Rolling Stones." They got the message.

    • Philip M on January 11, 2021
    • @ Jeffrey S You are dead wrong. My family had one of the first black/white TVs in the neighborhood. The incident is burned into my memory. Paraphrasing: "I like my cigar too, but I take it out once in a while." Screen goes to black. I am sure Marshall Jacoby doesn't appreciate being called a liar. Don't trouble yourself, I apologize for you.

    • Kevin L on January 11, 2021
    • Philip M, that's interesting. Then why did Groucho state in a 1972 interview with Roger Ebert, "I got $25 from Reader’s Digest last week for something I never said. I get credit all the time for things I never said. You know that line in You Bet Your Life? The guy says he has seventeen kids and I say: 'I smoke a cigar, but I take it out of my mouth occasionally?' I never said that." Just because we live in an age of unreason doesn't mean you can ignore facts and be woefully ignorant. A little research goes a long way. There's zero evidence of the event anywhere.

    • Tampy on January 11, 2021
    • The Mandela Effect, look it up, it's a real phenomenon (que the Twilight Zone theme music).

    • Tampy on January 11, 2021
    • *Cue the Twilight Zone theme music...

    • Jon DeCles on January 12, 2021
    • The ladies of our house decided at one point to 'get the goods' on my brother for some of the things he said. They duly got a tape recorder and taped a conversation, and then played it back to him. "Is that your voice, saying that?" they demanded. "Yes," he replied, "but I never said that."There seem to be a number of people who saw the show and the delivery of the line. The fact that researchers from a later time have not been able to document it is not evidence that it did not happen. As to Groucho denying it, I have interviewed a number of people who have denied things other people witnessed. The obverse is true as well: people setting forth things to have happened which not only did not happen, but could not have happened, for various reasons, such as the person involved being verifiably in a different distant location. Object truth may just have as many flaws as subjective truth.

    • F. Marshall on January 12, 2021
    • The fact that Groucho and other people who were heavily involved in the show's production deny the cigar line ever happened is all the proof you need. A memorable bit like that would have been preserved by someone somewhere. Or are we supposed to believe old, senile fogies like Marshall Jacoby and Philip M who lie and say that they remember an event they saw decades ago on black and white TV that never happened? There's zero proof to back up their claims but a mountain of evidence that points to it being a myth. And Philip, you should apologize to Jeffery for being a douchebag. Excellent article, shame that this has become focus.

    • Mark on January 13, 2021
    • Re the alleged famous Groucho television incident: I don’t know whether it happened or not, but I do know that Snopes is not always right. Groucho himself claiming he never said it is more persuasive, perhaps, but who knows? I’d need to see more evidence to be convinced one way or the other. It may remain unsolved, but it will always be one of the best stories ever.

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