Groucho's Threat Against Nixon & 9 More Marx Brothers Stories

by David Holzel

They were the bad boys of Broadway and, as the film record shows, of Hollywood as well. Chico, Harpo, Groucho, Gummo and Zeppo Marx, with their now iconic names and personas left a mark on the culture much greater than the sum of their work. As The Four Marx Brothers (Gummo left the team early on, replaced by baby brother Zeppo), they made five major films between The Cocoanuts in 1929 and Duck Soup in 1933. Sans Zeppo, they appeared together in another eight pictures through 1950.

They grew up poor in New York City, sons of an immigrant family that already had made inroads in show business. Oddly for showbiz Jews of that era, the Marx Brother kept their last names, but changed their first names. Here are 10 lesser known lessons about their lives.

1. There would have been six.

There was a sixth Marx brother, although he actually was the first. Manfred Marx was born in 1885 and died in infancy, probably of tuberculosis, according to The Marx Brothers Encyclopedia, by Glenn Mitchell. The oldest surviving brother, Leo aka Leonard aka Chico, was born in 1887.

harpo-marx.jpg2. Harpo knew a bad name when he was given one.

While all the brothers became known by their more famous show business names, only Harpo changed his given name. His German-Jewish immigrant parents originally named him Adolph, which, long before the rise of that other Adolf, Harpo Americanized to Arthur.

3. Here's your dialect, what's your hurry?

As was common on the vaudeville circuit, the early Marxes portrayed ethnic stereotypes. Chico was the Italian, a persona he never dropped. Harpo was an "Irish boob," reports Simon Louvish in his Marx biography, Monkey Business. Groucho's character was sometimes Dutch, sometimes German.

That changed on May 7, 1915, according to Stefan Kanfer's biography Groucho. That was the day German submarines torpedoed and sank the passenger ship Lusitania. Between the afternoon and evening shows, when news of the attack reached the theater, Groucho's accent metamorphosed from German to Yiddish. Eventually Groucho dropped the accent entirely.

4. A Day at the Farm

Raised in the Upper East Side German ghetto of Yorkville, the Marxes were as urban as they came. That helps to explain why they made such lousy farmers. When conscription was instituted during World War I, materfamilias Minnie Marx learned that farmers were exempt from the draft. She promptly purchased a 27-acre homestead in La Grange, Illinois, and moved the family there.

In a farce equal to their best work, the Marxes started a poultry farm. Each night, rats made off with the day's eggs, Kanfer writes. The Selective Service finally caught up with the Marxes in 1917. One by one the brothers were rejected. Only Gummo, who had been part of the act, was drafted -- but spent the war serving in Illinois. Zeppo, the youngest brother, then joined the team.

5. Filler up?

An unknown Marilyn Monroe made one of her first screen appearances, a walk-on, in the Marxes' final film together, Love Happy (1950). The production was so short of funds that the filmmakers had to resort to the little-used tactic of product placement to pay the bills. Kool cigarettes and Mobil Oil bought advertising space, according to Mitchell. In one gag, Harpo is seen riding a series of Mobil flying horses across a neon billboard.

6. "Take a letter."

Although Groucho was forced by his mother to quit school at age 13 and go to work, he was the most intellectually inclined of the brothers. In 1964, the Library of Congress sought to obtain Groucho's extensive correspondence with show-business pals, friends and family. Groucho even exchanged letters with President Harry S Truman, Mitchell writes, "with whom [he] seems to have enjoyed a surprising rapport."

7. Speaking of presidents

Calvin Coolidge was in the audience one night to see the Marxes' Broadway show Animal Crackers, according to historian David Greenberg, author of Calvin Coolidge. Noticing the president, who enjoyed sleep as liberally as his politics were conservative, Groucho cracked from the stage, "Isn't it past your bedtime, Calvin?"

8. Arthur Marx and the Round Table

Although Groucho possessed literary aspirations, it was the semi-literate Harpo who found a welcome seat at the Algonquin Round Table of Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley. Invited by drama critic Alexander Woollcott, Harpo, "who sat, listened, played cards, and who was at ease anywhere," writes Louvish, survived "unscathed" what brother Groucho described as "sort of an intellectual slaughterhouse."

9. Getting Thalberg's Attention, 101

The Marxes praised MGM's Irving Thalberg as the greatest studio exec they ever worked with "“ the man who brought A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races to the screen before his untimely death in 1936 at age 37.

In the beginning, their attempts just to meet with the notoriously unavailable wunderkind resembled a Marx Brothers film. They arrived punctually for appointments, only to find Thalberg's office shut. Once, they tried to signal their presence by blowing cigar smoke under his door and yelling "Fire!" After they finally made it into his office, Thalberg excused himself to consult with Louis B. Mayer. When he returned after an interminable delay, he found the brothers "squatting nude, roasting potatoes in his display fireplace," Kanfer writes. Several weeks later, Thalberg kept the Marxes waiting again. "On this occasion they barricaded his door with heavy filing cabinets," according to Kanfer. "These took an hour to remove. Never again did the Marx Brothers cool their heels in his waiting room."

10. Nixon's the One

Groucho spent his career deflating the rich, the pompous and the clueless "“ and got away with it. But in 1971, a thoughtless comment put him in duck soup with America's most humorless president.

Lunching with reporters from Take One, a San Francisco Bay-area underground newspaper, Groucho was asked, "Do you think there's any hope for Nixon?" Kanfer writes. Groucho, his judgment dimmed perhaps by cocktails and his own advancing age, shot back, "No, I think the only hope for this country is Nixon's assassination."

By the next day the wire services had the quote, and so did the FBI, which promptly investigated him. Kanfer writes, "The octogenarian was officially listed in File No. CO 1297009207 as a potential threat to the life of the chief executive."

Writer David Holzel keeps a 17-inch-tall plaster statue of Groucho in his office at all times. Groucho unwittingly also helped inspire David's ezine, The Jewish Angle. His last mental_floss story was a celebration of Franklin Pierce.

10 Things You Might Not Know About Little Women

Louisa May Alcott's Little Women is one of the world's most beloved novels, and now—nearly 150 years after its original publication—it's capturing yet another generation of readers, thanks in part to Masterpiece's new small-screen adaptation. Whether it's been days or years since you've last read it, here are 10 things you might not know about Alcott's classic tale of family and friendship.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Louisa May Alcott was writing both literature and pulp fiction (sample title: Pauline's Passion and Punishment) when Thomas Niles, the editor at Roberts Brothers Publishing, approached her about writing a book for girls. Alcott said she would try, but she wasn’t all that interested, later calling such books “moral pap for the young.”

When it became clear Alcott was stalling, Niles offered a publishing contract to her father, Bronson Alcott. Although Bronson was a well-known thinker who was friends with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, his work never achieved much acclaim. When it became clear that Bronson would have an opportunity to publish a new book if Louisa started her girls' story, she caved in to the pressure.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Alcott began writing the book in May 1868. She worked on it day and night, becoming so consumed with it that she sometimes forgot to eat or sleep. On July 15, she sent all 402 pages to her editor. In September, a mere four months after starting the book, Little Women was published. It became an instant best seller and turned Alcott into a rich and famous woman.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

The first half was published in 1868 as Little Women: Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. The Story Of Their Lives. A Girl’s Book. It ended with John Brooke proposing marriage to Meg. In 1869, Alcott published Good Wives, the second half of the book. It, too, only took a few months to write.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Meg was based on Louisa’s sister Anna, who fell in love with her husband John Bridge Pratt while performing opposite him in a play. The description of Meg’s wedding in the novel is supposedly based on Anna’s actual wedding.

Beth was based on Lizzie, who died from scarlet fever at age 23. Like Beth, Lizzie caught the illness from a poor family her mother was helping.

Amy was based on May (Amy is an anagram of May), an artist who lived in Europe. In fact, May—who died in childbirth at age 39—was the first woman to exhibit paintings in the Paris Salon.

Jo, of course, is based on Alcott herself.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Bronson Alcott’s philosophical ideals made it difficult for him to find employment—for example, as a socialist, he wouldn't work for wages—so the family survived on handouts from friends and neighbors. At times during Louisa’s childhood, there was nothing to eat but bread, water, and the occasional apple.

When she got older, Alcott worked as a paid companion and governess, like Jo does in the novel, and sold “sensation” stories to help pay the bills. She also took on menial jobs, working as a seamstress, a laundress, and a servant. Even as a child, Alcott wanted to help her family escape poverty, something Little Women made possible.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Alcott, who never married herself, wanted Jo to remain unmarried, too. But while she was working on the second half of Little Women, fans were clamoring for Jo to marry the boy next door, Laurie. “Girls write to ask who the little women marry, as if that was the only aim and end of a woman’s life," Alcott wrote in her journal. "I won’t marry Jo to Laurie to please anyone.”

As a compromise—or to spite her fans—Alcott married Jo to the decidedly unromantic Professor Bhaer. Laurie ends up with Amy.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

People have theorized Laurie was inspired by everyone from Thoreau to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s son Julian, but this doesn’t seem to be the case. In 1865, while in Europe, Alcott met a Polish musician named Ladislas Wisniewski, whom Alcott nicknamed Laddie. The flirtation between Laddie and Alcott culminated in them spending two weeks together in Paris, alone. According to biographer Harriet Reisen, Alcott later modeled Laurie after Laddie.

How far did the Alcott/Laddie affair go? It’s hard to say, as Alcott later crossed out the section of her diary referring to the romance. In the margin, she wrote, “couldn’t be.”


Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts was the Alcott family home. In 1868, Louisa reluctantly left her Boston apartment to write Little Women there. Today, you can tour this house and see May’s drawings on the walls, as well as the small writing desk that Bronson built for Louisa to use.


In addition to a 1958 TV series, multiple Broadway plays, a musical, a ballet, and an opera, Little Women has been made into more than a half-dozen movies. The most famous are the 1933 version starring Katharine Hepburn, the 1949 version starring June Allyson (with Elizabeth Taylor as Amy), and the 1994 version starring Winona Ryder. Later this year, Clare Niederpruem's modern retelling of the story is scheduled to arrive in movie theaters. It's also been adapted for the small screen a number of times, most recently for PBS's Masterpiece, by Call the Midwife creator Heidi Thomas.


In 1987, Japan made an anime version of Little Women that ran for 48 half-hour episodes. Watch the first two episodes above.

Additional Resources:
Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography; Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women; Louisa May Alcott's Journals; Little Women; Alcott Film; C-Span;

Mario Tama, Getty Images
Hawaii's Kilauea Volcano Is Causing Another Explosive Problem: Laze
Mario Tama, Getty Images
Mario Tama, Getty Images

Rivers of molten rock aren't the only thing residents near Hawaii's Kilauea volcano have to worry about. Lava from recent volcanic activity has reached the Pacific Ocean and is generating toxic, glass-laced "laze," according to Honolulu-based KITV. Just what is this dangerous substance?

Molten lava has a temperature of about 2000°F, while the surrounding seawater in Hawaii is closer to 80°F. When this super-hot lava hits the colder ocean, the heat makes the water boil, creating powerful explosions of steam, scalding hot water, and projectile rock fragments known as tephra. These plumes are called lava haze, or laze.

Though it looks like regular steam, laze is much more dangerous. When the water and lava combine, and hot lava vaporizes seawater, a series of reactions causes the formation of toxic gas. Chloride from the sea salt mixes with hydrogen in the steam to create a dense, corrosive mixture of hydrochloric acid. The vapor forms clouds that then turn into acid rain.

Laze blows out of the ocean near a lava flow

That’s not the only danger. The lava cools down rapidly, forming volcanic glass—tiny shards of which explode into the air along with the gases.

Even the slightest encounter with a wisp of laze can be problematic. The hot, acidic mixture can irritate the skin, eyes, and respiratory system. It's particularly hazardous to those with breathing problems, like people with asthma.

In 2000, two people died in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park from inhaling laze coming from an active lava flow.

The problem spreads far beyond where the lava itself is flowing, pushing the problem downwind. Due to the amount of lava flowing into the ocean and the strength of the winds, laze currently being generated by the Kilauea eruptions could spread up to 15 miles away, a USGS geologist told Reuters.

[h/t Forbes]


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