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Cigar Culture

Groucho Marx

J. Bennett Alexander Alexander's picture

J. Bennett Alexander

Sometimes, the saying goes, a story is too good to check. You just want to accept the tale on its face, no matter how improbable. For me, and for many of my wisenheimer friends back in the day, that was the case with one of our heroes, Groucho Marx.

HIS REAL NAME WAS JULIUS

It’s hard to imagine someone could not know who Groucho Marx was. For me and my contemporaries (yes, I’m old!), Julius Henry Marx and his brothers were legendary parts of our lives. We would go to the midnight show at the local movie house if a Marx Brothers movie was playing. We’d laugh at the comedy, groan at the musical numbers. Some of us would try to listen closely so we could remember, even memorize, the bits. Groucho, in Animal Crackers, simultaneously proposes marriage to two women.

“Well, what do you say girls,” asks Captain Spaulding, Groucho’s character. “Are we all gonna get married?”

“All of us?” responds one of the women.

“Yes, all of us,” Groucho says.

Shocked, the younger woman says, “Why that’s bigamy?”

“Yes and it’s big of me too!” Groucho assures. “It’s big of all of us. Let’s be big for a change.”

Okay, maybe you have to watch the movie. And be 14 years old.

Wordplay of a bygone era, often juvenile, was a common ploy. Perhaps my favorite example comes from Duck Soup, arguably the best movie made by the brothers. Groucho, as “Rufus T. Firefly,” is interrogating his real-life brother Chico, playing “Chicolini,” on the stand in a courtroom. The legal matter is of secondary importance.

“Gentlemen,” Firefly argues to the jury, “Chicolini here may talk like an idiot, and look like an idiot, but don’t let that fool you: he really is an idiot. I implore you, send him back to his father and brothers, who are waiting for him with open arms in the penitentiary. I suggest that we give him ten years in Leavenworth, or eleven years in Twelveworth.”

Chicolini interrupts in his usual tortured Italian-ish accent: “I’ll tell you what I’ll do: I’ll take five and ten in Woolworth.”

See, Woolworth’s was an American five-and-dime store, kind of like today’s dollar stores. Woolworth’s later became famous for being the site of the Greensboro, NC, sit-ins that began in 1960. (The last Woolworth’s in the US closed in 1997, but some remained in other countries into the 21st century.)

I know, I know. If you have to explain the joke....

UBIQUITOUS CIGAR & MOUSTACHE

Groucho made 26 movies, beginning in 1921, half of them alongside his brothers, Leonard “Chico” Marx and Arthur “Harpo” Marx. Groucho, always the lead and the chief troublemaker, wore a huge greasepaint moustache and eyebrows, and pretty much constantly had a cigar in hand.

In real life, Groucho was a true cigar lover. His son Arthur recounted in Cigar Aficionado that he was weaned on Groucho’s cigar smoke.

When I was seven, and old enough to sit at the dinner table with my parents,” Arthur wrote, “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." (Dunhill is now defunct as a cigar brand.)

Groucho was well known to have a sizable humidor in his Hollywood house. He would smoke a couple of Dunhills each day and save some of the larger pre-revolutionary Cuban Belindas, probably Churchills or bigger.

“These, I believe,” explained Arthur Marx, “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.”

VAUDEVILLE

The Marx Brothers began their show business careers in Vaudeville. That’s where Groucho started smoking cigars at the age of 15, learning the habit from an old performer who advised that a cigar was the best prop an actor could use on the stage.

"If you forget a line," Arthur Marx recounted his father telling him, "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."

TOO GOOD TO CHECK

Later in life, after the movie career, Groucho took to hosting a TV game show called You Bet Your Life (now revived with Jay Leno as the host). It ran for 11 years on TV after success on radio. During the show, contestants would have to answer the typical general knowledge questions a little more complicated than “who’s buried in Grant’s tomb?” If they answered correctly, said the “magic word,” and won the round, a stuffed duck would be suspended from above with a $100 bill in ITS bill as a prize. Don’t ask.

Groucho would first introduce the competing guests and, the story goes, on one episode he was chatting up a “Mrs. Story,” who had told Groucho she had many children. The number varies from 10 to 21 depending on the telling. Groucho was impressed and reportedly responded.

“Why do you have so many children? That’s a big responsibility and a big burden.”

“Well, Groucho,” Mrs. Story is said to have replied, “because I love my children and I think that’s our purpose here on Earth, and I love my husband.”

And the punchline from Groucho, risque for the 1950s? “I love my cigar, too, but I take it out of my mouth once in a while.”

The story is not true. At least there’s no evidence of it being true. Still, it’s too good a story not to share.

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