There are three things my brother Chico is always on- a phone, a horse or a broad.” –Groucho Marx
Leonard Marx was born in New York City on March 22, 1887. Leo was the oldest of the five Marx Brothers- he was followed by Adolph (Harpo) in 1888, Julius (Groucho) in 1890, Milton (Gummo) in 1897 and Herbert (Zeppo) in 1901. (Sadly, another Marx brother, Manfred, was born in 1885, but died young in 1888.)
Note: although Leo did not acquire his nickname of “Chico” until 1914, when he was dubbed Chico because of his fondness for the fair sex (it was actually “Chicko” because he was a “chicken chaser,” an early 20th century slang for a guy who loved women), I will hereafter refer to him as “Chico” to simplify things for the reader.
Unlike his kid brother Groucho, a born worrier, Chico was one of those rare characters we all admire, hate, and envy, who go through their entire life without a care in the world. Young Chico was not a great student in school, although he did have a propensity for math. He was the only Marx brother to graduate the sixth grade.
The Marx family circa 1915. From left, Groucho, Gummo, Minnie, Zeppo, Sam, Chico, and Harpo.Growing upon the rough and tumble gang-infested streets of New York was not easy, and everyone found their own ways to deal with the everyday dangers. Chico found he had a natural talent for dialects. Thus, when encountering a potentially hostile rival gang, he would simply adopt their dialect and try to bluff them into thinking he was “one of them.” This talent for dialects was to come in handy when Chico later entered show business, especially the Italian dialect he sometimes used to save himself with.
Chico was always his mother’s favorite and Minnie Marx, Chico’s devoted mom, had just enough money to pay for her eldest son’s piano lessons. Chico proved a natural on the keyboards. This talent, too, would prove to be a lifetime part of his persona. Chico’s piano playing was to later become a standard part of every Marx Brothers movie.
But Chico, unlike other famous piano players, never practiced. He would just fill up a dressing room sink with warm water and soak his hands in the water for five minutes. “That’s enough practice for today,” he would say.
Very early on, Chico realized he was a chronic gambler. Sam “Frenchie” Marx, the boys’ father, was a tailor, and he soon discovered that his tailoring scissors were never safe. After Chico would lose money in a local crap game or a game of poker, he’d take the shears to the nearby pawn shop, hock them, and use the money to pay off his debt.
Chico’s gambling was actually a very serious addiction. When the Marx brothers were filming their movie A Day at the Races in 1937, Groucho noticed Chico placing a bet on a horse that was scheduled to lose a race in the film’s script. “Are you crazy?” Groucho asked incredulously, “That horse is going to lose the race. The script says so.”
“I know,” Chico replied, “but I couldn’t resist. The odds were fifteen to one.”
Chico Marx playing cards with himself, circa 1909.Chico was known to bet on which direction a raindrop was going to slide down a window pane or whether the next car spotted would have an odd or even license plate.
It is a well-known fact that Groucho and Harpo only agreed to do the later Marx brothers movies because Chico needed the money. Later, when his brothers Groucho and Harpo were living comfortably in their homes and supporting their families on the millions they had earned from their films, Chico often didn’t have any money left to pay his weekly grocery bills, let alone support his wife and daughter.
After trying various jobs, including being a lifeguard, playing piano at a house of ill repute, and playing piano to accompany silent movies, young Chico decided to enter Vaudeville to earn his daily bread. He did a an act with a partner for a while and also did a solo piano act where he would play the keys blindfolded with a sheet covering the piano.
In 1914, he joined his brothers and formed an early genesis of the later world famous “Marx Brothers.” But the family soon discovered that although Chico was a great new addition to their act, their weekly salary could not be trusted to him, as he would always just gamble it away.
Besides gambling, Chico loved the ladies. “Chico didn’t zip up his pants until he was 70.” recalled friend Georgie Jessel.
Chico became to first Marx Brother to marry in 1917 when he tied the knot with Betty Karp. Supposedly, he was already cheating on poor Betty during their honeymoon. Chico’s notorious attraction (and addiction) to women (and vice-versa) became widely known, just like his gambling. Stories of Chico’s romantic escapades with chorus girls, female dancers, actresses, girl extras, and any other kind of woman or girl abound and are a part of Hollywood Legend.
According to brother Groucho, in the brothers’ Vaudeville days, Chico would just start playing the piano in the lobby of any local hotel and the girls nearby would just flock around him. Although Chico probably loved his wife, he simply considered his marriage vows to be about as serious as a piece of confetti.
The fact that Chico and Betty’s marriage lasted for 30 years is a tribute and testament to Betty’s undying love -and patience. Chico’s marriage to Betty, although extremely rocky and troubled, did still yield one great bit of happiness- his only child, daughter Maxine, was born in 1918.
Because he was always broke from gambling, Chico, unlike his brother Harpo, who lived a peaceful life of semi-retirement, was forced to keep working and taking jobs until he was well into his seventies. Because he kept gambling away all his earnings, Harpo and Groucho had to hold onto Chico’s money in his later years and put him on an allowance. (Although he had earned millions, Chico had declared bankruptcy as early as the ’40s.)
Chico was once asked how much money he’d lost gambling over the course of his lifetime. “Find out how much Harpo has,” he answered candidly, “That’s how much I’ve lost.”
Besides the gambling and the women, Chico really didn’t devote himself to the Marx Brothers act as much as brothers Groucho and Harpo. He would often arrive late for shows and sometimes wouldn’t arrive at all, leaving his brothers to do the show around him until he showed up.
Once, backstage during a performance, Chico asked Groucho to hold up a dollar bill, so he could look at the serial number on it. Chico told Groucho to put away the dollar and proceeded to recite the serial number, verbatim, backwards and forwards. Groucho saw this incredible feat, but told a nearby friend, “Now watch, he’ll forget his lines.” Sure enough, Chico walked out onstage and forgot his lines.
In 1958, Chico married his “longtime female companion” (ahem!) Mary Devithas. He continued to do gigs on television and club dates until the end. Finally, after 70-odd wild, crazy and turbulent years, Chico finally started to slow down.
In a touching moment in his last days, Chico spoke to his daughter Maxine on the phone and the two laughed and reminisced. Chico, in a rare moment of self-candor, apologized.
“I’m sorry I never gave you a big mansion and a wealthy life-like Groucho and Harpo did for their families,” he said.
“Daddy,” Maxine said with tears in her eyes, “I wouldn’t have traded having you for a father for all the money in the world.”
Chico Marx died of arteriosclerosis at the age of 74 on October 11, 1961. Knowing Chico, he probably had a smile on his face.