Today is the 117th birthday of Zeppo Marx. He was the youngest, most handsome, and most mechanically inclined Marx Brother. Pay attention to him in the first five movies next time you watch them (you do watch them, don’t you?) and appreciate his quite-often under-appreciated talent. The world is a better place because he was in it and still feels the loss that he has left.
NAME: Zeppo Marx
OCCUPATION: Actor, Comedian, Engineer, Inventor
BIRTH DATE: February 25, 1901
DEATH DATE: November 30, 1979
PLACE OF BIRTH: New York, New York
PLACE OF DEATH: Rancho Mirage, California
FULL NAME: Herbert Manfred Marx
AKA: Zeppo Marx
AKA: Herbert Marx
BEST KNOWN FOR: The youngest of the Marx Brothers, Zeppo Marx was the handsomest sibling, but often under-appreciated as the straight man and young romantic lead. He left the famous comedic team to become a millionaire inventor.
The youngest of the Marx Brothers, Zeppo Marx was born Herbert Manfred Marx on February 25, 1901, in New York City. Like his brothers, he was a first-generation American, born to Sam “Frenchie” and Minnie (Schoenberg) Marx, of French and German Jewish extraction, who both came from Europe but met in New York. The first of their six sons, Manfred, died in infancy; Zeppo’s middle name honored him.
The origin of his nickname varies depending on the source: Both Groucho and Zeppo’s second ex-wife said it was derived from the zeppelins of the time. One story is simply that their father called him “Zep” when he came home one day, and the moniker stuck. Another is that the name was adapted from Mr. Zippo, a trained chimpanzee, according to brother Harpo’s autobiography. According to the book, Herbie’s athletic prowess and acrobatics echoed the chimp’s act, but his objection morphed the nickname into Zeppo.
Minnie Marx, a former dance teacher, was a fervent stage mother, getting the boys on the vaudeville circuit to make money. She added Herbie, who had a tendency toward pugilism, to the brother act in an effort to keep him from fighting. The Marx patriarch “was a very bad tailor,” according to Zeppo, “but he found some people who were so stupid that they would buy his clothes, and so he’d make a few dollars that way for food.”
Being the youngest, and by all account the most handsome, Zeppo was always cast in the role of straight man and romantic lead. He was reportedly frustrated that he couldn’t be funny, even though comedy rarely works without a good foil. The brothers apparently agreed that he was the funniest, but Groucho has been noted for both saying that the team was funnier without him, and that he felt threatened by Zeppo when he understudied him in the play Animal Crackers. Groucho was unable to perform in the production because he was having surgery to remove his appendix at the time, and some said that Zeppo was better than Groucho.
Though Zeppo only had a few moments to shine, including the dictation-taking scene in Animal Crackers, he left the brother act after just five films, which also included Duck Soup and Monkey Business, to join Gummo, the other non-performing Marx brother, in running a talent agency.
Zeppo’s other talents included an extraordinary grasp of mechanics and engineering, and he has been credited with keeping the family car running when they were touring in the early days. He also held various jobs, including as a commercial fisherman and citrus farmer. Zeppo founded Marman Products in 1941, which made clamping devices that were used in WWII to secure the atomic bombs transported on the Enola Gay. He also held three patents, two of which pertained to his invention of a watch that monitored the pulse of heart patients. It was this business that helped make Zeppo a multimillionaire.
Zeppo married twice, first to Marion Benda, with whom he had two adopted sons, Timothy and Thomas. Five years after their divorce in 1954, Zeppo marred Barbara Blakeley, whose son Bobby took his surname, though he was never officially adopted. Barbara married Frank Sinatra after the couple divorced in 1973.
The last of the Marx Brothers to pass away, Zeppo Marx died of lung cancer on November 30, 1979, in Rancho Mirage, California. His ashes were scattered over the Pacific Ocean.
Critics still argue about whether Zeppo Marx was instinctively funny.