Today is the birthday (1887) of Leonard “Chico” Marx, a member of the Marx Brothers (with Groucho, Harpo, and Zeppo). His persona in the act was that of a charming, uneducated but crafty con artist, seemingly of rural Italian origin, who wore shabby clothes and sported a curly-haired wig and Tyrolean hat. On screen, Chico is often in alliance with Harpo, usually as partners in crime, and is also frequently seen trying to con or outfox Groucho. Leonard was the oldest of the Marx Brothers to live past early childhood (first-born Manfred Marx had died in infancy). In addition to his work as a performer, he played an important role in the management and development of the act in its early years.
Chico was born in Manhattan, New York City. His parents were Sam Marx (called “Frenchie” throughout his life), and his wife, Minnie Schoenberg Marx. Minnie’s brother was Al Shean. The Marx family was Franco-German Jewish. His father was a native of Alsace who worked as a tailor and his mother was from East Frisia in Germany.
Billing himself as Chico, he used an Italian persona for his onstage character; stereotyped ethnic characters were common with Vaudevillians. The fact that he was not actually Italian was specifically referred to twice on film. In their second feature, Animal Crackers, he recognizes someone he knows to be a fish peddler impersonating a respected art collector:
Ravelli (Chico): “How is it you got to be Roscoe W. Chandler?”
Chandler: “Say, how did you get to be an Italian?”
Ravelli: “Never mind—whose confession is this?”
In A Night at the Opera, which begins in Italy, his character, Fiorello, claims not to be Italian, eliciting a surprised look from Groucho:
Driftwood (Groucho): “Well, things seem to be getting better around the country.”
Fiorello (Chico): “I don’t know, I’m a stranger here myself.”
A scene in the film Go West, in which Chico attempts to placate an Indian chief of whom Groucho has run afoul, has a line that plays a bit on Chico’s lack of Italian nationality, but is more or less proper Marx wordplay:
Quentin Quayle (Groucho): “Can you talk Indian?”
Joe Panello (Chico): “I was born in Indianapolis!”
There are moments, however, where Chico’s characters appear to be genuinely Italian; examples include the film The Big Store, in which his character Ravelli runs into an old friend he worked with in Naples (after a brief misunderstanding due to his accent), the film Monkey Business, in which Chico claims his grandfather sailed with Christopher Columbus, and their very first film The Cocoanuts, where Mr. Hammer (Groucho) asks him if he knew what an auction was, in which he responds “I come from Italy on the Atlantic Auction!” Chico’s character is often assumed to be dim-witted, as he frequently misunderstands words spoken by other characters (particularly Groucho). However, he often gets the better of the same characters by extorting money from them, either by con or blackmail; again, Groucho is his most frequent target.
Chico was a reasonably accomplished pianist. He originally started playing with only his right hand and fake playing with his left, as his teacher did so herself. Chico eventually acquired a better teacher and learned to play the piano correctly. As a young boy, he gained jobs playing piano to earn money for the Marx family. Sometimes Chico even worked playing in two places at the same time. He would acquire the first job with his piano-playing skills, work for a few nights, and then substitute Harpo on one of the jobs. (During their boyhood, Chico and Harpo looked so much alike that they were often mistaken for each other.)
In the brothers’ last film, Love Happy, Chico plays a piano and violin duet with ‘Mr. Lyons’ (Leon Belasco). Lyons plays some ornate riffs on the violin; Chico comments, “Look-a, Mister Lyons, I know you wanna make a good impression, but please don’t-a play better than me!” In a record album about the Marx Brothers, narrator Gary Owens stated that “although Chico’s technique was limited, his repertoire was not.” The opposite was true of Harpo, who reportedly could play only two tunes on the piano, which typically thwarted Chico’s scam and resulted in both brothers’ being fired.
Chico became the unofficial manager of the Marx Brothers after their mother, Minnie, died in 1929. As manager, he cut a deal to get the brothers a percentage of a film’s gross receipts—the first of its kind in Hollywood. Furthermore, it was Chico’s connection with Irving Thalberg of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer that led to Thalberg’s signing the Brothers when they were in a career slump after Duck Soup (1933), the last of their films for Paramount.
For a while in the 1930s and 1940s, Chico led a big band. Singer Mel Tormé began his professional career singing with the Chico Marx Orchestra. Through the 1950s, Chico occasionally appeared on a variety of television anthology shows and some television commercials, most memorably with Harpo in “The Incredible Jewelry Robbery”, a pantomime episode of General Electric Theater in 1959.
His nickname (acquired during a card game in Chicago in 1915) was originally spelled Chicko. A typesetter accidentally dropped the “k” in his name and it became Chico. It was still pronounced “Chick-oh” although those who were unaware of its origin tended to pronounce it “Cheek-oh”. Numerous radio recordings from the 1940s exist where announcers and fellow actors mispronounce the nickname, but Chico apparently felt it was unnecessary to correct them. As late as the 1950s, Groucho was happy to use the wrong pronunciation for comedic effect. A guest on You Bet Your Life told him she grew up around Chico (California) and Groucho responded, “I grew up around Chico myself. You aren’t Gummo, are you?” During Groucho’s live performance at Carnegie Hall in 1972, he states that his brother got the name Chico because he was a “chicken-chaser” (early 20th century slang for womanizer). “In England now, they call them birds.”
As well as being a compulsive womanizer, Chico had a lifelong gambling habit. His favorite gambling pursuits were card games, horse racing, dog racing, and various sports betting. His addiction cost him millions of dollars by his own account. When an interviewer in the late 1930s asked him how much money he had lost from gambling, he answered, “Find out how much money Harpo’s got. That’s how much I’ve lost.” Gummo Marx, in an interview years after Chico’s death, said: “Chico’s favorite people were actors who gambled, producers who gambled, and women who screwed.”
Chico’s lifelong gambling addiction compelled him to continue in show business long after his brothers had retired in comfort from their Hollywood income, and in the early 1940s he found himself playing in the same small, cheap halls in which he had begun his career 30 years earlier. The Marx Brothers’ penultimate film, A Night in Casablanca (1946), was made for Chico’s benefit since he had filed for bankruptcy a few years prior. Because of his out-of-control gambling, the brothers finally took the money as he earned it and put him on an allowance, on which he stayed until his death.
Chico had a reputation as a world-class pinochle player, a game he and Harpo learned from their father. Groucho said Chico would throw away good cards (with the knowledge of spectators) to make the play “more interesting”. Chico’s last public appearance was in 1960, playing cards on the television show Championship Bridge. He and his partner lost the game.
Chico was married twice. His first marriage was to Betty Karp in 1917, and produced one daughter: Maxine (1918–2009). His first marriage was plagued by his infidelity, ending in divorce in 1940. He was very close to his daughter Maxine and gave her acting lessons. Chico’s second marriage was to Mary De Vithas. They married in 1958, three years before his death.
Chico died of arteriosclerosis at age 74 on October 11th, 1961, at his Hollywood home. He was the eldest brother and the first to die. Chico is entombed in the mausoleum at Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California. Chico’s younger brother Gummo is in a crypt across the hall from him.
According to a book of recipes by famous people (Eat Like the Stars), Chico’s favorite dish was pasta alla lido (spelled wrong). I don’t have the cookbook, but pasta alla lido is will enough known. It is rigatoni (or macaroni) with swordfish and eggplant. No idea why this was his favorite, but being Italian seems apt, and it’s palatable enough.
Pasta alla Lido
600 gm rigatoni (or macaroni)
400 gm sliced swordfish, cut in cubes
1 kg plum tomatoes, chopped
2 eggplants, cubed
3 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
½ glass dry white wine
salt and pepper
Boil the rigatoni while you are making the fish and eggplant sauce.
Fry the eggplant cubes in oil over medium heat until they take on some color, then remove them with a slotted spoon and drain on absorbent kitchen paper. Then brown the garlic in the oil, remove, and discard.
Turn the heat to high, add the swordfish and brown on all sides. Add the wine over high heat and add the chopped tomato. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and finish the sauce over high heat. At the end, add the eggplant to heat through.
Drain the rigatoni well, and mix with the sauce. Serve garnished with mint leaves.