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Zeppo Marx

Zeppo Marx
Zeppo in 1931
Born Herbert Manfred Marx
(1901-02-25)February 25, 1901
New York City, New York
Died November 30, 1979(1979-11-30) (aged 78)
Rancho Mirage, California
Other names Herbert Marx
Occupation Actor, comedian, inventor, theatrical agent
Known for Duck Soup, Monkey Business
Religion Judaism
Spouse(s) Marion Benda
(m.1927-1954; divorced)
Barbara Blakeley
(m.1959-1973; divorced)
Children Timothy Marx (1944, adopted)
Thomas Marx (1945, adopted)
Parent(s) Minnie Schoenberg and Sam "Frenchie" Marx
Relatives Al Shean, Chico Marx, Harpo Marx, Groucho Marx, Gummo Marx

Herbert Manfred "Zeppo" Marx (February 25, 1901 – November 30, 1979) was an American actor, theatrical agent, and engineer. He was the youngest of the five Marx Brothers. He appeared in the first five Marx Brothers feature films, from 1929 to 1933, but then left the act to start his second career as an engineer and theatrical agent.[1] Zeppo Marx was a multi-millionaire due to his engineering efforts.


  • Early life 1
  • Name 2
  • Career 3
  • Personal life 4
  • Death 5
  • Legacy 6
  • Notes 7
  • External links 8

Early life

Zeppo was born in 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. Marx's family was Jewish. His mother was from East Frisia in Germany; and his father was a native of France, and worked as a tailor.[2][3][4]


Like all of the Marx Brothers, there are different theories as to where Zeppo got his stage name: Groucho said in his Carnegie Hall concert in 1972[5] that the name was derived from the Zeppelin airship. Zeppo's ex-wife Barbara Sinatra repeats this in her 2011 book, Lady Blue Eyes: My Life with Frank. His brother Harpo offers a different account in his 1961 autobiography, Harpo Speaks!, claiming (p. 130) that there was a popular trained chimpanzee named Mr. Zippo, and that "Herbie" was tagged with the name "Zippo" because he liked to do chinups and acrobatics, as the chimp did in its act. The youngest brother objected to this nickname, and it was altered to "Zeppo."


Zeppo appeared in the first five Marx Brothers movies, as a straight man and romantic lead, before leaving the team. According to a 1925 newspaper article, he also made a solo appearance in the Adolphe Menjou comedy A Kiss in the Dark; although no copy of the film is known to exist, according to newspaper reviews, he does appear in a minor role.[6]

In Lady Blue Eyes, Barbara Sinatra claims that Marx was considered too young to perform with his brothers, and it wasn't until Gummo joined the Army that Marx was asked to join the act as a last-minute stand-in at a show in Texas. Marx was supposed to go out that night with a Jewish friend of his. They were supposed to take out two Irish girls, but Marx had to cancel to board the train to Texas. His friend went ahead and went on the date, and was shot a few hours later when he was attacked by an Irish gang that disapproved of a Jew dating an Irish girl.

As the youngest and having grown up watching his brothers, Zeppo could fill in for and imitate any of the others when illness kept them from performing.

The Marx Brothers (from top, Chico, Harpo, Groucho, and Zeppo Marx)

"He was so good as Captain Spaulding [in Animal Crackers] that I would have let him play the part indefinitely, if they had allowed me to smoke in the audience," Groucho recalled.[7] However, a comic persona of his own that could stand up against those of his brothers did not emerge. As critic Percy Hammond wrote, sympathetically, in 1928:

"One of the handicaps to the thorough enjoyment of the Marx Brothers in their merry escapades is the plight of poor Zeppo Marx. While Groucho, Harpo and Chico are hogging the show, as the phrase has it, their brother hides in an insignificant role, peeping out now and then to listen to plaudits in which he has no share."

Though Zeppo continued to play straight in the Brothers' movies for Paramount Pictures, he did occasionally get to be part of classic comedy moments in them—in particular, his role taking dictation from Groucho in Animal Crackers (1930). He also played a pivotal role as the love interest of Ruth Hall in Monkey Business (1931) and of Thelma Todd in Horse Feathers (1932).

The popular assumption that Zeppo's character was superfluous was fueled in part by Groucho. According to Groucho's own story, when the group became the Three Marx Brothers, the studio wanted to trim their collective salary, and Groucho replied "We're twice as funny without Zeppo!"[8]

Offstage, Zeppo had great mechanical skills and was largely responsible for keeping the Marx family car running. He later owned a company that machined parts for the war effort during World War II, Marman Products Co. of Inglewood, California, later known as the Aeroquip Company. This company produced a motorcycle, called the Marman Twin[9] and the Marman clamps used to hold the "Fat Man" atomic bomb inside the B-29 bomber, Bockscar.[10] He also founded a large theatrical agency with his brother Gummo, and invented a wristwatch that would monitor the pulse rate of cardiac patients and give off an alarm if the heartbeat became irregular.[10]

During his time as a theatrical agent, Zeppo and Gummo, although primarily Gummo, represented their brothers, among many others.[11]

Personal life

On April 12, 1927, Zeppo married Marion Benda. The couple adopted two children, Timothy and Thomas, in 1944 and 1945, and later divorced on May 12, 1954. On September 18, 1959, Marx married Barbara Blakeley, whose son, Bobby Oliver, he wanted to adopt and give his surname, but Bobby's father would not allow it. Bobby simply started using the last name "Marx".

Blakeley claims in her book, Lady Blue Eyes, that Zeppo never made her convert to Judaism. Blakeley was of Methodist faith and claims that Zeppo told her she became Jewish by "injection".

Blakeley also claims in her book that Zeppo wanted to keep her son out of the picture, adding a room for him onto his estate, which was more of a guest house as it was separated from the main residence. It was also decided that Blakeley's son would go to military school which, according to Blakeley, pleased Zeppo.

Zeppo owned a house on Halper Lake Drive in the Jack Benny, Danny Kaye, and Milton Berle.

Blakeley became involved with the Cedars-Sinai hospital, and had arranged to show Spartacus (featuring Kirk Douglas) for charity, selling tickets, and organizing a post-screening ball. At the last minute, Blakeley was told she could not have the film, so Zeppo went to the country club and spoke to Sinatra, who agreed to let him have an early release of a film he had just finished called Come Blow Your Horn. Sinatra also flew everyone involved to Palm Springs for the event.

Zeppo was a very jealous husband, and hated for Blakeley to talk to another man. Blakeley claims that Zeppo grabbed Victor Rothschild by the throat at a country club because she was talking to him. Blakeley had caught Zeppo on many occasions with other women; the biggest incident was a party Zeppo had thrown on his yacht. After the incident, Zeppo took Blakeley to Europe, and accepted more invitations to parties when they arrived back in the States. Some of these parties were at Sinatra's compound; he often invited Blakeley and Zeppo to his house two or three times a week. Sinatra would also send champagne or wine to their home, as a nice gesture.

Blakeley and Sinatra started to see each other behind Zeppo's back. The press eventually caught up with Blakeley, snapping photos of her and Sinatra together, or asking Blakeley questions whenever they would spot her.

Zeppo and Blakeley divorced in 1973. Zeppo let Blakeley keep the 1969 Jaguar he had bought her, and agreed to pay her $1,500 a month for ten years. Sinatra upgraded Blakeley's Jaguar to the latest model. Sinatra also gave her a house to live in. The house belonged to Eden Hartford, Groucho Marx's third wife. Blakeley and Sinatra continued to date, and were constantly hounded by the press until the divorce between Zeppo and Blakeley became final. Blakeley and Sinatra were married in 1976.

Zeppo became ill with cancer in 1978. He sold his home, and moved to a house on the fairway off Frank Sinatra Drive. The doctors thought the cancer had gone into remission, but it returned. Zeppo called Blakeley, who accompanied him to doctor's appointments. Zeppo spent his last days with Blakeley's family.


The last surviving Marx Brother, Zeppo died of lung cancer at the Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage on November 30, 1979 at the age of 78. He was cremated and his ashes were scattered into the Pacific Ocean.[1][12]

In his will, Zeppo left Bobby Marx a few possessions and enough money to finish law school. Both Sinatra and Blakeley attended his funeral.


Zeppo bought a yacht after he and Blakeley were married and named it the "Barbara Ann".

Zeppo played golf, and loved gin rummy. Blakeley claims in her book Lady Blue Eyes that Marx liked to go to bed early, often using the phrase "I'm off to the disco now" when he wanted to leave a party.

Zeppo introduced Jack Benny to his wife Mary Livingstone.

Several critics have challenged the notion that Zeppo did not develop a comic persona in his films. James Agee considered Zeppo "a peerlessly cheesy improvement on the traditional straight man."[13] Along similar lines, Gerald Mast, in his book The Comic Mind: Comedy and Movies, notes that Zeppo's comedic persona, while certainly more subtle than his brothers', is undeniably present:

[He] added a fourth dimension as the cliché of the [romantic] juvenile, the bland wooden espouser of sentiments that seem to exist only in the world of the sound stage. [... He is] too schleppy, too nasal, and too wooden to be taken seriously.[14]

Danél Griffin, film critic for the University of Alaska Southeast, elaborates on Mast's theory:

Zeppo's parts were always intended to be a parody of the juvenile role often found in sappy musicals of the 1920s-30s era. Sometimes, he would just have a few lines, and he would otherwise be reduced to standing in the background with a big smile on his face. In these roles, he was a lampoon of the infamous extra, always grinning widely as a needless decoration, and always stiff and wooden. In other films, Zeppo would have a more significant role as the romantic lead, but he would still always be stiff, wooden, and, yes, with a big smile on his face. Either way, he could never be considered a real straight man. He was a sappy distortion of the real thing, and sort of the gateway through which we connected with the other Brothers. We perceived him as the "normal, good-looking" one of the bunch, but was he really? Wasn't there something about that line from The Cocoanuts, 'You can depend upon me, Mr. Hammer,' that was a little too ... happy? Roger Ebert called Zeppo 'superfluous,' and that is the point of his character in the five Paramount films. He was the straight man only in pure Marxian sense—while his Brothers spat on movie clichés, he imitated them, proving in his own way to be quite a brilliant comedian.[15]

While this seemingly modern reconsideration of Zeppo's comedic contributions could be interpreted as merely a contemporary examination of his role in the Paramount pictures, film reviewers were apparently in on the joke as far back as the release of The Cocoanuts in 1929. The New York Times review of the movie, for example, ranks all four Marx Brothers equally—"When the four Marx brothers are on the screen, it's a riot" [emphasis added] and goes on to specifically describe each of the brothers' unique style of comedy, and specifically praises Zeppo as "the handsome but dogged straight man with the charisma of an enamel washstand."[16]

In her book Hello, I Must be Going: Groucho & His Friends, Charlotte Chandler defends Zeppo as being "the Marx Brothers' interpreter in the worlds they invade. He is neither totally a straight man nor totally a comedian, but combines elements of both, as did Margaret Dumont. Zeppo's importance to the Marx Brothers' initial success was as a Marx Brother who could 'pass' as a normal person. None of Zeppo's replacements (Allan Jones, Kenny Baker and others) could assume this character as convincingly as Zeppo, because they were actors, and Zeppo was the real thing, cast to type" (562).

Zeppo's comic persona is further highlighted in the "letter scene" of Animal Crackers. In his book Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Sometimes Zeppo, Joe Adamson analyzes the scene, showing how it reveals Zeppo's ability to one-up Groucho with simple, plain-English rebuttals. In the scene, Zeppo is told to take a letter to Groucho's lawyer. Adamson notes,

There is a common assumption that Zeppo = Zero, which this scene does its best to contradict. Groucho dictating a letter to anybody else would hardly be cause for rejoicing. We have to believe that someone will be there to accept all his absurdities and even respond somewhat in kind before things can progress free from conflict into this genial mishmash. Groucho clears his throat in the midst of his dictation, and Zeppo asks him if he wants that in the letter. Groucho says, 'No, put it in the envelope.' Zeppo nods. And only Zeppo could even try such a thing as taking down the heading and the salutation and leaving out the letter because it didn't sound important to him. It takes a Marx Brother to pull something like that on a Marx Brother and get away with it.[17]:114

In the same book, Adamson goes on to note Zeppo's position as the campy parody of the juvenile romantic in his analysis of Horse Feathers. This tongue-in-cheek observation bolsters the theory of Zeppo's stiffness as a deliberate comic persona:

Each Marx Brother has his own form of comedy. Zeppo is at his funniest when he opens his mouth and sings. It has taken forty years, of course, for the full humor to come across. For a normal comedian this may be bad timing, but for a Marx Brother it's immortality. Almost every crooner of 1932 looks stilted and awkward now, but with Zeppo, who was never very convincing in the first place, the effect crosses the threshold into lovable comedy. "I think you're wonderful!" he oozes charmingly to Thelma Todd, and we know he never met her before shooting started.[17]:191

Allen W. Ellis writes in his article "Yes, Sir: The Legacy of Zeppo Marx":

Indeed, Zeppo is a link between the audience and Groucho, Harpo and Chico. In a sense, he is us on the screen. He knows who those guys are and what they are capable of. As he ambles out of a scene, perhaps it is to watch them do their business, to come back in as necessary to move the film along, and again to join in the celebration of the finish. Further, Zeppo is crucial to the absurdity of the Paramount films. The humor is in his incongruity. Typically he dresses like a normal person, in stark contrast to Groucho's greasepaint and 'formal' attire, Harpo's rags, and Chico's immigrant hand-me-downs. By most accounts, he is the handsomest of the brothers, yet that handsomeness is distorted by his familial resemblance to the others—sure, he's handsome, but it is a decidedly peculiar, Marxian handsomeness. By making the group four, Zeppo adds symmetry, and in the surrealistic worlds of the Paramount films, this symmetry upsets rather than confirms balance: it is chaos born of symmetry. That he is a plank in a maelstrom, along with the very concept of 'this guy' who is there for no real reason, who joins in and is accepted by these other three wildmen while the narrative offers no explanation, are wonderful in their pure absurdity. 'To string things together in a seemingly purposeless way,' said Mark Twain, 'and to be seemingly unaware that they are absurd, is the mark of American humor.' The 'sense' injected into the nonsense only compounds the nonsense.[18]

In a eulogy for Zeppo written in 1979 for The Washington Post, columnist Tom Zito writes:

Thank goodness for Zeppo, who never really cracked a joke on screen. At least not directly. He just took it from Groucho, in more ways than one. ... If Groucho, Chico and Harpo were the funny guys, Zeppo was the Everyman, the loser who'd come running out of the grocery store only to find the meter maid sticking the parking ticket on his Hungadunga.[19]

Zeppo performances did produce this tribute from a prominent fan, as revealed in Marc Eliot's 2005 biography of Cary Grant. Grant, a teenager performing in Vaudeville under his real name, Archie Leach, loved the Marx Brothers. And as Eliot puts it,

While the rest of the country preferred Groucho, Zeppo, the good-looking straight man and romantic lead, was Archie's favorite, the one whose foil timing he believed was the real key to the act's success.[20]

In his book The Anarchy of the Imagination: Interviews, Essays, Notes, noted filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder includes Zeppo on his list for the ten greatest film actors of all time.[21]


  1. ^ a b "'"Zeppo Marx Dies on Coast at 78; Last Survivor of Comedy Team; 'Tired of Being a Stooge.  
  2. ^ La famille paternelle des Marx Brothers (French)
  3. ^ "Mrs. Minnie Marx. Mother of Four Marx Brothers, Musical Comedy Stars, Dies.". New York Times. September 16, 1929. 
  4. ^ "Samuel Marx, Father of Four Marx Brothers of Stage and Screen Fame". New York Times. May 12, 1933. Retrieved 2008-06-27. 
  5. ^ transcriptAn Evening with Groucho
  6. ^ public domain information.A Kiss in the Dark
  7. ^ Marx, Arthur. My Life with Groucho: Growing Up with the Marx Brothers. Barricade Books (June 1992)
  8. ^ Duck SoupEncyclopædia Britannica. Groucho later said of his brother: "Except for the chorus girls, being a straight man in the Marx Brothers wasn't fun for him. He wanted to be a comedian too, but there just wasn't room for another funny Marx Brother.... But offstage he was the funniest one of us".
  9. ^ Marman Twin – Herbert Zeppo Marx – Marx Brothers
  10. ^ a b Zeppo Marx at the Internet Movie Database
  11. ^ Louvish, Simon. Monkey Business: The Lives and Legends of the Marx Brothers. Thomas Dunne Books; 1st U.S. edition (2000). Also e-text at Google Books
  12. ^ "Marx Straight Man Passes Away Quietly".  
  13. ^ Joe Adamson. Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Sometimes Zeppo: A Celebration of the Marx Brothers. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1973.
  14. ^ Mast, Gerald. The Comic Mind: Comedy and Movies, pp. 282, 285. University of Chicago Press, 1979.
  15. ^ A Night at the Opera""Film as Art": Critic Danel Griffin's review of
  16. ^ Cinema Year by Year, 1894–2001. London: Dorling Kindersley Limited, 2001, p. 205.
  17. ^ a b Joe Adamson, Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Sometimes Zeppo: A History of the Marx Brothers and a Satire on the Rest of the World, Simon & Schuster, Paperback (1983).
  18. ^ Ellis, Allen W. "Yes, Sir: The Legacy of Zeppo Marx" in The Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 37, No. 1, 2003, pp. 21-22.
  19. ^ Tom Zito, "The Last of the Marxes", The Washington Post: December 1, 1979.
  20. ^ Eliot, Marc. Cary Grant: The Biography. New York: Aurum Press (2005).
  21. ^ Fassbinder, R. W. The Anarchy of the Imagination: Interviews, Essays, Notes. The Johns Hopkins University Press (September 1, 1992).

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