Zeppo Marx

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Zeppo Marx
Zeppo in 1931
Herbert Manfred Marx

(1901-02-25)February 25, 1901
DiedNovember 30, 1979(1979-11-30) (aged 78)
Other namesHerbert Marx
  • Actor
  • comedian
  • theatrical agent
  • engineer
Years active1918−1978
Known forDuck Soup, Monkey Business, Marman Clamp
Marion Benda
(m. 1927; div. 1954)
(m. 1959; div. 1973)
Parent(s)Sam "Frenchie" Marx
Minnie Schönberg
RelativesChico Marx (older brother)
Harpo Marx (older brother)
Groucho Marx (older brother)
Gummo Marx (older brother)
Al Shean (maternal uncle)

Herbert Manfred "Zeppo" Marx (February 25, 1901 – November 30, 1979) was an American comedic actor. He was the youngest and last survivor of the five Marx Brothers. He appeared in the first five Marx Brothers feature films from 1929 to 1933, and then left the act for careers as an engineer and theatrical agent.

Early life[edit]

Marx was born in Manhattan. His parents were Sam Marx (called "Frenchie" throughout his life) and Minnie Schönberg Marx, both Jewish. Minnie's brother was Al Shean, who later gained fame as half of the vaudeville team Gallagher and Shean. His mother was from East Frisia in Germany and his father was a tailor from Alsace, France.[1][2][3]


As with all of the Marx Brothers, various theories exist regarding the origin of Zeppo's stage name. His older brother Groucho said in his Carnegie Hall concert in 1972[4] that the name was derived from the Zeppelin airship, and Zeppo's ex-wife Barbara Sinatra repeated this claim in her 2011 book Lady Blue Eyes: My Life with Frank. In his 1961 autobiography Harpo Speaks!, older brother Harpo claimed that there was a trained chimpanzee named Mr. Zippo that Herbert would imitate, but when Herbert objected, it was altered to Zeppo. In a rare television interview years later, Zeppo said that "Zep" was Italian-American slang for "baby", and the name fit as he was the youngest of the brothers.


Early career and the Marx Brothers[edit]

Zeppo replaced brother Gummo in the Marx Brothers' stage act when Gummo was drafted into the army in 1918. Zeppo had been employed as a mechanic for the Ford Motor Company. He had no desire for a showbusiness career, but Minnie Marx insisted that he replace Gummo because she wanted to maintain the act as a foursome. Zeppo remained with the team in vaudeville, Broadway and the first five Marx Brothers films as the straight man and romantic lead until leaving the act following Duck Soup in 1933. He also appeared without his brothers in the Adolphe Menjou comedy A Kiss in the Dark (1925), billed as Herbert Marx. Although it had been a minor role, his performance was praised by the New York Sun.[5]

In her book Lady Blue Eyes: My Life with Frank, Zeppo's second wife Barbara Sinatra reported that he was considered too young to perform with his brothers, but when Gummo joined the army, Zeppo was asked to join the act as a last-minute replacement at a show in Texas. He and a Jewish friend were supposed to have a date with two Irish girls, but Zeppo canceled in order to board the train to Texas. His friend was shot several hours later by a gang that disapproved of Jews dating Irish girls.

Having watched his brothers for many years, Zeppo could imitate and replace any of the others when illness kept them from performing.

Zeppo Marx (far right) with three of his brothers on the cover of Time in 1932

Groucho recalled: "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."[6] However, Zeppo did not develop his own comic persona to play against those of his brothers. As critic Percy Hammond wrote 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.[7]

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]

Zeppo was mechanically adept and largely responsible for keeping the Marx family car running. He later owned Marman Products Co., which machined parts for the war effort during World War II.[9][10] The company produced a motorcycle called the Marman Twin[11] as well as the Marman clamps used to hold the "Fat Man" atomic bomb inside the B-29 bomber Bockscar.[citation needed] He obtained patents for a wristwatch that monitored pulse rate and sounded an alarm if the heartbeat became irregular,[12] and a therapeutic pad for delivering moist heat to a patient.[13]

After retiring from the screen, Zeppo founded a large theatrical agency with his brother Gummo and they represented numerous screenwriters and actors, including their brothers.[14]

Personal life[edit]

Zeppo introduced Mary Livingstone to Jack Benny during a Passover seder; they married in 1926.[15]

On April 12, 1927, Zeppo married Marion Benda (née Bimberg).[16] They adopted two children, Timothy and Thomas, in 1944 and 1945, and divorced on May 12, 1954. On September 18, 1959, Zeppo married Barbara Blakeley. He wanted to adopt and give his surname to her son Bobby Oliver, but Bobby's father would not allow it. However, Bobby did later use the last name of Marx.

Barbara, a Methodist, wrote in her book Lady Blue Eyes that Zeppo never forced her to convert to Judaism, but that he told her that she became Jewish by "injection."[17] Barbara also wrote that Zeppo wanted to keep her son at a distance and added a guest house separated from the main residence for him. Zeppo was reportedly pleased when the boy was sent to military school.

Zeppo owned a house on Halper Lake Drive in Rancho Mirage, California, near the residence of Frank Sinatra. Along with his brothers Groucho and Harpo, Zeppo was a member of the Hillcrest Country Club with friends such as Sinatra, George Burns, Jack Benny, Danny Kaye, Sid Caesar and Milton Berle.

Barbara became involved with Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and had arranged to show Spartacus (1960) for charity, selling tickets and organizing a post-screening ball. At the last minute, Barbara was told that she could not show the film, so Zeppo spoke to Sinatra, who gave them an early release of the recently completed Come Blow Your Horn. Sinatra also flew everyone involved to Palm Springs for the event.[citation needed]

Sinatra began to invite Barbara and Zeppo to his house two or three times per week, and often sent champagne and wine to their home. Barbara and Sinatra began a love affair without Zeppo's knowledge, and press photos were published showing them together, but she and Sinatra denied the affair for several years.

Zeppo and Barbara divorced in 1973. He allowed her to keep a 1969 Jaguar and agreed to pay her $1,500 (equivalent to $10,300 in 2023) per month for 10 years. Barbara and Frank Sinatra continued to date and were hounded by the press until her divorce became final; they married in 1976.

In 1973, 37-year old Jean Bodul, the future wife of mobster Jimmy Fratianno, accused Zeppo of assaulting her; she sued and a jury awarded her $20,690 in 1978.[18]

Zeppo became ill with cancer in 1978. The disease went into remission but returned. An ailing Zeppo turned to his former wife Barbara for support and she accompanied him to medical appointments and treatment sessions. He spent his last days with her family.[citation needed]


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.[19][20]

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


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."[21] Along similar lines, Gerald Mast, in his book The Comic Mind: Comedy and Movies, noted that Zeppo's comedic persona, while certainly more subtle than his brothers', was 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.[22]

Reviewing the 1924 play I'll Say She Is, The New York Daily News called Zeppo "the obliging audience of the family – the feeder who helps his brothers be funny by playing straight himself."[23] When The New York Times reviewed the brothers' debut film The Cocoanuts in 1929, it ranked all four Marx Brothers equally: "When the four Marx brothers are on the screen, it's a riot." The review also described each brother's unique style of comedy and praised Zeppo as "the handsome but dogged straight man with the charisma of an enamel washstand."[24]

In his essay "The Marx Brothers: From Vaudeville to Hollywood," Roger S. Bader observed that the Marx Brothers as a trio without Zeppo should be considered a different comedy team. He noted that "changes in the Marx Brothers’ screen personas [were] immediate and apparent" with fewer vaudevillian elements, more in tune with standard Hollywood comedies in which "love stories [were] injected in the plots [to] make their films more palatable to female moviegoers." He noted Zeppo's absence in the brothers' new act:

Their zaniness and anarchy would be heavily diluted at M-G-M as the studio found them a wider audience. … These are not vaudeville’s Marx Brothers. But in the Paramount films they certainly are the Marx Brothers of the stage – the FOUR Marx Brothers, as Minnie intended them to be. While Zeppo may not be as busy as his brothers, they function best as a quartet. Groucho may have had other capable straight men, but when Zeppo takes a letter to the honorable Charles H. Hoongerdoonger, Marx Brothers fans know he’s the best man for the job. … Those five films are one of the last links to the era when vaudeville was the primary form of entertainment in America – and the Four Marx Brothers were packing vaudeville theaters across the country. Of course they were still great as a trio in their later films, but if you want to know what it was like to see them on stage, you need to start with four of them – and their first five films.[25]

In her book Hello, I Must Be Going: Groucho & His Friends, Charlotte Chandler defended Zeppo as "the Marx Brothers' interpreter in the worlds they invaded. He was neither totally a straight man nor totally a comedian, but combined 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, Tony Martin and others) could assume this character as convincingly as Zeppo, because they were actors, and Zeppo was the real thing, cast to type." Chandler's appraisal of Zeppo's role in the films—as an "interpreter" for his older brothers to the audience—was essentially confirmed by Groucho, who once noted that Zeppo's role was "handsome, obtuse, slightly wooden" and that he "brought logic to a basically illogical story," acting as "an intrusion" to their otherwise complete anarchy.[26]

Zeppo's comic persona was further highlighted in the dictation scene of Animal Crackers. In his book Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Sometimes Zeppo, Joe Adamson analyzed the scene, detailing how it revealed Zeppo's ability to best Groucho with simple rebuttals. In the scene, Groucho dictates a letter to his lawyer, which Zeppo writes. Adamson noted:

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.[27]: 114 

In the same book, Adamson noted Zeppo's position as the campy parody of the juvenile romantic in Horse Feathers:

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.[27]: 191 

Critic Danél Griffin, who praised Zeppo as "that great comic parody of the schleppy juvenile role of the 1920s/30s musicals," believed that the onscreen dynamic between Groucho and Zeppo was one of the "key relationships between the individual Marx Brothers [that] shape their comedic strategy, not counting when the four of them are onstage together." Griffin wrote that Zeppo would often offer ideas that Groucho would cultivate into comedic routines:

Zeppo’s onscreen relationship with Groucho has always been tricky to ascertain; Zeppo is generally Groucho's aloof secretary in their films, but he is seemingly capable of reducing Groucho to stunned silence with simple, plain-English rebuttals (see Animal Crackers) when Chico's snappy comebacks only fuel Groucho’s insults all the more. … Zeppo's parts are usually small, but he performs exactly what is required of him as an outwardly wooden fellow who is incapable of being rattled by a man whose business is to rattle.[28]

Allen W. Ellis wrote 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.[29]

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

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.[30]

In Marc Eliot's 2005 biography of Cary Grant, Eliot wrote that as a teenager, Grant favored Zeppo:

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. Not long after, Archie began to augment his already well-practiced "suave" Fairbanks look and dress with a Zeppo-like fancy bowtie (called a jazz-bow, or jazzbo, during the Roaring Twenties) and copied his brilliantine hairstyle, adding Dixie Peach, a favorite pomade of American black performers and show business leads, by the palmful to his thick dark mop, to give it a molded, comb-streaked blue-black Zeppo sheen.[31]

In his book The Anarchy of the Imagination: Interviews, Essays, Notes, filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder included Zeppo among the ten greatest film actors of all time.[32]

In a June 2016 review of an Off-Broadway revival of I'll Say She Is, The New Yorker's Adam Gopnik wrote:

Matt [Walters], becoming Zeppo, is a reminder that the Marxes were never quite as good again after they lost their one straight man. The object of the Marxes' comedy is anarchy, but its subject is fraternity: they are in it together to the end. Zeppo's inclusion in the family made the others less like clowns and more like brothers.[33]

In popular culture[edit]

In an episode of the television series Cheers, Lilith Crane says that Zeppo was her favorite Marx brother.[34]

A third-season episode of the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer is titled "The Zeppo" and focuses on the perspective of character Xander Harris, whose position as the least impressive or capable member of the cast is compared to the similar perception of Zeppo Marx.[35]

The Mystery Science Theater 3000 character TV's Frank revealed in Episode 323 featuring Sax Rohmer's The Castle of Fu Manchu that while he was working at Arby's, he was given the nickname of Zeppo because of his supposed sense of humor.



Year Title Role Notes
1921 Humor Risk The Love Interest Short, lost
1925 A Kiss in the Dark unknown role
1929 The Cocoanuts Jamison
1930 Animal Crackers Horatio Jamison
1931 The House That Shadows Built Sammy Brown
1931 Monkey Business Zeppo
1932 Horse Feathers Frank Wagstaff
1933 Duck Soup Lt. Bob Roland, Firefly's secretary (his last role)


  1. ^ "La famille paternelle des Marx Brothers". Judaisme.sdv.fr. Retrieved 21 September 2018.
  2. ^ "Mrs. Minnie Marx. Mother of Four Marx Brothers, Musical Comedy Stars, Dies". New York Times. September 16, 1929. p. 27. Retrieved 2007-08-21.
  3. ^ "Samuel Marx, Father of Four Marx Brothers of Stage and Screen Fame". New York Times. May 12, 1933. p. 17. Retrieved 2008-06-27.
  4. ^ "An Evening With Groucho Marx". Ibras.dk. Retrieved 21 September 2018.
  5. ^ "Marxology - A Kiss In The Dark - The Marx Brothers". Marx-brothers.org. Retrieved 21 September 2018.
  6. ^ Marx, Arthur. My Life with Groucho: Growing Up with the Marx Brothers. Barricade Books (June 1992)
  7. ^ The Theater : Poor Zeppo Marx !, The Pittsburgh Press, November 18, 1928.
  8. ^ Duck Soup Archived January 5, 2009, at the Wayback MachineEncyclopædia 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. ^ Donnelly, Jim (August 2009). "Why a Clamp?". Hemmings Classic Car.
  10. ^ Aeroquip Corporation." International Directory of Company Histories, edited by Tina Grant, vol. 16, St. James Press, 1997, pp. 7-9.
  11. ^ Marman Twin – Herbert Zeppo Marx – Marx Brothers Archived July 17, 2014, at the Wayback Machine
  12. ^ US Patent and Trademark Office; US Pat. 3,473,526; "Cardiac Pulse-Rate Monitor", filed July 14, 1967 & issued October 21, 1969; 3,426,747, "Method and Watch Mechanism for Actuation by a Cardiac Pulse", a continuation-in-part filed November 20, 1967, issued February 11, 1969.
  13. ^ US PTO; U.S. Pat. 2,590,026; inventor Zeppo Marx; "Vapor Delivery Pad for Distributing Moist Heat", filed June 14, 1950, issued March 18, 1952.
  14. ^ 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
  15. ^ "Mary Livingstone". 25 October 2019.
  16. ^ Mallory Curley, Zeppo's Marion Benda and Valentino's Marion Benda: A Legacy of Confusion (Randy Press, 2016), p. 23.
  17. ^ Sinatra, Barbara (2012). Lady Blue Eyes: My Life with Frank. Crown Archetype. p. 64. ISBN 0307382346.
  18. ^ "Zeppo Marx, 77, Loses In Biddy Batter Suit". Variety. November 29, 1978. p. 2.
  19. ^ "Zeppo Marx Dies on Coast at 78; Last Survivor of Comedy Team; 'Tired of Being a Stooge'". The New York Times. December 1, 1979. p. 47. Zeppo Marx, the surviving member of the Marx Brothers comedy team who left the quartet in 1934 for other businesses, died yesterday at Eisenhower Medical Center in Palm Springs, Calif. The youngest of the brothers, he was 78 years old and had lived in Palm Springs ...
  20. ^ "Marx Straight Man Passes Away Quietly". The Michigan Daily. December 1, 1979. p. 7. Retrieved 2014-11-19. The final curtain rang down on the Marx Brothers comedy team here today when the last survivor, Zeppo, died at the age of 78 ...
  21. ^ Joe Adamson. Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Sometimes Zeppo: A Celebration of the Marx Brothers. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1973.
  22. ^ Mast, Gerald. The Comic Mind: Comedy and Movies, pp. 282, 285. University of Chicago Press, 1979.
  23. ^ "Again the Old Casino Rocks with Laughter -- Marx Brothers and "I'll Say She Is" Grand Burlesque". New York Daily News. May 20, 1924.
  24. ^ Cinema Year by Year, 1894–2001. London: Dorling Kindersley Limited, 2001, p. 205.
  25. ^ Bader, Robert S. The Marx Brothers: From Vaudeville to Hollywood. This essay was first published in the 2016 Universal Pictures Home Entertainment release, The Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection (Restored Blu-ray Edition.) It also appears in the 2017 UK edition of the release, The 4 Marx Brothers at Paramount. https://marxbrothers.net/essays/the-marx-brothers-from-vaudeville-to-hollywood/
  26. ^ Wilson, Victoria. A  Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940, p 427. Simon & Schluster, 2013.
  27. ^ 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).
  28. ^ Griffin, Danél. "Duck Soup review". Film as Art. University of Alaska Southeast. Archived from the original on 2012-12-03. Retrieved 2019-06-08.
  29. ^ Ellis, Allen W. "Yes, Sir: The Legacy of Zeppo Marx" in The Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 37, No. 1, 2003, pp. 21-22.
  30. ^ Tom Zito, "The Last of the Marxes", The Washington Post: December 1, 1979.
  31. ^ Eliot, Marc. Cary Grant: The Biography. New York: Aurum Press (2005).
  32. ^ Fassbinder, R. W. The Anarchy of the Imagination: Interviews, Essays, Notes. The Johns Hopkins University Press (September 1, 1992).
  33. ^ Gopnik, Adam. How A Lost Marx Brothers Musical Found Its Way Back Onstage. The New Yorker, June 1, 2016
  34. ^ Bjorklund, Dennis (1 September 2014). Cheers TV Show: A Comprehensive Reference. Praetorian Publishing. ISBN 9780967985237. Retrieved 21 September 2018 – via Google Books.
  35. ^ Murray, Noel (26 June 2009). "Buffy The Vampire Slayer: "The Zeppo" / "Bad Girls" / "Consequences"". The A.V. Club. Retrieved 21 September 2018.

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