GROWING UP WITH CHICO
By Maxine Marx
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
At various times, five different Marx Brothers: Chico, Harpo, Groucho, Gummo, and Zeppo, appeared in the family act. Four of them went on to appear in films, and three of them had children who have written biographies in which they revealed what it was like to be raised by one of the members of the anarchic comedy troupe. Arthur Marx first wrote about his life with Groucho in 1952 and more recently, Bill Marx described what it was like to be the son of Harpo. In between Chico's daughter, Maxine Marx, the oldest of the generation of Marx offspring, wrote about Growing Up with Chico.
On January 13, 1918, the Marx Brothers were performing their Vaudeville performance "Home Alone" in Seattle, Washington while Chico Marx's wife, Betty, was given birth in Chicago to their daughter, Maxine. Marx's description of her birth...her mother living with her paternal grandfather who didn't take her mother's labor pains seriously, the need to walk to the corner in a blizzard to catch a cab to the hospital, sets the style for much of what Marx describes of her life. Rather than being the focus of her autobiography, Marx is a minor support character in her father's story, and he wasn't even present for her birth.
While Chico was often overshadowed on the screen by his brothers, Groucho and Harpo, Marx offered an analysis of his father's role in the trio which focuses on his importance. Not a straight man, Chico served as a conduit between his two younger brothers, providing a translation for Harpo's antics to both Groucho and the audience and well as offering a comic foil to Groucho's acerbic wit. Throughout the Paramount films, especially, Chico was one of the few people who could put one over on Groucho. In later films, others are able to do so, but not in the same way that Chico did, and those later foils would invariably be cast as villains while Chico was allowed to shine humorously in those interactions.
Marx's story does not seem particularly happy. Her mother, Betty, comes across as somewhat overbearing and critical. Given that view, it may not be surprising that Marx appears to have a much closer relationship with Chico, however, her story of Chico is one of an absentee father who was often away performing. His gambling addiction was always present and Marx appeared aware of it. She is also open about his womanizing ways, discussing Chico's affair with Ann Roth that almost destroyed his marriage and his advances to one of Marx's own friends, which did ultimately present Betty with the final straw, although Betty refused to give Chico a divorce for several years until she decided it was time for her to find a different spouse.
While her famous uncles don't play a huge role in Marx's story, she does touch upon her relationships with them. Although she seems to be closest to Groucho, she notes that he could be vicious to people, partly due to his innate jealousy and partly because it was part of his character, whether who he was, the character he created for the stage, or both, she isn't entirely clear about. While Harpo is often treated well in biographical treatments, Marx tells stories of him that paint him is a less rosy light, perhaps because they appear to have taken place before he settled down with Susan. Zeppo is shown as taking many of Chico's worst qualities and making them even worse because Marx viewed him as more deliberate while Chico was merely more of a libertine.
Published in 1980, 16 years after Chico's death, the book essentially ends with Chico's funeral. Marx shares a little information about her marriage to Shamus Culhane, who she married in 1946, and indicates that at some point she managed to become comfortable with who she was. As she notes late in the book, she was occasionally an actress, her desired profession, but always a Marx, even when she was determined not to trade on the family's fame in getting a job.
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