“I never forget a face, but in your case I’ll be glad to make an exception.“ — Groucho Marx
“Wait, what, is it my nose?” — Trip Marx
Sibling rivalries define us. They shape us, socialize us, and occasionally steal our lollipops. They prepare us to meet the world’s challenge and say, “Yeah bro, I got this.”
Sibling exile is something else altogether—like you’re the lone pup in a litter of kittens.
When people discuss the “other” Marx brother, usually it’s Zeppo the matinee idol, or Gummo, the one whose name sounds like an off-brand Fixodent. Not once do they think of me, Trip Marx. I guarantee you Robert Osborne, Lisa Schwarzbaum, and Rex Reed could not summon my name even if it would bring Harold Lloyd back from the dead. (Osborne and Schwarzbaum because they don’t know me; Reed because he’s just the worst.)
How do you think it feels, being the invisible Marx brother? Ranking lower than fucking Gummo? It’s like being the one Brontë brother, you know, the guy who killed himself with opiates after not writing Jane Eyre.
To be fair, my brothers didn’t always exclude me. When I was three and Groucho five, we staged a pantomime for the Carnegie Hill Immigrant & Vagabond Block Party. Groucho wanted to call our shtick Hansel & Shtetl. When I told him I didn’t get the joke, Groucho looked at me funny. “Let me see your nose again,” he said, inspecting the organ in question. “Well, I’ll be damned,” Groucho murmured. “You call that a schnozz? You should be ashamed of yourself, stealing body parts from the goyim.”
At least, that’s what I think he said. To be honest, I was distracted by the mustache, the receding hairline, those suggestive and wobbly eyebrows. This was a strange and frightening arrangement on the face of a small child. You should have seen his ear hair.
But Groucho was always right about noses, and here was no exception. The sorry truth is that I am not, nor have I ever been, Jewish. You can imagine what a stir this caused in the Marx household. After I exited the womb looking like William Buckley, my father’s jealousy was a week of fire and bluster. He pummeled the milkman, mailman, and garbageman in turn. They were all Hassidim, but Papa Marx was nothing if not thorough.
My mother noted my early affection for pork products and was suspicious at my reverence for authority figures. “You say you’ve never left something sharp on your teacher’s chair?” she would ask. “Perhaps a small pin?” I shook my head in shame. Harpo looked on and deflated a balloon with great feeling. It sounded a lot like my heart.
I tried to master my Yiddish, to root for Hank Greenberg, and to eat pot roast so overcooked it had already digested itself by the time it reached a plate. But I never found my stride. Things were never natural. On some level, I knew I was different, and it wasn’t just the extra foreskin.
In secret, I rooted for Babe Ruth and masturbated to half-naked shiksas in a book of Renaissance statuary. Vaudeville held no interest for me; I wanted to work for Henry Ford, perhaps appearing in one of those magazine photographs, the collar of a crisp white shirt holding fast under my blazer while I piloted a horseless carriage with the Venus de Milo at my side. True, the lady lacked arms, but—as I kept reassuring her photograph—she was still perfect to me. Also, I could beat her handily in tennis, another pastime my family loathed.
So, while Harpo refurbished the innards of a piano and Chico got thrashed by the local Italian kids for stealing their accents and several of their bicycles, I quietly applied for admission to Dartmouth and spent the brothers’ golden years listening to football on the radio and voting against Roosevelt. (This was a full-time job!) Still, over the years I never begrudged my brothers their talent, their politics, their money, their fame, or their women, who, for the record, were mainly shiksas themselves. Maybe we are related, after all, I once joked to Harpo. He smiled and put his hand in mine and left it there while he went across town to get us pastrami.
I remember the night Groucho hosted T.S. Eliot for dinner and served beet-and-broccoli canapés, which Eliot professed to adore but secretly stashed in his napkin as refuse. After Eliot’s third anti-semitic remark, Groucho left the room to retrieve the sherry, which he claimed to have left in Greta Garbo’s boudoir.
In Groucho’s absence, Eliot became loose and confiding. “Ah well, not all made for the showbiz, are we?” he asked in an accent that had been robbed of all geography or personality, which to Eliot meant every word he uttered was poetry. “You’re better off, Trip,” Eliot said and gestured to a wall of photographs. “See how fame has turned their heads.”
I perused the photographs: stills from Monkey Business and Night at the Opera; an autographed photo of Adlai Stevenson (the autograph, curiously, was Groucho’s); and a picture of a naked lady, on which someone had superimposed Chico’s head.
“On the contrary,” I rejoined, feeling generous. “My daughters love the brothers, despite our spiritual differences.”
Eliot drew himself back in a slight but meaningful motion, and Groucho returned to the room.
“Say, Stearns, did you hear the one about the vicar who read too much of your poetry?”
“I certainly have not,” said Eliot, dreading the punchline.
“They had him Pru-Frocked! Get it, Trip?”
“I do, brother! I really do.” And I did. It was the worst joke Groucho ever made—and the first that ever made me laugh.
Ted Scheinman is a culture reporter based in Chapel Hill. He has written for the Oxford American Quarterly, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Pacific Standard, Slate, and various other screen- or print-based concerns. His first book of nonfiction will appear via Faber in late 2014. He once gave Sam Shepard his autograph, and Tilda Swinton once served him coffee. (We're really not kidding — click here!) Follow him on Twitter: @Ted_Scheinman.