Growing Up With Chico, by Maxine Marx

Growing Up With Chico

Maxine Marx is the daughter of Chico Marx of the Marx Brothers. She was the first-born child of any of the five brothers, and so was around to observe more of their career than any of their other kids. Growing Up With Chico is a biography of her father, and to a lesser extent his brothers that he performed with. There’s a little about their childhood and their early years in show business and such, but—not surprisingly—the focus is more on what Maxine observed directly, and what it was like to have Chico for a father.

Chico was a charmer. He disappointed people, he deceived people, he hurt people, but they—especially women—almost invariably liked him anyway.

It started with his mother. Chico clearly gave her more trouble than any of her other kids, yet, according to Maxine, he was always her favorite. She contends that the other brothers were very aware of this and resented it, and that one of the reasons Groucho in particular had a bitter, curmudgeonly side is that he felt deprived of a full share of his mother’s love since a disproportionate amount went to the one who, objectively speaking, least deserved it.

All the brothers were skirt chasers, but Chico was the most successful. (Though spelled “Chico,” his nickname is actually pronounced “Chicko” because it comes from his being so handy with the chicks.) Women fell for him very easily, including his wife Betty, Maxine’s mother.

It’s not that Betty, or his other women, were blind to his faults or somehow tricked themselves into thinking it was wonderful to be with him however he behaved. Clearly his marriage was turbulent throughout, and eventually it blew up. But no matter how much they complained about him or fought with him, most of the women he got involved with retained a soft spot in their heart for him and put up with more from him than they ever would have from someone without his charisma.

You could say the same about Maxine herself’s reaction to Chico. Though she doesn’t hold back in telling all the things her father said and did that hurt her and her mother, it never feels like she’s condemning him. Add it all up and it’s clear he was somewhere between a below average and a terrible father, but she writes of him with unmistakable warmth.

When people trash someone that societal conventions say they’re obligated to love—a parent, sibling, or other close family member—they invariably hasten to add that, of course, they do indeed still love the person. And I mostly don’t take that seriously because I know they’re just saying what they’re supposed to say, that even if in some sense they’re sincere, the “love” they’re referring to is a pretty insignificant love. But it feels throughout the book like Maxine—and others in Chico’s life—never stopped loving him in a stronger, more literal sense.

None of the brothers come across all that well or all that terribly (which is not surprising, except maybe in the case of Harpo, who I inferred from other reading was a very positive figure in the life of just about everyone he touched), and indeed probably Chico comes out sounding the most flawed of all, but when she writes of the other brothers her reactions seem somehow more proportional. Like when she writes of the good things they did, she sounds like she’s fond of them and feels close to them, and when she writes of the not-so-good things they did, she sounds like she’s less fond of them and feels less close to them. Whereas with Chico she always sounds attached to him.

Clearly she has some wonderful memories of her time with her father. And it may be that the very fact that they were limited—that he was absent from their home and her life so much, not just for career reasons, but because he was out partying and getting in trouble—made her appreciate those moments of connection all the more.

It’s as if people had trouble holding him responsible for his behavior, no matter how much they told themselves that this time would be different and they wouldn’t let him get away with his latest shenanigans. He had that boyish charm that caused people to soften their reaction to the damage he did and focus on mitigating factors, like that he was doing his best, that he wasn’t malicious and really didn’t mean any harm, and that his flaws hurt him as much or more than they hurt anyone else.

He was a drinker and certainly he was a philanderer (which slowed down only modestly when he got married), and these behaviors caused plenty of trouble and hurt his marriage, but by far his most damaging vice was gambling.

What’s interesting is that there were some gambling activities that he could consistently win at. Those who know about such things regarded him as one of the top gin rummy players in the world, for instance. But he wouldn’t stick to those. As is typical of gambling addicts, it wasn’t about winning. For addicts, it’s boring to gamble on something where you know you have the edge and will win in the long run. The thrill is in defying the odds, in risking your money unwisely.

So he would throw away money gambling faster than he made it, even when he and his brothers were making more money than all but a small fraction of 1% of the population. He was always being hounded by loan sharks and assorted organized crime figures, sometimes leaving town and dropping out of sight for a while so he wouldn’t get whacked.

Everything he could hock he hocked at one time or another. His family lived in constant fear that they’d lose their home and be out on the street because of his sickness.

The other brothers eventually arranged to put aside a certain fraction of his earnings to try to save him from himself. They stuck to this plan for many years, but then just gave the money to Betty (telling her that if they gave it to him instead they knew she and the family would never see it because he’d immediately gamble it all away) and washed their hands of the matter, having grown sick of trying to take care of him like he was a child.

Indeed, Maxine comes across as most critical and disapproving of Groucho and to a lesser extent Harpo on those occasions when they lost patience with Chico’s antics and spoke most harshly of him. But given the evidence she herself provides, I can’t say I blame them.

Whatever efforts people made to save Chico from himself ultimately failed, or at least didn’t succeed in any kind of permanent, lasting way. He died first of the five brothers, and he died deeply in debt.

But I don’t want to make it sound like the whole book is about Chico’s gambling problem and the harm he caused. There are plenty of positive and funny elements too.

There are numerous anecdotes from the brothers’ lives in show business. There’s a reiteration of a point that I read acknowledged in one of Groucho’s books as well, that the brother who contributed the most to their success off-stage—as far as the business aspects of their careers, and just keeping them believing in themselves and seeing to it that they never gave up—was Chico. There are touching stories of a few of those exceptional times when Chico slowed down enough to give his daughter the attention she craved rather than running off to his next craps game.

The book also functions in part as an autobiography of Maxine herself beyond her relationship with her father, especially her career as an actress. On the one hand, you can say her success in that field was modest; on the other hand, probably fewer than one in a thousand people who aspire to a career in Hollywood attain even the level of success she did.

Mostly the parts of the book that are about her and don’t involve Chico (or the other brothers) are the least interesting, as one would expect.

Growing Up With Chico is a short book—less than 200 pages of average or larger size font—and an easy read. Though the positive aspects of Chico’s character are not given short shrift, and you get a sense for why so many people were drawn to him and couldn’t help liking him, the primary impression I have of him from this book is a sad one of a damaged man who was too weak to avoid damaging those who loved him most.

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