For the next 25 years Maxine Marx was part of my life. And she never got tired of talking about the Marx Brothers. Sometimes I would be driving her somewhere and she would randomly recall something she thought was insignificant that was anything but. I would tell her to not to do that to me while I was driving because I couldn’t write it down. Over the years I brought several Marx Brothers fans to meet Maxine and she was always charming, making them all feel special, sharing family stories and signing her book. When she would casually sprinkle a few choice expletives into a story, forgetting that she was talking to people she didn’t know that well, she would say, “Sorry. I’m a cute old lady. Deal with it.”
Maxine once asked me if I would drive her to Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. She wanted to visit her dear friend Toby Ruby Garson, the daughter of songwriter Harry Ruby. I immediately told her to get in the car. What Marx Brothers fan doesn’t love Harry Ruby? While Toby and Maxine chatted away, Toby generously allowed me to rummage through a trunk filled with Harry Ruby memorabilia dating back to his days in vaudeville. In Harry’s collection I found a lot of baseball artifacts, including several signed photos of the greatest players of all time. There were also signed photos of obscure minor leaguers. Harry, like the Marx Brothers, was a devoted follower of the Hollywood Stars of the Pacific Coast League in the days before major league baseball made it to the west coast. Toby shared many wonderful stories about her father and the Marx Brothers. This was the day I learned that Zeppo was actually as much, if not more, of a gambler than Chico. Zeppo regularly went to see the Stars at Gilmore Field and wagered on every pitch with anyone who would take his bet. (Although Maxine may have topped that story with the one about her father betting her on the timing of traffic lights when she was a little kid.)
On the way back to New York I told Maxine I would drive her to Bryn Mawr any time. We made a few more trips, but the last one was tough. When Toby passed away suddenly in 1994, I drove Maxine to the memorial service. Toby and Maxine had been close friends since the night they shared a seat at the Broadway opening of Animal Crackers in 1928. She hadn’t thought much about what she would say of her friend of 66 years. She delivered a touching tribute without betraying much emotion. She kept it light and funny. Then she wept all the way home in the car. She discussed her own mortality and expressed interest in an organization called the Hemlock Society, which was basically an advocacy group for assisted suicide. Maxine was determined to never become horribly ill. I changed the subject as many times as I could, but the discussion only ended when I dropped her off at her apartment.
Maxine had a bad leg and had been hobbling around with a cane from the time when I first met her. Eventually the cane gave way to a walker, and finally a wheelchair was necessary. But otherwise she was in pretty good shape.
Mentally she remained sharp as a tack and had a great memory. I was her wheelchair driver when we occasionally went to the theater. I remember seeing a wonderful Broadway show with Maxine called Fool Moon, starring Bill Irwin and David Shiner. After the show she insisted on introducing me to Irwin, a friend of hers for years. I pushed the wheelchair to the stage door where, naturally there was a cluster of autograph- seekers. Maxine shouted, “Out of the way. Old lady in a wheelchair coming through!” I was a little embarrassed when they cleared a path for her. But it was nice to meet Bill.
Occasionally my wheelchair driving duties intersected with my minor role as a so-called “Marx Brothers scholar.” When the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation decided to honor the Marx Brothers by naming a playground in their boyhood neighborhood after them, Maxine and I were both invited to participate in a special event at the Arsenal Gallery in Central Park.
The festivities took place on November 21, 2003, so it was also a 70th anniversary screening of Duck Soup. Since Kitty Carlisle Hart was there, A Night at the Opera was also screened. There are several copies of my book Groucho Marx and Other Short Stories and Tall Tales signed not only by me, but also by Maxine and Kitty floating around somewhere. My sales increased that night because these lovely ladies didn’t bring anything of their own to sign!
When I moved to California in 2004, Maxine made me promise to keep in touch. She had recently moved into an assisted living facility and feared losing contact with her large network of friends. I spent my first years in California traveling to New York frequently. I was visiting her pretty regularly and she once asked me when I was moving. I told her I had been living in Los Angeles for over a year and she asked, “Then what the hell are you doing here so much?”
Interview with Maxine Marx
When Maxine passed away in 2009 I was not surprised. She had been having a rough time for a few months and it made me think of her lectures about the Hemlock Society. Her sons, Kevin and Brian, contacted me and told me that Maxine requested I be one of the speakers at her memorial. I was honored and pleased to do so. Of course I immediately thought of Maxine’s speech at Toby’s memorial. All of the speakers knew they had to be funny. No tears for Maxine. I flew to New York and also agreed to read a letter from Maxine’s beloved cousin Bill Marx, who was unable to make the trip. I made a critical mistake when I read Bill’s letter before I made my own little speech. I had glanced at the letter on the plane but had done so without realizing how incredibly funny it was.
As I read Bill’s letter at the service the audience howled with laughter while I dreaded having to follow this hilarity. All I could think of saying was, “I’ve got nothing.” But I got out of trouble by telling about an idiotic adventure I shared with Maxine one Sunday afternoon in the mid-1990s. She needed a new area rug and we drove from her Central Park West apartment to lower Manhattan, where we selected a rug and strapped it to the roof of my car. As we headed uptown the rains came. And so did the traffic. As we sat there on the West Side Highway, I saw the soggy, drooping rug starting to cover the windshield. By the time we got to her apartment I was sure the rug was ruined. But with the help of a strong doorman I was able to lift the sopping wet thing and get it into the building. A couple of sunny days on the roof ultimately saved the rug. Maxine loved telling the rug story. Over the years the rug became bigger and wetter.
I met Maxine solely because I love the Marx Brothers. That first meeting could have been nothing more than a quick opportunity to get her to sign a book. But she took a real interest in me. (And not just me. She adored all of the young people that sought her out because of the Marx Brothers.) She became a very important part of my life. She inspected each new girlfriend and would give me a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” ruling. And she had a frighteningly accurate ability in this area. She would explain it saying, “I have sons. I know what I’m doing.” When my parents moved to Florida in 1994 Maxine volunteered to be my surrogate mother. (I hadn’t realized I needed one in my mid-thirties, but she was there for me.) When my actual mother came to New York for a visit I had a lovely dinner with my two mothers and Charlie Kochman. (I won’t mention the name of the fancy New York restaurant where this dinner took place because of the next part of the story.) When a cockroach crawled across the table Maxine’s first thought was, “Capture it. We won’t have to pay for dinner if we show it to them.”
When I started working on Four of the Three Musketeers: The Marx Brothers on Stage, Maxine was my first primary source. I didn’t even realize it at first. All those years of talking to her about her life and the Marx Brothers had given me valuable insight into things I would never otherwise have had. For example, she knew Minnie Marx. To me she was the legendary stage mother and the dynamo that made the Marx Brothers into stars. To Maxine this amazing lady was her grandmother. Maxine was a few months shy of her twelfth birthday when Minnie died. She remembered her quite well. She also had a lot of stories about her grandfather. She described Frenchy as “adorable.” She once told me that Harpo had inherited the best qualities of each of them.
In spite of being old enough to have known Minnie and Frenchy, Maxine never seemed old to me. (I’m sure the frequent cursing had something to do with that.) I learned so much from her. And not just about the Marx Brothers. One piece of advice from her has always stayed with me. She recommended extreme generosity when tipping in restaurants because the waiters may be lousy actors and waiting tables might be the best job these folks ever get. (I think she interviewed a lot of waiters as a casting agent over the years.)
Near the end of her life I would give her updates on Four of the Three Musketeers. I was never quite sure when it would be finished and she would tease me about it coming out after she was dead. As usual, she was correct. The book was published seven years after Maxine left us. But that doesn’t diminish her immense contribution to it. I treasure the memories of sharing some of my research with her and getting some very big laughs out of her as a result. It was the least I could do. She certainly provided me with a lot of laughs over the years.
Robert S. Bader