Monday, October 15, 2018
When Herbert Met Zeppo: A Love Story Involving Chimps, Freaks and Airships
It's odd, isn't it, that nobody seems all that sure why Herbert called himself Zeppo when he joined the Marx Brothers?
We know the meaning and origins of the other four Brothers' names, more or less, but Zeppo's, for some reason, is mired in confusion, doubt and disagreement. Why?
The first mystery is the sheer multiplicity of offered possibilities. (This is a sentence for Arthur Sullivan to set to music if ever there was one.)
I am aware of at least six:
i) There were zeppelins flying overhead when he was born.
ii) It originated when they were pretending to be rustics during their brief experiment in farming. Herbert would say, "Hiya, Zeke", and Gummo would reply, "Hiya, Zeb."
iii) It was inspired by a performing chimp called Mr Zippo, who shared Herbert's penchant for acrobatics.
iv) It was inspired by a freak show pinhead called Zip, who shared Herbert's 45-degree forehead.
v) 'Zep' is Italian-American slang for 'baby'; Herbert was called this because he was the youngest. According to Wikipedia, this was Zeppo's own contribution to the seething whirlpool: I've not seen it cited anywhere else. (Or have I?)
vi) I don't have the first clue what this one even means, but Noah Diamond recently unearthed it, so let's add it for completeness: when dealing cards he adopted a rapid spin that dropped the card in front of each player "like a golf ball falling dead to the pin." How we get from here to 'Zeppo' is up to you.
This is madness! There's only one explanation for Harpo's name. There's one for Gummo's. There's basically only one for Chico's. (Yes, there is that story in some press reports that he was noted for his love of eating chicken, but my guess is that this is not a genuine alternative but a deliberate bit of press agenty deception, to disguise a true meaning that was a tad risque. I can't help wondering if the supposedly accidental dropping of the 'k' in his name, with its resultant change in pronunciation, wasn't likewise deliberate, and for the same reason.)
Okay, we have two for Groucho - a grouchy demeanour and the possession of a grouch bag - but (a) that's still a far cry from six alternatives, and (b) the rules are slightly different for Groucho, because he was the first named. (How do we know he was the first named, and why is that important? Because the name 'Groucho' already existed, in various contexts, most notably in a popular comic strip. That's why Fisher used the -o suffix. It mightn't have just as easily been Grouchy or the Grouchster, or Grouchface, or Grouchadoodledandy: it had to be Groucho. He decided to give him a nickname, settled on 'grouch' as the defining theme, and then went for Groucho because that name formation already existed. So for all we know both could be right. He might have said 'You being so grouchy, it's no wonder you carry a grouch bag! Hey, I'll call you Groucho!" This is wild speculation of course, but fortunately irrelevant to the discussion. The point is that we have four brothers sharing five possible name explanations between them. Suddenly a fifth brother shows up and the tally jumps to eleven.)
Not only have all these solutions been offered, but there are also those people who have stated outright that they didn't know the answer, and most of the suggestions that were offered were offered tentatively, unsurely. We have to ask why! Why does everyone know for certainty that Milton wore gumshoes, but nobody can be certain whether Herbert was named after a chimp or an airship? Why the confusion? Why the profusion?
Let us free ourselves of one mistaken certainty: that it has to mean something. There's really no reason to think it should. The original nicknames were given spontaneously (by Art Fisher during a poker game) with no particular purpose in mind and certainly with no eye to longevity. The idea that eventually they would be known by the names he invented, and even use them in private life, for the rest of their lives, would have been unimaginable. But Zeppo's name was created differently. Art Fisher was not involved; it was not just a bit of fun, and the convention already existed.
Zeppo took an -o name because he was replacing Gummo in the act, and needed a snappy -o name of his own. Even then, they could never have dreamed that they would become principally known by these names, and therefore that they would be asked to explain them. So all Zeppo needed was a name that fitted: a light, fun, memorable comedy name. And 'Zeppo' certainly fits the bill: it's energy and pace, somehow; it's got zep and zip and zap and pow and whizz and fizz. It's a great name.
It should be noted that it was never part of the rules that the names should have an obvious meaning, even if they had one nonetheless. With the exception of Harpo, none of the names refer to anything they did professionally. Groucho was not a grouchy comic; Gummo didn't wear his rubbers on stage. Had they been called Harpo, Piano, Moustacho and Stand Around Not Doing All That Mucho then yes - the onus would have been on Zeppo to come up with something appropriate. But they weren't. Their names were to all intents and purposes meaningless, and they had no reason to anticipate a time when explanations would be demanded. Zeppo's could easily have been created in exactly this spirit - for how it sounds, not from a need to have something that, somewhere down the line, can be 'explained'.
But of course that time did come - the time when the names Julius, Arthur, Leonard and Herbert became forgotten from disuse, the time when fans did start writing to the movie magazines and saying, 'hey, what's the origin of those wacky names?' Imagine how disappointing it would then be to give out the answer: because he's grouchy, because he chases the chicks, because he plays the harp and... er... for no reason whatsoever. Imagine any press department allowing it. It's an impossibility. So it's here, after the fact, that meaning is demanded, and if it was here that meaning was invented, the strange confusion we have been left with is the logical outcome of the situation. In other words, the mass of alternatives and uncertainties are not merely consistent with there being no real meaning, it is actual evidence in favour of that hypothesis.
What it is not, however, is proof of it, and of course it remains possible that any of the suggested alternatives might be true. None can be comprehensively written off (except possibly the one about him dealing cards like a golf ball) and while none are strong enough to compel me to pick a side, most of them do have a unique, compelling point to commend them.
Let's start with the one I have traditionally always favoured: "Hiya Zeke, Hiya Zeb." The really strong point in favour of this one that the others lack is that, if true, it would be an adaptation of a pre-existing nickname, and thus a matter of seconds, and an obvious choice, to convert into standard Marxian form. In fact, it's perfect. Why, then, am I dubious? For the admittedly ironic reason that it's just too perfect. Look at it this way: if this were the true explanation, it would be so obvious, so certain, so charming, that we would have no possible explanation for the mass of conflicting alternatives, not least from Zeppo himself. It would be as solid and certain an explanation as Gummo's.
The same, presumably, applies to the Italian-American slang term, though that one doesn't really sound convincing from the get-go. Why on earth would Minnie give him an Italian-American nickname? And I can't find any mention of it online as a real Italian-American term anyway. (Perhaps a real Italian-American could let me know?) I smell post-hoc desperation here, emanating from a man with a famously short attention span who has been asked a question he doesn't know the answer to once too often.
So let's move on to our brace of Zips. Two things uniquely commend these, possibly three. The first is that these alone include in their explanations the only reason other than the complete absence of any true meaning to account for the variety and number of rival explanations.
Research has shown that there really was a Zip the pinhead who does, in the crudest degree, suggest something of Zeppo's distinctive physiognomy. Zippo the chimp comes from Harpo - I don't know if the research has been done here too, but I wouldn't be at all surprised if there was a Zippo the chimp: it's exactly the sort of name people give chimps. I wouldn't be surprised if there were dozens of them, without necessarily shrieking eureka at the discovery.
Now, it is entirely possible that what we are looking at here is not really two possible explanations but one, and that Harpo is slightly adapting the truth, turning a circus freak into a chimp to remove the slight aura of tastelessness it possesses. It is telling that both stories give the same reason for the transmutation from Zip to Zep, which is that Herbie found the connection offensive, and changed it.
Of course, if Harpo is doing that, this would in itself be evidence in favour, while Zeppo's distaste gives at least some kind of a reason why the true meaning was less forthcoming in later accounts than it should have been, and replaced at times with silly fake alternatives.
The trouble is that I just can't see it working out like this. Here is a young man who is confident, cocksure even, a noted fistfighter with a gun in his back pocket. He joins the family act, and not only is he not responsible for choosing his own name, he is obliged to accept one he finds repulsive, with the one crumb of compensation that he is allowed to arbitrarily change one letter, making it meaningless. This despite the fact, as I have shown, that the need for a specific meaning simply would not have been recognised at the time. And how odd that the other brothers, though adamant in insisting upon it, then allow it first to be changed and then rarely tell the truth about it when asked from then on. Finally, if it had such unpleasant connotations for its bearer, it is relevant to note that he retained it far longer than necessary. After decisively giving up the performing game, he could quite easily and sensibly have opened the Herbert Marx Agency. But he didn't: he opened the Zeppo Marx Agency. His previous job was no kind of asset in his becoming an agent - he obviously just liked the name.
Nonetheless, there is one other point in favour of Zippo the Chimp, which is that it came with the -o suffix already in situ, which might easily have pushed it to the front of the queue when ideas were being kicked around. But again, isn't that a bit too neat?
Finally, I want to look at the one I find most interesting, because it has traveled the longest road in the shortest time. When I was a kid getting into the team, the zeppelin explanation was by far the most common - almost ubiquitous. It was the default; if you know your Jack the Ripper suspects, it was the Montague Druitt. It's not nothing that it was the one chosen in the famous image of the brothers in canvas chairs with the nickname explanations represented pictorially next to their names. Nowadays, though, it is the one suggestion that is most comprehensively written off.
Why should that be? Well, you'll recall that the story was that there were zeppelins in the sky when Herbie was born. The matter has been looked into and it has been decided with certainty that alas, there most definitely were not. End of story?
Hold on a minute, there! All we've discredited is that 'when he was born' bit. And quite right, too! I ask you again to actually picture these guys, sitting in a room, trying to come up with a name, at a time when 'meaning' was not in any way a priority. Who the hell is going to say, "I know - there were zeppelins flying over the house when you were born! How about Zeppo!" Who would even let their mind wander down the road of 'let's think what was happening when you were born...'? It's just daft.
But while we can be certain wee Herbert took his first belch in a zeppelin-free sky, we can be equally sure of this: in 1915, when this naming business was actually happening, the little hydrogen-filled bastards were everywhere. In the movies, the newsreels, the newspapers and magazines and yes, indeed, in the skies, zeps was the tops.
Not too much of a stretch, then, for Herbert to be pondering what his new name should be as his eye alighted on a picture of a zeppelin on an open page of a magazine or something, and - his task being solely to choose a name that sounded good - remarking on the supreme fitness for the task of 'Zeppo'.
Why, then, the alternatives? Why the bit about it happening when he was born? Because it's an 'explanation' but not a 'meaning'. Hey, where did you guys get your crazy names? Because of grouchiness, chicken chasing, harp playing, and ... ... some completely irrelevant connection with zeppelins...
It's not going to play in Peoria. The little white lie addition of it happening when he was born gives it instant 'meaning'. Everything else then falls neatly into place.
So here we are at the end of our quest, and how nearer the truth are we? Nowhere. We may even have gone backwards. (I'd certainly like to think so.) Personally, I still think the name meant nothing, just sounded good, and the various explanations were invented to meet a subsequent need for such things. But, on the terms above, I can see some kind of merit in at least three of the stated possibilities. If I had to plump for one, I think now I might stick with the zeppelins, in part perhaps because I always side with the underdog.
But the vital point is that while an explanation is possible, it is not necessary. That's my take-home message here. I will now cut the watermelon open.