Marx was born in New York City. His parents were Sam Marx (called "Frenchie" throughout his life), and his wife, Minnie Schoenberg Marx. Minnie's brother was Al Schoenberg, who changed his name to Al Shean when he went into show business. He was half of Gallagher and Shean, a noted vaudeville act of the early 20th century. Marx's family was Jewish. His mother was from Dornum in East Frisia; and his father was a native of Alsace, and worked as a tailor
There are different theories as to where Zeppo got his stage name: Groucho said in his Carnegie Hall concert in 1972 that the name was derived from the Zeppelin airship. Zeppo's ex-wife Barbara Sinatra repeats this in her 2011 book, Lady Blue Eyes: My Life with Frank. His brother Harpo offers a different account in his 1961 autobiography, Harpo Speaks!, claiming (p. 130) that there was a popular trained chimpanzee named Mr. Zippo, and that "Herbie" was tagged with the name "Zippo" because he liked to do chinups and acrobatics, as the chimp did in its act. The youngest brother objected to this nickname, and it was altered to "Zeppo."
Marx appeared in the first five Marx Brothers movies, as a straight man and romantic lead, before leaving the team. According to a 1925 newspaper article, he also made a solo appearance in the Adolphe Menjou comedy A Kiss in the Dark, but no copy of the film is known to exist, and it is not clear if he actually appeared in the finished film.
In Lady Blue Eyes, Barbara Sinatra claims that Marx was considered too young to perform with his brothers, and it wasn't until Gummo joined the Army that Marx was asked to join the act as a last-minute stand-in at a show in Texas. Marx was supposed to go out that night with a Jewish friend of his. They were supposed to take out two Irish girls, but Marx had to cancel to board the train to Texas. His friend went ahead and went on the date, and was shot a few hours later when he was attacked by an Irish gang that disapproved of a Jew dating an Irish girl.
As the youngest and having grown up watching his brothers, Zeppo could fill in for and imitate any of the others when illness kept them from performing.
The Marx Brothers
(from top, Chico
, Harpo, Groucho
, and Zeppo Marx)
"He was so good as Captain Spaulding [in Animal Crackers] that I would have let him play the part indefinitely, if they had allowed me to smoke in the audience," Groucho recalled. However, a comic persona of his own that could stand up against those of his brothers did not emerge. As critic Percy Hammond wrote, sympathetically, in 1928:
One of the handicaps to the thorough enjoyment of the Marx Brothers in their merry escapades is the plight of poor Zeppo Marx. While Groucho, Harpo and Chico are hogging the show, as the phrase has it, their brother hides in an insignificant role, peeping out now and then to listen to plaudits in which he has no share.
Though Marx continued to play straight in the Brothers' movies at Paramount, he did occasionally get to be part of classic comedy moments in them—in particular, his role taking dictation from Groucho in Animal Crackers (1930). He also played a pivotal role as the love interest of Ruth Hall in Monkey Business (1931).
The popular assumption that his character was superfluous was fueled in part by Groucho. According to Groucho's own story, when the group became the Three Marx Brothers, the studio wanted to trim their collective salary, and Groucho replied "We're twice as funny without Zeppo!"
Offstage, Marx had great mechanical skills and was largely responsible for keeping the Marx family car running. Marx later owned a company which machined parts for the war effort during World War II, Marman Products Co. Inglewood, CA, later known as the Aeroquip Company. This company produced a motorcycle, called the Marman Twin and the Marman clamps used to hold the "Fat Man" atomic bomb inside the B-29 bomber,Bockscar. He also founded a large theatrical agency with his brother Gummo, and invented a wristwatch that would monitor the pulse rate of cardiac patients and give off an alarm if they went into cardiac arrest.
During his time as a theatrical agent, he and Gummo, although primarily Gummo, represented their brothers, among many others.
On April 12, 1927, Marx married Marion Benda. The couple adopted two children, Timothy and Thomas, in 1944 and 1945, and later divorced on May 12, 1954. On September 18, 1959, Marx married Barbara Blakeley, whose son, Bobby Oliver, he wanted to adopt and give his surname, but Bobby's father would not allow it. Bobby simply started using the last name "Marx".
Blakeley claims in her book, Lady Blue Eyes, that Marx never made her convert to Judaism. Blakeley was of Methodist faith and claims that Marx told her she became Jewish by "injection".
Blakeley also claims in her book that Marx wanted to keep her son out of the picture, adding a room for him onto his estate, which was more of a guest house as it was separated from the main residence. It was also decided that Blakeley's son would go to military school which, according to Blakeley, pleased Marx.
Marx owned a house on Halper Lake Drive in the Rancho Mirage, California, which was built off the fairway of the Tamarisk Country Club. The Tamarisk Club had been set up by the Jewish community, which rivaled the gentile club called "The Thunderbird". His neighbor happened to be Frank Sinatra. Marx would later attend the Hillcrest Country Club with friends like Sinatra, George Burns, Jack Benny, Danny Kaye, and Milton Berle.
Blakeley became involved with the Cedars-Sinai hospital, and had arranged to show Spartacus (featuring Kirk Douglas) for charity, selling tickets, and organizing a post-screening ball. At the last minute, Blakeley was told she could not have the film, so Marx went to the country club and spoke to Sinatra, who agreed to let him have an early release of a film he had just finished calledCome Blow Your Horn. Sinatra also flew everyone involved to Palm Springs for the event.
Marx was a very jealous husband, and hated for Blakeley to talk to another man. Blakeley claims that Marx grabbed Victor Rothschild by the throat at a country club because she was talking to him. Blakeley had caught Marx on many occasions with other women; the biggest incident was a party Marx had thrown on his yacht. After the incident, Marx took Blakeley to Europe, and accepted more invitations to parties when they arrived back in the States. Some of these parties were at Sinatra's compound; he often invited Blakeley and Marx to his house two or three times a week. Sinatra would also send champagne or wine to their home, as a nice gesture.
Blakeley and Sinatra started to see one another behind Marx's back. The press eventually caught up to Blakeley, snapping photos of her and Sinatra together, or asking Blakeley questions whenever they would spot her.
Marx and Blakeley divorced in 1973. Marx let Blakeley keep the 1969 Jaguar he had bought her, and agreed to pay her $1,500 a month for ten years. Sinatra upgraded Blakeley's Jaguar to the latest model. Sinatra also gave her a house to live in. The house belonged to Eden Hartford, Groucho Marx's third wife. Blakeley and Sinatra continued to date, and were constantly hounded by the press until the divorce between Marx and Blakeley became final. Blakeley and Sinatra would later marry.
Marx became sick with cancer in 1978. He sold his house, and moved to a house on the fairway off Frank Sinatra Drive. The doctors thought the cancer had gone into remission, but it came back. Marx called Blakeley, who took him to the doctor's office. Marx spent his last days with Blakeley's family.
The last surviving Marx Brother, Zeppo died of lung cancer at the Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage at the age of 78. His remains were cremated and scattered over the Pacific Ocean.