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Home --> Radio & TV --> Television --> The Secret Words

The Secret Words

Claim:   While interviewing the mother of a large number of children for the show You Bet Your Life, Groucho Marx made a risqué remark about his cigar.

Status:   False.

Example:   [TV Guide, 1999]

[A] contestant on Groucho Marx's 1950s TV quiz show tells him that she has 10 children, and Marx asks why she has so many. The woman answers, "Because I love children ... and I love my husband. Marx replies: "I love my cigar, too, but I take it out of my mouth once in a while."

Origins:   You Bet Your Life was the vehicle that provided Groucho Marx with a career apart from his brothers and introduced him to a generation of viewers too young Groucho to remember him from his stage or film work. The interview-quiz show, featuring the famous $100 bonus paid to any contestant who said the "secret word" (displayed on a cartoonish stuffed duck that dropped from above if a contestant uttered the word of the day) debuted on radio in 1947, aired on both radio and television through 1960, and continued on television only for its final season in 1960-61— all in all, an amazing fourteen-year run for a quiz show with a tiny budget, a plain set, and a small jackpot (even by 1950s standards).

Although You Bet Your Life was structured to make it appear as though every show was completely ad-libbed by Groucho (who issued a steady stream of impromptu questions, off-the-cuff remarks, and cutting put-downs to contestants he had met only moments earlier), a good deal of preparation went into each episode. Potential contestants were selected and interviewed in advance, and scripts for each week's show were prepared by writers and reviewed by Groucho, who used a mechanical teleprompter to read his lines during the recording of the program. (In early telecasts of You Bet Your Life, Groucho can be seen reading off sheets of paper propped up in front of him on something resembling a music stand.) It was true, however, that Groucho didn't actually meet the contestants until they walked onstage, and he certainly had plenty of latitude to depart from the prepared gags and questions (as did the contestants), with the result that much of the show's banter was indeed improvised on the spot. About a hour's worth of material was recorded for each half hour program so that flubs, uninteresting segments, and any troublesome or offensive remarks by Groucho could be edited out.

The most infamous remark of Groucho's You Bet Your Life years supposedly occurred when he was interviewing a Mrs. Story, a contestant with a remarkably large number of children:
GROUCHO: "Why do you have so many children? That's a big responsibility and a big burden."

MRS. STORY: "Well, because I love my children and I think that's our purpose here on Earth, and I love my husband."

GROUCHO: "I love my cigar, too, but I take it out of my mouth once in a while."
Many people claim to remember hearing this exchange as they watched (or listened to) You Bet Your Life. Did Groucho really say it, or is it a remark that (like so many other infamous quips) originated elsewhere and was later attributed to the notable figure deemed most likely to have said it?

Since You Bet Your Life was heavily edited, and this remark (if it truly occurred) would certainly have been cut from the finished program as too offensive for the standards of the times, we can state definitively that (claims to the contrary notwithstanding) nobody ever actually heard it broadcast. If Groucho really made this quip, the only people who would have heard it were the people present during the recording of the program (i.e., the cast, crew, contestants, and studio audience).

So, did Groucho in fact utter this risqué remark, even if his bon mot never made it onto the airwaves? The one person who would undoubtedly know the truth is Groucho himself, and he maintained in a 1972 interview with Roger Ebert for Esquire magazine that he never said it:
I got $25 from Reader's Digest last week for something I never said. I get credit all the time for things I never said. You know that line in You Bet Your Life? The guy says he has seventeen kids and I say: "I smoke a cigar, but I take it out of my mouth occasionally"? I never said that.
This debate really should end here, based on a complete lack of evidence that Groucho ever said any such thing, coupled with his unequivocal statement affirming that he did not (and Groucho had no motive to disclaim one of the most famous lines associated with his celebrity if he really did say it). Instead, the legend persists in large part because misinformation about it is propagated over and over. Take, for example, the following account, presented as a first-person telling in the 1976 book The Secret Word Is Groucho:
Wherever I go, people ask me about a remark I purportedly made to Mrs. Story. Folklore about the encounter has been so broadly disseminated that it has been variously described as occurring with a mother having any number from ten to thirty children. The story, however, is not apocryphal. It did happen.

"Why do you have so many children?" I asked Mrs. Story. "That's a big responsibility and a big burden."

"Well," she replied, "because I love children, and I think that's our purpose here on earth, and I love my husband."

"I love my cigar too," I shot back, "but I take it out of my mouth once in a while."

That kind of remark can have one of two reactions. It will either cause a sharp intake of breath at having crossed some forbidden frontier or it will bring the house down. The studio audience loved it, but the people out there in Radioland never got a chance to react. The exchange was clipped out by Dwan, the house censor.
A few things about this account immediately strike us as wrong: It doesn't really sound like Groucho's speaking or writing style at all, and Groucho has suddenly "remembered" details he was previously unfamiliar with (i.e., he's corrected the gender of the person he was addressing
from male to female, he now recalls the contestant's name, and he's fixed the wording of the remark from "I smoke a cigar, but I take it out of my mouth occasionally" to the pithier "I love my cigar too, but I take it out of my mouth once in a while"). This is unsurprising in light of the fact that although Groucho is credited as the primary author of The Secret Word Is Groucho, the book was actually put together in the waning years of his life by freelance writer Hector Arce (ostensibly with input from Groucho, but how much the comedian's declining health and memory allowed him to contribute to the work is questionable). Arce consulted various personnel associated with You Bet Your Life in producing the book, and almost certainly one (or more) of those people proffered the "cigar" story as true to Arce, who rewrote it in Groucho's voice and inserted it into the book, unaware that his subject had denied it just a few years previously. (At the very least, we know for sure that the 1972 Esquire interview contained Groucho's own words; the same can't be said for Arce's book.)

The Secret Word Is Groucho account quoted above also has Groucho referring to the exchange in question having been "clipped out by Dwan, the house censor." Groucho of course would have known that Robert Dwan was not merely a "censor"; he was one of the producers who worked on You Bet Your Life for its entire run, staging the weekly performances and supervising the editing of each episode for broadcast. In his own book about the program (As Long As They're Laughing: Groucho Marx and You Bet Your Life), Dwan wrote:
Last summer in Maine, a respectable New York dealer in rare books sidled up to me and said, conspiratorially, "Is it true Groucho made that crack about his cigar?" I knew immediately what he meant.

For a long time, I, too, believed it was a figment of the mass libido. But, after discussions with my late partner, Bernie Smith, I am convinced that it did happen. I now believe that Groucho said it, but that he didn't mean what the dirty joke collectors think he meant. That remark, taken at its burlesque show level, was simply not his style.

But outside of that studio audience and the 200 people who laughed that night, no one else ever heard that joke, because the exchange was never broadcast. It was never heard beyond the confines of NBC Studio C in Hollywood, and yet the story has spread to become an underground legend.
This account is even more curious: Robert Dwan, the man who was onstage for every performance of You Bet Your Life and who supervised the editing of the show, doesn't remember hearing Groucho make such a remark, yet he now "believes" it's real because someone else told him so many years after the fact. And although Dwan wrote that he consulted "20 volumes of the original scripts" and a "collection of acetate recordings of the unedited performances and tapes of the edited broadcasts" and four reels of 16mm film consisting of "the funniest and most audacious of the sequences which we were required to delete from the broadcasts as being unsuitable for viewing in the 1950s" in the preparation of his book, he made nary a mention of turning up anything supporting the "cigar" story.

The most recent presentation of the "cigar" legend we're aware of is the background booklet enclosed with the 2003 DVD release You Bet Your Life: The Lost Episodes (a collection of some of the show's preserved TV episodes), which contains the following information about an audio bonus feature included on one of the discs:
In December 1950 DeSoto distributed a twelve inch 78rpm recording featuring highlights from You Bet Your Life and a holiday message from Groucho to their dealers. The nine minute recording includes an excerpt from Groucho's November 17, 1947 radio interview with Mr. and Mrs. Story of Bakersfield, California, the parents of twenty children. This interview has become legendary for a portion of it that never aired.
Groucho: "Why do you have so many children? It must be a terrible responsibility and a burden."

Mrs. Story: "Well, because I love my children and I think that's our purpose here on Earth, and I love my husband."

Groucho: "I love my cigar, too, but I take it out of my mouth once in a while."
Considering how many people have claimed to have seen or heard that exchange over the years it would seem likely that it must exist somewhere. But of the ninety-nine radio episodes of You Bet Your Life that aired prior to the show's television debut, fewer than half of them survive. And the show with Mr. and Mrs. Story is not among them. The famous exchange would certainly have been edited out anyway. The brief clip from Season's Greetings from DeSoto — Laughs with Groucho is all that remains of this episode. And the only people who witnessed that legendary moment were in the studio audience that fateful night in 1947.
(Note that the imagined dialogue between Groucho and Mrs. Story is lifted directly from the book The Secret Word Is Groucho, another indication that it came from someone associated with the You Bet Your Life program and not Groucho himself.)

It is true that Marion and Charlotte Story of Bakersfield, California, the parents of twenty children, were once featured as contestants on You Bet Your Life. According to announcer George Fenneman's introduction, Mr. and Mrs. Story were selected to participate because the producers thought it would be interesting to go through the audience and find the couple with the largest number of offspring for Groucho to interview; as the parents of twenty children, Mr. and Mrs. Story qualified for that honor. (Since You Bet Your Life was a well-planned show that interviewed and prepped its contestants in advance, Mr. and Mrs. Story likely appeared on the program by invitation and were not merely present in the audience by happenstance, and George Fenneman's introduction of them probably stretched the truth a little to create an exaggerated sense of spontaneity for the listening audience.) It is also true that this interview took place during You Bet Your Life's days as a radio-only program, so even if the "cigar" quip had sprung from this encounter, anyone who claims to have seen Groucho make the remark on television is clearly mistaken.

As usual, however, the DVD booklet's account is rife with misinformation. A complete audio recording of (the broadcast portions of) Marion and Charlotte Story's appearance on You Bet Your Life does indeed exist (and is linked below). Moreover, that recording couldn't possibly date from 17 November 1947, as claimed, because Groucho can be heard making promotional references to DeSoto-Plymouth, who did not become sponsors of You Bet Your Life until partway through the 1949-50 season. (External evidence indicates this recording actually dates from the broadcast of 11 January 1950, the first show aired after DeSoto-Plymouth took over sponsorship of You Bet Your Life from Elgin-American.)

What do we find in this recording? It does not include anything like the infamous "cigar" quip, Groucho's only mention of stogies coming when he inquires of Mr. Story, "With each new kid, do you go around passing out cigars?" ("I stopped at about a dozen," Mr. Story responds.) And for those who would claim that the "cigar" remark was indeed uttered by Groucho but excised from the aired version of the show, we note that none of the claimed dialogue ancillary to that remark is present in the recording either — Groucho does not ask Charlotte Story why she has so many children, neither Mr. nor Mrs. Story professes to thinking that having children is "our purpose here on Earth," nor does Mrs. Story proclaim that she loves her husband.

As we touched on earlier in this article, it's a common phenomenon of urban legendry that amusing stories involving clever repartee often retroactively place words into the mouths of the famous people deemed most likely to have said them. Sometimes, however, the designated mouths don't really match up with the words assigned to them. Johnny Carson's image has long been saddled with the claim that he made a risqué remark to a cat-carrying starlet on the Tonight Show, even though he was never known for employing that sort of crude sexual humor in his TV talk show host role. Likewise, although it might seem that no one would fit a sexual double entendre involving a cigar better than Groucho Marx, even You Bet Your Life producer Robert Dwan acknowledged (as quoted above) that it was too burlesque and not really Groucho's style. It was the kind of dirty put-down Groucho might blurt out in private, but not to a kindly couple on a national radio program. Groucho's style on You Bet Your Life was generally much gentler, as exemplified by the following exchange made under similar circumstances (i.e., when he questioned a female contestant who came from a family of seventeen children):
Groucho: How does your father feel about this rather startling turn of events? Is he happy or just dazed?

Daughter: Oh, my daddy loves children.

Groucho: Well, I like pancakes, but I haven't got closetsful of them ...
It's not inconceivable that the infamous "cigar" quip might have originated with this very exchange, when someone later misremembered or deliberately "naughtied up" the dialogue to better fit Groucho's public image and changed "pancakes" to "cigar."

Additional information:

    Groucho   Groucho's "pancake" quip

    Groucho   Groucho's interview with Mr. and Mrs. Story

Last updated:   6 January 2007

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  Sources Sources:
    Brooks, Tim and Earle Marsh.   The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network TV Shows.
    New York: Ballatine Books, 1999.   ISBN 0-345-42923-0   (p. 1138-1139).

    Dunning, John.   On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio.
    New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1998.   ISBN 0-19-507678-8   (pp. 732-734).

    Dwan, Robert.   As Long As They're Laughing: Groucho Marx and You Bet Your Life.
    Baltimore: Midnight Marquee, 2000.   ISBN 01-887664-36-X   (p. 129).

    Ebert, Roger.   "A Living Legend, Rated R."
    Esquire.   July 1972   (p. 143).

    Kaltenbach, Chris.   "Also 20 Years Dead: Groucho."
    The Baltimore Sun.   19 August 1997   (p. E1).

    Kanfer, Stefan.   Groucho.
    New York: Vintage Books, 2000.   ISBN 0-375-70207-5.

    Marx, Groucho and Hector Arce.   The Secret Word Is Groucho.
    New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1976.   ISBN 0-399-11690-7   (pp. 43-44).

    Stoliar, Steve.   Raised Eyebrows: My Years Inside Groucho's House.
    Los Angeles: General Publishing, 1996.   ISBN 1-881649-73-3   (pp. 124-125).

    TV Guide.   "TV Confidential 2."
    24 July 1999   (p. 15).