November 12, 2016

The most fascinatingly specific topic of research I've encountered in a good long while.

"Zeppo's Marion Benda and Valentino's Marion Benda: A Legacy of Confusion," by Mallory Curley.
When Zeppo Marx's first wife Marion Bimberg and Rudolph Valentino's last lover Marion Wilson both chose the stage name Marion Benda in the early 1920s, it generated confusion that has continued to this day. Both were performers on the Broadway stage concurrently, Zeppo's girl as an actress and Valentino's as a Ziegfeld Follies dancer billed as the most beautiful redhead in the world. After the Follies showgirl caught Valentino's eye and was with him on the night he fell fatally ill, she shot to fame and eventually became known as a Valentino Lady in Black. Meanwhile, Zeppo's Marion became Barbara Stanwyck's best friend and they founded a horse ranch in the San Fernando Valley. In addition to exploring all four marriages of the two Marion Bendas, this dual biography touches on Zeppo's strange role with the Marx Brothers and the intriguing Lady in Black phenomenon. Limited edition, oversize trade paperback original, 184 p., well illustrated.
I researched my way into this subject after I approved a comment on an old post of mine about the book "Lady Blue Eyes: My Life with Frank," by Barbara Sinatra, which I bought — I'm not lying! — solely because I wanted to read what she had to say about her marriage not to Frank Sinatra but to Zeppo Marx. I quoted this little anecdote about Barbara and Zeppo at the funeral for Chico Marx:
Crammed into the living room with scores of mourners, I noticed a strange woman staring at me. Zeppo noticed too and asked someone who she was. It was his first wife, Marion, a former Ziegfield girl he’d divorced seven years earlier, five years before he’d married me. A week later, I was playing tennis with Dinah Shore at the Racquet Club when I spotted Marion watching me in the same eerie way. I asked Dinah to introduce us. Marion was a little strange, but I think she just wanted to check me out. I felt sorry for her. She’d raised their adopted sons alone, and Zeppo showed little or no interest in them or her, it seemed. What really bothered me though was that he hadn’t even recognized the woman he’d been married to for twenty-seven years. 
This morning, I see a comment from Gregory Roth. (Inside joke: "Tell Roth to wax the Dean for a while.") Roth writes:
One problem with that excerpt regarding Chico's funeral is that Zeppo's ex-wife died 10 years before Chico.
I'm fastidious about the archive. I'll correct even a small typo if I see it in the archive. So I spring into action:
Thank you for commenting on a post that is 5 years old. I looked up the dates myself, and I can see that you are right. I went back to the "Lady Blue Eyes" text to see a larger context and make sure I hadn't misunderstood whose funeral it was, but it is definitely presented as Chico Marx's funeral, which was in 1961.

And Marion Benda killed herself in 1951.
I come back almost immediately to say:
Well, so... maybe that's why Zeppo didn't recognize her. It wasn't her!

But surely he knew she was dead...

And then:
Maybe it was a ghost.

She was watching in an "eerie way."
Maybe Zeppo was playing a prank on her and she just never had enough curiosity to find out the truth of what happened to his first wife....
Okay. I have discovered the answer.

There were 2 Marion Bendas!

The one that died in 1951 was not the one that married Zeppo.
The Marion Benda that didn't marry Zeppo and who died in 1951 — she committed suicide — was incredibly beautiful:

Zeppo's Marion Benda is fine too...

... but not celestially fine like Valentino's Marion Benda:

UPDATE: In the comments, there is some complaint about the high price of the book, but it is now selling for $17.95.


rhhardin said...

How many Donald Trumps are there.

EDH said...

When Zeppo Marx's first wife Marion Bimberg and Rudolph Valentino's last lover Marion Wilson both chose the stage name Marion Benda in the early 1920s, it generated confusion that has continued to this day.

Back in the 1970s, in Boston, I remember it was pronounced the same. "Benda".

"Oh, good god, how did I get the name Ariel Bender

Luther James Grosvenor is an English rock musician, who played guitar in Spooky Tooth, briefly in Stealers Wheel and, under the pseudonym Ariel Bender, in Mott the Hoople and Widowmaker.

rhhardin said...

Probably many music hall stars adopted the stage name Mezzanine. It's French-sounding.

Rob said...

Any insights as to why Marion Benda would be a popular stage name? Is it too much to hope it's somehow related to the always amusing Ben Dover?

Big Mike said...

Notice that the preferred flatter breasts in the 1920's. (Yes, they actually did. You can look it up.)

rhhardin said...

There's a Kentucky ham contact contest that's been on for three hours, and I've heard only one forlorn Kentucky ham, loud, so propagation isn't a problem. I worked him and now I have one point in the contest, or actually two because it's morse code.

I don't know if the rest of KY is out tapping maple trees for syrup, or what, down there.

I love contests because you get ten second conversations and don't have to think up idle talk, and yet see that you're getting out there okay, which is always amazing.

robother said...

So, what's the answer to the mystery of why Zeppo didn't recognize his wife of 20 plus years? She'd put on enormous weight? Plastic surgery? He had spent the entire marriage visualizing her as the other Marion Benda?

traditionalguy said...

And then along came Ava Gardner. After her personality arrived the men she met said it's not the size that matters, it's how she uses it.

Janette Kok said...

I clicked through your link, Ann, thinking I would buy the book, but it costs almost $30 and I can't spend that much right now. Sounds interesting, though.

Ann Althouse said...

It says it's a large format book with lots of illustrations, so it might be worth it.

I'm wondering what the Lady in Black phenomenon is.

Maybe I should spring for it. You know I'm fascinated by Zeppo.

Mike Sylwester said...

When I was in elementary school, I wrote a book report on the book Life With Groucho, which was written by Groucho's son Arthur Marx. I liked the book, which made a lasting impression on me.

Over the years, I collected a half dozen books about the Marx brothers, but I never read any of them.

A couple months ago, I had to cull a lot of my books, so I donated all of my Marx Brothers books to a library book sale. I hope that somebody bought them.

Anyway, since I did not read any of them, I have nothing substantive to say about this fascinatingly specific topic of research that you have encountered in a long time.

Marc Puckett said...

My recollection is that there's a 'lady in black' in the Forsythe novels of John Galsworthy; her character is a major one and I'd never have thought that it referenced some other character in some other book or genre &c &c, some trope, but that is about the right time period, I believe, so perhaps.

Ambrose said...

Wow, that made my head hurt. "If a nightingale could sing like her, ...."