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"Our stage names were given to
us by a monologist named Art Fisher. He was in the habit of
people nicknames and they stuck. He named Leonard Chico because girls
were called chicks in those days and Chico loved girls. Arthur became
Harpo for obvious reasons, Gummo got his name because he was fond of
gum sole shoes, and he named me because I was stern and rather serious.
Herbert who became Zeppo was too young at that time and wasn't in the
act. He got his name later on".
(Groucho in The Marx Bros. Scrapbook)
There are different theories to where Herbert Marx got his stage name. Groucho usually said that the name was derived from the Zeppelin, a new invention at the time of Herbert's birth. The first zeppelin flew in July 1900, and Herbert was born seven months later in February 1901. In her book Lady Blue Eyes: My Life with Frank, Zeppo's second wife Barbara (who later remarried a certain Frank Sinatra) repeats the Zeppelin story, saying that she heard it from all of the Marx Brothers.In Harpo Speaks, Harpo states that there was a popular trained chimpanzee named Mr. Zippo, and that Herbert was tagged with the name "Zippo" because he liked to do chinups and acrobatics, as the chimp did in its act. Herbert found the nickname very unflattering and it was altered to "Zeppo".
The documentary The Unknown Marx Brothers gives two different explanations to the nickname. Chico's daughter Maxine said that when the Marx Brothers lived in Chicago, a popular style of humor was the "Zeke and Zeb" joke, which made fun of slow-witted Midwesterners. One day Chico found Herbert sitting on a fence, greeting him by saying "Hi, Zeke"! Chico responded with "Hi, Zeb" and the name stuck. The brothers thereafter called him "Zeb" or ”Zep”, and when he joined the act it became "Zeppo" to match his brothers. In the same documentary, Harpo's son Bill said that there once was a "freak" at the Ringling Brothers Circus called Zippo and that the older Marxes named their kid brother Herbert after him. According to Bill Marx, Herbert hated that connection.
William Henry Johnson alias Zip the Pinhead
Zippo, or rather Zip, was an African American named William Henry Johnson, born in New Jersey in 1842/3. Maybe suffering from microcephaly (a neurodevelopmental disorder in which the circumference of the head is more than two standard deviations smaller than average for the person's age and sex), Johnson performed in lots of freak shows from the 1860s up until his death in 1926, variously billed as Zip the Pinhead, The Monkey Man, The Man-Monkey, The Missing Link or the What is it? Photos of Johnson shows that Zeppo Marx actually resembled him a bit, at least enough for the older brothers to joke about. So this is what I think happened;
A zeppelin over New York City and a detail from a promotion photo whichs emphasizes the connection with Zeppo