Curly Howard, the one with the shaven head which Moe referred to as "looking like a dirty tennis ball," was the most popular member of the Three Stooges and the most inventive of the three. His hilarious improvisations and classic catch-phrases of "N'yuk- n'yuk-n'yuk!" and "Wooo-wooo-wooo!" have established him as a great American cult hero.
His real name was Jerome Lester Horwitz, born to Jennie and Solomon Horwitz on October 22, 1903, in Bath Beach, a summer resort in a section of Brooklyn, He was the fifth and youngest of the Horwitz sons and weighed eight and a half pounds at birth. He was delivered by Dr. Duffy, the brother of Moe Howard's six-grade school teacher. Curly- Jerome, to complicate matters, was nicknamed "Babe" by his brother Moe.
Curly was a quiet child and gave his parents very little trouble. Moe and Shemp made up for him in spades. Moe recalls one mischievous incident when Curly was an infant: "We took his brand-new baby carriage, removed the wheels, made a pair of axles from two-by- fours and built our own version of a `soap box racer. We put Curly in it and dragged him all over town. It was a lucky thing we didn't kill him. When our parents found out we had the devil to pay.
When Curly was about four, Moe and Shemp started to instill in their brother the idea of becoming a comedian. Quite frequently they would stage small theater productions in the basement of their friends' homes; the cast would usually consist of Shemp, Moe and Curly. There was a charge of two cents for admission, but the ventures could not have been very lucrative, as the boys had to split the take three ways. It is believed that during these performances Curly got his first taste of comedy.
Moe also recalled that Curly was only a fair student in school. A boyhood friend, Lester Friedman, remembers that he was a fine athlete, making a name for himself on the elementary school basketball team. Though Curly never graduated from school, he kept himself busy doing odd jobs, following Moe and Shemp wherever they went.
As a young man, Curly loved to dance and listen to music, and he became an accomplished ballroom dancer. He would go regularly to the Triangle Ballroom in Brooklyn, where on several occasions he met George Raft, who in the early days of his career was a fine ballroom dancer. Curly also tried his hand at the ukulele, singing along as he strummed. As Moe once said, "He was not a good student but he was in demand socially, what with his beautiful singing voice." Moe continued to influence his kid brother's theatrical education, taking him along with him to vaudeville shows and the melodrama theaters, but Curly's first love was musicals and comedy.
During this period, sometime in his late teens, Curly found another love and married a young girl whose name remains a mystery to this day. His mother, Jennie Horwitz, the matriarch of the family, was against the idea of Curly's marrying at such a young age and, before six months had gone by, had the marriage annulled.
In 1928, Curly landed a job as a comedy musical conductor for the Orville Knapp Band, which, to that date, was his only stage experience. Moe recalls that his brother's performances usually overshadowed those of the band. "He was billed as the guest conductor and would come out and lead the band in a breakaway tuxedo. The sections of the suit would fall away, piece by piece, while he stood there swinging his baton."
Young Curly's interest in show business continued to grow as he watched his brothers, Shemp and Moe, perform as stooges in Ted Healy's act. Joe Besser, who worked with them in The Passing Show of 1932, recalls that Curly liked to hang around backstage. "He was there all the time and would get sandwiches for all of us in the show, including Ted Healy and his Stooges. He never participated in any of the routines but liked to watch us perform." During this period Curly remained in the shadow of his brothers, and watched as their careers began to skyrocket them to stardom along with Healy.
It was in 1932, during J.J. Shubert's Passing Show, that Healy had an argument with Shubert and walked off the show; taking Larry and Moe along with him. Shemp, disenchanted with Healy's drunken bouts and practical jokes, decided to remain in the Shubert show.
Later that afternoon, Moe suggested to Healy that his kid brother; Babe (Curly), was available and would make an excellent replacement for Shemp, since he was familiar with the act. Ted agreed, asking Curly to join the act, but under the condition that he shave his head. At the time, Curly sported long, wavy brown hair and a mustache. In an interview; Curly recalled the incident: "I had beautiful wavy hair and a waxed mustache. When I went to see Ted Healy about a job as one of the Stooges, he said, `What can you do?' I said, `I don't know.' He said, `I know what you can do. You can shave off your hair to start with.' Then later on I had to shave off my poor mustache. I had to shave it off right down to the skin."
Curly's wacky style of comedy started to emerge, first on stage and then on screen when Healy and his Stooges starred in numerous features and comedy shorts for MCM. Later; in 1934, Curly played an integral part in the team's rise to fame as the Three Stooges at Columbia Pictures, where he starred as a Stooge in 97 two-reel comedies.
But success virtually destroyed Curly. He started to drink heavily, feeling that his shaven head robbed him of his sex appeal. Larry Fine once remarked that Curly wore a hat in public to confirm an image of masculinity, since he felt like a little kid with his hair shaved off Curly was also unable to save a cent. When he received his check he'd rush out to spend it on life's pleasures: wine, women, a new house, an automobile or a new dog-Curly was mad about dogs. Since Curly was certainly no businessman, Moe usually handled all of his affairs, helped him manage his money and even made out his income tax returns.
Curly's homes were San Fernando Valley show-places and most of them were either purchased from or sold to a select group of Hollywood personalities. One house Curly purchased was on Cahuenga Boulevard and Sarah Street in North Hollywood and was purchased from child star Sabu. Later Curly sold the property to a promising young actress of the forties, Joan Leslie. Curly also bought a lot next door to Moe Howard's palatial home in Toluca Lake, expecting to build on it, but he never did. It was eventually sold to film director Raoul Walsh.
As to Curly's personality, he was basically an introvert, barely speaking on the set between takes, the complete antithesis of his insanely hilarious screen character. Charles Lamont, who directed Curly in two Stooges comedies, related in an interview that "Curly was pretty dull. This may not be a very nice thing to say but I don't think he had all of his marbles. He was always on Cloud Nine whenever you talked to him."
Clarice Seiden, the sister of Moe Howard's wife, Helen, saw Curly off screen whenever there was a party at his home. She remembers him as being far from "a quiet person." Seiden said: "Although he wasn't on (stage) all the time, I wouldn't call him a quiet person. ... he was a lot of fun. He was quiet at times but when he had a few drinks-and he drank quite a bit-he was more gregarious."
Curly's niece, Dolly Sallin, agreed with Mrs. Seiden that Curly liked people but shared Lamont's viewpoint that he could be quiet at times. "I can remember his wanting to be with people. He wasn't a recluse and I wouldn't call him dull. He wasn't an intellect nor did he go in for discussions. But when I think of someone as dull, I'd think of them as being under par intelligence-wise, and Curly wasn't that."
Friends remember that Curly refrained from any crazy antics in private life but reserved them for his performances in the comedies. However, when he got together with his brothers, Moe and Shemp, it was a totally different story. As Irma Grenner Leveton, a friend of Moe and Helen Howard, recalls: "Yes, Curly did clown around, but only if Moe, Shemp and Larry were with him. Or if his immediate group of friends or family were there. But the minute there were strangers, he retreated."
But Curly's main weakness was women; to paraphrase an old adage, "Curly couldn't live with women, or live without them." Mrs. Leveton remembers that women were his favorite pastime for a number of reasons. As she said: "He just liked a good time and that was it. And women. he loved women. I don't have to tell you... not always the nicest women. You know why, because he was so shy. Curly didn't know how to speak to a woman, so he would wind, up conversing with anyone that approached him.
Dolly Sallin viewed his love for women in a similar manner: "I can remember his wanting to be around people, and that included the current woman in his life. That was the most important thing-if she was good, bad, or whatever. If he decided she was interesting, that was that! As long as there was a woman around the house, he would stay home instead of running around. He seemed restless to me."
Director-producer Norman Maurer first met Curly in 1945 and remembers that he "was a pushover for women. If a pretty girl went up to him and gave him a spiel, Curly would marry her. Then she would take his money and run off. It was the same when a real estate agent would come up and say, `I have a house for you,' Curly would sell his current home and buy another one. It seemed as though every two weeks he would have a new girl, a new car, a new house and a new dog."
But as much as Curly loved women, they were his downfall. He married three times after his first marriage was annulled. On June 7, 1937, he married Elaine Ackerman. In 1938 Elaine gave birth to Curly's first child, a daughter, Marilyn. Due to the addition to their family, Curly and Elaine moved to a home on the 400 block of Highland Avenue in Hollywood, near where Moe lived at the time. But slowly the marriage began to crumble and Elaine filed suit for divorce on July 11, 1940, after only three years of marriage.
During the next five years, Curly ate, drank and made merry. He gained a tremendous amount of weight and his blood pressure soared. On January 23, 1945, he entered the Cottage Hospital in Santa Barbara where he was diagnosed as having extreme hypertension, a retinal hemorrhage and obesity. He remained at the hospital for tests and treatment and was discharged on February 9, 1945.
Eight months later, while making a personal appearance in New York, Curly met Marion Buxbaum, a petite blonde woman with a ten-year-old son from a previous marriage. Curly instantly fell in love with her and they were married in New York on October 17, 1945. It was felt that Marion used Curly to her advantage. He spent a fortune on her-everything from fur coats to expensive jewelry. Curly even bought her a new home on Ledge Street in Toluca Lake. As Marie Howard, Jack Howard's wife, recalled: "She was just after his money.
It didn't take long for Curly to find out that Marion wasn't for him. After a miserable three months of arguments and accusations, Marion and Curly separated on January 14, 1946, and Curly sued for divorce. The divorce was quite scandalous and notices were carried in all the local papers. Dolly Sallin recalled: "It was horrible. She tried to get everything she could from him and even accused Curly of never bathing, which was totally untrue. Curly was fat but he was always immaculate. That marriage nearly ruined him." Marion was awarded the decree on July 22, 1946, less than nine months after they were married.
Irma Leveton remembers that Moe talked Curly into the marriage with Marion since he, Moe, did not like the kind of wild life his brother was leading. Moe wanted Curly to settle down and take care of his health. As Leveton remarked: "Moe fixed them u* Marion and Curly. He wanted Curly to get married and pushed him into it. He wanted Curly to quit the life be was leading, as he was getting sick. Curly had very high blood pressure and that marriage to Marion didn't help. It was very aggravating for Curly and a very unhappy time for all concerned."
With his third marriage a disaster, the question surfaced as to why Curly's marriages had failed? Irma Leveton believed that it was a combination of Curly's immaturity and a succession of mismatched marriages. As she remarked: "He couldn't contribute anything to a marriage. Most likely his wives married him because he was a (film) personality. But he had nothing to back it up. There was no substance of any kind. He always seemed to be in a trance... kinda dopey. Once in awhile he would come out with something very funny. And I can't even imagine him saying, `I Love you, to any woman.
But Dolly Sallin brought to light another point of view. She said: "I don't think Curly ever grew up. He couldn't make it in a one-to-one relationship. He was sweet and loving but not really mature. He was very restless. He seemed to need women to soothe his restless quality, not just for sex. I would guess that he was restless and that nothing seemed to help."
It was soon after his separation from Marion that Curly's health started its rapid decline. On May 6 (not May 19), 1946, he suffered a stroke during the filming of his 97th Three Stooges comedy, HalftWits' Holiday (1947). Curly had to leave the team to recuperate from his illness. His condition began to improve and a year later, still not fully recovered from his stroke, Curly met a thrice-married widow of thirty-two who really seemed to care for him-Valerie Newman, whom he married on July 31, 1947.
Valerie was Curly's fourth wife, a very caring woman who nursed him through those last, awful years. Although his health worsened after the marriage, Valerie gave birth to a daughter, Curly's second child, Janie. As Irma Leveton recalls: "Valerie was the only decent thing that happened to Curly and the only one that really cared about him. I remember she nursed him 24 hours a day."
Finally, in 1949, Curly's health took a severe turn for the worse when he suffered his second in a series of strokes and was rushed to Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Hollywood. Doctors contemplated doing spinal surgery on him since the stroke had left him partially paralyzed. But the final decision was not to operate.
Curly was confined to a wheelchair and doctors put him on a diet of boiled rice and apples. It was hoped that this would bring down his weight and his high blood pressure. As a result of his illness Curly's weight dropped dramatically. As Norman Maurer recalls: "I'll never forget him at this point in his life. His hand would constantly fall off the arm of the wheelchair; either from weakness or the paralysis, and he couldn't get it back on without help." When Curly's condition failed to improve, Valerie admitted him into the Motion Picture Country House and Hospital in Woodland Hills on August 29, 1950. He was released after several months of treatment and medical tests on November 15, 1950. Curly would return periodically to the hospital, up until 1952.
Curly returned home confined to his bed, where Valerie nursed him. When his health worsened, in February 1951, she made a request for a male nurse to help her. In that same month, Curly was placed in a nursing home, the Colonial House, located in Los Angeles. In March, he suffered another stroke and Moe had to move him, out, due to the fact that the nursing home did not meet state fire codes.
In April of 1951 Curly was moved to North Hollywood Hospital and Sanitarium. In December; the hospital supervisor advised the family that Curly was becoming a problem to the nursing staff due to mental deterioration and that they could no longer care for him. It was suggested that he be placed in a mental hospital, but Moe would not hear of it. On January 7, 1952, Moe was called from the filming of a Stooges comedy, He Cooked His Goose (1952), to help move Curly again, this time to the Baldy View Sanitarium in San Gabriel. He died 11 days later on January 18, 1952. He was forty-eight years old.
Curly Howard is gone and one can only wonder what it would have been like if he had lived and worked with the Stooges through the 1960's. Imagine Curly starring in full- length features in color and black-and-white. Stooges cartoons could have been voiced with the original Curly "N'yuk-n'yuking" and "Wooo-woooing." Television audiences could have realized the true genius of Curly Howard on talk and variety shows. When the Stooges' popularity suddenly burgeoned in 1959, Curly could have been around to take the bows with Moe and Larry.
Hopefully, if there is a Stooges' heaven Curly will be there watching, seeing his talent, his art of comedy and his contributions as a Stooge continue to be enjoyed by millions throughout the world.