We all remember Curly Howard as the funniest member of the legendary Three Stooges. Everyone, young and old alike, remembers him as the portly bald comedian with the high voice, whose zany antics have entertained us for three quarters of a century now. Just the mere thought of hearing his “Soitenly,” or “Woo-Woo-Woo” can bring a smile to even the most sour of faces. Curly is so beloved and familiar to so many, yet most of us are surprised to realize how little we really know about the man behind the laughter.
The man who would become everyone’s favorite stooge was born Jerome Lester Horowitz on October 22, 1903. The youngest of five sons born to parents Jennie and Solomon Horowitz, Curly and his brothers grew up in the Bath Beach resort section of Brooklyn, New York. Young Jerome was a well loved and happy child. Nicknamed “Babe” by his brother Moe, he was a quiet child who gave his parents little trouble. This was probably a good thing, because the mischief caused by brothers Moe and Shemp made up for Babe’s reserved behavior in spades!
He idolized his older brothers, and made a habit of following them wherever they went. In fact, it was Moe and Shemp who gave Curly his interest in comedy. When he was four, they began staging impromptu performances to entertain their friends, and would often include him in the cast. The trio would often invite everyone in their neighborhood to see them for an admission of two cents! This gave Curly a love for the art of comedy that only grew as he got older. In addition to comedy, he also loved musicals. Moe encouraged this interest, and helped to broaden his kid brother’s theatrical education by taking him to vaudeville shows and melodrama theaters when he was growing up.
Jerry, as he was often called by family and friends, was only a fair student in school. Several friends and family members confirm that he was a superb athlete who excelled at basketball. In fact, many who were close to him have gone on record as saying that his love for athletics was probably the only thing that kept him in school long enough to graduate. He did manage to graduate, however, and afterwards kept himself busy doing odd jobs.
Jerry also had a great appreciation for music that began in his teens and stayed with him for the remainder of his life. He loved to dance, and was known to be a very good ballroom dancer. He could also play the ukulele, and often used it to accompany himself when he sang. According to Moe, he had a very beautiful singing voice, a trait which put him in high demand socially.
Throughout his childhood and well into his early twenties, Curly’s interest in show business continued to grow. In 1928, he landed his first job as a comedy musical director for the Orville Knapp Band. He was billed as the guest conductor, who would come out in a breakaway suit which fell away piece by piece as he stood there swinging the baton. Moe later recalled that his performances regularly stole the show.
After this, he continued to watch his brothers perform. He often hung around backstage, and sometimes ran errands for those in the cast, like fetching sandwiches or coffee. His big break finally came in 1932. His brothers, were performing as “stooges” in Ted Healy’s vaudeville act, and were booked to do J.J. Shubert’s Passing Show. Just before show time, however, Healy got into a huge argument with Shubert. He walked off the show, taking Moe with him.
Shemp, meanwhile, decided to remain with the Shubert show, having tired of Healy’s drunken tirades. Moe then suggested to Healy that his younger brother, Babe, was available to replace Shemp. He told Healy that Babe would be a natural since he was already familiar with the act. Healy would only agree on the condition that Curly shaved his head. Curly complied, and became a member of the team. The formation of the classic trio was completed with the addition of Larry Fine, who was asked to join after Moe and Healy saw him perform in a Chicago nightclub.
It wasn’t long before Curly’s uniquely wacky style of comedy began to assert itself; first on-stage, and then later on screen when Ted Healy and his Stooges starred in several features and shorts for MGM in the early thirties. He would also play a large role in the success of The Three Stooges without Ted Healy. Once they had signed a contract with Columbia Pictures in 1934, it was Curly’s standout comedic performances that earned a great deal of notoriety for the act. He would go on to star in 97 of The Stooges 197 short-subject comedies.
Success came quickly for The Stooges once they were at Columbia. Unfortunately, when it did, it virtually ruined Curly. He began to drink heavily, which quickly took its toll. His shaved head made him feel very self-conscious. Those who knew him say that he felt as if it robbed him of his masculinity; it made him feel child-like. Long after his passing, Larry Fine stated in an interview that Curly almost always wore a hat in public in an attempt to reclaim an image of masculinity. In addition to this, Curly’s real personality was the complete and polar opposite of his on-screen character; he was actually very introverted and shy off camera. In fact, he often felt trapped by this film persona; at times, he felt the need to live up to it, so as not to disappoint fans who would meet him in person. Although no one can state this as an absolute fact, by most accounts these are believed to be the main reasons for his excessive drinking.
Although he was very successful professionally, Curly’s personal life was filled with turmoil. His finances were always in a shambles; he was never able to save a cent. He spent lavishly, enjoying what he saw as life’s pleasures: wine, women, and fine food. He was constantly buying new houses, automobiles, or expensive gifts for the ladies in his life. He also had a great love for dogs, and would spend huge amounts on pedigreed pooches to keep as pets. His spending habits were so bad, in fact, that Moe eventually stepped in and began to handle his money for him.
Women were another downfall for Curly. He loved women, and although he was known to be a very sweet and loving man, many who knew him say that he really wasn’t mature enough to be able to contribute to a one-on-one relationship; he was restless, and he just never grew up! Simply put, he was a sucker for a pretty girl, and would fall head over heels for any girl who took an interest in him. He was a romantic who was actually more in love with the idea of being “in love” than committing to a real relationship.
It could never be proven, of course, but people who were close to Curly strongly suspected that his second and third wives had only married him because he was a film personality, and they were after his money. He married four times in all, and fathered two daughters; one with his second wife, and one with his fourth. His first marriage had taken place in his late teens. He’d married a girl whose identity remains unknown to this day. However, his mother strenuously objected to the union, and quickly had it annulled. In fact, with the exception of his fourth wife, Valerie, whom he married on July 31, 1947, every other romantic relationship that Curly had had been miserable for everyone involved.
Moe could see that his younger brother was on a destructive path. He begged Curly to settle down and take better care of his health. In fact, he was actually the one who had fixed Curly up with his third wife, in the hopes that a good marriage would change his wild ways. Unfortunately, the stress and misery of the doomed marriage only worsened his condition. He suffered a stroke in 1947, during the filming of his 97th Stooge comedy “Half-Wits Holiday,” and was forced to retire from the team in order to recuperate. Upon his departure, older brother Shemp returned to the team, where he remained until his own death in 1955.
For a very brief period, it seemed that Curly was actually on the mend, even feeling well enough to join The Stooges alongside Moe Larry and Shemp for a small cameo in the 1947 short “Hold That Lion.” Although Stooge fans may not immediately recognize him here because he had a full head of hair. Curly is the sleeping man on the train, who does his famous snore/bark when they take his hat from his face!
Sadly, however, a full recovery was not meant to be. Toward the end of 1947, his health took a turn for the worse. It was also during this time that he married forth wife Valarie, who would remain by his side, lovingly nursing him through his agonizing final years. In 1949, he suffered another series of strokes; from there, his health began to decline rapidly and steadily. Finally, his body just gave up completely, and Curly passed away on January 18,1952, at the age of 48.