Moe Howard, the face-slapping, eye-poking leader of the Three Stooges was born Moses Horwitz on June 19, 1897, in Bensonhurst, New York. Early in his youth he got the nickname "Moe" and adopted the middle name Harry. Moe was the fourth of five sons born to Solomon and Jennie Horwitz. Brother Samuel ("Shemp") was two years older and younger brother Jerome ("Curly") was six years Moe's junior.
While he was growing up, Jennie Horwitz loved to have young Moe's hair styled in a feminine-looking "Buster Brown" haircut, complete with girlish curls. The girly-looking mop top haircut caused poor Moe to get into an inordinate amount of fights at PS 163 in Brooklyn. After one bloody nose too many, Moe took shears and carefully clipped off his curls, one by one. This left him with a fringe of long forehead bangs, his future trademark as the bossy leader of the Three Stooges.
Early on, Moe displayed a very quick mind and had an uncanny ability for memorizing anything, an ability that would later come in handy and help make him a "quick study" with scripts. Moe got the show business bug early and at PS 163 he made his acting debut (as well as directing) The Story of Nathan Hale. He soon became a frequent truant, preferring to catch plays at the local melodrama theaters around town. Moe would sit up in the high balcony, rest his chin on a rail, and "select the actor I liked the most and follow his performance throughout the play."
After graduating from PS 163, Moe dropped out of Brooklyn's Erasmus High School after only two months to pursue a career in show biz. He started hanging around the Vitagraph Studios in Brooklyn, running errands for many of the famous actors and actresses of the era. He was to appear in many silent films for Vitagraph, earning from 50 cents to a dollar a day.
In 1909, Moe met another acting hopeful named Ted Healy and the two became close friends. In 1912, Moe and Ted joined Annette Kellerman's aquatic act as "diving girls," a job that lasted through the summer.
In 1913, Moe and older brother Shemp started singing in a quartet (Moe sang baritone; Shemp sang lead). Moe and Shemp sang every night until about 9 or 10 PM in the family room at Sullivan's Saloon, until Solomon found out and put an end to it.
In 1914, Moe found employment acting on Captain Bryant's showboat Sunflower. He developed his chops as a thespian on the Sunflower for the next two years, acting in various melodramas. By 1917, Moe and Shemp developed a blackface act and trod the boards of Vaudeville together for the next five years.
In 1922, Moe resumed his acquaintance with old friend Ted Healy. Soon Moe, Ted, and Shemp formed the earliest version of the Three Stooges act, an act which was to last, in various forms, for the next five decades. Comedian/violinist Larry Fine joined the act in 1925 and for the next seven years, the act would feature Ted Healy as "the boss" of the act, bullying, slapping, and eye-poking Moe, Larry, and Shemp.
Moe also met future wife Helen Schonberger (cousin of legendary magician Harry Houdini) in 1925. The two were married on June 7, 1925. Their daughter Joan was born in 1927, and a son, Paul, followed eight years later.
In 1932, Shemp left the act and kid brother Jerome ("Curly") joined up as the third stooge. After making a few mediocre films and shorts at MGM, the boys split from Ted Healy, with Moe assuming the role of the irascible, punishment-dispensing leader. "The Three Stooges" were now officially formed and would be together, in various forms, making shorts and feature films, for the next four decades.
Much like his onscreen character, Moe was the leader (and businessman) of the team in real life, making most of the group's decisions. Moe was also very tight and careful with his earnings, while Larry and Curly were free spenders. But unlike his dominating screen character, in real life Moe was introverted, serious, very nervous, and had a hard time relaxing.
Like many men brought up in that era, Moe had a hard time showing his love to his family. "I recall that my father rarely kissed my mother, and I rarely kissed them. Expressing our love for one another was difficult," Moe was to recall. Instead, as a way of expressing love, he would shower them with gifts. His son-in-law Norman Maurer nicknamed Moe "Wholesale Charlie" as he loved to buy his wife and kids clothes by the dozen. This conflicted with his usual parsimonious ways, but showering his family with gifts of clothing brought him great pleasure.
Moe also enjoyed traveling. He and Helen visited countless cities around the world, Moe being treated like royalty by his fans everywhere he went.
Moe worked for many charity organizations. He was a member and three-time president of the Spastic Children's Guild, starting in 1944. Just as with his own family, he derived great pleasure out of giving gifts to the children and loved to watch their faces as they opened their presents. Moe Loved playing Santa Claus for the Guild's palsied children at Christmas. He committed Curly and Larry to hundreds of benefit performances whenever and wherever asked.
"He was a very sentimental man and wrote me hundreds of love poems when we were first married," Helen recalled. "On our tenth wedding anniversary, the phone rang and a strange voice on the other end asked me if I would take Moe Horwitz for my lawful wedded husband. The voice then proceeded to perform the entire wedding ceremony, with me on one end and Moe (the mystery voice) on the other… at the end of the ceremony, in a beautiful baritone voice, he sang 'Oh Promise Me,' the song sung at our wedding."
Moe's large range of interests included gardening, hooking rugs, and ceramics. He collected coins, stamps, and even tried his hand at wine making. An excellent amateur chef, he cooked a mean lasagna and cioppino, neither of which he ate himself; he just cooked them for his beloved wife to enjoy.
For exercise, Moe liked to golf and took a brisk two-mile walk early every morning. Moe also liked to attend football games, the fights, and midget auto racing. He enjoyed listening to barbershop quartet music and his favorite song was "How Deep is the Ocean."
Moe's favorite Three Stooges shorts were You Natzy Spy (1940) and I'll Never Heil Again (1941), two shorts in which Moe parodied Adolf Hitler. He though Micro-Phonies (1945) was the best Stooge short with Curly and considered Out West (1947) the best Shemp short.
Asked about watching Three Stooges shorts, Moe said, "How strange it is that people can laugh at comedians who are dead and never give it a second thought. At the same time, it's good to think that Shemp and my kid brother Curly are still remembered."
During his last years in the 1970s, Moe made several classic appearances on the then-popular talk show The Mike Douglas Show and frequently toured the college campuses of America, lecturing, doing Q&A sessions, and screening the ever-popular Stooge shorts. He still loved to golf and attended his beloved ceramics classes twice a week.
While working on his autobiography, then titled I Stooged to Conquer (later released as Moe Howard and the Three Stooges), Moe Howard died of lung cancer on May 4, 1975, a few weeks short of his 78th birthday, and one month shy of his 50th wedding anniversary. His beloved Helen died five months later.
Moe was once asked how long the Three Stooges would go on.
"Forever is a long time, but with a little luck, we just might make it."
See also: A Sincere Homage to Larry Fine and Whatever Happened to Curly?