Born in Brooklyn, New York, to Austrian Jewish parents, Marx graduated from high school at age 15 and started his career working for Ferdinand Strauss, a manufacturer of mechanical toys. By 1916, Marx was managing Strauss’ plant in East Rutherford, New Jersey, but was eventually voted out by Strauss’ board of directors over a disagreement about sales practices.
Marx then entered the United States Army as a private and attained the rank of sergeant before returning to civilian life in 1918. Marx’s passion for the Army was reflected throughout his life. Most of Marx’s military toys represented Army equipment, and Marx would later make a practice of befriending generals and naming his sons after them.
Following military service, Marx then went to work selling for Newton and Thompson, a Vermont-based manufacturer of wood toys, where he redesigned their product line and increased the company’s sales tenfold. In 1919, Marx and his brother David incorporated, founding the company that bore his name. Initially working as a middle man, Marx was soon able to purchase tooling to manufacture toys himself. When Strauss fell on hard financial times, Marx was able to buy the dies for two Strauss toys and turn them into best-sellers. By age 26, three years after founding his company, Marx was a millionaire. He was declared “Toy King of the World” in October 1937 in a London newspaper. By 1938, Marx employed 500 workers in the Dudley factory and 4000 in the American factories.
By utilizing techniques of mass production and revitalizing old designs as much as possible – Marx utilized some of his toy train tooling developed in the early 1930s until 1972 – Marx was able to sell a broad line of inexpensive toys. All US-made toy trains would come from a plant in Girard, Pennsylvania, which produced millions of lithographed tin and plastic toy trains.
By 1951, the Marx company had 12 factories worldwide. For much of the 1950s, it was the largest toy manufacturer in the world, with much of the success coming from Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog sales and the many themed playsets available. As World War II drew to a close, Marx had toured Europe and acted as a consultant on how toy manufacturing could aid reconstruction efforts. Marx used the contacts he made in this manner to forge partnerships and open factories in Europe and Japan. Marx was featured on the cover of Time magazine on December 12, 1955, with his portrait eclipsing an image of Santa Claus, while examples of his toys swirl in the background.
Marx married his first wife Irene Saltzman, nicknamed René, on December 31, 1927 in Manhattan, New York. Rene died in April 1944 of breast cancer at age 37. Marx became very depressed at this time and suggested he might quit the business to take care of his four children. On March 30, 1947, Marx married Idella Ruth Blackadder, Louis’ chief jewelry designer for his Charmore line and nearly 28 years his junior.
Marx’s son, Louis Marx Junior, is a venture capitalist and philanthropist who has contributed to the arts, education and medicine. One such example is the Louis Marx Center for Children and Families of New York.
The industrialist retired in 1972, selling his company to Quaker Oats for $54 million. Marx was 76 years old and had thought about retiring for a number of years.
In the later years, Marx had less hands-on involvement in the manufacturing process. Marx ruled his toy empire from the 200 5th Avenue, New York office, with open 24-hour telephone communication. His last plant visit had been in 1950.
Louis Marx died at the hospital in White Plains, New York, at age 85. He is interred in a private mausoleum in Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx, New York City.