Harpo Speaks!

I started reading the book I mentioned a few months ago, titled: Harpo Speaks! published in 1961.  It is an autobiography written with Rowland Barber and the silent member of the famous Marx Bros.

Of all the autobiographies I have read in my life, this has to be the most enjoyable to date.  Some people can pick up a book and engulf it like a hound on a dropped piece of meat.  I’m not an avid reader so it takes me a bit longer, and when I read, I like to sit in a comfortable chair with drink and cigar, and have some classical music playing low.

Normally, I would stop reading to savor a piece of an opera, and then continue with the book.  Not so with this one.  Sitting out on the balcony of the apartment, I started to realize that as I read this book, the music would stop and I didn’t know it until I ended a chapter.  It was one of those books that I felt sad when it ended.

There is so much to tell on this book, yet for those who never sat and watch one of the Marx Bros movies, you would not fully grasp the irony of this book.  Harpo Marx never spoke on stage, but had a plethora of accoutrements that said everything for him.  Yet place him in front of a harp, he was serious as that dog on that fallen piece of meat.

He dropped out of school half-way through the second grade, yet ended up co-writing this book.  The second grade, you ask?  Since food was not plentiful back in the early nineteen hundreds, Harpo was not a very big kid.  When the teacher left the classroom, there were two big kids who would take Harpo and throw him out the window.  On one particular occasion halfway through the second grade, Harpo, said, “Enough” and left the school never to return.

So, if you are like me, you think, how could this kid who did not complete the second grade co-write this autobiography?  But in the last pages of the book, there is an Afterward written by William Marx, Harpo’s first adopted son, who stated his father read and loved the works of Tolstoy and Dickens.  So somewhere in the “between” Harpo became an avid reader.

This book covers his early years and continues through the heart attacks he had in his 70’s.  Number 6 was a coronary, and I am guessing number seven took him.

This is truly a fascinating book.  It tells of the successes and failures of everyone in the family, and shows how successful he ended up, never forgetting his early years of hunger and cruelty.  Yet he focuses on the love and humor of the family.  At one point, he was cheated during a job he had acquired as a young kid and stated, I didn’t feel sorry for myself because I never had and didn’t know how to.  I find that a common way of thinking among the people of the generation before me.

To fully explain this book, I almost have to display this book in its entirely, but I do not have the time to type it out, nor you to read it.  But I must reprint some of the more incredible scenes.  It will take me some time to enter this as I am a hunt and peck typist, so go and get a cup of coffee or tea and sit out enjoying the weather for a bit.  Come back in 15-20 minutes.

For those who lived before me, you will find this section nostalgic:

I can’t ever remember having a bad meal. I’ve eaten in William Randolph Hearst’ baronial dining room at San Simeon, at Voisin’s and the Colony, and the finest restaurants in Paris. But the eating place I remember best, out of the days when I was chronically half starved, is a joint that was called Max’s Busy Bee. At the Busy Bee, a salmon sandwich on rye cost three cents per foot, and for four cents more you buy a strawberry shortcake smothered with whipped cream and a glass of lemonade. But the absolutely most delicious food I ever ate was prepared by the most inspired chef I ever knew – my father. My father had to be inspired, because he had so little to work with.

At one point in his later life, he commented:

   … The days of struggle are over. I should be able to say, I can look back now and tell myself I don’t have a single regret.

   But I do.

   Many years ago a very wise man named Bernard Baruch took me aside and put his arm around my shoulder. “Harpo, my boy,” he said, “I’m going to give you three pieces of advice, three things you should always remember,”

   My heart jumped and I glowed with expectation. I was going to hear the magic password to a rich, full life from the master himself. “Yes, sir?” I said. And he told me those three things.

   I regret that I’ve forgotten what they were.

I love the way he describes his father, a tailor who was horrible at tailoring.

Frenchie was a trim and handsome little man, with twinkling brown eyes and a face that was smoothly sculptured around a permanent, thin-lipped smile. He made strangers feel he was holding inside him a secret too wonderful to talk about.

You learn that the family was just as crazy as the Marx Bros movies themselves. For the many years they played on stage, the zany and unexpected humor was their success.

The brother Groucho was very intelligent with a hobby of collecting and reading books.  His wealth was spent on literature.  Chico, the oldest and orneriest in real life as well as the stage, was addicted to betting and playing games.  The other two brothers, Zeppo and Guammo, were more normal, if there is such a thing, and both men became wealthy off the stage on their own wisdom.

One of the famous images of Harpo was the strange look he would give at times to disrupt the audience.  He called it the “Gookie”, named after an old cigar roller in a tobacco shop.

GookieGookie worked at a low table, facing the Avenue through the window. He was a lumpy little man with a complexion like the leaves he used for cigar wrappers, as if he’d turned that color from overexposure to tobacco. He always wore a dirty, striped shirt without a collar, and leather cuffs and elastic armbands. Whether he was at his table in the window or running errands for the cardplayers, Gookie was forever grunting and muttering to himself. He never smiled.

Gookie was funny enough to look at when he wasn’t working, but when he got up to full speed rolling cigars he was something to see. It was a marvel how fast his stubby fingers could move. And when he got going good he was completely lost in his work, so absorbed that he had no idea what a comic face he was making. His tongue lolled out in a fat roll, his cheeks puffed out, and his eyes popped out and crossed themselves.

I used to stand there and practice imitating Gookie’s look for fifteen, twenty minutes at a time, using the window glass as a mirror. He was too hypnotized by his own work to notice me. Then one day I decided I had him down perfect–tongue, cheeks, eyes, the whole bit.

I rapped on the window. When he looked up I yelled, “Gookie! Gookie!” and made the face. It must have been pretty good because he got sore as hell and began shaking his fist and cursing at me. I threw him the face again. I stuck my thumbs in my ears and waggled my fingers, and this really got him. Gookie barreled out of the store and chased me down the Avenue. It wasn’t hard to outrun such a pudgy little guy. But I’ll give Gookie credit. He never gave up on trying to catch me whenever I did the face through the window.

One story he tells, Chico was left handed.  When he took piano lessons, the teacher made him learn to play with only his right hand in an attempt to become right handed.  If you watch the movies, Chico was such a perfect player, his fingers danced along the keyboard as if they themselves were acrobats on Broadway.  His smile lets you know how much his whole body enjoyed playing.

As Harpo grew older, he learned to play the piano from Chico.  He knew a total of two songs when he auditioned and got a job working for a woman who was probably more male than female.  Mrs. Schang.  She owned the Happy Times Tavern where men showed considerable interests in the women who seemed to hang around a lot.  As it was expected, every night, there would be fights and rowdy debauchery.  Harpo was commanded to play no matter what was happening.  At one point, Mrs. Schang threw six men out the door, then turned to Harpo hiding under the piano, grabbed him and placed him back on the stool and yelled,  I’m paying to play you son of a bitch! Play!  Harpo states, I had never played worse, but I had never played louder either.

The one iconic symbol of Harpo was his beloved harp.  Just as Chico initially taught himself the play the piano, Harpo learned his harp on his own, holding it the way a statue of an angel held it in a store window.  It was not until years later that he realized he was playing it wrong, even tuning the strings incorrectly.  Yet if he were to set it up correctly, he would not have been able to play it.  Later, his oldest son William, a pianist-composer-arranger, helped him play various pieces of music.  His harp was a passion all through his life up to the very end, and the only times Harpo was serious on stage, was when he was playing his harp.

The whole book is loaded with classic scenarios.  It was page after page of hysteria and shock.  Instead of stopping to listen to my classical music, I would stop to recover from a fit of laughter or shock.

When they had moved forward and became a comedy act on stage, this is what happened in Waukegan, Illinois: (take a break for a few minutes first as I type it out)

In the middle of my first bit in School Days, the business with the orange in my hair, I happened to look into the orchestra pit. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Instead of giving the orange to Teacher, I let out a whoop, wound up like a baseball pitcher and heaved the orange at the piano player in the pit. When Grouch and Gummo saw what was going on they started whooping too. We heaved everything we could get our hands on into the orchestra pit – hats, books, chalk, erasures, stilettos.

The piano player surrendered. He climbed up onto the stage, sat at one of the school desks and joined the act. It was Chico.

I don’t remember much about the rest of the performance that night, except that Chico ad-libed a hilarious part as an Italian boy, and the fiddle player in the orchestra was so broken up he nearly stopped the show. The fiddle player was a local kid named Benny Kubelsky. Until this day – when, as Jack Benny, he’s known a Waukegan’s First Citizen – he still can’t look at the Marx Brothers without breaking up.

This was not unusual.  Every act would be different from the previous.  Their mother, Minnie, was their agent and did all she could to keep them restrained.  When she left for the next location, the acts usually ended up like that one.

Once in Muskogee, Oklahoma, there was a escape artist act, where a “limp little Hungarian” would let his wife, a “husky Cherokee Indian”, tie him up in knots, and he would wriggle free.  At this point, I’ll let Harpo tell the rest.

Well, the theatre here is so small that in the wings at stage left there is only room for a toilet, nothing more. In the Pianissimo part of my Sextet from Lucia I heard a funny noise that didn’t come from the harp. I looked offstage. The Hungarian escape artist was sitting on the can, facing me, with the toilet door open.

I was so stunned by this sight I stopped playing. In the moment of silence, the guy flushed the can. It was a sound heard round the theatre, all the way back to the top of the balcony. The audience, not knowing but what it was a special effect on the harp, burst into applause.

I got even. On Saturday night the escape artist asked if I wouldn’t please take his wife’s place, so she could get their baby ready to make the train. I was happy to oblige him. I went on stage during his act and tied him up with my kind of knots. When they finally brought the curtain down he was still grunting and writhing on the floor. He couldn’t get free from the knot number one. They had to drag him offstage by his feet and cut him loose with a jackknife.

His brother Groucho was the master of ad-lib. No matter what was happening, he was ready for a response.  At one point, Harpo decided to throw Groucho a curve, and well, I’ll let Harpo tell it.

… I cooked up a little surprise for Groucho. During one of his quieter scenes, while I was offstage, I selected a blonde cutie from the chorus, and asked her if she’d like a bigger part in the show. She was willing and eager. I told her all she had to do was run screaming across the stage. She did, and I tore after her in full pursuit, leaping and bounding and honking my horn. It broke up Groucho’s scene, but when the laughs subsided, Groucho was ready to top it. “First time I ever saw a taxi hail a passenger.” So I chased the chorus girl back across the stage the other way, trying to catch Groucho flat-footed. I didn’t. “The nine-twenty’s right on time,” he said. “You can always set your clocks by the Lehigh Valley.”

Alexander Woollcott, a columnist for the New York Sun was instructed to write a review of the Marx Brothers and grudgingly attended a performance.  He was so enchanted by the crazy men, that he wrote a glowing review.  Of all the famous people who Harpo would share friendship and camaraderie with, Alex would become Harpo’s closest and dearest friend.  He named a child after him and would one day greatly mourn this friend’s death.

Harpo had a great many famous friends and enjoyed them, almost as they enjoyed him and tolerated him.  An example: (take another break. It’s a lot of typing.)

One time I was traveling with Beatrice and George (Kaufman) to their country home in Buck’s County, Pennsylvania. We decided to have lunch on the train. The diner was crowded, and an old lady asked if we minded her taking the fourth chair at our table. That was okay with us. It was only mildly embarrassing to George. He was apprehensive, I could tell, that I might somehow get involved with the lady and make a scene. But I said nothing to her. I didn’t even look at her.

She finished eating first. The waiter brought her check on a saucer. Still not looking up from my plate, I reached for the saucer, salted and peppered the lady’s check, and ate it. Kaufman twisted in such agony that I afraid he was going to screw himself through the bottom of the car.

That weekend at the Kaufman’s, we got into a hot session of croquet. During the game one of the servants came to the court to announce that two ladies from the Society of Friends were in the house, keeping their appointment with Mrs. Kaufman. Beatrice excused herself – she’d forgotten the date, something to do with local charities – and she’d only be gone a few minutes.

Half an hour passed. George was getting edgy. It would be his shot as soon as the game resumed, and he was in a good position to win. He couldn’t wait any longer. He went inside to rescue Beatrice from the Quakers. Twenty minutes passed. No Beatrice. No George either. Now I was getting edgy. I looked in the window. There sat both the Kaufmans, cozily sipping tea with the ladies from the Society of Friends. I went to the kitchen and dumped a bottle of ketchup down the front of my shirt and pants. I went to the doorway of the living room, where I stood, dripping ketchup.

“Excuse me Ma’am,” I said, addressing Beatrice. “I’ve killed the one cat and he’ll be ready for dinner, but I still haven’t caught the other one. Will one be enough?”

The visitors departed in haste, and our game resumed. Beatrice couldn’t stop laughing over the Quakers retreat, but George was practically reduced to ashes. He couldn’t get his ball through another wicket, and never did make it to the stake.

Here is another choice item.  Again, take a break.

In the middle of July I was up at San Simeon with Charlie Ledger. It was scorching hot. Charlie and I were lounging around one of the outside pools. Nobody else was in sight. We were bored. We didn’t know what the hell to do with ourselves.

Charlie got an idea. “What do you say we drop in on Alex at Bomoseen and scare the pants off the old fraud?” he said, and I said, “Let’s go.” I hadn’t seen Woollcott for nearly two years.

Charlie finagled a Hearst limousine and we drove to the San Francisco airport. We flew to New York. It was a fast flight for those days – only three stops coast to coast. In New York we chartered a seaplane. We flew north to Lake Champlain. We hired a driver to take us to Bomoseen. At Bomoseen we rented a skiff and rowed to Neshobe Island. On the island we sneaked up through the bushes. We heard the tonk-clunk, tonk clunk mutterings and curses of a croquet game. We recognized the voices of Alice, Neysa, Beatrice and Aleck. Charlie and I took off our clothes. We burst out of the bushes onto the court, whopping like a couple of naked savages.

Aleck was leaning against his crochet mallet, using it like a shooting stick. He glanced over at us, without so much as a flicker or recognition. He turned back to the game.

“Alice,” he said, with a steely trace of annoyance in his voice, “it’s your shot, my dear.”

Charlie and I went back to the bushes and put our clothes back on. We rowed back to the mainland dock. We were driven back to Lake Champlain, where the seaplane was waiting for us. We flew back to New York, where we caught the next plane west. With stops in Chicago, Kansas City, and Denver, we flew back to San Francisco, where the limousine was waiting for us. We drove back to San Simeon, where we stretched out beside the pool.

“Thought Aleck looked fine, didn’t you?” said Charlie.

“Never looked better,” I said.

“Never.” Said Charlie.

That subject was closed, we wondered what the hell we could do with ourselves now.

The stunt they pulled was never mention by Aleck or anyone else that saw it.

When FDR formally recognized the Soviet Union in 1933, it was decided Harpo Marx should be the first American artist to perform in Moscow after the US and USSR became friendly nations.  Harpo did not want any part of it, but higher people did.  His travel to the USSR was the one time in his adult life he was truly affected to the core of what he saw.  Not just in Moscow, but his stopover in Germany.  Here are Harpo’s words:

I had planned to take my time getting to Moscow after we reached Hamburg, sort of mosey though Germany and see the sights. I did not mosey, however. In Hamburg I saw the most frightening, most depressing sight I had ever seen – a row of stores with Stars of David and the word “Jude” painted on them, and inside, behind half-emptied counters, people in a daze, cringing like they didn’t know what hit them and didn’t know where the next blow would come from. Hitler had been in power only six months and his boycott was already in full effect. I hadn’t been so wholly conscience of being a Jew since my bar mitzvah. It was the first time since I’d had the measles that I was too sick to eat. I got across Germany as fast as I could go.

And when he entered the USSR, the sights he saw were almost as depressing.  He was being guided by a female Soviet guide – Melachrino – who scared all the local people who she encountered.

Walking down this main drag, toward the Kremlin, I realized now what was so eerie about Moscow. There was no roar of traffic. The Streets were jammed with people, but nearly empty of cars. Whenever a government limousine or truck drove by, its sound was muffled by the snow which was packed onto the road and piled high along the curbs. It was like seeing a silent movie come to life, with no titles or background music.

Another sight I couldn’t get used to was the sight of women doing all the heavy labor – women shoveling snow, chopping ice, hauling trash, driving trucks, working on construction with hods and wheelbarrows. They all looked alike, squat and round, their heads tied in scarves, their bodies bundled in layers of men’s clothes, their feet swaddled in burlap tied with strips of rags.

Everywhere, in front of small shops and big stores, there were lines of customers waiting to get in. Unlike New Yorkers, Muscovites on line didn’t jostle or gripe. They just shuffled quietly and patiently in the snow. Everybody in Moscow seemed to be concentrating on what he was doing, even when he was doing nothing.

Many people stared at us, but never with any change of expression. At first I thought it was me, so obviously a foreigner, that they were curious about. Then I realized that it was not me, but Melachrino. More specifically, they were staring at her karakul hat, unpatched overcoat and fur-lined galoshes, which marked her as a higher-up comrade.

As his years progressed, he became wealthy from the movies and stage work. He tried several new hobbies, one of which was painting. The following was taken from Wikipedia:

Harpo also took an interest in painting, and a few of his works can be seen in his autobiography. In the book, Marx tells a story about how he tried to paint a nude female model, but froze up because he simply did not know how to paint properly. The model took pity on him, however, showing him a few basic strokes with a brush, until finally Harpo (fully clothed) took the model’s place as the subject and the naked woman painted his portrait.

At one point he decided to create a bridge club. The Beverly Hills Bridge Club was an immediate success.  One day, his partner, Lee Langdon called in a frantic.  “For heaven’s sake, Harpo, get over here as fast as you can. Don’t even stop for a red light.”

When I got to the joint one of the members, a heavy-set lady of forty or so, the wife of some movie producer, was sobbing hysterically. Two other dames were trying to comfort her, without much effect, and Lee Langdon was pacing the floor, wringing his hands. Lee whisked me into his office. “This is an awful crisis,” he said….

The fat dame was playing four-handed gin rummy with Harry Ritz and two others. When they finished a game and switched partners, Harry Ritz pushed back his chair to let this dame pass in front of him. When she did, Harry was overcome by a sudden, diabolical impulse. He bit her on the behind.

She let out a shriek and flew around the joint screaming that this dreadful man must be expelled from the club.

In order to keep her from fulfilling a threat of starting her own club and taking half the membership with her, they had to do something.  So Harpo went to the poor woman and told her:

I’m sorry, but Mr. Langdon and I have gone over the by-laws very carefully, and there’s nothing there that says a member can’t bite another member on the behind.

She was on the verge of going off again when I held up my hand and smiled and said, “However! However, we’ll be glad to make it a rule from now on that anybody who does what Harry Ritz did will be suspended for six months.”

She wanted a full year.  They dickered back and forth and agreed on nine months.  Afterwards, Harpo states in the book, To my great disappointment we never had an occasion to invoke the rule before War came and the club was disbanded.

During the preface of the war and well into it, Harpo gave performances to GIs throughout the States.  They ended up being his best audiences.  Never was one a failure, as the troops were hungry for entertainment.  Throughout the book, there were many stories Harpo told of a simple generous act he did that was a key to a change in someone’s life.  Always beneficial.  Some are very subtle, almost imperceptible at first.  They creep up like a slow sun rising on the horizon, and then you suddenly realized what the gesture did.

It was not until late in the book does Harpo meet his wife, Susan.  The slow romance was seen by her before he admitted it to himself.  They had a good strong marriage and brought home four adopted children.  Three boys and a little girl, named after Harpo’s mother, Minnie.  All four of the children were completely different and all four successful.  William, the oldest has written a book about his dad that I have it ordered.  I hope he will be as good of a writer as his father.

This is truly a classic book.  I have seen their movies many times and after reading this, I will see so much I didn’t notice before.  If you are a person that enjoys the humorous aspects of life, read this.  Harpo was a success in so many ways.  Not just with the stage but in his outlook on life and all it dealt him.


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