What Harpo Marx Means To Me

What Harpo Marx Means To Me

How One Man from the World’s Greatest Comedy Team Shaped the Life of a Boy He Never Met

From the Introduction to Harpo Speaks by Harpo Marx

“I’ve been lucky enough, in my time, to do a number of things that most people get around to doing.  I’ve played piano in a whorehouse.  I’ve smuggled secret papers out of Russia.  I’ve spent an evening on the divan with Peggy Hopkins Joyce.  I’ve played croquet with Herbert Bayard Swope while he kept Governor Al Smith waiting on the phone.  I’ve gambled with Nick the Greek, sat on the floor with Greta Garbo, played ping-pong with George Gershwin.  George Bernard Shaw has asked me for advice.  Oscar Levant has played private concerts for me at a buck a throw.  I’ve been a member of two of the most famous Round Tables since the days of King Arthur – sitting with the finest creative minds of the 1920s at the Algonquin in New York, and with Hollywood’s sharpest professional wits at the Hillcrest.”

(At the time I first read this, I had no idea who anyone was, except King Arthur.)

Who Is Harpo Marx?

When I look deep inside myself and reconnect with the boy I was growing up, there is one man who influenced me greatly and shaped not only my personality, but the direction my life would take as an adult.  This man was responsible for me becoming a writer, a comedian and showed me that I could love theater, film and literature.  What’s even more amazing is that this man barely made it though second grade.  He learned through the school of hard knocks and was befriended by great writers, great wits and other great artists of the 20th Century.

 

It’s not too much of a stretch to say that

Everything I Learned, I Learned From Harpo Marx.

How It Happened

As a child growing up in the 1950’s, I was, from the moment I saw him, infatuated with Groucho Marx.  His television quiz show, You Bet Your Life, became my favorite show and I watched it whenever I could.  Groucho was obviously very funny, even if I didn’t quite understand all the jokes, but I loved his mannerisms, his conversations with the contestants and his banter with the announcer, George Fennemann.  The game component almost seemed inconsequential to the show, but that was alright with me, as long as Groucho held front and center, which, of course, he did.

During one particular summer, my parents, my brothers and I were on vacation, probably in the Great Smokey Mountains, and in the motel, I turned on the television.  Television in the late 1950’s was suspect anyway, and reception in the depths of Tennessee was not the greatest.  But there, on the screen, I could see it.  A much younger version of Groucho was on TV in a movie.  His moustache was different and he was wrestling with a couple of men who also looked and acted, and were, funny.

That movie was Monkey Business.  The other men were Harpo and Chico Marx.  I was only able to watch maybe the last forty-five minutes of the movie (and it would take me over fifteen years to finally be able to see it in its entirety), but it left an impression on me that has lasted a lifetime.

I was captivated instantly with Harpo.  He was silent, of course, but he was full of mischief and brought an energy which mesmerized me when he was on the screen.  I remember him running around destroying anything in his path and chasing girls, often stopping what he was doing before to chase a pretty girl in his sight.  I couldn’t wait to see him again.

Only One Problem with That

Before video tapes and DVDs, there was no outlet for watching old films on demand.  No YouTube or Netflix.  We were at the mercy of movie theaters running revivals, or the late show on television showing films from that period.  I was in a predicament, for sure.  My salvation was due in part to the fact that I was voracious reader and knew where to go for information in the Print Age.

(As a sidebar, I actually won my sixth grade reading contest for most books read in a month.  I read for fun at every turn and it was easy to wipe out the sixth grade competition (I’m talking to you, Joanna Peebles) with practically quadruple the books of my nearest rival.)

My parents didn’t read, but my mother encouraged my reading and bought me books on a regular basis.  She would drive me to go to the small main public library in Covington, Kentucky.  There, becoming a self-taught expert of the library’s tools, I would research the Marxes, reading selected excerpts from the big volumes of Encyclopedia Britannica and, the much easier to use and read and carry, World Book Encyclopedia, as well as the yearbooks of Current Biography.  I learned how to use microfilm and looked through old newspapers.  There were bound collections of Time and Newsweek magazines throughout the years and I hunted for old articles about the brothers.

(I did happen to catch Harpo on television on a rerun of I Love Lucy.    Lucy tries to impress Carolyn Appleby, who conveniently lost her glasses, by dressing up as Hollywood celebrities and “visiting” Lucy and Ethyl.  One of the celebrities Lucy impersonates is Harpo Marx.  The real Harpo drops by as a favor to Ricky and Lucy and Harpo collide.  It’s very funny as they do the “mirror scene” from Duck Soup.  Ironically, Lucy was in the Marx Brothers movie, Room Service, made for RKO studios in 1938.  She was a “B” actress then.  Once she and Desi had become successful with the I Love Lucy show, they bought RKO Studios and turned it into the Desilu Studios.)

What Is This Thing Called Vaudeville?

The first thing that made an impression with me was this thing called Vaudeville, which was live variety entertainment from the late 1880’s to the early 1930’s, and really hitting its peak around 1914-15.  Vaudeville was a hodge-podge of every kind of show business act:  comedians, singers, jugglers, dancers, acrobats, animal acts – and sometimes an act contained all of these elements.  Celebrities from all walks of life did vaudeville.  It was the primary form of entertainment for America.

These performers, many of whom were immigrants, or the children of immigrants, endured all kinds of grueling travel, living and eating conditions.  They traveled (cheaply) all over the country on “vaudeville circuits” where every major and secondary city (and if a performer was really unlucky, tertiary ones) had theaters.  The shows, with multiple acts on the bill, would play three, four, even five times a day.  Some circuits were living hells, while others were luxurious.  It was every performer’s dream to work their way up to the top and play The Palace, the most famous vaudeville theater in New York.

In these articles, I discovered W.C. Fields, Fanny Brice, Will Rogers, Florenz Ziegfeld, and many other performers of the day, including the Marx Brothers.  The library actually had a book called Show Biz:  From Vaude to Video (the first time I had ever heard the word video), by Abel Green, the editor of Variety, and Joe Laurie, an old vaudevillian and popular radio comedian.

Discovering Groucho

The first books I read about the Marxes were two books written by Arthur Marx, son of Groucho:  Life with Groucho and Not as a Crocodile.  I checked them both out.

Life with Groucho was an affectionate, yet light biography of Groucho, written with a son’s perspective, of course, and how Groucho mainly interacted with his family.  But it was eye-opening for a young boy from Kentucky, whose main contact with show business was television and the occasional movie.

The book did discuss the Marx Brothers on Broadway, which opened that part of their career up to me, and first introduced me to the brilliant playwright George S. Kaufman.

There were only small mentions of the movies (Groucho hated making movies, except the two the brothers made with Irving Thalberg at MGM) and barely any mention of Harpo and Chico, which, I guess, was appropriate since it was about Arthur growing up in Groucho’s house as a kid.  Arthur did say that his uncles were just about the coolest uncles in the whole world, which was what I was thinking, too.

Not as a Crocodile was kind of a disappointment to this ten year old.  It was primarily about Arthur’s adult life and not being in Groucho’s shadow.  As a writer, Arthur had a big theatrical hit with The Impossible Years, which became a successful movie with David Niven.

Xapno Mapcase:  U.S. Spy

Ironically, it was my own father who led me to another chapter in my quest for Marx Brothers information.  I discovered in his pile of old magazines the June 1961 issue of Argosy magazine.  Right on the cover was the proclamation that this issue featured Harpo Marx with the “Year’s Funniest Spy Story”!  I couldn’t wait to devour this story and read and re-read it over and over.

In 1934, Harpo Marx visited the Soviet Union as part of an artistic cultural program when the United States finally recognized the Soviet regime just as Hitler was taking power in Germany.  Harpo saw his name on the playbill and in Russian it looked like “Xapno Mapcase.  His performances “killed” in Russia and he was given a twenty-minute standing ovation following one memorable show.

When he was about to leave, some men from the U.S. State Department came into his room and asked him to perform a service to his country.  They taped some documents to his ankle to be retrieved upon his return to America.  Needless to say, Harpo worried throughout his return passage, keeping his taped leg out of the bathtub as he showered and generally favoring it.  He was relieved upon arrival when the agents came and got the documents.

I remember putting down the magazine dumbstruck.  While Groucho was content with raising a family in Beverly Hills and reading quietly by the fire, Harpo was traveling the world, engaging in espionage and smuggling documents out of Soviet Russia!  The dichotomy of the two brothers couldn’t have been more apparent.  The article said it was an excerpt from Harpo’s new autobiography called Harpo Speaks, which was already out.  I had to have it.

Getting It

I went back to my public library and talked to the librarian.  I told her exactly what I wanted and she made notes, nodding her head in agreement with me.  Yes, I can see you’re keen to read it, she said.  I’ll certainly do everything I can do to get it in for you.  No, I don’t know how long it will take.  Fill in this card and we’ll mail you a notice when it arrives.

So that was that.  It was early 1964.  I was eleven years old and had to go back doing the things a normal eleven year old boy does.  I read other books.  I learned about Chief Black Hawk, great Sauk tribe warrior (dibs on turning his life into a movie).  I fell in love with the Little Britches series of books written by Ralph Moody about a boy growing up during the depression and, what seemed to be cool to this city boy, his wonderful adventures in bleak dust bowl Kansas trying to stay alive with his family.  (Dibs on this, too.)

Harpo Speaks

Then, many weeks later, the postcard arrived telling me that my reserved copy of Harpo Speaks was waiting for me at the library.  I pleaded with my mother to drive me downtown to get it that very day.  As luck would have it, the library was open late that night and after dinner we went to the library.  I was nervous walking in.  What if I didn’t like the book?  What if it wasn’t what I expected?

When I got to the counter, I announced my name and the librarian went to a bookshelf behind her and got the book.  When I first saw it, I couldn’t believe my eyes.  The book was massive, well over 450 pages.  It was thick, twice as thick as Groucho’s autobiography, Groucho and Me.

I got the book and ran back to the car.  I opened it and began reading.  Even in the introduction, I knew I was in for quite a ride.  Harpo teased at all the things he did and the stories he was going to tell.  As I mentioned before, I had no idea who any of those people were.  Needless to say, I couldn’t wait to read it and when I was done, and through the years afterward, I knew who everybody was.

What I Learned

I firmly believe that much of my own self-taught education of the late 19th century and the early 20th century came straight from the pages of Harpo’s book.  I learned about the poverty that immigrants faced coming to New York from Europe in the late 19th Century and how they survived.  How the neighborhoods were segregated and rarely did they mix.

Harpo’s descriptions of growing up and getting thrown out of school in the second grade (literally by a bully) seemed so foreign to me, a kid from the suburbs.  But his descriptions of his family life, growing up with his brothers and their mother, Minnie, and their father, Frenchie, were absolutely wonderful.  Their affection for one another, and their mother’s drive for them to succeed in show business, almost made them forget the fights over the last bread roll at dinner, or how much money they owed the landlord.

The Marx Brothers had a long road to travel before they became The Marx Brothers.  First, they were the Three Nightingales, then the Four Nightingales, then the Six Mascots, before coming up with the moniker, The Four Marx Brothers.  From 1907 until their Broadway debut in 1923, the Marxes played vaudeville, honing their act and characters.

When they did arrive on Broadway, in an almost slapped together musical called I’ll Say She Is!, good luck arrived in the form of Alexander Woollcott, the most powerful drama critic in New York at the time.

Woollcott was supposed to attend another play’s opening, but a last minute cancelation of the show changed his plans and he dragged himself to see what he thought was some “acrobats”.  Woollcott thoroughly enjoyed himself and wrote a rave review for the next day’s paper.  He was particularly taken with Harpo, calling him a “great clown” and praising him throughout the review.

Woollcott visited Harpo backstage the next night and invited him to a poker game with the playwright George S. Kaufman, popular newspaper columnist Franklin P. Adams, soon-to-found The New Yorker Harold Ross, and New York World editor Herbert Bayard Swope.  Harpo was also invited to lunch with them at the Algonquin Hotel where he met such writers as Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, Edna Ferber, Robert E. Sherwood, Alice Duer Miller and artist Neysa McMein.  The quips at lunch were fast, furious and intelligent.

And, just like that, I was hooked forever.  I longed to have friends like that, where conversation ruled, where everyone tried to top each other with one-liners.

Woollcott

I became enamored early with Alexander Woollcott.  He wasn’t the founder of the Algonquin Round Table, but he was its center.  Everyone, it appeared, seemed to gravitate to him and what interested him, interested them.  No one was safe from his quick-witted barbs and there was probably always someone who wasn’t talking to Woollcott because of some remark.

During the 1920’s, Woollcott was the most important drama critic in New York, where legitimate theater was the most important part of show business, and also a conduit of social activity.  He had many friends, from the leading actors of the day and businessmen to politicians and the Kings and Queens of Europe.

He played croquet for high stakes and even higher bragging rights, and other games, often devised by Neysa McMein.  He entertained everyone who was anyone, from George Bernard Shaw to Eleanor Roosevelt.  In the 1930’s, he became one of the most popular figures in radio, where he captivated a nation with his show, The Town Crier, often telling gruesome stories about murderers, such as Lizzie Borden, or sharing his enthusiasm about some book, like Goodbye, Mr. Chips or The Bridge of San Luis Rey.  He was the Oprah of his day.  When he told people to go out and buy a book or a product, or see a play, they did in droves.

When people think of Alexander Woollcott today, it’s usually in the context as the basis for the main character of Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman’s play The Man Who Came to Dinner, which also features a character named Banjo, based on Harpo.

In 1935, New York’s most influential drama critic and radio personality, Alexander Woollcott, published The Woollcott Reader:  Bypaths in the Realms of Gold, an anthology of short fiction whose authors he liked and on whom he commented following the story.

When the book was published, Woollcott brought the book to a gathering of some of his famous friends and asked, “Oh, what can be more rare than a Woollcott First Edition?”  Columnist Franklin P. Adams responded, “A Woollcott Second Edition.”

The publisher, Viking Press, printed a limited slipcase edition of 1500 copies, which Woollcott signed and numbered.  Presenting copy number 302 to Susan Fleming Marx, wife of Harpo Marx, he wrote, “(This edition of The Woollcott Reader) is hereby presented by him at Xmas to his 302nd most intimate friend, Susan Fleming.”

I have copy number 728.

Kaufman

George S. Kaufman was someone who quickly became one of my favorites.  He had the kind of humor I wanted.  At a dinner, or lunch, or poker conversation, he was always quiet until the right moment and said his line right at the most opportune time.  The fact that he was a famous playwright, arguably the most famous playwright of the twenties and thirties and even into the forties, made him instantly one of my idols.

I read every Kaufman play I could find, from early plays written with Marc Connelly, such as Dulcy, and plays written with the popular novelist of the time, Edna Ferber (Giant, Show Boat), such as Stage Door, Dinner at Eight and The Royal Family, to plays written with his most frequent collaborator Moss Hart, such as You Can’t Take It With You and Once in A Lifetime.

Kaufman was instrumental in further developing the Marx Brothers’ characters when he agreed to write, along with Morrie Ryskind, their second Broadway show, The Cocoanuts in 1925.  While I’ll Say She! Is was more or less a revue with sketches and musical numbers, The Cocoanuts was structured in to a typical musical play that let the Marx Brothers veer off course with their brand of insane humor and let them come back to the story when they were ready.

Kaufman was always protective about the script and hated when the Marxes ad-libbed from the script.  During one performance of The Cocoanuts, he was in the back of the house, pacing, when he suddenly became startled and stared right at the stage.  “What’s wrong, George?” said his companion.  “I may be wrong,” Kaufman said, “but I think I just heard one of the original lines.”

The Cocoanuts was a huge hit and became their first motion picture in 1929.  Kaufman and Ryskind also wrote the Marx Brothers’ third and last Broadway show, Animal Crackers, which became their second motion picture in 1930.  Kaufman and Ryskind also wrote the Pulitzer Prize winning musical, Of Thee I Sing, with music and lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin in 1931.  Kaufman later won the Pulitzer Prize with Moss Hart in 1936 for You Can’t Take It With You.

Mr. Benchley, Mrs. Parker and Robert E. Sherwood

Dorothy Parker had a bleak view of life.  Her short verse was either about love lost, suicide or some other pessimistic view of the world.  She was the darling of the Round Table.  Never wildly successful as Kaufman or Ferber, or really, any of her peers, she nonetheless worked steadily throughout the years, gaining more recognition with each passing year.  The Dorothy Parker Reader, a collection of her best-known poems and short stories, has never been out of print in over seventy years.  Ironically, despite at least two suicide attempts, she was one of the longest living members of the Round Table.  Her closest friend during this time was Robert Benchley.

Mr. Benchley, Mrs. Parker and Robert E. Sherwood (who would go on to win four Pulitzer Prizes, an Academy Award, and become a speechwriter for FDR) all worked together at Vanity Fair magazine in the early twenties.  When Mrs. Parker quit the magazine over an equal pay issue, Mr. Benchley and Mr. Sherwood quit too, in support of her.  Benchley would go on to write for several magazines until a sketch he wrote for a Round Table revue called The Treasurer’s Report would hit big.  Irving Berlin hired him to do the sketch on Broadway each night, which led to Benchley being hired by Fox to make short films, which he did until the end of his life, winning an Academy Award in the process.  He once complained, “It took me fifteen years to discover that I had no talent for writing, but I couldn’t give it up because by that time I was too famous.”

Mank and Orson Welles

Perhaps one of the biggest debts I owe to Harpo is discovering Herman Mankiewicz, a brilliant writer from New York, who went to Hollywood in the early days.  Mank produced the Marx Brothers films, Monkey Business and Horsefeathers — (He telegraphed writer Ben Hecht one time to come out to Hollywood and write for the studios by saying, “Millions are to be made out here and your only competition is idiots.  Don’t let this get around.”)  — and wrote, co-wrote, or doctored many of the classic comedy films on the late 1920’s and 30’s.

Mank was an alcoholic and by the late 1930’s had some trouble finding work.  Orson Welles was an admirer of Mank’s and together they began work on Citizen Kane.  Mank was a frequent visitor to William Randolph Hearst’s San Simeon and remembered many stories about Hearst when it came time to write the screenplay.

Undoubtedly, Mankiewicz’s contribution to Citizen Kane is immense, but it was truly Orson Welles’ film from top to bottom.  I was in my late teens when I finally saw Kane at a party where a 16mm print was shown, but it led me to a great love and admiration of Orson Welles’ work that I have to this day.

What Else, Funny Boy?

So in my timeline, I’m putting everything in the 1968-69 basket.  It seems to me that these events took place then, but I could be off by one or two, or even three years, either way.

I do know that I remember reading about Harpo’s death in 1964 in an edition of Current Biography, but that could have been as late as 1968.  Chico had died in 1961.  Groucho and Gummo both died in 1977.  Zeppo died in 1979.

Since the 1960’s there has been a tremendous awareness of the Marx Brothers.  Video tapes (first) and DVDs, as well as Turner Classic Movies, has allowed all the Marx Brothers films to be seen in all their glory.  The first Marx Brothers film I bought was Duck Soup on an old format called DiscoVision.  It was a huge disc, about the size of a record album with a plastic cover sleeve over it and you put the whole thing in the machine, where it would remove the disc and you pulled out the cover.  It was very cumbersome.

When I was younger, I treasured two 8mm Marx Brothers films I ordered from a catalog.  Each film was about 10 minutes in length.  The first contained a scene from Horse Feathers.  The second was from a television special they did called The Incredible Jewel Robbery from 1959.  Both were silent.

One book that brought me closer to the movies was The Marx Brothers at the Movies by Paul Zimmerman and Burt Goldblatt.  The book was an overview of the Marxes total movie output, with photos, summaries, how the movie did upon release and other facts about the films.  It showed me what I was missing and I recall checking off the films I finally got to see, in the book, on the inevitable countdown to seeing them all (that would take me a while).

I was in high school when the book came out in 1968 and I worked at the library during study hall and lunch.  The librarian was Miss Webster and she was almost the stereotypical vision of the librarian in everyone’s head.  She was an older woman, a spinster, with glasses hanging from her neck, support hose and drab clothing.  She always shushed everyone with her finger to her mouth and saying, “Shhhhhhh!  This is the library!”  But she loved me.

I was the best student library worker she ever had.  She was the librarian at our junior high school when I was there and I worked for her then.  So when she was promoted to high school librarian, and I was in high school, I went to work for her there.  I was a student leader on her team when she decided to totally re-organize the library’s shelving arrangement.

I told her about The Marx Brothers at the Movies book I wanted and she looked it up on some microfiche database and found it for me.  I asked her if she would order it for me and she said yes.  I think it was about $8.00 then, but I had a job and gave her the money.

When the book arrived, she opened the box and gave it to me.  But she had wrapped the dust jacket in a Brodart sleeve and presented it.  I found that touching and thanked her for ordering it.  I still have that book today.

And in the End

As I look at everything that has shaped my life, and knowing what still keeps my interest to this day, it all springs from that love of a very specific time and culture of the United States.  The 1920’s through the 1940’s were the Golden Age of writing, including plays, newspaper columns, novels, and screenplays.  The time of Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald.  When newspapers and magazines were the carriers of information and public opinion.

Where the writers of the day were important and people paid attention.  I can’t go back to that time, but through the works that have been preserved in books, films, or any other medium, and yes, including digitally, I can still participate.  I can still feel their passion reading their written words and, through them, understand the time that fascinates me so.

While I may now profess to consider George S. Kaufman, Orson Welles, Ernie Kovacs, Robert Benchley and James Thurber as my personal gods (along with Lenny Bruce, John Lennon, Pete Townshend and Bob Dylan), I will never forget the comedian who played a mute, joyful, mischievous free spirit on the screen and found me just at the right time.

I will always be grateful to him and I will never forget what Harpo Marx means to me.

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5 responses

  1. That was a great story and I agree with you, the twenties were the Golden Age of writing.

    You may be interested to know that Oscar Levant’s 1940 book “A Smattering of Ignorance” contains a lengthy and fascinating portrait of his close friend – Harpo Marx. Levant is brilliant and his Harpo stories are very funny.

    1. Thanks for the comment and I’m glad you liked the story. I love Oscar Levant and have read that book, as well as his other one, Memoirs of an Amnesiac. I think that one was written after Oscar had achieved some notoriety from the Jack Paar show. I have clips, and they’re probably on YouTube, of him on the show and they are hilarious. –GH

  2. Hey Greg,
    While I’ve also been a huge fan of the brothers, I only just read “Harpo Speaks” a few weeks ago. I’m sure you already have a copy of “The Marx Bros. Scrapbook” by Groucho and Richard J. Anobile, but if by some chance you haven’t seen it, I think it would make a great addition to your library.

    1. Thanks for the comment. Yes, I have that book, which was discredited by Groucho and his family after publication. Anobile was supposed to edit it and clean it up, but didn’t. Which meant we got a look at some of the stuff that went on and never mentioned. Susan Marx’s, Zeppo’s and Gummo’s comments were very candid. Zeppo’s interview with the Freedonia Gazette is also revealing. If you haven’t read Simon Lovish’s Monkey Business yet, I encourage you to read it. It’s the best informative bio on the brothers published.

  3. My story is similar, but I had things easier because I came of age in the 70s. Groucho was on his comeback, the movies were revived regularly (“Animal Crackers” was treated like a new release), YBYL was syndicated, Groucho and many of the original players came out with new books, old books were being reprinted, and first editions could be picked up relatively cheaply in most cases (except for ‘Harpo Speaks’).

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