Category Archives: Writing

The Book Scavenger

(Starting a new series of blogs where I write about not only the books I enjoy, but how these books came into my possession.  I hope to be able to share finding selected titles, the cost (because I’m always looking for a deal) and the connection a person has to his/her books.)

Books are not just items to read.  In many ways, books are comfort food, ever-lasting friends and, even, trophies.

I hope you’ll enjoy reading about someone, well, reading books and I hope you’ll share with me your own experiences.  We can have a dialogue on Facebook as to why the printed word, bindings and covers are so important to many of us.)
The Book Scavenger

I love books.  Ever since I can remember, I’ve always enjoyed reading, and having, books.  It started with the Hardy Boys, that venerable institution of boy detective stories that began its run in the mid-18th century, I believe, with its first few stories written by Benjamin Franklin.  Ben fancied himself a detective ever since he solved the Mystery of the Missing Rum Barrel, at the First Meeting of the Continental Congress in 1774.  (Spoiler Alert:  John Adams had hidden it in the belfry so members wouldn’t be drunk by the time he was scheduled to speak near the end of the program.)

By the time I got into the series, in elementary school, I had discovered the school library, where two books stood out, Little Britches by Ralph Moody, and a biography of the great Sauk warrior, Chief Black Hawk.

Little Britches was what we now call historical autobiographical fiction.  In it, Moody told the tale of his family’s move from New Hampshire to Colorado, when he was about 10.  His father was diagnosed with tuberculosis and it was hoped the dry air would help his father’s breathing.  Mostly the book was a story about a city kid finding his way on the ranch.  It resembled Green Acres, now that I think about it.  The family from the city bought the worst farm in Colorado, the Haney farm it was called.  Crops wouldn’t grow. The ground was hard as a rock and they had no real water source.  They had no experience being ranchers, so they were destined to fail.  The difference between the Moody family and the Douglas’ was that Oliver and Lisa were incredibly wealthy and the Moody’s were poor.

But for a kid my age, roughly 9 or 10 years old, it was a great story.  Because Ralph was my age during this time of the story, I related to him.  He did everything I would have done.  He went a got a job at one of the more successful farms in the neighborhood.  He learned to farm properly, learned to ride horses and worked side by side with some real cowboys.  It turned out Ralph had a real knack for handling horses and became a real expert with them.  When his father eventually died from his illness, Ralph, just barely a teenager, became the man of the family, and a series of book were born.

I found out there were eight books in Moody’s series, and I tried to find them all.  I found most of them at the library, but a couple have eluded me all these years.  I still hunt for them at used bookstores.  I believe I own four of the books in my library, and have read seven of the series.

The biography of Chief Black Hawk, founder of the hockey team in Chicago, was an interesting book to me.  As a kid, I had no political leanings, other than thinking that Jackie Kennedy sure did look different than Mamie Eisenhower, but as I read the book and read about the injustices done to the American Indian, I knew that wasn’t right.

Black Hawk was the leader of the Sauk tribe in Illinois and Wisconsin.  He fought against the American movement west of the Mississippi, until, of course, the white man figured out that bombing everything in sight might win them the battles.  Black Hawk didn’t go down without a fight, though.  He fought with the British during the War of 1812 (the enemy of my enemy is my friend) and in 1832, he played a major role in a war so big they named it after him – The Black Hawk War.

I’ve never been able to find this book, however.  I have no clue as to the author, but if you run across a young adult biography of one of the greatest Native American chiefs in history, let me know.

The Rest of the South Wall of the library at the Hatfield Ranch.

So, back to the Hardy Boys.

The books began their publishing life in 1927 and were written by F.W. Dixon, a pseudonym for Leslie McFarlane and others, although the Hardys were created by Edward Stratemeyer, who had also created Nancy Drew and Tom Swift.  All told, there are 58 original books with 38 revisions of the originals.

The books I got were revised versions with blue covers and, as I found out later, had been updated to reflect the 60’s.  No, Frank and Joe didn’t burn their draft cards or smoke pot or listen to the Grateful Dead (although it wouldn’t have hurt Frank who was always uptight).  They were clean cut kids, the sons of a famous private eye, and who always did their homework and were in bed by 9:00.

Now this is where the collecting part comes in.  On the back covers of these Hardy Boys books, the complete list of titles was shown.  I think at the time I was reading the books there were maybe 20 of the revised editions available, so I had reference to what I wanted.  As a kid, I read as many as I could get my hands upon, which was a lot, because the books were priced kid-friendly and they were readily available.  I also had the chance to read some of the older books because a friend of mine across the street had them.  He was an older teen and had outgrown them and gave them to me.  I still have them.

My mother didn’t seem to mind me wanting those Hardy Boys books, so I milked it and got practically every book on the list, with one exception.  I never could find The Hardy Boys Detective Handbook, which purportedly, revealed how you could become a detective just like Frank and Joe.  When I was in the 6th grade, I became friends with the brother of the cutest girl in my class who had a copy of the book and he had actually gotten hold of some Plaster of Paris and had made a plaster cast of a footprint!  If that wasn’t detective-ing, I didn’t know what was!  We hung out a couple of times trying to decide what kind of detective work we wanted to do and it kind of fizzled out when he wouldn’t sell me the book.  I still don’t have that book.

But I had a Hardy Boys collection that rivaled anyone I knew.  I think I stopped reading the Hardy Boys when I discovered James Bond in the early 1960’s.  In 1962, the first James Bond movie, Dr. No was released and the paperback racks were flooded with reprints of the Fleming novels.

I somehow got my hands on Peyton Place by Grace Metalious.  It was a giant best-seller in the late 1950’s and copies were readily available, especially after the television program launched in the early 60’s.  It was certainly a different style of book for me and though I could tell the writing was a bit clunky, it was steamy enough to be interesting.  I didn’t read another book of that type until Valley of the Dolls came along.

Bookstores were an anomaly to me at the time.  Other than the library, I really didn’t visit any bookstore.  The library was where you went to get hardbacks because every corner drug store or newsstand had a rack of mass market paperbacks that adults bought.  Most of the paperbacks were 25 cents, with some costing 50 cents.

I remember the biggest department store in Cincinnati, Shillito’s, having a large book selection.  Later, I went to Kidd’s Bookstore downtown, with four floors of books, and then discovered this place called Ohio Bookstore and nearly next to it Acres of Books.

Ohio Bookstore is still in existence and it can be both a treasure trove of used books, and a frustrating collection of books, depending on what you’re looking for.  The guys there are great and can generally tell you where a particular book might be.  They have a nice collection of paperbacks and several tables of mass markets.  Prices are reasonable too.

My favorite used bookstore, back in the old days, was Bertrand Smith’s Acres of Books on Main Street in downtown Cincinnati.  There were at least three floors of books.  It was the kind of place I’ve always loved:  Dimly lit, the musty smell of used books fragrant in the air and the chance that dust would cloud the space above your head when you touched a book that had sat there for months, even years.

I bought my first copy of Moss Hart’s Act One there.  It was one of the books that changed my life.  The store had at least six copies on the shelf and I had my pick of the best.  The prices were very good, too.  It was a feat of endurance to browse the entire store on a semi-regular basis.

(I later found out there was an Acres of Books in Long Beach.  I was in Long Beach in 2010 and passed an old building with “Acres of Books” on the front.  I found out that Smith had opened this store decades ago, until the space of taken for area redevelopment, the same as his location in Cincinnati.)

So where do you go for used books these days?  A few places in Cincinnati are great for browsing.  Dutenhofer’s in CliftonHeights is a good place to start, and although I don’t like their premium pricing, I still go there.  The aforementioned Ohio Book Store is a must visit.  There used to be a place in the Mohawk area on McMicken Avenue call The Bookstore and owned by a University of Cincinnati professor.  The hours were so random and the store had no real days and times that it became frustrating to visit on the chance that they were open.  I haven’t been there in a couple of years, so if it’s open, let me know.

Bonnett’s in Dayton, Ohio is great for book and pop culture lovers, although the store is in closed quarters, so if you’re claustrophobic, you may want to avoid it.  But it has that used book smell that is as appealing as a bakery on a spring day.

Half Price Books has several stores in the area and I like to go to every single one because the mix is different at each one.  They used to be better when they first opened because their inventory consisted largely of the books they bought from customers.  Now, they have a ton of remainders and promotional books and, when I visited one store this past weekend, J.K. Rowling’s new book for sale in a promo shipper for 20% off regular price.  (The irony is, when the book becomes a cut-out due to over printing and sells for pennies on the dollar, Half Price Books will already have the inventory in stock.)  But, I can always find books to buy there, especially in their clearance section (which used to be a dollar, but are now two dollars.)  Look for coupons and special days of sales, which make it worthwhile.

But I mostly love the thrift stores.  St. Vincent DePaul stores are better than Goodwill, which are better than Valley Thrift.  Some of the St. Vincent DePaul stores have hundreds of used books, priced at 50 cents for paperbacks and $1.00 for hardbacks.  They also have specials frequently and the selection is good.

I do shop at Betterworldbooks.com and thriftbooks.com and I check out Amazon and Abebooks (owned by Amazon now).

I’m not opposed to reading books digitally.  I have several books on my Kindle Fire and a couple on my laptop.  If I find an interesting e-book, I will read it and then look for a hard copy.

Good luck with your book hunting because that’s the thrill of scouring used book stores.  Discovery plays a big part in going to used book stores.  The chance to find a book and be able to say, “I didn’t know there was a book on that!”  Finding the one book that has eluded you all your life and suddenly seeing it on the shelf is a feeling that cannot be conveyed.  But if I get there first, I’m going to buy it before you.

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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.