The first time I saw Harpo Marx, I was a young child watching a rerun of I Love Lucy. I remember being spellbound by the famous “mirror scene”, a routine I later learned had been done years before in a 1933 film called Duck Soup. From that television appearance alone, I knew Harpo as an energetic, girl-crazy comedian as adept in pantomime as he was in playing the harp. In the years since, I’ve seen him in various Marx Brothers films, honking his signature horn and exploiting his right to remain silent. But after reading his autobiography (first published in 1961), appropriately titled Harpo Speaks, I realized that I, like many Marx fans, had an incomplete perception of the good-natured humorist.
Harpo was born Adolph Marx on November 23, 1888 in New York City. The second son of Sam “Frenchie” Marx (a tailor by trade who always made terrible clothing but was a great cook) and Minnie Schoenberg Marx, Harpo benefitted from a loving, if not slightly-unorthodox home. His older brother Leonard (Chico) was obsessed with gambling and routinely disappeared for hours looking for any action he could find. Having only completed a couple years of elementary school, Harpo took random manual labor jobs around the neighborhood. On one such job, he caught a glimpse of a man rolling cigars through a store window and tried to mimic the ridiculous expression on the man’s face as he worked. This would become Harpo’s famous “gookie” face, which he continued to use throughout his career.
Harpo’s mother Minnie (as is evident from this book, as well as from Groucho Marx’s autobiography, titled Groucho and Me) was the driving force behind the Marx Brothers. A steel-nerved woman (but far from a stage mother), Minnie was determined to turn her sons into world-renowned entertainers. The third Marx son, Julius (Groucho) was the standout, singing and using his rapid-fire witticisms to garner laughs and adoration. Chico Marx was becoming a talented piano player, but Harpo himself began to feel left out, having no “true” talent to set him apart (until he eventually discovers an old harp). The fourth Marx son, Milton (Gummo), had no show business aspirations; but the youngest Marx, Herbert (Zeppo) joined his three older brothers for a short time on stage and in film.
Harpo tells of his experiences on the road, traveling with his mother and brothers, almost in vagrancy, from town to town picking up any available gigs. Disagreements with shady promoters and tales of late-night escapades are found on nearly every page, as well as Harpo’s coming of age and acceptance to the prominent Algonquin Round Table.
As one might expect, Harpo Speaks includes the Marx Brothers’ timeline of success; however, this book is written without the usual self-aggrandizement common among entertainment memoirs. Harpo paints himself as a man unimpressed with fame and more concerned with retaining the carefree days of childhood. He never takes himself too seriously, preferring to “throw a gookie” as a way of ending an argument instead of fighting. There are many sub-stories in the book, including Harpo’s youthful encounter with a swindler named Seymour Mintz, his relationship in later years with Oscar Levant (a neurotic mastermind who invited himself to live in Harpo’s house) and his eventual marriage to Susan Fleming, with whom he adopted four children.
Harpo Marx offers an honest look at his personal and professional life, making sure to keep us laughing along the way. Harpo Speaks has been published many times over the years, and copies are relatively easy to come by. Like Groucho’s book, it serves to show that each Marx Brother was an individual with a very distinct personality – Groucho was the vivacious reader with a knack for puns and double-talk, Chico was the gambler and borderline mathematical genius, and Harpo was the pleasant jack-of-all-trades who could be serious one moment and a clown the next. The combination of these talents made the Marx Brothers one of the most celebrated comedy teams of all time.
Harpo Speaks, at nearly 500 pages, is an easy read and includes notes from Harpo’s son Bill Marx and a poem from wife Susan. I highly recommend it for any Marx fan!