Harpo Speaks!, by Harpo Marx, with Rowland Barber

Harpo Speaks!

Harpo Speaks!, the autobiography of Harpo Marx, is a delightful book by a delightful man.

Harpo (he was born Adolph; in his adulthood he had his name legally changed to Arthur, at roughly the same time that he informally became Harpo) comes across as a fun-loving, gentle, caring person, the kind of person you would want in your life. He’s a lover of life and people, someone who seems to rarely experience stress or cause stress.

OK, it’s an autobiography, so we’re only getting his side of things and maybe it’s to be expected he’d come out as a great guy, but I’ve certainly come away from autobiographies without such a favorable impression of their subject. You can infer a fair amount about a person from the way they tell the story of their life, and what I feel from Harpo is a genuine sweetness.

My impression is very much consistent with the lovely tribute to his father by Harpo’s son Bill in the Afterword, written after Harpo’s death. “I would call home on any pretext, just to hear Dad answer the phone. He did not say hello. He said, ever so gently, ‘Yeaaaaaah? This is Haaaaa-po.’ He made you feel, before you spoke, that you were about to impart some glorious secret to him. There was balm in his voice. If something was troubling you, he wiped it out with those four sweet words.”

I don’t know why that tickles me as much as it does. It makes me wish Harpo was still around just so I could call him and hear him answer the phone like that.

Ben Hecht’s wife Rose, at a dinner in 1940, described Harpo as “the only normal man in Hollywood.” She elaborated:

Harpo is one of the few men I know who hasn’t spent an hour on the couch. He’s the only man I know who hasn’t even talked about being analyzed. He’s happily married. His son has reached the age of two without once being taken to a child psychologist. Harpo has no enemies. He’s never gone on a diet or taken a sleeping pill. He’s not money-mad or driven by ambition. He’s mature. He’s adjusted. He’s a breath of fresh air in a town full of neurotic exhibitionists and show-offs.

About the only time you see a truly somber, sad, or angry Harpo in this book is when he recounts traveling through Germany in the 1930s, shortly after Hitler came to power, seeing the businesses marked by yellow stars, and the haunted faces peering out from them.

Harpo Speaks! is primarily a book of anecdotes. Some are quite funny. But it’s mostly the substance that’s funny. Harpo is a pleasant storyteller, but his style (or the collaborative style of him and his co-author Rowland Barber) is markedly different from Groucho’s storytelling in his writings. With Groucho it’s nonstop nonsense and punch lines. He doesn’t seem as willing to be revealing of himself or to stick strictly to the facts; if he can get a laugh by embellishing or tossing in some non sequitur he’ll do it. Harpo is a more straightforward autobiographer.

But again, that’s not to say that the stories in Harpo Speaks! are not funny or that it is too serious a book. It’s a fun book because Harpo is a naturally fun person who brings out the fun in others, so the stories from his life are typically humorous and charming.

There’s surprisingly little about the Marx Brothers’ movies in this book. Some are mentioned in passing, and some not at all. I’m guessing he and his co-author made the decision to focus elsewhere because the movies were already so well known it wasn’t necessary to go over that same material yet again.

Still, you’d think there would be plenty of “behind the scenes” stuff related to their movies that was not already widely known that he could write about. But, no, it’s just not a big part of the book.

So what is? Just about everything else from his life. He goes into considerably detail about his childhood, about their long years in vaudeville and live theater and their pre-movie career in general, about his social life as an adult—probably more of that than anything else—and toward the end about his wife and kids.

As to that last topic, he didn’t get married until his late 40s, but he then stayed married the rest of his life—very happily if one is to judge from this book. All of their children were adopted. He doesn’t say why, but I read online later that his wife was physically unable to bear children. He was a devoted father, the kind of father who can effortlessly relate to his kids because to a significant degree he has retained the essence of childhood himself.

Harpo and his brothers grew up in pretty severe poverty—he dropped out of school in second grade—so there were certainly bad times. But he mines that material for humor, for love, for adventure, for intriguing characters. It never feels as crushing and depressing as Chaplin’s poverty-stricken childhood that he described in his own autobiography.

As is consistent with other things I’ve read, Groucho at times had a brooding intensity to him. He was the intellectual of the brothers, the one most likely to be off by himself with a book when the others were up to various hijinks.

Meanwhile, Chico was the playboy, the gambler, the one who was extraordinarily skilled at getting into trouble in unlikely ways, and equally skilled at getting out of it. (He’s the one who should have written an autobiography, but he didn’t. The closest thing is a biography his daughter wrote about him.)

Harpo recounts plenty of wild stories about being on the road in vaudeville. What a rollercoaster that was. I’m sure that’s not unusual for show business, but I suspect the magnitude of the ups and downs was.

For years, or really decades, they bounced back and forth countless times between some triumph that seemingly had them headed for the big time, and a colossal bomb that left them desperately borrowing money from relatives to keep them and their dwindling careers afloat.

It’s clear they never would have made it without their mother Minnie. She was as obsessed with their success as the most extreme stereotype of the stage mother, but in an almost totally positive way. As their manager/agent/promoter/substitute performer/negotiator/psychiatrist/etc., her boundless energy, enthusiasm, and dedication kept their hopes alive even during the darkest times.

As proud as she was when they finally achieved unambiguous success as one of the top acts in the world, she also seemed a bit lost no longer having to fight for them every day. A key part of her reason to live was gone. I think the journey meant more to her than the destination.

Harpo speaks of her with deep love, and movingly describes her dying in his arms.

Once they reached the top, Groucho certainly did his share of hobnobbing with the rich and powerful and famous, but you can make the case that Harpo had the most active social life of that kind of the brothers.

There’s plenty of name dropping of all the prominent folks like that that he was connected with, but he’s never snobbish about it. I think it mattered more to Groucho to be taken seriously by serious people and to be accepted by them as an equal. Harpo is more humble about it, treating these famous folks as clearly smarter and more learned than him, and generally much bigger big shots.

Indeed, it was his humility that made him such a good fit with them. There was no clash of egos because he had so little ego to clash with their colossal egos. He attributes a lot of his success in being welcomed into such circles to the fact that he was a very good listener. The other members of the circle were more likely to be focused on themselves, and to wait for each person to finish speaking so they could try to top them, whereas Harpo relished truly listening and appreciating what everyone had to say.

One gets the impression that once they were adults, and especially once they were famous, other than when they were performing together the brothers didn’t spend a huge amount of time together. Harpo tells far more stories from that period of life about interacting with these other celebrities and intellectuals and such than about interacting with his brothers. (One exception is that later in life after he moved out to California, at least for a time Groucho was a part of the main circle of people that Harpo socialized with.) But he still always maintained ties with his brothers, and he always speaks favorably about them throughout the book. It’s just that there were certain other people who seemed a bigger part of his day-to-day social life.

The most famous of the social circles Harpo traveled in was the so-called Algonquin Round Table. As Wikipedia describes it, “the Algonquin Round Table was a celebrated group of New York City writers, critics, actors and wits. Gathering initially as part of a practical joke, members of ‘The Vicious Circle,’ as they dubbed themselves, met for lunch each day at the Algonquin Hotel from 1919 until roughly 1929. At these luncheons they engaged in wisecracks, wordplay and witticisms that, through the newspaper columns of Round Table members, were disseminated across the country.” Harpo says the ongoing poker game at the Algonquin—of which he was also a member—was an even more exclusive group with a less fluid, more stable membership.

One of the most striking things about Harpo Speaks! is just how much of it is about the critic, journalist, and public intellectual Alexander Woolcott, a fellow member of the Round Table. At times it feels like the book is the story of Woolcott as much as it is the story of Harpo.

I had heard the name but knew basically nothing about Woolcott before I read this book. My first impression glancing through the pictures before starting the book was that he looked totally flaming, that he had to be gay or I’d be shocked.

Harpo never confirms that he was. He in fact claims that Woolcott was asexual due to some side effect of having the mumps at age 22.

That doesn’t add up, though. I did some reading online later, and evidently Woolcott was totally the stereotype of the queen well before age 22. Furthermore, I didn’t find any evidence that the kind of asexuality Harpo alludes to can be a side effect of mumps. Rarely mumps can make one infertile, but that’s not the same as being impotent or otherwise unable to have sex. And even if it was, being unable to have sex doesn’t necessarily eliminate sexual desire. An impotent person can still be heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual in their sexual preference.

Certainly they were close friends and very important to each other from shortly after they met until Woolcott died in 1943, and pretty clearly part of that was that Woolcott had a decades-long crush on Harpo. Whether that was reciprocated at all, or consummated in any way, I have no idea. It’s not even hinted at in the book, but it wouldn’t be a huge surprise to me if it happened.

A lot of their friendship, and Harpo’s relationships with other people from that and similar circles, was based on pranks and gags. Harpo had a wonderful playful spirit, and appreciated that in others.

On one occasion after he had moved out to California, he and another friend of Woolcott’s decided it would be nice to visit their old buddy. So they flew all the way across the country, and showed up unannounced, stark naked, at Woolcott’s estate where he was entertaining important guests. Woolcott did not acknowledge their presence in the slightest, so they got dressed, got back on a plane, and flew home, without ever saying a word about the escapade.

There are indications that Harpo was anti-discrimination as to race and religion, but it’s not a big part of the book and he never gets on a soapbox about it. But here and there it pops up, like when he describes being one of the main people who put together a non-restricted country club as an alternative to what was the restrictive norm back then.

There are some good stories about his time in the Soviet Union in the 1930s, when he was the first American to perform in that country after the United States finally granted it formal diplomatic recognition.

Late in life Harpo received some appalling, and appallingly insistent, advice from his doctor, which was to retire from basically everything. That is, not only was he forbidden to perform on stage, be in movies, be on TV, etc. any more, but for the sake of his health he was pressured into giving up playing the harp and playing golf. In other words, cease anything that you enjoy, that gives you any quality of life.

Luckily he had the good sense to cheat and keep backsliding into some of these activities. I don’t know that he lived any longer as a result, but he certainly lived better.

Solid recommendation for Harpo Speaks!

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