Son of Harpo Speaks!, by Bill Marx

Son of Harpo Speaks!

Having now read Growing Up With Chico (about Chico Marx, by his daughter) and Son of Harpo Speaks! (about Harpo Marx, by his son) back-to-back, it’s natural to compare them, so many of my comments in this piece will be of that nature.

Maxine Marx was the oldest of any of the Marx Brothers’ children, whereas Bill Marx didn’t come along until 1938. (He was born in 1937, then adopted by Harpo and his wife Susan—who was unable to have children—when he was a year old.) By the time Bill was old enough to be aware, the Brothers were at the tail end of their movie years, and their decades of work in vaudeville had ended long ago. So Maxine was able to include in her book significantly more eyewitness accounts of the Brothers’ career in show business.

Bill mostly just got to see Harpo touring part time—usually as a solo act or with Chico—performing on stage before live audiences, and making the occasional guest shot on a TV show.

One cherished memory he has from those late years of Harpo’s career is that when he was still a youngster his father put him in charge of his myriad of props. That wasn’t exactly a small job he was entrusted with, as Harpo’s standard props included:

Telescope; teeth; long black formal jacket w/tails; yellow and maroon flannel shirt with a sheriff badge that spins; two ladies black satin skirts; long horn; extendable box; bubble liquid; lots of fake money; several rubber hands; skirt-cutting scissors and powder bag; giant scissors; giant diamond ring; small diamond ring (with a jeweler’s magnifying glass); tuners; piano ticker (metronome Seth Thomas); trunk that says name of the theater on top; knives that come out of the coat (and coat); two wigs and wig head in excellent shape; wardrobe trunk (empty) with Algonquin Hotel tags and Savoy Hotel stickers on it; long black box with more teeth; makeup; another bag of knives; rubber chicken; more wigs; two mechanical monkeys; large telescope in box; hatchet and table (for cutting cards); black top hat; wooden vase with flowers painted on and elastic attached to top; three shoes with skates on bottom; long metal tube with a string that pulls out—weighted; rubber carrot; three belts; rubber mallet; two short horns; tape measure; large cow bell; huge cigar; long rope (for opening); clarinet (with mechanical bubble machine and tube); four harmonicas; harp string case with tuning keys; orchestra music for act; signs for sewing on singer’s rear end; marshmallows and garter belt.

Speaking of Bill’s adoption, he writes the story of how that came about as a humorous anecdote, and I did find some humor in it, but at least as much I was bothered by it.

Bill’s biological mother was a devout Catholic, and one of the requirements she specified was that the adoptive parents be Catholic. The adoption agency made every effort to abide by this, not only interviewing any prospective parents as to their Catholicism and requiring paperwork indicating they’d had a Catholic wedding, but also visiting the home multiple times during the trial period when the child is in the custody of the adoptive parents but the adoption isn’t yet final, to make sure it is being raised in a Catholic household.

Well, of course the Marx Brothers weren’t Catholic. (They were secular Jews.) So Harpo and Susan constructed an elaborate lie. They were remarried by a Catholic priest (they lied and said Susan was a practicing Catholic and Harpo was now converting to Catholicism), and they put crucifixes and such all over their home during the temporary period when the person from the adoption agency made periodic visits.

I mean, their going to such lengths shows quite an impressive commitment to adopting this baby, but is this really just a cute, unproblematic, story? I’m not a religious person—Catholic or otherwise—and in general I think there is more to criticize than to praise in religion, but it just seems insulting and disrespectful to a mother to deceptively violate a commitment that was made to her to have her child raised by parents of a certain religion. It would be different if the adoption agency had told her that it’s contrary to their policy to impose any such requirement on adoptive parents, but that’s not the case here. She was given every reason to think her preference—which in a situation like this is unlikely to be some whim but surely reflects deep-seated values that are highly important to her—would be respected, and the Marxes did not do so.

Plus, it’s not like abiding by the birth mother’s wishes would have meant that the Marxes would have been unable to adopt. It just would have meant that they’d have had to choose from among the countless other babies—who didn’t come with that or some other requirement the Marxes were unable to meet—who were in need of being taken into a loving home.

In any case, I’m sure Bill is glad they weren’t so scrupulously honest as to look elsewhere for a baby to adopt, as he thinks he hit the lottery with his adoptive parents. That’s another contrast with Growing Up With Chico: Maxine’s story is one of loving a father in spite of his major flaws as a human being and as a parent, whereas Bill recounts his upbringing as an overwhelmingly positive one that he is grateful for.

I have mixed feelings about the writing style of Son of Harpo Speaks! Growing Up With Chico is quite straightforward in style, maybe one could even say pedestrian, but I’m OK with that. Maxine writes as a civilian; her writing is competent but she writes with no pretense of being any kind of fancy shmancy professional writer.

Bill, however, does try to be more—arguably tries too hard. At times he writes in a vaguely Grouchoesque manner, dropping in little witticisms, word play, and non sequiturs for humorous purposes. He jumps around in kind of a stream-of-consciousness, breezy manner. He includes imagined dialogues with his father watching over him as he writes this book.

In a way, I like that he’s taking chances, trying to be unconventional, trying to be more entertaining and at times deeper. But more often than not it just comes across as forced or gimmicky.

There’s also the related matter of how much the authors focus on themselves versus their famous fathers. A larger percentage of Son of Harpo Speaks! is autobiographical about Bill than what is autobiographical about Maxine in Growing Up With Chico, plus Son of Harpo Speaks! is a considerably longer book to begin with, so you’re getting a lot of the life of Bill Marx here.

I remarked in my piece on Growing Up With Chico that on the whole the portions that are more about Maxine than about Chico or the other Marx Brothers are less engaging. That’s true here too of the portions that are about Bill.

The thing is, I’m probably less averse than the average person to listening to non-celebrities talk (or write) about themselves. (Not that Bill is a total non-celebrity. He is an accomplished musician and critic who has had quite an impressive career at least partly in the public eye. Just like Maxine and her acting career, he has done vastly more than I, certainly. But the extent to which he and Maxine are famous people that the reading public can be presumed to be interested in is obviously dwarfed by the public interest in the Marx Brothers.) I love making “personal history” films, for instance, which are private films about an individual or family that tend to include long taped interview clips of people telling their life stories. I eat that stuff up, because I find people in general interesting, whether they are big shots or just regular joes. (Because everyone in effect is a big shot in their own story.)

So in a way I’m OK if Bill wants to write a book about Bill. Some of that material is in fact somewhat interesting. (And some is much less so. There were multiple times I was puzzled by a story Bill included that didn’t seem to go anywhere—didn’t seem to be particularly funny, insightful, whatever—that put me in mind of Steve Martin lambasting John Candy in Planes, Trains and Automobiles: “You know, everything is not an anecdote. You have to discriminate. You choose things that, that are funny or mildly amusing or interesting…You know, when, when you’re telling these little stories, here’s a good idea. Have a point. It makes it so much more interesting for the listener!”) But maybe it’s in part a matter of expectation. I pick up a book like this, or Maxine’s, to learn more about people I have a pre-existing interest in—Harpo and Chico Marx—from a new perspective. Given that expectation, other material feels extraneous.

Bill seems a likable person. He’s someone I think I would enjoy knowing and talking to. He’s clearly had some experiences that would be worth delving into with him—not just music and show business stuff, but finding out about his birth parents, dealing with depression, and more. But in the context of reading this book I guess I just wasn’t as receptive as I could have been to that, as I was looking to learn more about Harpo.

And there is some worthwhile Harpo stuff in here (though for someone interested in Harpo, I’d still recommend his own Harpo Speaks! well above anything else I’ve read on him), including about his harp playing.

The harp was far from just some goofy prop to Harpo. Though he had zero formal training and never did learn to read music, he became a world-class harpist, respected and accepted by musicians of the highest level. (Chico was also a far more accomplished pianist than most fans probably realize.)

That was no easy task, as the harp is a far more difficult instrument to master than I realized, apparently far more difficult than almost any other instrument. Harpo practiced for three hours a day for almost his entire adult life, not just because he had to in order to build up his skills to a high level, but also because playing the harp at that level requires having and maintaining just the right calluses in just the right places on certain fingers. Not to mention, the harp is one of the finickiest of instruments, and if it’s not played constantly it will very quickly go out of tune.

Another positive thing about Son of Harpo Speaks! is the large number of photos.

Though I was not engrossed in the book throughout, and there are things about it that at least for me as a reader are not ideal, I’d still say the same thing about this as I did about Growing Up With Chico, namely that there is plenty here to make it a worthwhile read for a Marx Brothers fan. If you’re curious to learn more about Bill Marx himself and not just his more famous father, than this book is to be recommended even more highly.

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