By Bill Marx

BearManor Media


316pp/$19.99/November 2010

Son of Harpo Speaks!
Cover by Valerie Thompson

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Taken in combination with Harpo's autobiography and Susan Fleming Marx's more recent autobiography, Son of Harpo Speaks! rounds out an excellent trilogy about Harpo and Susan's family, each filling in voids left by the other and offering multiple points of view of the same events. Although published prior to Son of Harpo Speaks!, it is clear that Marx had access to his mother's notes when he was working on Son of Harpo Speaks! and made use of them to fill in gaps in his knowledge. Just as Susan's book is about her relationship with Harpo and her life getting used to his loss, so, too, is Son of Harpo Speaks!, which relegates his father's films and famous brothers to asides when telling his own story.

The fact that Marx is writing his own autobiography rather than a biography of his father is one of the ways the book succeeds. Adopted by Harpo and Susan Marx when he was young and raised in a loving household, his own story of trying to figure out who he was is interesting as he discovers his love of music and his ability to both separate his music from his fathers as well as work with his father, producing Harpo's two albums. Marx establishes a career for himself in both the recording industry, generally, but not always, behind the scenes, and playing gigs around Los Angeles (and other places). Although he discusses some abandonment issues, ranging from his birth parents leaving him in an orphanage to being sent to boarding school, to his parents sending him to New York to sink or swim (although providing him with a safety net), these issues never seem overwhelming.

Marx is aware that part of his story are highly improbable and he plays that up, winking at his audience as he lets them know that he's about to tell them a completely unbelievable story that, nevertheless, is entirely true. His skill as a storyteller allows him to get away with this even as he incorporates discussions with his father that clearly didn't take place. One of his ways of dealing with his sense of abandonment is to occasionally include a fictitious conversation with Harpo, in which he asks his father for advice and Harpo replies with short, useless, but positive responses.

Marx appears to be quite open about himself, as well as his relationships with Harpo and Susan. Other relationships are more shrouded. Marx was significantly older than his three adopted siblings and, while there is a vague sense that he has good relationships with all of them, he barely discusses them as individuals, instead clumping his three siblings together in his interactions with them. Similarly, married three times, he glosses over his first two marriages, although he does note that his second wife helped orchestrate his meeting and marriage to his third wife.

The book is heavily illustrated with personal photos, which is both a blessing and a curse. While it is wonderful to see the numerous pictures Marx has elected to include, ranging from photos of the Four Marx Brothers on stage in 1915 to relaxed pictures of Harpo and Susan lounging around the house to photos of Marx performing, they readability of the book suffers from the layout of the pictures. Rather than being grouped together in a glossy insert, they are interspersed in the text, often with a single line of Marx's writing between pictures and a new paragraph starting at the bottom of a page under the picture. It isn't a fatal flaw, but it does interfere with reading about Marx's life and relationships.

In a world in which too many offspring of famous people write "Mommy Dearest"-style biographies to settle scores with the trauma their parents put them through in their formative years, it is refereshing to read Bill Marx's book about growing up at the son of Harpo. Many who knew Harpo, including Groucho, described him in terms of his kindness and being the embodiment of the best aspects of the puckish character he portrayed in film. His son's book reinforces that view of his father, showing him to be a loving and devoted husband, a caring and nurturing parent, and overall a person who tried to leave his world a better place than he found it.

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