SPEAKING OF HARPO
By Susan Fleming Marx
with Robert S. Bader
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
One of the greatest show business autobiographies written may have been Harpo Marx's Harpo Speaks!, co-written with Rowland Barber and published in 1961. Since then, Harpo's son, Bill Marx, who worked with his father as a musical arranger and record producer, published his own memoirs, Son of Harpo Speaks. Now, twenty years after her death and will the help of Marx Brothers scholar Robert S. Bader, Harpo's wife, Susan Fleming Marx provides her own insights into Harpo's life in Speaking of Harpo.
Despite the title of the book, this is Susan's story, which is, of course, intertwined with part of Harpo's story. She discusses her childhood and her early career performing for Florenz Ziegfeld, alongside her friend Paulette Goddard, who had a very different career trajectory. Her first film, The Ace of Cads, happened almost accidentally and led her to realize that she had no real desire to be a performer, either on stage or on film, but the circumstances of the Great Depression meant that as long as performing could give her an income, she would continue. It also gave her the opportunity to meet Harpo and eventually step away from performing.
The book does include two appendices which detail her three years on stage and her 28 films, but most of Marx's discussion of them within the book is limited to how bored she was making the films, what a poor actress she was, and which stars she shared billing with, even (or perhaps especially) when her bit roles didn't actually bring her in contact with the bigger names.
It would be wrong to describe her life with Harpo as idyllic, however when compared to the turbulence shown by most celebrity marriages in biographies, it is remarkable how little happens in Speaking of Harpo, which doesn't mean the the book isn't interest. Marx discusses being pulled into Harpo's circle with the crowd of the Algonquin Round Table, and particularly Alexander Woollcott, for whom two of her sons are named. Having met Harpo around the time Monkey Business came out in 1931 and married him in 1936, following the release of A Night at the Opera, the films made by Harpo with his brothers are almost a series of footnotes to her story. Harpo losing interest as the quality of the scripts waned, making more films to help Chico's financial situation, deciding to make a Harpo solo fiction that was hijacked by the director and turned into a (final) Marx Brothers movie. The focus of the book is their domestic life, including the adoption of their eldest son, Billy, and later four additional kids, Alex, Jimmy, and Minnie.
Marx recognized how much of her life was dedicating to Harpo and their children, and the final chapters of the book are an honest appraisal of coming to terms with her life after Harpo's death, especially since that came at a time that their children were leaving home to establish their own lives. Although she is self-deprecating in much of the book, often discussing what a poor actress she was or how little she understood money, in those last couple of chapters she comes into her own, discussing her successful tenure on the local school board, which began during Harpo's lifetime with his full support, and her less succeessful run for higher office. She also compares herself to some of the other Marx Brother wives, noting that she was friends with most of them and only Harpo and Gummo were never divorced, compared to Groucho's three wives (and the difficulty of living with them) or Chico's two wives (and his womanizing).
Although this book is definitely not a book about the Marx Brothers, Harpo and his four brothers remained close throughout their lives and Chico, Gummo, Groucho, and to a lesser extent Zeppo, do enter and exit throughout Marx's story. With her primary focus, both in the book and in life, on Harpo and his well-being, Marx comes across quite critical of the brothers, especially when she sees them acting against Harpo's self-interest, although she does occasionally show a bit of affection. Harpo and Chico are particularly close and she notes that Harpo is rarely able to turn Chico down. Gummo comes across as mercenary, convincing Harpo to tour and perform for Chico's benefit, even if it might not be the best thing for Harpo. Marx's criticism isn't reserved just for Harpo's brother, her own mother, Bunny, who was every bit as much as stage mom as Minnie Marx, is depicted with an unjaundiced eye, including her foibles.
Speaking of Harpo is an autobiography with very little conflict in it. Marx is candid about her feelings for many people who are loved by millions for their public work, but nothing that she writes about them comes as a surprise to anyone who has more than a passing interest in the Marx Brothers, although she does reveal quite a bit more about Gummo, the least public of the brothers). Her story comes across as a romance between herself and Harpo, filling in some of the blanks from his own book and offering a different take on who he was from someone who was very clearly in love, if sometimes exasperated, with him.
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