Harpo Speaks
by Harpo Marx
with Rowland Barber
illustrated by Susan Marx

Bernard Geis, New York; 1961
475 pages

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

two additional afterwords in —
Limelight, New York; 1985
482 pages

January 2004

Having fun, speaking warmly

Harpo Speaks is a warm, amusing, entertaining autobiography. But it is not focused on vaudeville or the movie business, except as shows and movies come along in the course of Harpo's life. There's plenty about vaudeville and a fair amount about the Marx Brothers' classic films, but it's almost incidental. You don't want to dip into it looking for bits about The Cocoanuts or Animal Crackers or A Night at the Opera or A Day at the Races or The Big Store. Such bits are almost casually tossed in, and without an index, you'll have trouble finding them — the narrative is not strictly chronological.

(For a good overview and analysis of the film career, see The Marx Brothers: Their World of Comedy, by Allen Eyles.)

A de-schooled, playful, family man

Well, shucks, what is Harpo Speaks mostly about then? After all that famous, silent hilarity of his antics on stage and screen, what does Harpo Marx want to write about?

Harpo Speaks is the memoir of a playful man, happy at play and with his family. The great movie comedies seem almost a natural extension of the Marxes' home life. Adolph "Harpo" Marx (1888-1964) was born into a family with show-business roots. His maternal grandfather had been a ventriloquist and stage magician back in Germany, and his maternal grandmother had played the harp. Their daughter — "the magician's daughter" as Alexander Woollcott titled her in an early major notice — was a self-taught impresario and promoter. It's hard to imagine a woman capable of being mother to five Marx Brothers, but the fabulous stage mother, Minnie Schoenberg Marx, was to the manner born.

An uncle on their father's side, Sam Marx, was a wheel in the Tammany Hall of their childhood, the Democratic Party machine in New York City. But their "particular kind of Marxist philosophy" as James Thurber calls it in Let Your Mind Alone, was the machinery of comic genius rather than the political.

Minnie Marx worked hard to help her brother Al Shean become a vaudeville star, half of the team of Gallegher & Shean. It was Uncle Al Shean who later suggested that Harpo concentrate on pantomime, no spoken lines at all.

After her brother's success, Minnie began working on stage careers for her sons, starting individually with the elder ones, and then in various combinations, including herself for a while. When Minnie wasn't watching, the young brothers' musical acts tended to turn into comedy, and Minnie worried about box-office receipts. She'd remind them of their Chicago landlord and the mortgage due: "Greenbaum, you crazy kids!"

Harpo Marx gave up on formal schooling after spending a year and a half in the second grade. So co-author Rowland Barber presumably brings a good deal of professional organization to Harpo Speaks, Harpo's only book. But Harpo's letters seem quite readable. He attributes his welcome hanging out with the fast literary crowd at the Algonquin Round Table in New York in the 1920s to his ability to listen — in fact, to being the one real listener in that set.

Games & friends & marriage

Susan Fleming Marx, the lovely actress who married Harpo — and they stayed married — contributes charming line drawings to the book. To the 1985 reprint, Susan adds a short elegiac poem, and son William Marx adds his personal afterword.

There's a lot of fine reminiscencing here about Harpo's family and the youthful years and vaudeville years of the Marx Brothers. A major theme developing in the middle of the memoir is Harpo's love of games, from poker to croquet. His principal companion-in-games was Alexander Woollcott, critic and New Yorker writer. Woollcott inducted Harpo into the Algonquin Round Table and they spent much time together over the years, playing games with friends with old-time dedication and enthusiasm which Harpo considers largely displaced by television.

In the latter part of Harpo Speaks, his new family comes to the fore, starting with Susan Fleming's pursuit and courtship of Harpo — he fought shy of marriage but finally was persuaded. Harpo's joy in his marriage and family casts a glow over the remainder of the book.

Harpo-Marxist comedy in Sovietland

I found Harpo Marx's Soviet tour fascinating:

Getting into Russia in the fall of 1933 was not easy, unless you knew somebody who knew somebody in the Soviet government. In my case, Woollcott had reporter friends in Moscow who were on good terms with Maxim Litvinov, the Foreign Minister of the Soviet Union.

Harpo dscribes his tribulations in getting his trunk, full of knives for his knives-from-sleeves routines and other weird props, across the Soviet border as far funnier than it must have felt at the time. He was closely escorted the entire time in the country. After a cold start in performance, he found playing in Russia to be "a comedian's dream". Given the opportunity, Russian audiences were extremely warm, and even Maxim Litvinov proved to be a member of the tribe of stage comedians.

The first Soviet ambassador to the United States, Alexander Troyanovsky, before taking up his post gave an American-style Thanksgiving dinner to the Americans in Moscow, including Harpo. Troyanovsky's staff told him the dinner had to include celery, so he sent a diplomatic courier in search of celery, all the way to Warsaw.

American reporters then in Moscow included Walter Duranty and Eugene Lyons. True to form, Harpo got into a poker game with the foreign correspondents:

My luck was good, but I came away a loser. We played for rubles, not dollars, and Russian paper currency was so thin it would disintegrate after being handled a few times. It was the first time I lost at poker due to the money wearing out.

The closest Harpo Marx could pronounce his name from the way it looked in Cyrillic letters was Exapno Mapcase. Cablegrams purchased in Soviet rubles (before they wore out) were a bargain at two cents per wire. Harpo tried some cryptic croquet references in at least one cable.

Some got through uncensored, some didn't. One which didn't get through at all was a cable to Woollcott:


This must have kept the lights burning all through the night at the counterspy department of the GPU.


© 2004 Robert Wilfred Franson

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