Book: Harpo Speaks by Harpo Marx (with Rowland Barber)

Splendid and hugely entertaining

Harpo Marx (with Rowland Barber)
Harpo Speaks!
Limelight Editions, 1985 (originally published in 1962)
ISBN: 0-87910-036-2
482 pages

I find Marx Brothers movies hilarious and Harpo Marx's autobiography Harpo Speaks (written with Rowland Barber) is a fascinating and enormously entertaining book. When Mr Marx was born in 1888 his family was very poor and lived on (now rather upscale) East 93rd Street in Manhattan. On the plus side were a loving father, Sam (called Frenchie), and a loving and determined mother, Minnie. Minnie was determined to get at least some of her sons into show business and the book tells us about their early struggles and later success in vaudeville, and then on Broadway, and finally in movies. By the time the book ends, we're not surprised that Mr Marx's home life and retirement are mostly very happy and a bit unconventional.

After a short introduction in the first chapter, Mr Marx begins with the the story of the end of his formal schooling, in the middle of second grade. He says,

    I left school the most direct way possible. I was
    thrown out the window. (p. 17)

And that's pretty typical of the book. Mr Marx has a knack for telling stores and a self-deprecating wit. And, boy, does he have some stories to tell.

For example, there's one where he's staying at a villa in Antibes that Alexander Wolcott has rented for the summer and George Bernard Shaw has agreed to come to lunch. Owing to a mixup, when the great man and his wife arrive, there's nobody else there. And he's wearing only a towel. And then....

(Not only was Mr Marx a good friend of Alexander Wolcott, he routinely sat at the Algonquin round table. You can imagine that there are some stories to tell about that group.)

And there's the one where he's performing in the Soviet Union just after the United States extended diplomatic recognition and he says that he got his biggest laugh ever, but it was the one time he played the straight man and....

And then there's the one about King Alfonso of Spain's Anthem Man. And the one about how once when he was playing in London the then-uncrowned Edward VIII sent a note backstage to his dressing-room and it was signed "Ed. Rex". And then, and then....

In all, there are many chuckles and several outright laughs to be had here as Mr Marx makes his cheerful and friendly way through his remarkable life. The book is a delight.

Posted: Wed - February 6, 2008 at 07:41 PM   Main   Category: