Harpo Speaks! by Harpo Marx, Rowland Barber, Susan Marx (Photographer), Bill Marx (Photographer)
Review of Harpo Speaks:
Frankly, Harpo Speaks is one of my favorite books of all time. It’s hilarious, serious, witty, poignant and thought-provoking, sometimes all at the same time. It details what it was like to grow up in the Marx household, how all of the brothers were pushed into show business by their mother, Minnie, how hard they worked for so many years at (barely) subsistence wages, how they entertained each other, grew up on the road, and in one night changed from a singing group to the first great ‘screwball’ comedy team. If you love clowns, or are interested in clowning, you want to read this book; it’s a wonderful insight into clowning, what’s funny and why, as well as some of the Marx Brothers’ classic routines. It’s also a wonderful insight into a man I would have loved to have known; Harpo Marx.
Editorial Reviews of Harpo Speaks!
To Marx Brothers fans who have yet to read this book: Put it off as long as you can, because once you are finished, you will wish you could read it again for the first time. Harpo’s life was interesting in itself, but it also frequently intersected with the lives of other fascinating people, most notably his own brothers and drama critic Alexander Woolcott. Marx also was part of the legendary Algonquin Round Table; he’s got plenty to say about that. Wait’ll you hear about what it means to “throw a Gookie.” You’ll never be able to watch a Marx Brothers movie again without looking for the Gookie!
Table of Contents of Harpo Speaks
Chapter 1 – Confessions of a Non-Lady Harpist
A nice introduction to the rest of the book. Harpo puts out some “teaser” information about what’s coming in the rest of the book, as well as establishing his own character, and how he’s different from his well-known screen character.
Chapter 2 – The Education of Me
This chapter deals with the unusual household that Harpo grew up in, the basic “cast of characters” in the Marx family, how Harpo left public education in the 2nd grade (after being tossed out a window by class bullies for being Jewish), and how he started his street education in the New York City of the 1900’s.
Chapter 3 – Adrift in Grandpa’s Democracy
A mosaic of Harpo’s life as he started growing up on the streets. He talks about learning to “hustle” free rides on the trolley, being a one-footed ice skater, learning that there was higher things to aspire to, and how his father and maternal grandfather would vote for the Tammany Hall machine — two or three times a day, if necessary.
Chapter 4 – Enter: A Character
Harpo begins to develop a comedy character, to help him find his niche in the family unit. He begins with a description of how he developed the “Gookie,” a funny face he used in every film and stage act. He also tells other stories from around this time period, including how his brother Chico could smell money through wallpaper.
Chapter 5 – Enough Black Jelly Beans
When Harpo was young, and could scrape a few spare pennies together, he would buy a bag of penny candy — which would contain only 1 or 2 black jelly beans, Harpo’s favorite. Harpo relates, with the help of George Burns, what happened decades later, when he could afford as many as he wanted. Harpo also relates other anecdotes in this chapter, dealing with how Harpo gained (and lost) numerous jobs, and how he was so desperate for a true friend that he was truly conned by a man named Seymour Mintz, who landed him in jail three times.
Chapter 6 – Love Me and the World Is Mine
Harpo relates the true story of how he won the job of playing piano in a … house of ill repute. And how, after he (narrowly) escaped that job, he was cajoled by his mother, Minnie, to join his brothers Groucho and Gummo onstage in a singing act, The Four Nightingales, dressed in a duck suit. As Harpo said, “I was being shanghaied to join Groucho, Gummo, and Leo Levy. On a stage. In front of people. … It was probably the most wretched debut in the history of show business.”
Chapter 7 – “Greenbaum, You Crazy Kids!”
Harpo’s mother, Minnie, decided that the family needed to relocate more to the center of the country, in order to work the less well-known vaudeville avenues. They did so, purchasing their first home — with the mortgage being held by Mr. Greenbaum. Whenever the young, active Marx Brothers would start to get out of control on stage, Minnie would whisper “Greenbaum!” to put the fear of God into them and have them re-focus on their jobs. This chapter relates many anecdotes of the Marx Brothers’ years on the road, the hardships and racism they endured, and the evolution of the act from a singing troupe to the a comedy group.
Chapter 8 – The Silencing of Patsy Brannigan
As the Marx Brothers act progresses, it grows into more and more of a comedy group, and expands into a two-act show. After help from “Uncle Al” (Al Shean, of vaudeville) they rewrote their act — including removing all of Harpo’s spoken lines. Harpo was hurt, but realized that he couldn’t compete with the verbal jousting of Groucho and Chico — and Harpo remained silent as a Marx Brother from that point on. He began expanding his pantomime skills, and ends the chapter with the addition of a new part to his act — a harp.
Chapter 9 – Poom-Pooms, Pedals and Poker
A collection of anecdotes from the Marx Brothers’ time playing the Pantages vaudeville circuit, mixed with a stories and insights on Harpo’s harp playing. It includes Harpo’s version of how the Marx Brothers were given their respective nicknames (Groucho, Chico/Chicko, Harpo, Gummo, Zeppo)
Chapter 10 – But Can You Carry It on the Chief?
The Marx Brothers act moves up, now playing on the Orpheum circuit. They travel with a prizefighter, and try out a new act, On the Mezzanine, where Harpo incorporates his “dropping silverware” bit for the first time. The Marx Brothers rise to the highest point in vaudeville, and play the Palace. They tour England, return, and promptly get blacklisted from vaudeville. All looks bleak, until Harpo gives a one-word speech to inspire the family.
Chapter 11 – The Name Is Woolcott
Being blacklisted from vaudeville was a blessing in disguise; it forced the Marx Brothers into the only venue left, Broadway. They were enthusiastically reviewed by a very unusual person, Alexander Woolcot, who soon became Harpo’s best friend. Many interesting anecdotes about Woolcot, Harpo, and their contemporaries in the Thanatopsis Inside Straight and Literary Guild are shared.
Chapter 12 – No Use Talking
While the Marx Brothers’ current play, Cocoanuts, is on the road, Harpo spent a lot of time with different people, telling some of the most hilarious anecdotes you will ever read — from being thrown out of Tiffany’s, to selling money to a police officer, to various pranks pulled on different friends, enemies ,and complete strangers.
Chapter 13 – Buckety-Buckety into the Lake
Harpo spends the summer at Alexander Woolcott’s private island, plays games, and becomes addicted to croquet. This sounds boring, but it’s anything but boring.
Chapter 14 – Croquemaniacs of the World, Unite!
Where Harpo, Alexander Woolcott and friends play croquet. And try to play it in New York City. In winter. On a garage roof.
Chapter 15 – The Bam-Bang-Sock-and-Pow Part
Harpo joins Woolcott on the French Riviera, and has interesting run-ins with H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Peggy Hopkins Joyce, and others.
Chapter 16 – Playground Condemned
Two mammoth changes occur in Harpo’s life. The first, and most heartbreaking, is the death of his mother, Minnie. The second is the great stock market crash of the 1920’s, which wipe out virtually all of his finances, and his brothers’ and friends’ as well. And yet, Harpo’s optimism is unbroken.
Chapter 17 – Hollywood Bachelor: Early Struggles
Harpo is transplanted to California, to begin filming movies for MGM. He expected to leave afterward, but found himself staying for the next 30 years. He tells various anecdotes, including how William Randolph Hearst nearly threw him out of San Clemente. His beloved father, Frenchie, dies. And Alexander Woolcott declares that Harpo Marx will be the first Western entertainer to perform in the U.S.S.R.
Chapter 18 – Exapno Mapcase, Secret Agent
Harpo travels to the new U.S.S.R., and is in for massive culture shock, a first-hand look at life behind the iron curtain, and a secret parcel to return to the U.S.A.
Chapter 19 – The Oboe under the Blanket
Transitions. Oscar Levant moves in with Harpo, with humorous results. Irving Thalberg enters the Marx Brothers’ professional life. And Harpo meets a young starlet named Susan Fleming.
Chapter 20 – Cherchez la Fleming
Harpo, a lifelong bachelor, is quite set in his ways. Harpo becomes unsettled by a beautiful young actress named Susan Fleming, who chases Harpo so hard that he catches her.
Chapter 21 – Most Normal Man in Hollywood
Harpo, happily married, with a growing family.
Chapter 22 – Exit Alexander
One of the saddest chapters. Harpo’s closest friend, the eccentric author, speaker, and radio personality dies, leaving Harpo to cope.
Chapter 23 – Life on a Harp Ranch
Chapter 24 – The Return of Pinchie Winchie, or You’re Only Young Forever
Harpo retires after three heart attacks, and then has to answer the question, “Retire from what?” — prompting him to get back into the game of life.
Afterwords, I Susan
It’s one of those rare books that I rate 5 stars out of 5.