For Marx Brothers fans, the posthumous publication of Susan Fleming Marx’s memoir, “Speaking of Harpo,” raises a glimmer of hope that other holy grails in the comedy team’s mythology — their long-lost silent film, “Humor Risk,” for example — will surface someday. But for now, we have Harpo’s wife’s account, and it is a delight.
Full disclosure: The memoir rekindles a teenage crush I had on Susan Marx. As a budding Marx Brothers obsessive in the 1970s, I was introduced to her in her husband’s autobiography, “Harpo Speaks.” He wrote so lovingly about how they met that I, like confirmed bachelor Harpo, was swept off my feet. And then she thoroughly charmed me when I saw her in the 1932 W.C. Fields comedy “Million Dollar Legs.”
Marx, who died in 2002 at the age of 94, began her memoir as part of a writing course that she and Groucho Marx’s third wife, Eden, took in the early 1980s. But she abandoned the memoir for years at a time, according to collaborator Robert Bader, author of “Four of the Three Musketeers” and director of the upcoming “American Masters” presentation, “Groucho and Cavett.”
Bader, a friend of Harpo and Susan’s eldest son, Bill, made Susan’s acquaintance after he sent her a collection of Groucho’s lost writings that he edited and that contained stories about Harpo. “I liked your Groucho book more than I liked Groucho,” she said.
She invited him to look at her in-progress memoir. They began to collaborate in earnest in the mid-1990s. He writes in the book’s afterword that he had to convince Marx that people would be interested in her stories about life as a low-level contract player in 1930s Hollywood. “No one cares about that junk,” she would insist.
Months turned into years, and the unpublished manuscript, along with Bader’s taped interviews with her, were boxed up and mostly forgotten, he writes. But when he cited the memoir in the bibliography for “Four of the Three Musketeers,” it stirred interest, which was fueled in 2020 when Bill mentioned the project while promoting the restoration and release of Harpo’s screen debut in the 1925 silent film “Too Many Kisses.” He encouraged Bader to finish his mother’s autobiography.
Brooklyn-born Marx was encouraged in show business by her mother — “a beautiful, talented and witty woman, who was born to sing Wagner at the Met, but whose dreams would remain dreams,” Marx writes.
Marx’s tap-dancing prowess would land her a job in a private Florida club owned by famed showman Florenz Ziegfeld. This led back to New York, where she became a Ziegfeld girl on Broadway. Plucked from the chorus by actor Adolphe Menjou, she got a part in the film “The Ace of Cads,” which, poorly reviewed, is lost to history. “Well, thank heaven for small miracles!” she writes. “I’d shudder to think of anyone actually seeing me in this thing.”
She did appear in several films with iconic co-stars, including John Wayne, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, just not in the films that made them iconic. She also fended off the sexual advances of Harry Cohn, the president of Columbia Pictures.
At a dinner party honoring Cohn, who had recently fired her, she was seated next to Harpo, who with his brothers had already conquered Broadway and Hollywood. “Prettiness had never attracted Harpo,” she writes, “but whatever I said made him laugh. It should have been etched in stone, but neither of us could ever recall exactly what I said to him. It must have been good. We became inseparable.”
Marx, by her own account, had an undistinguished stage and screen career, and she abandoned acting after marrying Harpo. “If I had the talent and desire, Harpo probably could have helped elevate my status in the movies,” she writes. “And of course, there was also the ever-present problem of me not being much of an actress.”
Marx offers unvarnished takes on her husband’s legendary brothers. Chico, she writes, “womanized and gambled his way through life without even a thought about [his wife] and their daughter, Maxine.” She shares one story “that made my blood boil” in which Maxine told her how humiliated she was because her father had hit on one of her high school classmates.
She calls Zeppo “a strange man who even his brothers never completely understood.” Zeppo was very funny in his own right, she writes: “He had style, taste, and good looks, but there simply hadn’t been room for a fourth comic Marx Brother, and Zep had to settle for the humiliation of straight roles. … He left the team to become a highly successful agent, representing some of the biggest names in Hollywood, but his lack of success as a member of the Marx team was a psychological problem he struggled with to the end.”
Groucho, she writes, could be witty company (at a ballgame, when a light-hitting shortstop hit a rare double, he commented, “That’s the first time I’ve seen him at second base without his glove”), but he could be casually cruel to his wives.
Marx also shares memorable encounters with towering figures of the day, including critic Alexander Woollcott, the wits of the Algonquin Round Table, Howard Hughes and pianist and neurotic wit Oscar Levant.
As for her husband, Marx writes lovingly about the joy Harpo took in their life together and their four adopted children, including Bill, who became a respected musician, composer and cabaret performer. (Harpo played his son’s arrangement of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during his classic appearance on “I Love Lucy”).
For Marx, making the transition from actress to wife of a great movie star was duck soup. “Harpo was a simple, gentle man who avoided sham, chose his own friends, and didn’t care whether his socks matched,” she says. “When I finally decided that I’d had it with the movies, Harpo simply shrugged and said, ‘Whatever you say.’ ”
While some hilarious anecdotes here can also be found in “Harpo Speaks,” Marx goes further than her husband in sharing his more serious work with Ben Hecht on the writer’s controversial push for a Palestine free from British rule. “Harpo was greatly moved by Ben’s passion and told him of the anti-Semitism he witnessed in Europe and Russia in 1933,” she writes.
This antisemitism also hit closer to home. Marx writes that in 1956, Harpo overheard her mother tell someone: “Susan could have married into royalty or been married to a member of the Nobel family of Nobel Prize fame, but instead wound up marrying a [Jew].” Harpo, characteristically, did not say anything to her about it. “Harpo was never one to hold a grudge,” she writes, “but I’m sure he never felt any sort of closeness to Mother again.”
“Speaking of Harpo” rebuts that old saw about never meeting one’s heroes. “Interviewers have come to me for the inside story because there must be something mysterious or controversial about Harpo,” she writes. “I disappoint them with the plain truth that he was exactly what you would hope he was. A simple, uncomplicated, beautiful, funny soul, who loved and cherished his friends and family.”
Donald Liebenson is an entertainment writer. His work has been published by the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, VanityFair.com and Vulture.
Speaking of Harpo
By Susan Fleming Marx with Robert S. Bader
Applause. 256 pp. $29.95
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