Books: “Son of Harpo Speaks”

August 1, 2015



There is a double meaning to the title of this book, which was published in 2010. This is the memoir of Bill Marx, oldest of the four children of Harpo Marx, so the book is, in a sense, Harpo’s son speaking. The title also is an allusion to Harpo Speaks, the 1961 autobiography of the silent comedian, written “with Rowland Barber.”

Harpo Speaks may be the best of the many books about this family, due in part to the detailed memories of Harpo Marx and the writing skills of Rowland Barber, who also wrote The Night they Raided Minsky’s and co-wrote Somebody Up There Likes Me with boxer Rocky Graziano. Son of Harpo Speaks is not in the same class. It’s not that Bill Marx didn’t have a story to tell, or even that he didn’t tell it. It’s that he told it without focus or precision. The grammatical and spelling errors, while trivial as individual faux pas, are distracting in the aggregate. The absence of a professional co-author and a rigorous editor is evident on every page.

BILL and HARPO MARX on a movie set.

BILL and HARPO MARX on a movie set.

Nevertheless, I’m grateful that Bill Marx wrote this book, because it preserves facts and insights about his parents and the rest of the Marx family that might otherwise have been lost. That’s important to me, because I have been a student of the Marx clan since I was about 13 years old and someone gave me a copy of The Marx Brothers by Kyle Crichton, which was published in 1950. I use the word “student” rather than “fan” because I have always been less interested in the Marx Brothers as entertainers than in the Marx family as a phenomenon of the American experience in the twentieth century. I have read most of the other books about them and I have interviewed Miriam Marx, the eldest child of Groucho Marx; Maxine Marx, the daughter of Chico Marx; and Gregg Marx, the grandson of Gummo Marx.

Bill Marx was the first of four children adopted by Harpo and Susan Fleming Marx, and he made his career as a Julliard-trained pianist, composer, and arranger. His account of his relationship with his adoptive parents confirms what one reads in every account of their lives, namely that they were genuinely nice people. Bill Marx unabashedly admired both of them, and he revels in the fact that for many years he served as Harpo’s props manager: “I had to see that the coat he wore was properly prepared for all of his sight gags; the carrot goes into the upper right inside pocket, the telescope must be in the lower left inside pocket, the scissors for immediate availability in the small middle right inside pocket, the rubber chicken accessible in the large left inside pocket, and on and on.”

Once Bill Marx got his sea legs as a musician, he collaborated with his father on several projects, including two albums of Harpo’s performances on the complicated instrument he mastered without a lesson and without the ability to read music. He also wrote arrangements for Harpo’s live performances and TV guest spots.

HARPO and BILL MARX in collaboration

HARPO and BILL MARX in collaboration

Bill Marx also devotes considerable space in this meandering book to his personal emotional and psychic history, including his struggle to find and understand his own identity, and the personalities that influenced him, including such icons as Buddy Rich and Margaret Hamilton. He also includes a fascinating account of how he learned the names and sad histories of his birth parents through a chance acquaintance he made at Dino’s, a club in Los Angeles where he was playing piano.

I’m glad to have read this book; my only regret is that I wasn’t the editor.

(Bill Marx presides over an informative and entertaining web site, The Official Arthur Harpo Marx Family Online Collection.)


2 Responses to “Books: “Son of Harpo Speaks””

  1. shoreacres Says:

    It occurs to me there’s a thread running through many of your posts. You’ve met and written about so many famous people, or at least people who are well-known within particular communities, and for the most part, they seem remarkably “normal” and nice.

    It’s one of the reasons posts like this intrigue me. It’s fun gaining a little insight into the Marx family, as opposed to the Marx Brothers.

    • charlespaolino Says:

      It’s true. I’ve been writing about entertainers and some other public figures for 50 years, and only once did I encounter one who was so full of herself that I offered to leave before the interview began. Even she settled down once we got past that speed bump and told me about how she looked forward to seeing her high school classmates from Long Island whenever she opened a show in New York. I interviewed Miriam and Maxine Marx in connection with books they had published. Miriam’s book consisted of correspondence she exchanged with her father, Groucho, who could be a difficult man. Miriam had problems that included alcoholism, that didn’t help the relationship. Still, at the time she published that book she had come to terms with her life and recognized the love that underlay her interactions with her father. Maxine’s book was an unvarnished memoir about her relationship with her father, Chico, a womanizer and gambler who evidently was irresistibly charming. Gregg Marx was appearing in “As the World Turns” when I interviewed him. He’s a friendly, courteous guy. He doesn’t seem to be acting now and might have moved into some other aspect of the entertainment business. Like any family, this one had its stresses. Chico’s gambling habit was a big source of that among the brothers. I know some of the children have fallen out with each other, too.

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