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, as a confirmed single Harpo, was swept away by my feet. And then she completely charmed me when I saw her in the 1932 WC Fields comedy “Million Dollar Legacy.”
Marx, who died in 2002 at the age of 94, began her memoir as part of a writing class she and Groucho Marx‘s third wife, Eden, took in the early 1980s. But she dropped memoirs for years, according to collaborator Robert Bader, author of “Four of the Three Musketeers” and director of the upcoming “American Masters” presentation, “Groucho and Cavett.”
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Bader, a friend of Harpo and Susan’s eldest son Bill, became acquainted with Susan after sending her a collection of lost Groucho writings which he edited and which contained stories about Harpo. “I liked your Groucho book more than I liked Groucho,” she said.
She invited him to watch her memoir in progress. They began collaborating 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 his stories about life as a low-level contract gambler in 1930s Hollywood. . “Nobody cares about this junk,” she insisted.
Months turned into years, and the unpublished manuscript, along with Bader’s taped interviews with her, were boxed in and mostly forgotten, he wrote. But when he cited the memoirs in the bibliography of “Four of the Three Musketeers,” it sparked interest, which was fueled in 2020, when Bill mentioned the project while promoting the restoration and release. from Harpo’s first film in the 1925 silent film “Too Many Kisses. He encouraged Bader to complete his mother’s autobiography.
The Brooklyn-born Marx was encouraged into show business by her mother — “a beautiful, talented, witty woman, who was born to sing Wagner at the Met, but whose dreams will remain dreams,” writes Marx.
Marx’s tap-dancing prowess landed him a job at a private club in Florida owned by famed showman Florenz Ziegfeld. This led to New York, where she became a Ziegfeld girl on Broadway. Snatched from the choir by actor Adolphe Menjou, she landed a role in the film “L’As des Cads”, which, poorly reviewed, is lost in history. “Well, thank heaven for the little miracles!” she writes. “I would shudder to think anyone really sees me in this thing.”
She’s appeared in several movies with iconic co-stars, including John Wayne, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, but not the movies that made them iconic. She also rebuffed sexual advances from Harry Cohn, the president of Columbia Pictures.
At a dinner in honor of Cohn, who had recently fired her, she sat next to Harpo, who together with his brothers had already conquered Broadway and Hollywood. “Beauty had never appealed to Harpo,” she wrote, “but everything I said made him laugh. It should have been carved in stone, but neither of us could ever remember exactly what I said to him. It had to be good. We have become inseparable. »
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Marx, by her own admission, had a lackluster career on stage and screen, and she gave up acting after marrying Harpo. “If I had the talent and the desire, Harpo probably could have helped elevate my status in the movies,” she wrote. “And of course there was also the ever-present problem that I wasn’t really an actress.”
Marx offers unvarnished versions of her husband’s legendary brothers. Chico, she writes, “was a womanizer and made her way through life without even thinking about [his wife] and their daughter, Maxine. She shares a “blood boiling” story in which Maxine told her how humiliated she was because her father hit on one of her high school classmates.
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She calls Zeppo “a strange man that even his brothers never fully understood”. Zeppo was very funny on his own, she wrote: “He had style, taste and good looks, but there just wasn’t room for a fourth Marx Brother comic, and Zep had to settle for the humiliation of straight roles. … He left the team to become a highly successful agent, representing some of Hollywood’s biggest names, but his lack of success as a member of Team Marx was a psychological issue he struggled with until ‘at the end.
Groucho, she wrote, could be witty company (during a baseball game, when a light shortstop hit a rare double, he commented, “This is the first time I’ve see at second base without his glove”), but he could be carelessly cruel to his wives.
Marx also shares memorable encounters with towering figures of the time, including the critic Alexander Woollcott, the spirits of the Algonquin Round Table, Howard Hughes, and the pianist and neurotic spirit Oscar Levant.
As for her husband, Marx writes lovingly of the joy Harpo had in their life together and their four adopted children, including Bill, who became a respected musician, composer and entertainer. (Harpo played his son’s arrangement of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” in his classic appearance on “I Love Lucy”).
For Marx, making the transition from actress to wife of a major movie star was duck soup. “Harpo was a simple, gentle man who avoided deception, chose his own friends and didn’t care if his socks matched,” she says. “When I finally decided I’d had enough with the movies, Harpo just shrugged and said, ‘Whatever you say. ”
While some hilarious anecdotes can also be found in “Harpo Speaks”, Marx goes further than her husband by sharing his more serious work with Ben Hecht on the writer’s controversial push for a Palestine free from British rule. “Harpo was very moved by Ben’s passion and told him about the anti-Semitism he witnessed in Europe and Russia in 1933,” she wrote.
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This anti-Semitism has also struck closer to home. Marx writes that in 1956, Harpo overheard his mother say to someone, “Susan could have married into royalty or been married to a member of the Nobel family of Nobel Prize-winning fame, but instead she ended up marrying a [Jew].” Harpo characteristically didn’t tell her anything about it. “Harpo was never one to hold grudges,” she wrote, “but I’m sure he never felt close to Mother again.”
“Speaking of Harpo” disabuses this old idea of never meeting your heroes. “Investigators came to me for the inside story because there must be something mysterious or controversial about Harpo,” she wrote. “I disappoint them with the plain truth that he was exactly what you hoped he was. A simple, simple, beautiful and 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, the Los Angeles Times, VanityFair.com and Vulture.
By Susan Fleming Marx with Robert S. Bader
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