It’s hard (if not impossible) to imagine a world worth living in that doesn’t include the Marx Brothers; and equally impossible to imagine the Marx Brothers without their ever silent, animal-loving, hilarious and unpredictable Harpo, him of the moppet wig, a tramp overcoat filled with stolen silverware and blowtorches, and recurring grotesque facial expressions. For while the greatest comedians of the silent film era (such as Chaplin and Keaton) couldn’t speak on camera, Harpo was the only comedian of the walkie-talkie era who simply wouldn’t. , as if human conversation was somehow below him.

There was always something about Harpo that seemed a little better than the ridiculous world he inhabited, as if he spiritually resided far beyond the stratospheric clouds of absurdity. As Joe Adamson wrote in 1973, when the films of the Marx Brothers were being enthusiastically rediscovered on college campuses and on repertory movie screens: “Harpo’s actions bespeak an ethereal freedom that is instantly recognizable as something of which we know nothing.” That’s probably why so many of us enjoy it.

The second of five sons born in Manhattan to Jewish immigrants – legendary stage mom Minnie and her husband Sam, a bad excuse for a tailor and a great excuse for a householder, known as “Frenchie” – Adolph (Harpo) Marx enjoyed that he fondly remembered a life of poverty, a life in which he roamed the streets selling stolen items to pawnbrokers or doing chores for nickels. He quickly learned to be happy with the little he had while he had it, since his older brother Joseph (known as Chico, as in “he’s gone chasing another chick, oh”) the flew almost instantly. , sell it and use the money to get into more debt.

The five brothers eventually followed their uncle Al Shean into vaudeville, singing, dancing and engaging in comedy sketches that often played off the motley urban accents of their neighborhoods – Irish, Italian, Yiddish and German. They formed a fairly successful singing group called the Five Nightingales and, in their thirties, developed the characters that would make them famous for the rest of their lives: Groucho, of painted mustaches and sharp insults; Chico, Italian malapropisms and finger gun piano; and perhaps the greatest of them all, that crazy-smiling pervert imp who never spoke and never needed to, since he could easily express his deepest emotions by playing either an angelic harp or of a lascivious car horn.

Harpo was a strange kinetic intelligence that made him seem like a genius or a silly scientist. At one point, early in her stage career, her mother gave her a harp to bring more musical variety to their act. Within months, Harpo learned to play it on his own and continued to learn instruments throughout his life, including piano, clarinet and harmonica. When accomplished harpists came to show him a few things, they were soon sent off with notebooks filled with idiosyncratic new techniques that they never lived long enough to master. “Harpo was the solid man in the family,” Groucho recalls in Groucho and me (1954). “He inherited all the good qualities from my mother: kindness, understanding and friendliness. I inherited what was left.

Unlike his brothers, Harpo had no cruel or selfish streaks in his nature; and he was generally remembered with great affection by all who knew him. It’s no surprise, then, that these affectionate, sweet, unassuming, and long-unpublished memoirs by his wife of nearly forty years, Speaking of Harpolacks the bitterness and recriminations of the usual “revealing” Hollywood autobiography.

When Susan Fleming moved to Hollywood in 1929 to weather the Depression in a series of increasingly minor roles, she met Harpo at a dinner party given by Samuel Goldwyn and began one of the happiest and most Hollywood’s longest. While Harpo was more than twice his age, he usually managed to act half his age, and over the next few years he stuck to his bachelor existence at the famed Garden of Allah Hotel, where he partied endlessly. with Alexander Woolcott, Robert Benchley, HG Wells, F. Scott Fitzgerald, George Bernard Shaw and Dorothy Parker. (It’s one of the many happy ironies in Harpo’s life that a man known for not speaking a single line of dialogue kept a seat on the Algonquin Round Table – largely, he says, as a audience rather than as a participant.)

Unlike Chico, Harpo soon gave up drinking and petticoating; and eventually he and Susan left to marry a fire station chief in Orange County. (They kept the studios secret for many weeks.) They then adopted four children, built a big house in Riverside County (El Rancho Harpo) that often looked like a huge playroom, and decided to live without servants. Instead, Susan learned to cook and sort out finances while Harpo occasionally went on team tours with the ever-strapped Chico. When he was home, Susan would often find him in the middle of the night playing jacks with their daughter on the bathroom floor, or rushing out in the afternoon to listen. Uncle Whoa Billa daily children’s radio show, with their five-year-old son.

In fact, those radio shows gave rise to one of the few regrettable memories in this book: Susan’s inability to pick up on Harpo’s hints that he wanted her to alert the producers of her birthday, so that the ‘Uncle Whoa Bill could tell him a scavenger hunt, while he does for his children listeners. “That show was so silly,” Susan explained to her critical son several years later, “I couldn’t imagine even your crazy dad was listening to it.” But she never forgave herself.

Speaking of Harpo is an almost relentlessly cheerful book about a happy marriage, and there isn’t much that seems outrageous or surprising about it – except perhaps an anecdote about Marlene Dietrich sitting on a court bench. tennis player, taking off her panties and performing a series of Primary instinct crosses his leg during a game. Otherwise, the only vituperation Susan expresses is almost exclusively reserved for Harpo’s brothers. Infinitely dissolute Chico once embarrassed his daughter by hitting on one of her teenage friends at a high school reception, while Groucho liked to keep his cruelest insults not for candidates on You bet your life but for his three wives. (Neither of them were “patient,” however, since they each quickly divorced.)

In our cynical age — especially when it comes to Hollywood celebrities — it’s a delightful read. Susan originally wrote it in response to a creative writing class in the early 1980s, and later collaborated on revisions with Robert S. Bader, who had previously worked with Harpo on his naturalistic and verbally expansive memoirs. , Harpo speaks! (1961). Then, after Susan lost interest in the project (she is clearly not a self-aggrandizing personality – another quality that makes this book refreshing), and her death in 2002, the manuscript lay in dust until Bader recovers, rewrites passages and finally publishes the finished book. However, despite several decades of gestation, Speaking of Harpo feels freshly written, as if Susan’s voice vividly speaks to us of a time that seems to be now – just as she writes how, even thirty years after Harpo’s death, she could still hear her devoted husband conversing in her head over all things big and small.

This article was originally published in The viewerthe British magazine. Subscribe to the global edition here.