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Harpo Speaks! Paperback – July 1, 2004
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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!
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Top Customer Reviews
I have read biographies and memoirs by celebrities still living, and been completely turned off by their egotism and pointless name-dropping.
Harpo's love of the people he lived with, worked with, played games and gambled with feels honest. As a fan of Oscar Levant, I was touched by Harpo's accounts of the time they spent together. No one is perfect. No one is altogether sane, rational, or "normal."
The way he speaks of his wife is probably the only element I found a little odd, as if a lot was being left out, obscuring the full picture. Still, it's his book, his story, the way he wants to say it.
I'm just glad it's there for the rest of us to enjoy.
Just to let you know, I read it in a car on a cross-country journey. When I was at the wheel and couldn't read, I thought about it.
Harpo was born in 1888 (Can you believe that long ago?) He was the second oldest child of Frenchie, a kind-hearted tailor who was good at many things except tailoring, and Minnie. Minnie was the driving force in the family. Her brother was a famous vaudevillian. So when her family needed money (Frenchie really was not a good tailor), she turned her boys into a vaudeville act. She was part of the act early on, and I think Gummo. But the lineup gelled with Chico (pronounced Chick-o, not Cheek-o), Harpo and Groucho, with youngest brother Zeppo added later and cast as the romantic, good-looking Marx in the earliest movies.
Harpo begins his story in the heated, loud atmosphere of turn-of-the-century New York. The streets were teeming with recent immigrants, among which were the older Marx family members. He really brings this era to life and there is an incredible scene in which he describes how the poor kids caught the Giants games from a hill.
Some of the best writing is devoted to his wonderfully quirky and loving family. Chico can't stay away from the chicks and the cards. Groucho has a fork for a tongue and a secret wish to be an author. Frenchie is bungling customer orders, but everyone likes him too much to make a fus. Minnie is holding the family together and making plans for the future.
Harpo is his own best character. He loves harp, is really tight with Chico and, when they finally start performing in vaudeville, gets booed when he delivers lines like lead balloons. That experience led him to develop the puckish mute persona familiar to fans of the movies.
There is too much in the book to waste your time telling you about it. How can you describe a book that is pure joy? But Harpo was there the early immigrant experience, the heyday of vaudeville, the first talkies, the golden years of Hollywood, the Roaring Twenties, the Algonquin Club, the Depression and the Cold War. He captures all of it with an insider's eye for anecdote.
One of the best scenes takes place on a boat in Oct. 1929 when he loses everything but his shirt in the stock market crash. He and the others with him play a game that gets referenced near the end of the book in a poignant and utterly happenstance reunion.
When Harpo died, his brothers felt a crushing loss. Those who knew him did because he was that rare light that made the world around him a brighter, warmer place. When I finished the book, I felt the sun go down inside me.