The Classic Film Reading Challenge – Report #1
Son of Harpo Speaks
By Bill Marx, c. 2010 Applause books – Kindle edition, 328 pages.
I decided to join this challenge to goad me into doing more reading, and with my rather large home library, I had a lot to choose from. The challenge is rather simple, over the summer, read and write a report on the six books dealing with cinema, including actors and actresses. This is my first report.
I had only recently learned of this book, that being via an old podcast that featured Bill Marx, the aforementioned (adopted) son of Harpo and Susan, nee Fleming, Marx. I knew I wanted, nay, needed to read this. Harpo’s book – Harpo Speaks, is one of my favorite biographies, and I wondered what this would add to the story.
Add to this the fact that I did not know what to expect from this book, aside from a couple of stories mentioned in the podcast. I will say I quickly got caught up in Bill’s story, beginning at the old Dino’s Lounge (sadly demolished in 1985) and then flashing back to his earliest memories. Alex Wollcott, Harpo’s friend and Bill’s godfather and middle name namesake is here, singing the “I’m a little wabbit in the sunshine” song, also mentioned in Harpo’s book. Bill has a habit of casually dropping names, such as “Uncle George and Aunt Gracie”, or George Burns and Gracie Allen to us lesser mortals. Or Margaret Thomas, Danny Thomas’s daughter, who Bill takes to a prom, and who a few years later would change her name to Marlo. And then there is Marion Davies, a friend of Harpo and Susan and who was very important in helping them being able to adopt in the first place. Another favorite of mine is when Bill, now out of high school and moving to New York for college, spends his first away from home Christmas at the home of Margaret Hamilton. Yes, Christmas with the Wicked Witch of the West.
And yes, his father and uncles are sprinkled liberally throughout the book, from working with his Dad as his prop man when Bill was twelve, from being Groucho’s piano man at Groucho’s home parties near the end of Groucho’s life.
Bill’s story has a fantastic element to it when we return to Dino’s lounge and something happens (trying for no spoilers here), that will result in Bill discovering why he was originally put up for adoption, a sad story that would have made a great Hollywood movie in the 30’s. One of the things I appreciated in this book is when he writes about his adoptive mother, Susan Fleming Marx – or “mom” to Bill. I discovered more about her than we did in Harpo’s book.
Lastly, there is Harpo. Bill share’s his life with Harpo and revealing, at the time of the writing, he still had the trunkful of props Harpo used in his act. He also shares something that I sure most son’s have had…imaginary conversations with his long dead father.
So, in a sense, Harpo speaks again.