In this exclusive interview with Antique Trader, Harpo Marx’s son shares intimate details on life with dad and The Marx Brothers. Vintage Marx Brothers memorabilia, autographs and photos remain some of the most-prized collectors’ items from that era, with Harpo Marx’s iconic hat and wig recently selling for $45,000.
By Jamie Brotherton
With their clever wit, unforgettable barbs and outlandish actions declaring war on society, The Marx Brothers left an indelible mark in show business history as the greatest comedy team ever. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the trio’s comedy act, and while The Marx Brothers continue to delight audiences with their celluloid escapades, Marx memorabilia remains some of the most-prized collectors’ items from that era.
Brimming with character and talent, The Marx Bros. — Groucho (1890-1977), Chico (1887-1961), Harpo (1888-1964), Zeppo (1901-1977) and sometimes Gummo (1892-1077) — were unparalleled performers. Their anarchic, slapstick humor turned dignified settings into playhouses for Groucho’s outrageous puns and wisecracks, Harpo’s horn honking and girl chasing and Chico’s distorted logic. Zeppo appeared in their first five films as straight man.
Just as still waters run deep, so, too, did Harpo Marx. His stage and screen character was mute, but his persona translated loudly, and he kept audience members enthralled with his brand of comedy that integrated a manic zaniness from chasing women and clever pantomiming to his bottomless raincoat of gags, all adding up to joyful pandemonium.
When Harpo sat at his harp to deliver on-the-spot melodies, he became an entirely different person. Aside from his famous persona, Harpo was a skilled painter, avid golfer, devoted husband (to actress Susan Fleming) and father to four children: Bill, Alex, Jimmy and Minnie.
Eldest son Bill Marx continues to toot his dad’s horn and preserve his beloved memory. A gifted artist in his own right, Bill Marx began his career at age 12, working alongside his father, with Harpo appointing the important position of prop man to his son. Bill painstakingly kept order of all his dad’s props for his shows, cared for his harp and, by age 16, eventually became Harpo’s personal arranger and conductor for his concerts. Father and son went on to enjoy 12 professionally creative years together that included two albums for Mercury Records. Bill attended the prestigious Juilliard School of Music and has worked in nearly every venue in the music industry, ranging from a composer and arranger for film and television to symphonic writing and jazz piano. In addition to his work as a musician and a speaker, he recently completed “Son of Harpo Speaks!” (Bear Manor), an intimate look into his life and what it was like growing up around The Marx Brothers.
Bill’s mission is to shed new light on his father’s legacy, presenting him as a multi-faceted artist, not simply an exuberant imp who was fond of making funny faces. Antique Trader sat down with Bill the last living person to have worked with all three Marx Brothers, to learn the difference between Harpo the performer and the Harpo the man.
This 47-inch by 63-inch French poster from the 1939 MGM film “At the Circus” sold for $1,300 during a July 2011 poster auction at Heritage Auctions. The movie tells the tale of hired-hand Antonio (Chico), hanger-on Punchy (Harpo) and shyster lawyer J. Cheever Loophole (Groucho), who help save the day when a circus owner is about to lose everything. Groucho’s spirited rendition of Lydia, the Tattooed Lady, is the highlight of this Marx Brothers comedy, which co-stars Margaret Dumont and Eve Arden. This French grande features colorful caricature artwork by Poapoisso.
Antique Trader: What was it like to grow up as son of Harpo Marx and nephew to the other Marx Brothers?
Bill Marx: Growing up, we were never Marxophiles. He was not Harpo, and they were not Groucho, Chico, Gummo and Zeppo. He was dad, and they were uncles. They were also so much older than I was. Dad was 50 years older, so I only had about 25 years with him. That was enough to be inspired. I learn more about him as I get older, and I appreciate more of what I absorbed when I was young. The things that Dad would tell me — when I was probably much too young to really understand the importance of — I am able to draw on today.
AT: What are some sides of Harpo Marx we don’t readily see?
BM: In his later life, he was trying to pace himself, so it was easygoing at the house. If there was a punch line or a reason for something to be funny, he was right there with it. He was also a very serious man, but only when it required him to be serious. He had a wisdom about him that is very rare. There are a lot of very smart people in the world, but you have to be able to translate that into wisdom. That is a very rare quality. People gravitated towards him, even intellectuals. One of the beautiful things about Dad is that he listened. That is how he got his education, by listening to people. After his heart attacks, he decided he wasn’t going to feel badly; he would use the expression, “Every day I am living on velvet.”
AT: What was your experience on a Marx film set?
BM: When you come to a movie shoot, it is quite different from being on the stage. The Brothers were far more spontaneous on the stage. They would not necessarily say the same lines, whereas, the movie set was far more structured. I was on two sets, “A Night in Casablanca” (1946), when I was 7 or 8, and “Love Happy” (1949) at age 12. I didn’t see a whole lot of stuff, but would go there with Mom after school and watch Dad do a little bit.
AT: Tell us about your experience working professionally with Harpo Marx.
BM: To me, it was just working with my dad. He was not Harpo; he was my dad, and it was a job. I wasn’t saying, ‘Oh, boy, I’m doing this for an icon or for a famous person.’ It was because Dad was showing me the ropes and letting me in on his work, and once again he wasn’t letting me in on his celebrity, but his work. He validated me as a professional. How often does a father give a 16-year-old the opportunity to become an arranger and conductor? We’re talking about Harpo Marx! He had a lot of faith in me, and I didn’t realize how profound that was until many years later.
AT: How would you define your personal and professional relationship with The Marx Brothers?
BM: I worked with Groucho toward the last 7 to 8 years of his life. I played piano for him and helped him get through a difficult time in his life by giving emotional support. Groucho was a very difficult person to be around, but he wasn’t difficult with me. We got along just fine. He was not a happy person. If he was not performing, he was a little sardonic. He wasn’t a malicious person, but he could be acerbic and had a way of turning a phrase. Nothing was ever personal; it was just his way. He loved that fourth wall; that was his whole life. Without it he was a dead man walking.
As an uncle, he was kind of distant. Groucho was Groucho. I don’t know any other way to say it. I got the feeling Groucho was always a little bit preoccupied with a fellow by the name of Groucho. Chico was indifferent to almost everybody. He was the salt of the earth — had the latest joke to tell, a gambler, a ladies’ man, kind of irresponsible, inaccessible and just floated around. He was a womanizer, and once the IRS called Gummo and said, ‘We’re looking for your brother, Chico; he owes us a lot of money. Do you know where he is?’ Gummo said, ‘Well, you haven’t looked very hard. There are only two places he could be: either on a horse or a woman.’
Gummo had his sense of humor, too, and he was the easiest one for me to get along with. He didn’t like show business, so when he got out of the act, he became their personal manager later on.
Zeppo became a professional gambler, and the family threatened to disown him if he didn’t get out. He was a lot younger than the oldest, so it took him a while to get into the act. He always felt left out and kind of had a chip on his shoulder. He liked to duke it out with people and was as much a gambler as Chico. As I said in my book: ‘Chico wanted to win, but Zeppo wanted to beat the crap out of you.’
AT: What type of relationship did the brothers have with each other?
BM: They were really bonded, through thick and through thin. They were always loyal to one another. Groucho’s finest quality was his loyalty toward his brothers. They were absolutely unique; not one of them was like the next.
AT: Your dad was an excellent painter. Tell us about his art.
BM: He did a drawing of an accordion player in 1926, but it wasn’t until after his first heart attack in the 1950s when he began producing. He found great joy whiling away the hours. He did them for hospitals, charities, and never took a penny. He loved to paint. He was self taught, like everything, else except for maybe a few lessons. His paintings had depth, and Dad was the ultimate surrealist. He was the only entertainer to ever sit for Salvador Dali. Dad also occasionally painted for a while with my mom and her closest friend, Gloria Stuart, or as I sometimes call them, “The Odd Couple.” Mom and Gloria had a real camaraderie.
AT: Harpo’s ephemera is highly collectible today. What has become of his memorabilia?
BM: My sister and I have some of his paintings; then there are some spread all over hospitals, charities, even eBay. When Dad passed away, Mom and I went to Israel and donated one of his harps to the Rubin Academy of Music (now the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance). It is still being used to this day, which is great. I have his practice harp, his prop trunk still packed as he left it, among other things. I’m hoping to have these items put on display.
AT: How would you describe your personal journey from musician to author?
BM: Groucho and Chico’s children had written books about their fathers, but none of Harpo’s children wrote a book about him until I did. Now I feel I have completed the triumvirate that there are unique takes from the children of the three major Marx Brothers, which has now been tied up in a knot. I have also explored every conceivable part of the music industry, because I always wanted to try something new to keep things fresh. What I quite frankly love the most is sitting at a little club where I play the piano for people two nights a week. My pleasure is to ask someone, ‘What do you want to hear?’ If you know your request, I’ll play it, and if I don’t know your request, I’ll play it anyway!
AT: You should be very proud of your preservation efforts.
BM: I’m just a mere conduit to icons that ran around in crazy outfits in World War I and World War II. There are two things that are important to me in life, and not necessarily in this order: music and humor. Those are my staples. Dad said the only weapon people are born with is your sense of humor. Allan Sherman said it well about Dad: “Harpo Marx had the good sense to never grow up.” If I had to describe Dad in one sentence, it would be: He is the wish in all of us.
Jamie Brotherton is a freelance writer based in Cincinnati. She has written about Ben Chapman, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, Alan Young and the lovable Mister Ed and Deana Martin talking about her famous dad, Dean Martin. She may be reached via email.