"Many years ago," Harpo Marx once recalled, "a very wise man named Bernard Baruch took me aside and put his arm around my shoulder. 'Arthur my boy,' he said, 'I'm going to give you three pieces of advice, three things you should always remember.'
"My heart jumped and I glowed with expectation. I was going to hear the magic password to a rich, full life from the master himself. 'Yes sir?' I said.
"And he told me the three things. I regret that I've forgotten what they were..."
On a visit to New York, Harpo Marx was bombarded by requests from various charities to appear at their benefits. After one particularly persistent woman had called him a dozen times in two days, Harpo reluctantly agreed to appear for her cause.
Thus appeased, she offered to personally escort him to the venue. As they were leaving Harpo's hotel room, the telephone began to ring. "Don't you want to go back and answer it?" she asked. "Why bother?" Harpo replied wearily. "It's undoubtedly you again."
Humor ran like a rich vein through the Marx brothers' family. "Because we were a kid act, we traveled at half-fare, despite the fact that we were all around twenty," Groucho once recalled. "Minnie [their mother] insisted we were thirteen...
"'That kid of yours is in the dining car smoking a cigar,' the conductor told her. 'And another one is in the washroom shaving.' Minnie shook her head sadly. 'They grow so fast!'"
Harpo Marx loved to shock strangers with his zany antics. While dropping a friend off at the Pasadena train station one day, he noticed two elderly women sitting in the dining car. On impulse, Harpo raced aboard, seized their menu, tore it up and devoured it. One woman nonchalantly turned to the headwaiter. "Please let us have another menu," she said. "Someone has eaten ours."
For many years, fellow comedians George Burns and Harpo Marx played golf together every afternoon. Whereas Burns "absolutely hated the game" (which he 'played' for social reasons) and often sang while he was on the course, Harpo was a serious golfer who regularly shot in the low 80s.
One day Burns was playing with Harpo, who was having the best round of his life. After three holes, he was one under par. The fourth hole however was the toughest hole on the course: a 600 yard par five, with a small green surrounded by sand traps at the top of a steep incline. Sure enough, Harpo's third shot landed in one of the traps.
"Because I didn't want to disturb Harpo or make him nervous, I stayed at the bottom of the hill while he climbed to the top of the hill and got ready to hit his ball out of the trap," Burns later recalled. "Suddenly he looked down at me standing at the bottom of the hill and said, 'What are you doing down there, George?'
"I called back, 'you're one under par. I don't want to upset you by watching you hit out of the trap.' And he said, 'you are upsetting me. Come on up here, like you always do.'
"So I told him OK and I trudged up the hill and stood on the edge of the trap while he was preparing to strike the ball. I looked the other way so I wouldn't upset him.
"But then he asked, 'why aren't you watching me, George, like you always do?' And I explained again, 'Harpo, I don't want to upset you. You're one under par.' And again he said, 'you are upsetting me. Do what you always do.'
"So just as he took his back swing, I started to sing 'When Irish Eyes Are Smiling' in a very loud voice. And he missed the ball completely, which of course was the end of his under-par round."
Such was MGM chief Irving Thalberg's hectic schedule that even VIPs were often obliged to wait many weeks for an appointment - not to mention many minutes (or hours), on the "million-dollar bench" in Thalberg's anteroom, for the actual meeting.
When the Marx Brothers moved from Paramount to MGM in 1935, they arranged to meet with Thalberg at ten o'clock one morning. They arrived on time, waited several hours, were told to come back the next day at two o'clock, and left. Though they did meet with Thalberg the next day, he was an hour late. "Now, look, Mr Thalberg," Groucho said angrily, "we've been stars in three Broadway shows, in Vaudville and in motion pictures. When we have an appointment we are accustomed to having it kept. Yesterday we waited four hours and finally left. Today we were kept waiting an hour. In the future, don't ever call us unless we can see you at the appointed hour."
Thalberg apologized and promised to be more responsible. At the Marx Brothers' next meeting, he had them ushered into his office at the appointed time but was soon called away on urgent business. "Okay, let's show him," Harpo suggested. The brothers agreed and, after pushing Thalberg's filing cabinets against the door, climbed out through the window and left.
Sure enough, at their next meeting, Thalberg was right on time but was called away on urgent business once again. This time Harpo got some potatoes from the commissary kitchen and Chico and Groucho built a roaring fire in the office fireplace. When Thalberg returned, he found his visitors sitting by the fire roasting potatoes - completely naked! "Wait a minute, boys," he playfully ordered - and promptly had the commissary deliver some butter for the potatoes. He never walked out on the Marx Brothers again.
In 1936, Salvador Dali, a huge fan of the Marx Brothers work, met Harpo Marx in Paris. Some time later, Harpo was surprised to receive a Christmas gift from the famed Surrealist artist. It was a harp - with barbed wire strings.
The next year, Dali visited Harpo in California to suggest making a Daliesque Marx brothers film. Among the oddities featured in Dali's script? Flowers blooming from an armchair and Groucho Marx, as Buddha, answering a telephone with six arms. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Giraffes on Horseback Salad was never made.
While playing golf one hot summer day, Harpo Marx and George Burns elected to finish the round without their shirts. Upon returning to the clubhouse they were pointedly reminded of a rule forbidding members from playing topless.
"That's an outrage," Burns protested. "We can go swimming on a public beach without a top; why do we have to wear one here?" "Sorry," said the manager. "A rule is a rule."
The next day the pair reappeared on the course and played 18 holes wearing shirts as required. News of their outrageous appearance, however, soon reached the manager, who intercepted the jokers on the 18th green, demanding to be given an explanation.
"You were right," said Harpo. "The rules say you have to wear a shirt, but they don't say a word about wearing pants!"
Groucho and Harpo Marx were once invited to a bachelor party at a restaurant in a posh hotel. The brothers - having noticed that the elevator doors opened directly into the dining room - prepared a surprise for the assembled bachelors... and emerged with their clothes in valises, dressed only in top hats.
To their consternation, however, they were greeted not by the expected roars of male laughter but by the high-pitched shrieks of the bride and her friends, congregating in a dining room on another floor.
[Having pressed the wrong button, the brothers sought refuge behind a large potted plant, draped themselves in tablecloths, murmured abject apologies, and slinked ignominiously from the room.]
One day Harpo Marx was stopped for speeding on his way to a matinee Marx Brothers performance. He told the officer that he was playing in a show downtown and was already late. "I'm one of the Marx brothers," he explained, "and if you'll let me go, I'll give you two free seats." "I hate the Marx Brothers," the officer replied, producing his ticket book. "Well," Harpo continued, "would your wife like to go? I'll give her the seats." "My wife hates the Marx Brothers," he replied. "Well," said Harpo, "is there anyone in your family who does like us?" "Yeah," said the officer. "I think Aunt Sophie does." "Great," Harpo enthused. "How about two free seats for Aunt Sophie?" "Not on your life," the officer replied. "We hate Aunt Sophie!"
[Though this was one of Harpo's favorite stories, Chico's daughter insisted that, in fact, it had happened to Chico.]
"For one year and one month Oscar Levant declared my house his house," Harpo Marx once recalled. "For one year and one month he ate my food, played my piano, ran up my phone bills, burned cigarette holes in my landlady's furniture, monopolized my record player and my coffee pot, gave his guests the run of the joint, insulted my guests, and never stopped complaining. He was an egomaniac. He was a leech and a lunatic - but I loved the guy."
For years without fail, whenever Samuel Goldwyn and Groucho Marx met, Goldwyn's first words would be "How's Harpo?" Marx, growing tired of this, finally confronted Goldwyn:
"Listen, Sam," he began, "every time we meet - every time for years - you always ask, 'How's Harpo?' You never ask me anything else, and to tell you the truth, I'm getting god damned sick and tired of it. Why don't you ever ask me how I am?"
"How are you?" Goldwyn asked.
"I'm fine," Groucho replied.
"And how's Harpo?"
Harpo Marx, 006?
Shortly after returning home from a six-week tour of the Soviet Union in 1933, Harpo Marx informed his family that he had been asked by the American ambassador in Moscow to transport some "diplomatic mail" to America - mail, he claimed, which he had been instructed to conceal in his socks.
Many Marx Brothers fans, well aware of their antics, were understandably skeptical of such stories. Some time after Harpo's death in 1964, however, a letter, signed by FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, appeared congratulating Harpo on his "loyal services" and suggesting that "there may be ways that you can help your country again."
["Who knows what might have happened?" a family friend later mused. "Harpo Marx could have been the first James Bond!"]
While visiting W. C. Fields one day, Harpo Marx was shown into his host's attic. Harpo was astonished to find it filled with hundreds of cases of liquor. "Bill," he exclaimed, "what's with all the booze?" Explained Fields: "Never can be sure Prohibition won't come back, my boy!"
[Whenever the excise tax on liquor rose, Fields would complain that "the cost of living has gone up another dollar a quart."]
Harpo Marx was once invited to spend the weekend at Alexander Woollcott's home in Vermont. Harpo drove up in a broken-down Model-T Ford, a twenty-five-year-old beater with tattered side-curtains and accordion-pleated fenders.
"What on earth is that?" Woollcott asked, understandably incredulous. "Oh," Harpo declared, "this is my town car." "What town?" Woollcott replied. "Pompeii?"
[Trivia: In one of Pompeii's central intersections, archaeologists found a replica (made from cobblestones) of a man's penis. It appears to have been used as a pointer - to the local whorehouse.]
In 1961, Harpo Marx, the zany (but invariably silent) member of the famed Marx Brothers, penned a memorable autobiography. Its title? Harpo Speaks!
[One day early in his career, Harpo broke his stage silence when a fire broke out in a theatre in Detroit. "I didn't know what to say," he recalled, "so I just delivered the speech I made at my bar mitzvah. It quieted the audience until the fire was put out." (Associated Press, obituary)]
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