Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Son of Harpo Speaks by Bill Marx

Son of Harpo Speaks!
by Bill Marx
February 2007
Applause Books – Hal Leonard
315 pages

My dad’s wonderful impact on people’s lives had given me an entree into a world I’m sure I would have otherwise never known.- Bill Marx

Whenever I think of classic film biographies written by the children of famous stars, books like Mommy Dearest and My Mother’s Keeper pop into mind. Those books, which may or may not exaggerate the truth, do not put the classic film stars in a good light. Son of Harpo Speaks! is not like that at all. Bill Marx, the oldest adopted son of Harpo Marx and actress Susan Fleming, wrote an autobiography which does double duty in that he talks about his own life journey while also paying tribute to his beloved father and mother. It’s a very charming book, written with a lot of respect and admiration and you can’t help but fall in love with Harpo Marx after reading it.

Harpo Marx married Susan Fleming in 1936 after much chasing on Fleming’s part because Harpo was very content to remain a bachelor. They had a long happy marriage which lasted until 1964 when Harpo Marx passed away. In 1938, Harpo and Susan adopted Bill in 1938 and adopted three more children (all at the same time!) several years later. They decided to adopt children when it was discovered Susan couldn’t bear children.

In the Son of Harpo Speaks! (a play on the title of his dad’s autobiography Harpo Speaks!), Bill Marx chronicles his life with his adopted parents Harpo and Susan, his adult life, career in the music industry and the story of his birth parents. I wouldn’t call it an autobiography per se but more a memoir. Although it reads chronologically and covers his life from beginning up until the present time (circa 2007), it’s focus is very geared towards Harpo Marx’s influence on Bill as a parent, friend and musical inspiration. Bill went on to become a composer and pianist. He even arranged and conducted the song "Please Don’t Eat the Daisies" which was the theme for the movie with the same name and sung by Doris Day!

To be honest, at first the book was a bit difficult to read. I felt that Bill Marx was trying too hard to be as funny as his dad. Also, at several points in the book the ghost of Harpo Marx speaks to his son and at first I found this odd but eventually I came to realize that this was Bill’s way of remembering his dad, dealing with some of his abandonment issues and imagining what he would have thought of Bill’s life after Harpo left it. A few chapters in, Bill Marx really finds his voice and the writing becomes a lot more natural and a lot less forced. It’s a quirky, charming book and it’s very clear that Bill loved his dad. Harpo wasn’t perfect, Bill acknowledges his dad’s his character strengths and flaws in a portrait that makes Harpo look like a loving father, talented and devoted performer and a good friend.

When I was young, [my dad] told me that it wasn’t what you do in life that’s important; it’s how you feel about yourself while you are doing whatever it is you are doing. As long as you aren’t hurting someone else in the quest of your dreams, always look for things to do that can bring you pleasure and personal fulfillment. – Bill Marx

I loved reading stories about Harpo, Susan and Bill. I laughed out while reading about the story of Harpo playing golf in the nude. Reading about Harpo’s death broke my heart. You’ll need to keep some tissues handy when you get to that part. The book is filled with never-before-published family photographs of Harpo, Susan, Bill, the Marx Bros., Harpo’s celebrity friends and many more. There are plenty of these pictures and they are a delight to look at. They are found throughout the book and placed in the appropriate context within the text rather than all grouped in the middle. There is not a lot about Bill’s adopted siblings in the book and there are a few parts of Bill's life that feel left out (although he acknowledges certain omissions like his second marriage). It’s not a salacious read by any means although Bill does devote one chapter to the Marx Bros.’ penchant for nudity and the ladies. In other parts of the book he discusses dating actress Marlo Thomas, some crazy stalkers he had and some interesting events that happened during his life travels. But if you are looking for gossip, look elsewhere.

There is a lot in this memoir to cherish and if you are a Marx Bros. fan with a particular love for Harpo, you need to read this book!

Full Disclosure: Thank you so much to Jaime from Hal Leonard for giving me the opportunity to review this book!

Stay tuned because tomorrow I will be posting an interview with Bill Marx himself!


  1. nice review Quelle! great to hear about its a tribute not an expose'! i immediately thought of our mutual friend Ginger when i saw the title of your post!

  2. Paulie - Hey thanks for your kind words! I've been working on the two Marx Bros. related book reviews and interviews since December (before Ginger's return to blogging) so please don't think I'm copying her. :-)

  3. haha no i didnt mean that! she's just such a fan of the bros that i cant help but think of her when i see something relating to them :) you are your own person Quelle, which is of course one of the great things about you :)

    but i will say between your posts and gingers i am really feeling the need for a marx bros marathon soon! some of their films have not been seen by me in decades :(

  4. Oh this is wonderful, Raquelle! A great write-up!! And I look forward to your interview tomorrow. :)

    I think you write about the brothers with so much more class than I do. And you do it so level-minded, if that makes sense.

    I envy it.

    Also: I understand what Artman was trying to say in the comments here; when you said, "There is a lot in this memoir to cherish and if you are a Marx Bros. fan with a particular love for Harpo, you need to read this book!" I too thought about me. ;)

    And I have wanted to read this book, but have put it off, due to something you touched on here: reading the memoirs of children-of-the-stars can sometimes be dangerous. But I knew, from websites, articles, and interviews, that Bill Marx was nothing but warm-hearted towards his father and the memory of his work.

    I'm so glad you and I are in love with the same thing at the same time! :)

    Have you read any books on Thelma Todd??


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