Thursday, February 9, 2012

Interview with Bill Marx, author of Son of Harpo Speaks!

I've had the absolute pleasure of getting to interview Bill Marx, the adopted son of actors Harpo Marx and Susan Fleming and the author of the book Son of Harpo Speaks! which I reviewed yesterday.

I tried to keep the questions spoiler-free so that you all will be encouraged to pick up the book yourselves and dive on in! A big thank you to Jaime from Hal Leonard for coordinating the interview and also to him and to Bill Marx for allowing me to post one of the never-before-published images from the book. I hope you enjoy the interview!


Raquelle: What is your favorite memory of your dad, Harpo Marx?

Bill: I have no real singular "favorite" memory of dad. He always made you feel comfortable with him, even on the occasion when he was angry with my behavior. (Of course, those times were fortunately very rare...heh, heh). So really, all of my memories are all my "favorites" because if you knew him, there were no surprises. Whatever it was, he always came straight from his heart. I suppose my most ingrained image of him was the vision of him after breakfast, practicing his music in front of the living room bay window, his harp resting gently on his shoulder as he transported himself to his other kind of surreal world.

Raquelle: What is your favorite memory of your mom, Susan Fleming?

Bill: Lots of good memories of mom as well. Aside from her natural beauty, I remember she had the toughest gig in the family as the Sergeant At Arms of the household. She was more practical than an idealist, strangely unsentimental, though with a great sense of humor, and had an opinion on just about everything, except that she would never talk about herself and her own feelings. But whenever I think of her, I think of the time that dad would come home at the end of the day, I can still remember the sight of the two of them performing their daily ritual of a big kiss on the lips, one that you could also hear the sound of way down the hall. The memory that is my most bittersweet is the time she suffered her final heart attack, and as the paramedics were wheeling her out to the ambulance, she looked up at me, with a loving smile and whispered, "Take good care of yourself, Willie......It's your turn now."

Raquelle: Out of all or your famous uncles, who were you the most close to and why?

Bill: Gummo was the easiest to be with. He was soft spoken and pretty mellow. Groucho was the most intriguing of my uncles because he was a very unpredictable character. You had to be on your game at all times with Groucho. Though I toured with Chico and dad when I was but twelve, I believe maybe because of the 50 year generation gap between us, he was more or less indifferent to me, as he was usually in his own world with his peers, and rarely in good health, except when re-energized by any available Gin or Poker game. Zeppo, too, was usually in his own world with his peers and was difficult to get to know. However, my mom did have a wonderful relationship with his first wife, Marion.

Raquelle: Tell us about a little about your dad’s musical talents as a harpist?

Bill: Dad was a self-taught musician. No academic training. He had to pick up everything either by ear or reading a system of musical notation that I created for him to be able to learn new songs or arrangements. I would write out the letters of the alphabet in place of the corresponding musical notes. Aside from the harp, he could play piano, clarinet, and chromatic harmonica, learned by the hunt and peck, search and destroy methods he used for his constant, creative discoveries.

Raquelle: For those who haven’t read your book yet (which they should soon!), could you tell us a bit about your own musical career?

Bill: Nutshell career as a musician: Juilliard trained in composition; composed concerti for violin, flute, alto saxophone, piano, harp, and double harps, plus various other symphonic works, Motion Pictures, Television, Records, and concertized all over the country as a jazz pianist. More than anything else in music, I enjoy the energy and excitement of live performance when playing the piano, being able to communicate with audiences right then and there, instantly.

Raquelle: How did Son of Harpo Marx Speaks! come together and why did you decide to write it?

Bill: I wrote Son of Harpo Speaks! for two reasons. Siblings of Groucho's and Chico had written books about their father, but no one from Harpo's family had done so. I thought it was time to complete the trifecta. Yes, there are new stories about the Marx Brothers never before published, and the close father/son and professional relationship dad and I shared together. But the book has another story that I hope people find very compelling; that of the "too Hollywood to believe" way I came to become a part of Harpo's and Susan's lives. I chose to write about that only after mom's passing in 2002, carefully respecting her lifetime role as my mom, the parent. It is a weird story about rejection, abandonment, adoption, and acceptance that I believe many can relate to and understand the accompanying feelings attached to these issues that can affect a lifetime of one's behavior.

Raquelle: You have so many wonderful photographs in your book. I especially love the one of your dad Harpo with yourself and your three siblings at Christmas time. You are all wearing big grins and look so happy to be together. How did you select which pictures to include and did these pictures come from your own collection or from other sources?

Bill: All of the photographs and images come from my collection and have never previously been published. I selected them for the book primarily to connect with and/or advance the plot lines. I also wanted easy access for the reader to see the people and things I was referring to at the time they were reading about them.

Raquelle: You have met a lot of famous people in your life. I loved reading about how you worked with Doris Day and when you played piano at a party with Jack Lemmon. Who was your favorite celebrity (besides your Dad and your uncles of course!)?

Bill: I suppose George Burns was the most remarkable celebrity I have ever met. The last time I saw him he was about 98 years old. He saw me and walked toward me with conviction, and then we hugged each other for at least a good 15 seconds. I shall never forget the moment, nor the feeling I had in my arms while holding his frail, skeletal body to me. He was unique, special, a comedic genius.
Maybe the most gifted celebrity that I would see from time to time was Jack Lemmon. Not only a superb actor, he was a very good piano player, and great fun to be around, just like my secret idol, Steve Allen, who I had the great pleasure of working with for a number of charity events.

Raquelle: In your book, you mention that your mother and actress Gloria Stuart were best friends. You even likened them to Oscar and Felix from The Odd Couple (which is one of my favorite TV shows!). Could you tell us a little more about their friendship?

Bill: The Odd Couple (1968) was a wonderful movie with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, and later became a smash TV sitcom. It revolved around the comedic formula of putting two people of opposite behaviors together, (the slob, Felix Unger, and the anal retentive, Oscar Madison) hoping they will somehow eventually learn to live together by tolerating one another, and maybe ultimately even get to become loving friends. Mom's look at life was closer to Felix's, more orderly. Gloria Stuart, mom's dearest friend for over fifty years, was pretty much the free spirited, creative but non-domesticated Oscar. In other words, as I write in my book, pretty much exact opposites...and they did attract.

Raquelle: What do you hope readers come away with when they read your book?

Bill: I hope that there will be something for everyone in Son of Harpo Speaks! that will strike a positive note about Fate, and how it can play a profound part in our lives on this tiny planet in our universe. It sure has with me, and I hope everyone will finish my book with a big smile and warmth in their heart.

P.S. For more about Harpo Marx and his family, go to: 

Thank you Bill!


  1. Nice job. I interviewed him and his sister for my book last year. Isn't he a scream!

  2. Great interview, very much enjoyed this.

  3. my god, how awesome! thanks you so much for posting this! tho i havent watched a marx bros film in many years now (i am overdue for a revisit!) they were a staple while i was growing up, they are like old friends to me and i have mny fond memories of watching them as a kid. i really need to get that book!!!

  4. Nick - Wow your book sounds wonderful! I checked out your blog yesterday. It must have been so much fun to interview the children of classic film stars.

    Jacqueline - Thank you !

    Paulie - Yay! I'm so glad you liked it. Yes you are WAY overdue for a Marx Bros. viewing. Which one will you see first?

  5. no doubt i will view them in chronological order....its how i (usually) roll, lol!

  6. Great job, Raquelle! And a great interview.

    Thanks for sharing this with us.

    I like the picture of Christmas morning...

    It's nice to see our gods as humans. And a fellow parent!

  7. Paulie - Chronological, me like!

    Ginger - Thanks so much! It is very nice to see the human side to our beloved classic film stars, especially when it turns out they were genuine people.

  8. A charming interview, Raquelle...I so enjoyed it! I've been a Marx Bros. fan since high school (a long, long time ago). When other kids got cars and money for graduation, my dad gave me a book on the Marx Brothers! I'll surely enjoy Bill's book and can't wait to read it. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. As an adopted child, I think I'll appreciate it on many levels.

  9. I enjoyed the book very much and your interview. Grew up watching the Marx Brothers and thought they were the best. Bill has a special place in my heart, but why shouldn't he, he is my Godfather. I am baby Paul from the book :)


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