Way back in spring, I happened to come across the book Harpo Speaks in the library and, as I usually do with any book that seems the least bit interesting, curiously opened to the first chapter. After two pages (plus the funny personalized inscription inside the cover) I was hooked. I didn’t even know anything about Harpo Marx, aside from the fact that he never spoke on camera, but I checked out the book and read all 475 pages over the course of a week and a half (which happened to be – not so coincidentally – right around the time of finals). I don’t think it was very conducive to my studying, but it kept me entertained, and for that reason I was really sad to come to the end of it. Like, really sad. It was then I decided that autobiographies are my favorite kind of book, maybe because reading them is so bittersweet. At least, that’s the case with most of the autobiographies I’ve read, which are almost always written by people who have long since passed away. It’s like you go on a journey with this person through their entire life, listening to them tell their story, but in the end, you’re the one who knows how the full story ends.
But anyway, Harpo’s book was like the prime example of a perfect autobiography. More than once I laughed aloud while reading it. Also more than once I had tears in my eyes. I can’t even remember the last time a book made me cry (ok scratch that, I can: The Hundred Secret Senses by Amy Tan…I was in the backseat of my parents’ car sniffling and reaching for tissues). Everything about this book – the way it’s written, the hilarious, often unbelievable content, the author himself – is impossible not to love. It covers literally everything from the vaudeville days in turn-of-the-century New York to Harpo’s “retirement” in mid-1960s Palm Springs. I love that it’s long enough to establish running jokes with the reader, and that you really get to know every single person in the book, just like Harpo did. I had bookmarked several passages that I especially loved, and because I hadn’t gotten around to writing them down, I’ve kept the book all summer. I must have renewed it 20 times, haha. I guess before the library comes after me I should save the parts I like and return it.
I bookmarked so many pages, but these are some of my favorites. I loved them so much I don’t mind spending two hours typing up this entry (which is what I’ve been doing, haha). I especially enjoyed the stories from Harpo’s childhood, which he told with such wonderful imagery and enthusiasm that I’d be completely content if the first third of the autobiography was a book in itself. I still cannot for the life of me figure out how to hide text/pictures with a cut, so I’ve just bombarded my blog with italicized text. And I don’t mind:
Back when the Giants were in New York:
I was a loyal fan but I could never afford, naturally, the price of admission to the Polo Grounds. Then I discovered a spot on Coogan’s Bluff, a high promontory behind the Polo Grounds, from which there was a clear view of the ballpark. Well, a clear view – yes, but clear only of the outside wall of the grandstand, a section of the bleachers, and one narrow, tantalizing wedge of the playing field.
So to tell the truth, I didn’t really watch the Giants. I watched a Giant – the left fielder.
When the ball came looping or bounding into my corner of the field, I saw real live big-league baseball. The rest of the time – which was most of the time – I watched a tiny man in a white or gray uniform standing motionless on a faraway patch of grass.
Other kids collected pictures of Giants such as McGraw, McGinnity, and Matthewson. Not me. I was forever faithful to Sam Mertes, undistinguished left fielder, the only New York Giant I ever saw play baseball.
Eventually I came to forgive Sam for all the hours he stood around, waiting for the action to come his way. It must have been just as frustrating for him down on the field as it was for me up on the bluff. It was easy for pitchers or shortstops to look flashy. They took lots of chances. My heart was with the guy who was given the fewest chances to take, the guy whose hope and patience never dimmed. Sam Mertes, I salute you! In whatever Valhalla you’re playing now, I pray that only right-handed pull-hitters come to bat, and the ball comes sailing your way three times in every inning.
[after realizing the Marx family is broke]:
I came out of my daze. I was startled to find I was standing watching an auction sale. The inventory of a little general store in the suburbs was being auctioned off. There were about twenty people there. I was careful to keep my hands in my pockets, so I could resist any crazy impulse to make a bid, and blow my entire capital of seven cents.
The shelves were nearly emptied and most of the crowd had left, but I still hung around, having nothing better to do with myself. Finally everything was gone except one scrub brush, the former owner, hovering in the background, the auctioneer, myself, and an elderly Italian couple. They elderly couple had been there all the time. Either they had no money or they were too timid to make a bid on anything. Whichever it was, they exchanged sad looks now that the auction was winding up.
The auctioneer was tired. “All right,” he said. “Let’s get it over with and not horse around. I have left here one last desirable item. One cleansing brush in A-number-one, brand-new condition, guaranteed to give you floors so clean you can eat off them. What am I offered?”
The old Italian guy and his wife looked at each other, searching for the right thing to say. The auctioneer glared at them. “All right!” he yelled. “It’s only a goddam scrub brush!” They held on to each other like they had done something wrong.
I said, quickly, “One cent.”
The auctioneer whacked his gavel. He sighed and said, “Sold-thank-God-to-the-young-American-gentleman-for-one-cent.”
I picked up my brush and handed it to the old lady. She was as touched as if I had given her the entire contents of the store. The old man grabbed my hand and pumped it. They both grinned at me and poured out a river of Italian that I couldn’t understand. “Think nothing of it,” I said, and added, “Ciao, eh?” – which was the only Italian I could remember from 93rd Street.
They thought this was pretty funny, the way I said it, and they walked away laughing. I walked away laughing too. A day that had started out like a nothing day, going nowhere except down, had turned into a something day, with a climax and a laugh for a finish. I couldn’t explain it, but I hadn’t felt so good in years. A lousy penny scrub brush had changed the whole complexion of life.
It was a sparkling clear morning in May. After the kids went off to school I felt like practicing an extra hour or so before shooting a round of golf, so I moved the harp out by the big west window.
Susan was in her room, sewing, working on a dress for Minnie’s first dance. The dogs climbed out of the pool, shook themselves, and ran off to look for the horses, to see if they could get up a friendly game of tag. The only sound was the sound of the harp. There was no wind outside. The nearest thing to any movement was the changing of the shadows on the mountains, as the sun rose in the sky. I was surrounded by peace.
I got to thinking as I played about how lucky I was to be who I was, where I was – an old faun’s ass, the father of four children, sitting in an air-conditioned house, admiring the spectacle of the California desert while I made music, with nothing more to worry about than whether I should keep making music and enjoying the view and then play nine holes of golf, or quit now and play eighteen holes. I decided to keep practicing.
Some of the rules that came to be established in the Marx household:
-Life has been created for you to enjoy, but you won’t enjoy it unless you pay for it with some good, hard work.
-If anything makes you sore, come out with it. Maybe the rest of us are itching for a fight too.
-If anything strikes you funny, out with that too. Let’s all the rest of us have a laugh.
-If you have an impulse to do something you’re not sure is right, go ahead and do it. Take a chance. Chances are, if you don’t you’ll regret it.
-If it’s a question of whether to do what’s fun or what is supposed to be good for you, and nobody is hurt by whichever you do, always do what’s fun.
-If things get too much for you and you feel the whole world’s against you, go stand on your head. If you can think of anything crazier to do, do it.
-Don’t worry about what other people think. The only person in the world important enough to conform to is yourself.
-Anybody who mistreats a pet or breaks a pool cue is docked a month’s pay.
For someone whose voice was silent for so many years, Harpo sure had a lot to say, haha. And I’m so glad he did.