Son of Harpo Speaks!
Book review by Nelhydrea Paupér
The portrait of his father Harpo is uncomplicated. A loving, devoted, gentle man, Harpo is full of humor and practical jokes, an almost avant-garde openness to new types of art and music (including modern jazz and an enthusiastic announcement in 1964, much to his Julliard-educated son’s consternation, that he loves the Beatles) and a deep, wise intelligence that gives no hint of an education limited to the second grade.
Like his three younger siblings, Bill Marx was adopted by Harpo and Susan at a time when would-be parents still visited orphanages and pick out the child they wanted. Bill’s adoption required assistance from Susan’s friend Marion Davies, who helped smooth the way for a second wedding, this time Catholic, between the Jewish Harpo and nominally Episcopalian Susan, allowing them to meet the birth mother’s stipulation that the boy be raised in a Catholic home. Following the adoption the family experienced several months of weekly home visits by a woman from the agency, causing the Marxes to drag out crosses and holy water from the closet for each visit. Harpo finally had enough and one day answered the door stark naked. They were never visited again.
Later in the book he details the absolutely astonishing story of how he accidentally discovered his birth family, a tale so farfetched it could only have been either conceived by Dickens or actually be true.
Harpo hired his son at age twelve to be his personal prop man while he toured England with brother Chico in 1948. Thus young Billy was responsible for maintaining the innumerable items that filled the various pockets and sleeves of his father’s famous coat. He goes on to describe accompanying Harpo on his various TV appearances, including the legendary episode of I Love Lucy.
Marx the Younger went on to become the music arranger for his father’s two 1950s instrumental albums, which hover between muzak and exotica, the first of which features the Chico Hamilton Quintet as Harpo’s band. Marx went on to make a name for himself as a composer and arranger, notable for his early 1970s AIP film scores (Count Yorga, Vampire; Scream, Blacula, Scream, etc.)
Marx’s career is a curio to anyone interested in 1950s and ‘60s American popular music. He was signed as the first white artist on the black-owned label Chicago Vee-Jay Records (before the Beatles) for which he released a few easy listening LPs, mainly as The Castaway Strings (“The Bobby Vinton Songbook”). He spent most of the Sixties as the piano man at Dino’s Lodge, Dean Martin’s famed cocktail lounge on the Sunset Strip. Aside from his stint at AIP, he has sporadically scored and arranged music for films and TV (Murphy’s Romance, Who’s That Girl, Fantasy Island), as well as composed concert commissions.
Marx makes no bones about the fact that he is not a writer, and the book could have used more guidance. More detail about his day to day home life growing up with his family would have been especially welcome. But enthusiasm and warmth fill the book, and personal photos are everywhere, making this a must for Marx Brothers fanatics.