Friday, 7 September 2012

Harpo Speaks by Harpo Marx

I’ve been a lifelong fan of the Marx Brothers, but had never got around to reading Harpo’s biography until now.


The famous dumb act of the show – he never spoke on stage or screen – Harpo was second eldest of the brothers, and between leaving school at eight and starting out on the stage with his family, he did a multitude of jobs around New York, where he grew up. After several years of getting fired from one position after another, he tries out as a piano player, having learned two pieces from his brother Chico:

The address in the ad I answered for a piano player was on the Bowery. It turned out to be a saloon. When I told the bartender why I was there he jerked a thumb toward the back room and said, “Mrs. Schang.” In the back room stood the biggest woman I had ever seen. She was about six-foot-two and none of it fat, but all bone and muscle, a Powerful Katinka in the flesh. She was leaning on a piano, smoking a cigarette and drinking straight gin.

Mrs. Schang runs a honky tonk on Long Island called the Happy Times Tavern, which serves booze to the men digging the canals nearby and supplies them with girls later:

My job as Mrs. Schang outlined it was simple. “When I tell you to start playing the piano, you play,” she said. “If a fight starts you get behind the piano and stay there – understand? – until I tell you it’s safe to come out. I take care of all the fights around here.”

There are plenty of those in the place. The clientele thirsting for liquor, women and roughhouse. Sure enough on the first Saturday night, things kick off:

The brawl didn’t last long. Mrs. Schang waded into the thick of it swinging a bung-starter. By the time she’d heaved six guys out the back door, two at a time, the rest of the crew got the idea and quieted down. The seventh guy she grabbed was me. She hoisted me out from behind the piano and dropped me onto the stool. “I’m paying you to play, you son-of-a-bitch,” she said. “Play!”

Harpo works alongside Max the bartender, Mr. Schang and Christopher Schang, the landlady’s son.

Both Mr. Schang and Christopher took orders from the Madam the same as Max and all the rest of us. And like any of us, they would pass the warning along if the Madam started hitting the gin. When Mrs. Schang went on a binge, she would roar around the joint like a wounded bull. It was wise to stay out of her path on such occasions.

More than that, the rest of the staff aren’t all that they seem. Max, Christopher and Mrs. Schang are making an increasing number of mysterious nighttime “business trips” leaving Harpo to mind the bar while they’re gone. One night, Max doesn’t return and nothing is said of him again.

After Max’s disappearance Christopher stewed in a perpetual state of the jitters and the Madam got roaring drunk and stayed drunk. The mysterious business trips stopped. A week later Mrs. Schang finally sobered up. She had absorbed so much gin it stopped having any effect, and this seemed to make her madder than ever before. She came into the back room and grabbed me off the piano stool. “Get in the buggy, out front,” she said. “You’re driving tonight.” By the time I got in the buggy she was already there, waiting for me. then she told me to run to the kitchen and get a meat knife. When I did, she slit her pocketbook and stuck a pistol and a pint of gin between the cover and the lining. She said to get going, and fast. I asked where we were going. Mrs. Schang said, “Keep driving east until we get to the Pot O’ Gold. I’m going to kill Louie Neidorf.”

Sensibly, Neidorf doesn’t show up:

The Madam charged out of the Pot O’ Gold cursing a blue streak, with me running to keep up with her. Her eyes were wild and her hair was flying all over the place. She plotzed herself in the carriage and took out her gin bottle and took a long swig. I never saw anybody get so drunk so fast. All of a sudden she got the idea she had fired at Louie Neidorf and missed him. “You little son-of-a-bitch!” she screamed. “I missed!” Now it was all my fault.

After draining the gin bottle and letting out a curse I’d never heard from a woman’s lips before, Mrs. Schang takes over the reins and drives the horse back to the Happy Times Tavern as quickly as possible. Harpo wisely hides in the stable with the horse. The next night he passes out while at the piano, his head swimming with measles. The girls working the joint club together and get him a rail ticket back to the Upper East Side.

Harpo’s exit is timely, to say the least. As he recovers from measles his former employers are indicted as a violent gang of robbers who’d turned over at least twenty properties on Long Island. His years working Vaudeville afterwards are quiet in comparison...

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