Susan Fleming Marx had an undistinguished career on Broadway and in films. Her best-known film is the W.C. Fields comedy,
Million Dollar Legs.
Her greatest role, and the one she cherished most, was as the wife of Harpo Marx, and mother to their four children. She chronicles her 28-year marriage to Harpo in the posthumously published memoir,
Speaking of Harpo
"She was a wonderful person," her eldest son, Bill, said in a phone interview. "She was a woman without a life of her own until she met Harpo. Everything she did in show business she did for her mother, but it was not something she really enjoyed."
Fleming Marx died in 2002 at the age of 94. She began her memoir in the early 1980s as part of a writing course, but abandoned it for years at a time, according to the book's Afterword written by her collaborator Robert Bader, author of
Four of the Three Musketeers
, an essential book about the Marx Brothers' career in vaudeville and on Broadway. He worked with her over the decades, giving her pushback when she was unconvinced that anyone would be interested in the non-Harpo part of her life as a low-level contract player in 1930s Hollywood.
Speaking of Harpo
is welcome companion to Harpo's own memoir,
(Bill, too, wrote a memoir,
Son of Harpo Speaks
). It fleshes out stories he shared about their idyllic life together, but it also addresses subjects he did not, such as his work with writer Ben Hecht to establish a British-free Palestine. "Harpo was greatly moved by Ben's passion and told him of the antisemitism he witnessed in Europe and Russia in 1933," she writes.
One of the most powerful passages in the book relates a trip to New York in the mid-1950s. Harpo was to appear on
The Martha Raye Show
. During the visit, Fleming Marx writes, Harpo overheard his wife's own mother refer to him as a "kike." Bill Marx remembers the incident vividly. He was attending Julliard at the time. "He was crushed," he recalls. "He was visibly shaken. I noticed it and asked mom what was the matter. Dad handled it internally. He never complained about it. He was very gracious to my grandmother. I never saw him angry. I saw him more disappointed in certain people and their behavior."
Bill Marx said that his father never spoke with him directly about prejudice and bigotry, but Harpo's treatment of all people as equals spoke volumes. According to the book, Harpo was penalized by southern theater owners after insisting that Black people not be restricted to the upper balcony. "I learned by his example," Bill Marx said. "I watched him around all kinds of people when we were on the road. Dad got Hillcrest Country Club to open up membership to non-Jews. Danny Thomas got in because of my dad."
He shared a story about his father that Fleming Marx relates in her book. His parents and author James Michener traveled to Israel in 1961 on behalf of the State Department. It was Harpo's first visit to the country. "He was walking down the street with Mom in Tel Aviv," Bill said. "And he says to her, 'You know, this is the first time in my life that I have felt it's okay to be a Jew. I feel safe here.'"
The essence of his father, he said, can be found in the lyrics to the song, "Nature Boy," which was popularized by Nat King Cole: "The greatest thing you'll ever learn/is just to love and be loved in return."
Donald Liebenson is a Chicago writer who writes for VanityFair.com, LA Times, Chicago Tribune, and other outlets.