Thursday, January 5, 2017

Harpo Marx, Gookies, and Papa’s Cookies


Harpo (Adolf/Arthur) Marx is not a saint and not so much saint worthy either. If he read that line over my shoulder, he would nod in agreement and laugh out loud. 

Harpo was born in 1888 in Manhattan, New York. He performed in vaudeville with his brothers, Groucho, Chico, Gummo, and Zeppo for years before hitting it big on Broadway and later in motion pictures. He was also a self-taught harpist, close friends with theater critic, Alexander Woollcott, a member of the Algonquin Round Table (a NYC group of writers, critiques, actors, and comedians that met regularly from 1919 to 1929), a good-will ambassador to the Soviet Union in 1933, a croquet fanatic, son to Minnie and Frenchie, husband to Susan Fleming, and father to Bill, Alex, Jimmie, and Minnie. In his later years, Harpo suffered from a heart condition and died in Los Angeles, CA, on September 28, 1964. His humor, wit, and music continues to ripple joy throughout generations.

His autobiography, HARPO SPEAKS! was published in 1962 and is still in print. Considering the book is filled with references to people long dead and forgotten, that’s an amazing feat. One which was probably not his goal. He simply had a lot to say about his life, and he wanted to be heard.


I read this book over the holiday break because it’s one of my son’s favorite books. We should read the favorite books of people who are important to us as it helps us understand what makes them tick. Also, sometimes they’ve simply discovered a good book, and we should get in on it!

I also believed before opening the first page that somehow, Harpo Marx would be a good “saint” to connect to my father-in-law, Don Ross, Sr. However, I learned that they shared few characteristics. But Papa loved to laugh, and we have a few “Harpos” in the family. So more on that later.

I highly recommend HARPO SPEAKS! But first, ya gotta see the Marx Brothers movies. When I was a child during the late 70’s, these movies were on TV all the time. I’d watch them with my brothers who took the musical interludes as a signal to continue their ongoing “King Kong versus Godzilla” battle in the living room. My husband, Stuart, also enjoyed watching these movies during his childhood.

Zooming ahead a couple of decades, we were getting a family haircut and a Marx Brothers movie, Duck Soup, was on the TV above the chair. Our son, Donny, was mesmerized and that’s all it took for us to launch boldly into our family’s Marx Brothers phase.

Donny says the best movies are Night at the Opera  and A Day at the Races. I also like Room Service because Lucille Ball co-stars, and it has a good plot.

I love the musical number, Sing While You Sell, in The Big Store but the plot lacks. Luckily, you can purchase an album called “Marx Brothers: Riding the Range” which has many of their best songs.

HARPO SPEAKS! is almost 500 pages and filled with wonderfully descriptive memories. It’s a right good read covering his perception of American life from the turn of the 20th century through the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, the war years, and the prosperous fifties.

Instead of summarizing it, I’ll focus on those bits of spirituality and recipes for saintly living I discovered within the text.

Harpo dropped out of school during his second attempt at second grade due to bullying and an unsympathetic teacher. His mother, Minnie, was too busy managing his Uncle Al Shean’s music career, and his father was too busy working as a tailor and as the family cook to be concerned. 

Harpo eventually taught himself to read and became a beloved member of a famous literary club where he was a great listener. He also never spoke while performing. So he had plenty to say when it was time to dictate his notes for his autobiography's co-author, Rowland Barber. 

Harpo and his immediate family were non-practicing Jews. Although his grandfather tried to teach him the Torah, it was too much like school work for Harpo to stick with it. Yet, he did achieve his Bar Mitzvah and could still recite his speech 50 years later.

Here’s what Harpo said about his street education during those hungry years of his early childhood:

It was all part of the endless fight for recognition of foreigners in the process of becoming Americans. Every Irish kid who made a Jewish kid knuckle under was made to say “Uncle” by an Italian, who got his lumps from a German kid, who got his insides kicked out by his old man for street fighting and then went out and beat up an Irish kid to heal his wounds. Page 36

Once his Uncle Al made it big, Minnie turned her attention to getting her boys’ careers up and running. Simply put, without Minnie Marx’s inexhaustible efforts, her sons would never have become The Marx’s Brothers, nor would Harpo have ever played the harp. 

By the way, all the brothers received their stage names from a friend one day during a poker game and they stuck but good.

The path to Broadway was anything but easy. Once in 1917, things got so bad on the road, they were ready to split up the act and pursue solo careers and occupations. Harpo went for a long walk and brooded:

I was a man of nearly thirty years and here I was stranded in a strange city with seven cents in my pocket and no good way of earning cent number eight. It was the only time I had ever felt sorry for myself.

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—groceries, notions and dry goods—was being auctioned off. There were about twenty people there. They must have been jobbers, mostly, because the auctioneer was knocking down the stock in big lots. 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 out 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. The 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 key to 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.

When I got back to the hotel, the money had arrived from Uncle Al. Just as I anticipated, it had been decided that Groucho should audition as a single, Zeppo return to Chicago with Minnie, and Chico hire out as a piano player.

To all of these decisions I said: “Nuts.”

This was the longest serious speech I had ever made in front of the family, and everybody listened. Then everybody started talking. We talked ourselves out, until all our self-pity was gone. What had happened to us was our fault, not the Shuberts’ or anybody else’s. And what was going to happen to us would also be our own doing, not the Shuberts’ or anybody else’s.

Aboard the east-bound Pennsey, the other passengers on the coach kept complaining, so we bribed a porter a quarter and spent the night in the men’s room of the nearest Pullman car. I tootled on the clarinet and played pinochle with Chico. Groucho smoked on his pipe and read a book. Zeppo did deep knee-bends. At the same time, we were all working, throwing ideas into the kitty and putting together a show we could do back in New York. None of us stopped to think how idiotic and deluded we were. What show? For whom? We were not only exiled by the moguls, but now even the scavengers wouldn’t touch us.

Absolutely idiotic. And thank God we were. The train ride from Indianapolis to New York, clacking through the blackness from the end of the line to what looked like the beginning of nothing, was the most momentous jump we ever made. For me, it was the prologue to a new kind of life in a new kind of world. Page 161

I love everything about this section that ends chapter 10 and begins the rest of the story – it could be subtitled, Harpo Finds his Calling.

His calling is not what one would call spiritual on the surface. And yet, his legacy is one of goodness and laughter.

In fact, he didn’t consider himself a spiritual fellow at all, but he believed. In 1936 shortly after their marriage, he and Susan planned to adopt their children:

It wasn’t easy. Susan and I shared a deep love—for each other, for life, for all living things. We shared a faith in the same Divine Power, even if we had no handy stage name to call Him by. Yet on the records, we were incompatible. I was Jewish and she was Christian. Adoption agencies were sympathetic, but they warned us that because of our religious difference, the adoption procedures might be unusually long and involved. Page 407



It took time and lots of emphatic references from their celebrity friends before they could bring home little Billy. And later, Alex, Jimmie, and Minnie.


Harpo’s family was the light of his life. So much so that at age 75, he undertook a risky heart operation with the hope of increasing his years on earth.

Alas, this time, the odds were against him. He died the next day in the hospital on September 28, 1964, his and Susan’s 28th wedding anniversary.

People said Harpo played the harp like an angel. Check out this Youtube video and see if you agree.

Later, lyrics were added to his music to create this beautiful song, Guardian Angels.

Guardian Angels popped up for me during a time of recent grief and loss. It spoke to me so much I wanted to share it on social media. That’s when I learned that Harpo composed the music! 

Although, they shared much of the same American history, nothing special really connects Harpo Marx to my father-in-law, Don Horton Ross, Sr., a.k.a. Papa, except they were both hard working, good fathers who loved to laugh with their kids. I’m pretty sure that Papa was a fan of the Marx Brothers mostly because I don’t know anyone who isn’t.

I mean, how can you not laugh at a line like this?: “Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.” – Groucho Marx

It’s the laughter that connects them here in this post. It’s the laughter that connects Harpo to Groucho and the rest of his family, and it’s the laughter that connects Papa to the Marx Brothers and to his children, grandchildren, and the rest of our family.

There’s a Ross silliness that only a few of the Ross’s display – my husband has it, my late nephew, Phillip had it, my son Donny has it. Papa loved to laugh at these fools, because it connected them to the quiet silliness inside himself.

Harpo added a face to his act he called a “Gookie” after the cigar roller who made this face while he worked. Harpo was always “throwing a Gookie:”



Here’s Donny throwing a Gookie to his cousin:




Papa loved to laugh at Stuart and Phil with their Harpo musical performances:



And at Stuart and Donny when they clowned around.


Papa laughed and laughed, but was much too dignified to join in on the antics. On the other hand, perhaps he was more like Harpo than I had originally thought.

Harpo and Papa both played croquet.



And loved a good shot in pool.



And if this isn’t a Harpo face with D2 & D3, I don’t know what is:


In the evening on the day Papa passed peacefully away, he sent me a sign that he made it to heaven – the aroma and taste of chocolate cookies.

I’m further interpreting his sign as an assignment to share this recipe here in honor of Papa’s memory and delight in desserts and in Harpo’s memory of all things yummy and sweet.

CHOCOLATE BROWNIE COOKIES



(More photos below.)

Ingredients

16 ounces semisweet chocolate chopped
4 tablespoons butter
4 large eggs
1 ½ cups sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
12 ounces semisweet chocolate chips

Instructions:

1. In glass bowl, microwave chopped chocolate and butter, in 30 second intervals, about three times. Stir between each time. Be careful not to scorch.
2. Using electric mixer, beat eggs with sugar at medium speed about five minutes until thick.
3. Beat in vanilla.
4. Using a wooden spoon or rubber spatula, mix in melted chocolate.
5. In a separate bowl, combine salt, flour, and baking powder. Add and mix into batter.
6. Stir in chocolate chips.
7. Pour into a shallow baking dish, cover and freeze for about 1 hour.
8. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Drop 2-tablespoons worth of dough onto baking sheets with parchment paper (or reusable silicone sheets), space about two inches apart.
9. Bake for about 10 to 12 minutes, until cookies are crisp around the edges and cracked on top. Cool on cookie sheets for 10 minutes, then transfer to rack to finish cooling.

Makes about four dozen cookies.