Chico & Harpo Marx in production still from Duck Soup (1933, dir. Leo McCarey)
Harpo Marx, with his bewigged children Alec, Jimmy, & Minnie (1954)
“In the house in Beverly Hills where our four children grew up, living conditions were a few thousand times improved over the old tenement on New York’s East 93rd Street we Marx Brothers called home. But my mother and father would have approved of the way my wife, Susan, and I ran the place in California. Like the East Side tenement, our house was seldom without the sound of music or laughter or questions being asked or stories being told. One of our kids’ favorite stories was about how they came to be adopted.
They used to sit around Susan and me on the bedroom floor in their bunny-type pajamas while we told ‘The Story’, as we came to call it. We played it for suspense, like an old-fashioned cliff-hanger, and how they loved it!
Susan, an only child who never had any roots, & I, a lone wolf who got married 20 years too late, were adopted by the kids as much as they were by us. We decided we would tell them they were adopted as soon as they could understand speech. We’d seen some pretty sad cases where parents kept putting off telling their adopted children the truth; & the kids, told too late, were full of resentment and a feeling of being unwanted. In our case, since we were all an adopted family, we had equal amounts of gratitude and respect mixed in with our love for one another.
We started telling the kids where they had come from in the form of a true-adventure bedtime story when Alex was two, and Jimmy and Minnie were scarcely a year old. By the time they were four and three they couldn’t go to bed without hearing ‘The Story’.”
-excerpted from Harpo Tells a Story, Reader’s Digest, 1962
Salvador Dalí sketching Harpo Marx (1937, via).
Dalí, a huge Marx Brothers fan with a particular admiration for Harpo, whom he viewed as “the most surrealist figure in Hollywood”, sent him a harp with barbed wire for strings and forks & spoons for tuning knobs as a Christmas present in 1936. Delighted, Harpo wrote Dalí that he would be “happy to be smeared by you” if the artist ever found himself in Hollywood. The next month Dalí arrived, brushes and easel in hand. The resultant painting is lost, but a monochrome pencil-and-ink study has survived (here).
Dalí wrote an entertaining, if rather implausible, account of this meeting in a 1937 Harper’s Bazaar article:
“I met Harpo for the first time in his garden. He was naked, crowned with roses, and in the center of a veritable forest of harps (he was surrounded by at least five hundred harps). He was caressing, like a new Leda, a dazzling white swan, and feeding it a statue of the Venus de Milo made of cheese, which he grated against the strings of the nearest harp. An almost springlike breeze drew a curious murmur from the harp forest. In Harpo’s pupils glows the same spectral light to be observed in Picasso’s.”
Dalí later wrote a script for a Marx Brothers movie, Giraffes on Horseback Salad, which included, among other things, burning giraffes wearing gas masks & Harpo catching dwarves with a butterfly net. The film was never made. Groucho Marx, that killjoy, claimed to have scuttled the project: “It wouldn’t play.”