Harpo (and me/I)

(Warning: This article may be chiefly of interest to fellow Marx Brothers fanatics…)

On Easter Monday, at 11 pm, BBC Radio 4 are broadcasting a programme that I have long dreamt of making: a documentary about my hero of heroes, Harpo Marx, the wonderful, angelic, silent Marx brother whose loveable, anarchic humour never ages – perhaps because it is silent, and therefore not subject to the rules (or ravages) of time. I was thrilled when the programme was commissioned, because it seemed somehow to be the culmination of a lifetime of attempting to get closer to Harpo.

I first encountered the Marx Brothers when my teacher, Jane Cowan, suggested that my sisters and I go to the Gate cinema in Notting Hill Gate to see a matinee showing of one of their films. The film turned out to be their very first one, Cocoanuts; and all three of us were instantly smitten – especially by Harpo. We loved wise-cracking Groucho and brilliantly dumb Chico as well, of course; but it was Harpo who changed our lives. From that point on, we went to see every film of theirs that we could (happily, there was a whole Marx Brothers season on at the Gate); and I became totally obsessed. I had just left school (at age 14) in order (officially) to concentrate full-time on my cello studies. I would get my cello out in the morning, start to practise dutifully – then, as soon as both my parents were safely out of the house, go down to the local library and spend blissful hours reading and re-reading every word I could find about the Marx brothers, until there was a danger of my parents getting home, at which point I would scuttle back to my cello. At home, the obsession continued: ‘Harpo Speaks!’, Harpo’s autobiography, practically became my bible. My parents and teacher wondered why I didn’t seem to be making much progress as a cellist; what they didn’t realise was how much progress I was making as a Marx Brothers scholar.

WHY did I love Harpo so much? I think it was because he represented – still represents – absolute freedom. Somehow his silence means that he inhabits another sphere. His emotional world is extreme; as a rule (except that there are no rules in his world) he is either ecstatic or bursting with indignation. He is part-child, part animal, part-angel. In the programme (if it’s made it to the final cut) I compare him to my other hero of heroes, Robert Schumann. It may seem like a strange comparison; but there IS something in common – a shortcut to complete creativity, an ability to make dreams real.

As time went on, perhaps my obsession dimmed a little bit, but my adoration didn’t. Cut to a few years later, in Los Angeles – well, via Vienna in the 1930s. My grandfather, the pianist/composer Julius Isserlis lived, played and taught in Vienna from 1923 to 1938. He was on the jury of the Vienna Piano Competition in 1933 (at which Dinu Lipatti famously got the 2nd prize). He was struck by the talent of the 4th prize-winner, a young Latvian named Sofia Gurewitsch, and offered to give her lessons. She became a favourite student, and they worked together for several years, until the Anschluss of 1938. Then, during the turmoil of the 2nd world war, Sofia (or Sonia, as she was called by her friends) seemingly vanished, and my grandfather worried deeply about her fate. It was not until five years after the war that she turned up again; my grandfather received a letter in which she told him her story: having returned to her native Latvia, she had been arrested by the Soviets and incarcerated in a Siberian camp. She had spent seven-and-a-half years there, and had actually got married in the camp, to a Rumanian named Cosma. She was – by the time the letter reached my grandfather – now in Rumania, had returned the piano after many years of not touching it, and was now, as Sofia Cosma, well-known as the official pianist of the Rumanian radio corporation. (Radu Lupu remembers crashing his car once while listening to her playing a Rachmaninov concerto!) Alas, she was never to see my grandfather again; but she did turn up at my house when I was in my late teens, for a deeply emotional reunion with my father.

(Sorry – this IS leading back to Harpo!) In the camp, Sonia had given birth to a daughter, Ilona, who had been brought up in Romania. Eventually, Ilona managed to emigrate to the US – and did not rest until she had managed to bring Sonia and her son/Ilona’s brother Mischa, as well (Sonia’s husband having died many years previously). Eventually, the family was reunited and settled in Ventura County, near Los Angeles. I was playing near there; and my father insisted that I visit Sonia and Ilona (Mischa had not yet arrived). I did so – and they became like my family too, Sonia an honorary grandmother and Ilona another sister (slight generation-skip there, but that’s the way it was). At dinner at their house one night, we were joined by a friend of theirs, a pianist and record-producer called Lincoln Mayorga. Lincoln had become an important person in their lives, helping Sonia to create something of a career in the US through concerts, discs and a film. He was also destined to become an important person in my life.

As usual, I was going on about the Marx Brothers, and how excited I was to be near LA, with its Marx associations. ‘Oh yes – I know Bill Marx, Harpo’s son,’ Lincoln said casually. ‘He’s a pianist too – and a composer. Lovely guy.’ My heart went on strike. ‘You…WHAT?’ I gasped. From then on, I gave poor Lincoln no peace until he introduced me to Bill. And so it happened that at a posh hotel in LA, where Bill was playing that week, I met the Son of Harpo. It was thrilling. Succumbing to my far-from-subtle hints, Bill invited me to his house the next day – where, to my unspeakable joy, I got to wear Harpo’s endless-pocketed coat, and better yet, was photographed wearing it, with my leg, Harpo-style, in Bill’s hand. I also persuaded a festival in England to commission a piece from Bill, for cello and harp; the title was ‘Friends’. It was a success at its premiere; but unfortunately Bill was not there to witness it. He sent a message instead, telling us that, like his Uncle Groucho, he was unable to attend any festival that would have one of his works on the programme.

I remained friends with Bill – but unfortunately it was an intermittent, long-distance friendship, punctuated by infrequent phone-calls. He always found something memorable to say, though, every time we spoke. I remember talking to him shortly after the film ‘Titanic’ had come out. He asked whether I’d seen it; I told him I hadn’t. Had he? ‘No,’ he said. ‘I have a fear of drowning – so I’m waiting till they show it backwards.’ Eventually – as one does, or rather, as two do – we lost touch; but then I ran into Lincoln again unexpectedly, at Tanglewood. He told me that Bill was on a new marriage – and also had a new email address. So we started to correspond again; and then the idea for this radio programme was mooted by the producer, Emma Kingsley. Needless to say, I jumped at the chance. And it so happened that shortly after it had been confirmed, I was in LA, and had one free day there. So the BBC sent a car and an LA-based producer, and Joanna (my girlfriend, who was with me) and I were taken to Bill’s house in Palm Springs, so that I could interview him.

It was a dream reunion – first, because it was wonderful to see Bill after so long, and also to meet his wife Barbara; and second, because I got to sit down with him, on a professional basis, and spend three hours pumping him mercilessly with all the questions that my inner Marx-Brothers-geek had been dying to ask for years. Not all of them were about Harpo. I also got to ask things such as: ‘Was Gummo (the 5th brother, who didn’t appear in the films) funny?’ (Answer: Yes, if you had the patience to wait for the punchline’.) ‘Did anything ever threaten the brothers’ bond?’ (Answer: Only briefly, when Zeppo was in danger of getting involved with some Mafia types. All the brothers were close to one another. They lived separate lives, but they ‘congealed’.) And perhaps of most interest: ‘Was Harpo as childlike in ‘real’ life as he was in the films?’ (Answer: ‘Yes – I don’t think he ever grew out of his first childhood…I believe there was an inner voice saying ‘I don’t want to grow up’). After the interview, more treats were in store: Joanna and I got to try on not only Harpo’s coat, but also his wig – and even Chico’s hat. We also got to honk his horn, and to strum one of his harps. Bliss!

Of course the radio programme contains only a fragment of the interview; but I have it all – something to treasure. Bill and I speak quite regularly now; he always sounds pleased to hear from me when I call ‘It’s you!’, but also curious: ‘What are you doing inside my phone?’. He told me that the interview left him feeling deeply emotional for days – it was so long since he’d spoken at such length and in such depth about Harpo. And for me it was a highlight of the past few years – crowned by the remark Bill made at the end of our visit. Perhaps I shouldn’t repeat it – boasting is so unattractive; but I can’t resist, because it is perhaps the greatest compliment I’ve ever received. While chatting after the producer had left, I was doing my usual Harpo faces, which I’ve done so often over the years that they’re really part of my character now. Bill looked at me. ‘So many people have acted Harpo,’ he said, ‘but you’re the first person I’ve seen since he died who could really BE Harpo’…