Deep Thought: Hopeful Living
I've just finished reading the most encouraging book I came across in all of 2020. It's called Harpo Speaks!, by the late Harpo Marx. No, his writing didn't excite the Nobel Committee. Somebody had to help him with the hard stuff, like spelling, grammar, and syntax. Harpo says he was thrown out of the second grade at PS 86 in the very early 1900s.
He meant 'thrown out' literally. The bigger boys kept throwing him out the window when the teacher wasn't looking. One day, he'd had enough and just went home, to where his Alsatian grandfather taught him to speak German. From then on, he learned from life.
Julius (Groucho) was a bookworm. Leonard (Chico) was a gambler. Adolph (Harpo) was a gentle soul and a born musician. Unfortunately, his late grandmother's harp had no strings. There was absolutely no money for them. There was no money for anything. The large family barely kept alive at times. The boys and their younger siblings did anything and everything they could to get by. Their mother, a force of nature, turned them into a vaudeville act. They travelled around the country, barely scraping along. They were cold and hungry and bitten by bedbugs in bad rooming houses.
Did I mention this was the most joyful book I've read all year?
It isn't because Harpo Marx was one of those relentlessly 'positive' people. Those people bore me with their bullying attitudes about how they're never down, etc. This discourages me, particularly in winter. Harpo just never quit, that was all. And he loved people. Often unlovable people.
He loved neurotic writer Alexander Woollcott. Two people could not have been more different. Because of this friendship, Harpo Marx, second-grade dropout, became a member of the Algonquin Round Table, a famous literary salon.
He befriended writer Charlie Lederer, and visited his aunt's house. Lederer's aunt was Marian Davies and her house was the insane castle at San Simeon – you know, the one Orson Welles mocked in Citizen Kane. He made friends with George Bernard Shaw and his wife on the Riviera.
He was the first American entertainer to perform in Soviet Russia. In 1933. He managed to use his mime talents to communicate. He connected with people. Then he smuggled important papers out of the country for FDR's government.
He travelled 200,000 miles to entertain troops during the Second World War. He played croquet as if it were a serious sport. He played golf as if it weren't. He took his friends places in his car. They learned to worry when he said, 'I know a shortcut'. (He never did.)
All of his children were adopted. He and his wife Susan made a family for them. He enjoyed every moment of that life. He was proud of his oldest son, who became a musician and taught him (finally) how to play the harp properly.
What I liked most about Harpo Marx was his unselfish capacity for enjoyment. He had fun. He made sure other people did, too. Years of hardship didn't make him anxious. Heck, years of hardship didn't even make him grow up. He was utterly without conceit. He gave the gift of laughter to everyone he knew and to people who never met him.
I think Harpo Marx embodied hope.
He told a story about their career. Back in the early 1920s, the three brothers went to the UK to perform, because Chico was in trouble with some gangster in Cleveland. Their British tour was a success, but they found the island extremely damp, cold, and uncomfortable. On their last night there, Chico and Harpo burned all the furniture in their boarding house room just to stay warm. They left the landlord a thank-you note and money to replace the improvised fuel.
When they got back to New York, the brothers felt they had 'arrived' in show business. Unfortunately, they got into a feud with the biggest theatre chain owner in the city, and were blackballed. They were forced to go back on the road. They ran out of money and prospects in Indianapolis. They spoke of breaking up the act and going their separate ways to support the family. Harpo walked the streets in despair: he had 7 cents in his pocket. He said, 'That was the only time I felt sorry for myself.'
He came upon an estate auction. As he watched, the pile of goods to be sold went down. He noticed a very poor Italian couple standing by. They seemed to want to buy something, but were either too poor or too timid to bid. Finally, there was one item left: a scrubbing brush. Harpo bid 1 cent. Sold, said the auctioneer, who wanted to go home. Harpo gave the couple the brush. They thanked him profusely.
Harpo's perspective changed. He went back to the hotel and delivered himself of the longest speech in his life. He told his family they were not giving up. They didn't. Within a few years, they had a show on Broadway. Then they went on to the movies.
The lesson wasn't 'keep trying, you'll succeed in this world.' It wasn't even 'never give up.' The lesson was that life was worth living if you approached it with open-hearted kindness and a capacity for joy. That's where I see the hope: we can get through everything, together, if we look at the world the way Adolph Marx did.
We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair.
II Corinthians 4:8