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Meakin Armstrong: On Harpo Speaks! and My Wicked Wicked Ways

January 29, 2010

Most movie-star memoirs are tiresome affairs: after a few details on the actor’s childhood, we’re treated to some New Age philosophy then asked to imagine world peace. Errol Flynn starts off claiming to have been a slave trader (but just as a sideline).


meakin_armstrong-small.jpg Most movie-star memoirs are tiresome affairs: after a few details on the actor’s childhood, we’re treated to some New Age philosophy then asked to imagine world peace. Some go into details of an abusive past (see Tatum O’Neil’s memoir, A Paper Life) while others are obviously written as a way to guard a legacy (Diana Ross, Secrets of a Sparrow).

Two books that avoid those tiresome pitfalls are Errol Flynn’s My Wicked Wicked Ways and Harpo Speaks!, by Harpo Marx.

Errol Flynn, whose greatest acting successes were in the thirties and forties, was the lead actor of a now-dead film genre, the swashbuckler. He was the movie pirate, the best Robin Hood, and the hero with the fastest sword. In his off-hours, he was a “ladykiller”—and for that the boys and lonely young men in the movie theaters loved him. For them, he was the measure of a man: anyone who was smooth with the ladies was “in like Flynn.”

Read it then give it to the nearest 12-year old as an act of love: you’ll be telling that kid life isn’t something to be endured, but enjoyed.

In My Wicked, Wicked Ways, Flynn presents himself as a heroically bad example, someone whose life is veers toward Gargantua and Pantagruel: He starts off claiming to have been a slave trader (but just as a sideline) and a person who sailed through Caribbean hurricanes. He lies and charms as he writes of his many affairs—some with starlets, others with farmer’s daughters. It’s not a tell-all, confessional in the modern Tatum O’Neil sense, though: it’s more of a picaresque travel through the mind of a fascinating, dissipated man. Ideally, you’d have first read this book as a twelve-year old boy (like I did); it would have made the world seem like a wider place for you and a carnival sideshow at every turn. Read it then give it to the nearest 12-year old as an act of love: you’ll be telling that kid life isn’t something to be endured, but enjoyed.

Harpo Marx took a different approach: for one, his stories are believable (and most likely true); they’re even valuable for their descriptions of early Twentieth Century New York City, the long-gone vaudeville scene, and the Algonquin Round Table. Harpo was one of the Marx Brothers—that comedy team also made up of Groucho, Chico, and occasionally, Zeppo and Gummo. As performers, they were known for their antics and fast-moving jokes, a sort of thinking man’s Three Stooges (but that’s not a good analogy, not really: the Marx Brothers didn’t slap one another and their early movies such as Duck Soup and Horsefeathers are classics that will long outlast Stooges dreck).

Harpo—he was the one who never spoke, had moppish hair, and always wore a raincoat while honking a horn and chasing women—was a member of the Algonquin Round Table. He was everyone’s friend at the Vicious Circle, including Dorothy Parker and Alexander Woollcott. Harpo Speaks! isn’t as funny as My Wicked Wicked Ways, but it’s one of the best books by a man at the periphery of history. Harpo Marx was a humble man who loved his wife, was a second-grade drop-out who nonetheless loved to read the likes of Tolstoy and Dickens. His book is for anyone who wants to read about New York (he grew up in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, in a part that was once working class and Jewish).

Neither book requires its readers to be a fan of the star—and that’s why they are great reads. Movie stars often set up barriers to their personality, making them nothing more than cardboard figures on the landscape. Errol Flynn and Harpo Marx were many things, but to read their books is to spend time with them. Perhaps that’s all it takes for us to love their books: from them, we learn many good stories.

Bio: Meakin Armstrong is Guernica’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter at @meakinarmstrong.

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