Alexander Woollcott and Harpo Marx: A Love Story

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Ned Stuckey-French | culturefront | 1999 | 21 minutes (5,289 words)

This week’s Longreads Member Pick is “Alexander Woollcott and Harpo Marx: A Love Story,” by Ned Stuckey-French, originally published in 1999 in culturefront, the former magazine for the New York Council for the Humanities. It’s a story that takes a closer look at the dynamics of a friendship, and the roles we play in each other’s lives.

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Alexander Woollcott fell in love with Harpo Marx the first time he saw him. It was the evening of May 19, 1924, and the Marx Brothers were making their Broadway debut in the slyly titled musical comedy I’ll Say She Is. Woollcott was there, reluctantly, to review it for the Sun. Another show, a much-hyped drama featuring a French music-­hall star, had been scheduled to open the same night, but when it was postponed at the last minute, the first­line critics decided to take the night off. Except for Woollcott. His career was in the doldrums, and hoping against hope for a scoop, he dragged himself over to see what he assumed were “some damned acrobats.”

Groucho opened the show with the kind of Dadaesque wordplay that would soon make him famous. In the first routine he was asked by a straight man if he’d ever been on the stage before, to which he replied, “I played a part in Ben Hur once.” “What part?” “A girl. She played the part of Ben, and I played her.” The tone was set. It was an evening of chaos, double entendres, and gender confusion, especially during the show’s centerpiece—a takeoff on the Napoleon and Josephine story in which Napoleon (Groucho) is forced back to Paris again and again to thwart the not­-unwelcome advances Josephine receives from his three ministers, Gaston (Harpo), François (Chico), and Alphonse (Zeppo). Everyone ends up groping everyone else. Woollcott loved it all, but was especially transported by Harpo, as the title of his review the next day testifies: “Harpo Marx and Some Brothers ­ Hilarious Antics Spread Good Cheer at the Casino.” We should be grateful, he said, for these four “talented cutups,” but especially for the “silent brother, that sly, unexpected, magnificent comic among the Marxes.”

The review was more than a rave, it was a mash note, for Woollcott was gay and suddenly smitten. Like a nervous stage­door Johnny, he called Harpo the next day and wrangled an invitation backstage, using his review and a word from their mutual friend Charles MacArthur as calling cards. Their meeting was rocky at first. Harpo thought Woollcott had slighted his brothers and called the review the “lousiest” he’d ever read, but he liked the way Woollcott laughed and decided to accept an invitation to a poker game at the Algonquin. When Woollcott finally rose to leave, he offered his hand, but Harpo pulled an old vaudeville gag that would become one of his signature moves: he offered his leg instead. As Harpo recalled it in his 1961 autobiography Harpo Speaks!, “He pushed my knee away in disgust. ‘See here, Marx,’ he said, with the full hoity­toity treatment. ‘Kindly confine your baboonery to the stage. Off it, you are a most unfunny fellow.’ I liked him more and more.”

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Here already was the tug­-of­-war, the teasing and the battle of wits that would characterize their relationship for the next two decades. From that first night until his death in 1943, Woollcott focused most of his considerable desire on Harpo. Groucho, in an interview he gave Richard Anobile late in life, summed it up with a balance of indelicacy and humanity that was characteristic. Woollcott was, he said, “a fag” who “was in love with Harpo in a nice way.” Harpo’s own characterization of their friendship (again in Harpo Speaks!) was less forthcoming, but also tender: “I could never figure Aleck out completely, nor he me. He was too complicated and I was too simple. Our friendship was a life­long game of ‘Who Am I?’ It was frustrating, exasperating, and sometimes downright silly, but it was a good, rewarding game…. He was a true friend.” Harpo was not, however, so simple, and the game they played was as much “Do You Want Me?” as “Who Am I?”

Though he miscast the difference, Harpo was correct in claiming there was one. The two men formed an odd couple in the constellation of oddballs that was the Algonquin Round Table. Woollcott was pudgy, fastidious, and bookish, a dandy with a sentimental, Victorian heart and an acidic, modern wit. James Thurber called him “Old Vitriol and Violets.” Harpo, on the other hand, was Harpo, a real-­life version of his goofy, Pan-­like, horn-­honking self. He was all libido, always “on,” seemingly up for anything. Their relationship prompted much conjecture. Harpo’s sister-­in-­law, Betty, said later, “A lot of rumors went around that weren’t true.” She’s probably right that the rumors weren’t true, though that doesn’t mean Woollcott’s love was unrequited. The affection the two men shared was real, if not physical. They were the “Odd Couple,” Felix and Oscar, locked in a long flirtation. Woollcott scolded, Harpo teased.

For years they vacationed together and exchanged notes on the anniversary of their meeting. The vacations even continued after 1936, when, at the age of 42, Harpo married Susan Fleming, a Hollywood starlet. Woollcott wrote letters on behalf of the newlyweds as they tried to adopt a child, and when they finally brought their son home, they named him William Woollcott Marx and made “Uncle Acky” his godfather. In 1941, when Billy was three, the four of them summered together in Massachusetts where Harpo and Woollcott performed in a local production of “Yellow Jacket,” a “Chinese ritual drama.” It was an old favorite of Woollcott’s; Harpo said it was so boring it ought to be called “Straight Jacket.”

Woollcott is remembered almost exclusively as “The Man Who Came to Dinner.” His friends George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart patterned their play’s central character, Sheridan Whiteside, an annoying New York critic and radio celebrity, after him, and he played the part in two early road productions. Forgotten now is the fact that Woollcott was one of America’s most popular writers during the 1920s and 1930s. He published screenplays, biographies, and collections of essays, wrote numerous profiles and the “Shouts and Murmurs” page for The New Yorker, contributed obituaries of his friends to an “In Memoriam” column in The Atlantic Monthly, and hosted a popular CBS radio show, “The Town Crier.” If he is remembered more today as a personality than as a writer, it is because his great talent, as John Mason Brown put it in his introduction to The Portable Woollcott, was to play “Johnson to his own Boswell.” “Nothing Woollcott did or thought escaped notice,” said E.B. White in a letter to Woollcott biographer Wayne Chatterton. “He saw to that.” The self that Woollcott created and promoted was more than a late­-night movie cliché. It was the quintessential version of a certain modern gay style, a style that fends off sadness with wit and uses double entendres to hint at the double life. It is the mix of sentiment and bitterness, of nostalgia and high camp, that one finds in the lyrics of Cole Porter and Noel Coward and the performances of Monty Wooley and Clifton Webb. Violets and Vitriol.

When Hollywood took this manner of bitchy elegance beyond vitriol to violence, Woollcott was still the precedent. In Otto Preminger’s 1944 noir classic, Laura, Webb portrayed Waldo Lydeker, who was, like Woollcott, an arrogant, fastidious, column­writing gourmet, radio celebrity and aficionado of true crime who lunched at the Algonquin. He was also a murderer, and his most famous line was “I’m not kind, I’m vicious. It’s the secret of my charm.”

Woollcott was no murderer, but he did have a temper. During their last summer together, Harpo got bored during “Yellow Jacket,” ad­-libbed a bit and stole the show. Afterwards, Woollcott blew up at him, and Harpo stormed out. This reaction was new, and Woollcott was terrified, admitting later to a friend, “I couldn’t wait to get to him.” When he did, he knocked at the door and called, “Uncle Acky’s here! Bearing gifts for Master William and Mistress Susan and apologies for Little Harpo!” Inside, Woollcott fussed over Susan and Billy, but couldn’t choke out the apology. Over a game of cribbage, he tried instead to “straighten out” Harpo’s “misunderstanding.” Harpo stared silently at his cards. Woollcott “got madder and madder,” finally banging so hard on the table the cards and cribbage board flew off onto the floor. “Goddamn it!” he said, “If you don’t like me, Harpo, there’s no reason why anyone on earth should like me! You’ve seen the best side I have.” Harpo calmly began picking up the cards. Woollcott, recalled Harpo, let out “a noise like a collapsing balloon,” bent over, and picked up the cribbage board. They both began laughing. Such was the teeter-­totter of their love. They were Uncle Acky and Little Harpo. “He felt it was his responsibility to keep me out of mischief,” said Harpo. “He was like a stern old bachelor uncle, although he was actually only six years my senior.”

Uncle Acky had his hands full. Keeping Harpo out of trouble was a full­-time job, especially during the summer of 1928, when he and Harpo rented a villa on the French Riviera with their friends Alice Duer Miller, Beatrice Kaufman, and Ruth Gordon. Harpo set the tone when he had a tuxedo made of green pool­ table felt for the high-­society soirées. When Woollcott alone was invited to one affair at the Eden Roc, he lorded it over the others, so Harpo and Gordon decided to crash it and surprise their friend. They sneaked in through the kitchen and got a table next to Woollcott’s. When the waiter arrived with the main course—a whole poached salmon—Harpo grabbed the platter and tossed it over the patio railing into the Mediterranean. “Don’t think I care for the fish,” he said. “What’s on the Blue Plate tonight?” Everyone but Woollcott laughed; he pretended not to know who the rude clown was.

Part of the problem that summer was Woollcott’s melancholy. His sister Julie had just died and he was feeling his own mortality. He’d quit his job as a drama critic and begun free­lancing full­-time in hopes that he could produce something lasting. The trip to France was part of his plan. He wanted to make a splash there with the international literary set. Instead, it was Harpo who made the splash. One day, Woollcott took him to meet Somerset Maugham at Maugham’s villa, lecturing him all the way about good behavior. When they arrived, Harpo was surprised to find Maugham younger-­looking and less swishy and stuffy than he’d expected. He greeted them, Harpo recalled, looking “lean and brown” in “only shorts and sandals,” and “sizzl[ing] with energy and good cheer.” Maugham insisted on a tour of the house. Upstairs, he showed them the master bedroom, positioned so he could dive from its window straight into his pool. While Woollcott and Maugham were turned away discussing a painting, Harpo stripped down and made the dive. Woollcott acted appalled, assuming that Maugham also would be aghast, but the Englishman quickly shed his shorts and sandals, and followed Harpo through the window.

Another afternoon, Woollcott invited Mr. and Mrs. George Bernard Shaw for lunch. He fussed over arrangements all morning (“jittery as a girl on her first date,” said Harpo) and then had himself chauffeured into town to meet the Shaws, who were arriving by train. Harpo said “to hell with the whole affair” and went for a nude swim. As he dozed in the sun, the Shaws pulled up. They had missed Woollcott in town and hired their own driver out to the villa. Harpo just managed to get a towel around himself as the guests came up the walk, Shaw yelling “Where the devil’s Woollcott? Who the devil are you?” As Harpo introduced himself, Shaw reached down and yanked the towel away, laughed, and nonchalantly introduced himself. By the time Woollcott arrived, sweating and anxious, Harpo and the Shaws were fast friends. The three of them spent the next month palling around Antibes—much to Woollcott’s apparent chagrin. “Harpo Marx and Bernard Shaw!” he sniffed. “Corned beef and roses!”

Harpo knew it was an act, noting that Woollcott “loved playing the game of Strange Bedfellows.” Harpo didn’t mind that game, but he “didn’t exactly care for the type of dog Aleck put on, on the Riviera” and his escapades that summer were designed to bring Woollcott back down to earth. His plan seemed to work. According to Harpo (in Harpo Speaks!), Woollcott admitted that “every man as pretentious as old Alexander” needs such friends “to remind him of what really makes the world go round, and that everything else is just pretending.”

Not everyone was as convinced as they were that their Bachelor Uncle and Naughty Nephew routine was really so healthy. Oscar Levant said that Woollcott was Harpo’s “father-­transference figure”; according to Dorothy Parker, a Jungian psychoanalyst told Woollcott that if he really wanted to deal with his “uncomfortable personality,” he needed to face head­-on the fact that he was in love with Harpo. Woollcott’s five biographers have also medicalized his homosexuality, or (with Woollcott’s help) denied it. Woollcott blamed his effeminacy on a bad case of the mumps at the age of twenty-­two, explaining that the “beastly complication” left him “a pretty trivial, rootless person, a fellow of motley and diffused affections, permanently adrift.” Mumps might have left him sterile, but not impotent; in any case, his sexual confusion began much earlier. During his teens, he regularly cross­-dressed, signed his letters “Alicia,” and was nicknamed “Cream Puff.” In college, at Hamilton, Cream Puff became “Putt” (short for “Putrid”), the jocks beat him up regularly, and he contemplated suicide. He got through it all by reading Krafft­-Ebing, Havelock Ellis, and Oscar Wilde on “inversion,” and decided to accept himself.

In his breakthrough 1994 book, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-­1940, George Chauncey explains that “the hetero-­homosexual binarism, the sexual regime now hegemonic in American culture, is a stunningly recent creation” that emerged only in the 1930s and did not become entrenched until the 1940s and 1950s. In pre­-World War I New York in particular, says Chauncey, only the “fairy” who adopted effeminate gender characteristics in order to attract other men was considered a “homosexual.” His partners (or “trade”), who were often married, working-­class immigrants, were not considered homosexual because they did not take on feminine gender roles. Alexander Woollcott and Harpo Marx both came of age in the pre-­war New York that Chauncey describes, and, if their relationship was not a consummated homosexual pairing, it seems nonetheless to have partaken of the dynamics of fairy and trade—Uncle Acky, uptown, effeminate, neurotic, and verbal, and Little Harpo, downtown, masculine, cocky, and mute.

It was easier, of course, to be trade than to be a fairy. Trade were just pretending, or passing through a phase, or so innocent they didn’t really know what they were doing. The Marx Brothers did know what they were doing, however, and having Harpo seem like he didn’t know was part of the act. In his 1976 book The Groucho Phile: An Illustrated Life, Groucho noted that their circuitous plots were held together by one “common thread…our famous public personalities. We were characters, in both senses of the word,” and Harpo’s character was “sweet, innocent, disarming. ‘Puck in a fright wig, Till Eulenspiegel on the burlesque circuit.’” Like Pan, Harpo was both sexually innocent and sexually indiscriminate, a creature who had never emerged from the stage of polymorphous perversity. In Duck Soup, for instance, he is linked with a man, a woman, and a horse. In the lemonade vendor scene, he continually bumps his competition (a burly gent in a derby hat played by Edgar Kennedy) from behind, honking a horn and squirting him with a seltzer bottle. Finally, in frustration, the big fellow grabs the seltzer bottle and squirts it into Harpo’s pants. Harpo’s wide-­eyed glee signals that this turnabout is actually quite fun. Later in the film, Harpo plays Paul Revere. During his ride, he spots a lady undressing in her bedroom and heads inside to make her acquaintance. Soon they are in bed, but just as quickly, her husband arrives (once again, Edgar Kennedy). Harpo hides in the bathroom, though the audience doesn’t know exactly where. Kennedy enters the bathroom, settles into an already drawn tub, and sits on a completely submerged Harpo, who rises from the deep like an astonished porpoise. Harpo makes his escape and finally stumbles home, where he’s greeted from the window by a beautiful blonde. Again, he heads inside where the camera cuts to a slow tracking shot. At the foot of the bed are a pair of high heels, then Harpo’s boots, and finally, a set of horseshoes. Then the camera rises to reveal Harpo sleeping in a double bed with his horse, while the blonde snoozes in a single bed in the corner.

Parker Tyler, in his 1972 book Screening the Sexes: Homosexuality in the Movies, argues that classic American films contain two essential versions of the “professional sissy”—the infantile clown and the elegant bachelor—and that among the clowns, or “sissy boys,” Harpo’s innocence was extreme and unique. Normally (which is to say, within the heterosexual situations the studios allowed), the clowns didn’t do the chasing, they got chased; and because they were chased by women, they didn’t like it. When a woman came on to a childish goofball like Jerry Lewis or Danny Kaye, he got the heebie­jeebies. Harpo, on the other hand, was able to chase blondes in his movies because, says Tyler, “he was, self­-evidently, the greatest idiot of the lot.” Or, to put it another way, his case of arrested development was especially severe. Harpo “had no proper conception of genital sexuality,” says Tyler, but “that was the whole point of his infantile satyrism: it is necessarily and eternally pseudo—just like his muteness, which nobody ‘believes’ but everybody accepts as aesthetically proper.” In The Groucho Phile, Groucho put it more succinctly: “The dames he chased were in no danger. He didn’t know what to do with them once he caught them.” “In real life,” Groucho added, “he did.”

This contradiction between Harpo’s on­-stage innocence and real­-life competence may have been one reason Woollcott found him attractive. Harpo could have it both ways. He was so sure of himself sexually he could act as if he didn’t know which end was up or who was who, both in his films and in real life. He could, for example, strip down in front of two gay men at Maugham’s villa. That was an advantage of being trade—you could go either way and still be a man. The attentions of a “real man” like Harpo must have been comforting to someone as uncomfortable with his homosexuality as Woollcott was.

Woollcott’s “condition” (as he referred to it) left him confused, unsatisfied, and often lonely, and he sought compensation in many ways. Woollcott, said Harpo in Harpo Speaks!, “loved the pure existence part of living, the yapping, scraping, laughing, eating, romping, exploring­the­world part of it ­ but never, sad to say, the intimate, sexual part of it,” and so “felt compelled to live three times harder than anybody else ever had the right or the capacity to live.” Hard work and the high life were not enough, however. Woollcott believed that life had to include marriage and parenthood, and he proposed marriage to five different women. They each laughed him off. He seemed to know they would, for his proposals were always couched in irony. To one of the five, the painter Neysa McMein, he suggested that the story of their life together might best be titled Under Separate Cover.

He usually treated parenthood with the same mock seriousness. “Nineteen times a godfather, never a father,” he complained, and prior to a hernia operation in 1923, he said he was being admitted for “chronic childbirth.” His friends went along with the joke. They sent him a card that pictured a nurse holding up a little replica of Woollcott, complete with mustache and spectacles, while the genuine article looked on from bed; a caption proclaimed “It’s a boy!” Away from the Algonquin gang’s cynicism he searched more earnestly for parenthood, especially in his relationship with Frode Jensen, a Danish boy estranged from his own family, whom Woollcott put through medical school and considered adopting.

In some sense he did adopt Harpo, taking over for Minnie Marx, Harpo’s mother, after that opening night in New York. Minnie, the daughter of a magician, was the consummate stage mother. The Marxes never “went on stage,” wrote Woollcott in his obituary for Minnie, “they were pushed on.” But once she had pushed them as far as Broadway, she decided they were “a finished job and therefore no longer interesting,” or at least that was the conclusion Woollcott came to while sitting next to her at a dinner party shortly after the premiere of I’ll Say She Is, during which she didn’t mention her sons once, though “the newspapers were humming with the triumph of the Marxes.” (Woollcott neglects to mention that he was doing much of the humming.) For him, the Marxes were not a finished job; radio, movies, and national exposure lay ahead, and he had the know-­how and connections to take them there, especially Harpo, who, he always said, should do a single.

Woollcott also took responsibility for educating Harpo, who was notoriously illiterate. In an on­going game of “Murder” at Woollcott’s Vermont island retreat, Harpo sneaked into a little­-used back bathroom and wrote “YOU ARE DED” on the first sheet of toilet paper. Hours later, someone sighted Alice Miller through the keyhole. Once “murdered,” she was unable to unlock the bathroom and come out. Everyone thought it the perfect crime—except Woollcott, who claimed a breech of the rules. The Murderer must confront his Victim in person, and besides “dead” was misspelled. As Harpo recalled it, “Little Acky had a terrible tantrum and went to bed without his supper.” Harpo’s illiteracy (and ingenuity) had turned the tables on his tutor, making Uncle Acky act like a baby.

Harpo might have been illiterate, working class, Jewish, and decidedly ungenteel, but he was charming, and no one knew that more than Woollcott, who was painfully aware that his own wit and erudition often turned into bitchiness and snobbery. Woollcott envied Harpo’s illiteracy, or at least the lack of inhibition that seemed to come with it. In a profile of Harpo (along with Irving Berlin and Norman Bel Geddes, two other Woollcott friends and grade school drop­outs) titled, “I Might Just as Well Have Played Hooky,” Woollcott admitted that he was possessed of that particularly “Puritan inheritance, the touching faith in the sheer magic of going to school.” Harpo, on the other hand, had only five years of schooling, all in “one grade, due, he felt complacently at the time, to his infatuated teacher’s reluctance to part with him.” This story—told by Harpo and latched upon by Woollcott—hints at the pedophiliac undertones of their relationship.

Those undertones are less subdued in some of Woollcott’s other profiles of Harpo. In a 1928 New Yorker piece entitled “Portrait of a Man With Red Hair,” he repeats the story about the teacher’s reluctance to part with Harpo. He then tells how cute Harpo was when he wet his pants the first time he appeared on stage, describes Harpo’s addiction to cribbage (“[Harpo] hopes he will never be too old to peg”), and quotes Freud collaborator William Bolitho on Harpo as a “rosy­-haired boy with the odd, beautiful face of a changeling,” who is really “a goblin, a racial superstition,” “a suppressed wish-­complex,” and a “little, lustful, adroit spirit.”

One way to distance yourself from the implications of what you are saying is to hide behind double­entendre and quotations from respected European authorities; another is to act as if you are above it all. Woollcott was a master at both. He knew, wrote his friend Thornton Wilder in an assessment of Woollcott’s letters for the Harvard Library Bulletin, how to “project himself as the arbiter of homely virtues.” He planned his friends’ weddings, decorated their apartments, and regularly recommended sentimental family fare such as Good­bye, Mr. Chips or Disney’s Dumbo to his radio audience. Parker Tyler points out that the exaggerated moral reserve of the male old maid functioned as protection in a world where heterosexuality is hegemonic. Aware of society’s suspicions about confirmed bachelors, the Woollcottian character (Webb as Lydeker, Wooley as Whiteside, or Woollcott as himself) drained his performance of as much true romanticism and identifiable innuendo as possible. He was, says Tyler, “disinfected of eroticism,” “stylishly unsexy,” a “postgraduate in the school of love” (as opposed to Harpo’s class clown, who acts as if he doesn’t even know he’s in school).

But even when adopting this careful genteel pose, Woollcott couldn’t resist the inside joke. One of his signature moves on his radio show involved talking about a guest before naming him, so that his audience had to guess who he was talking about (just as later the blindfolded panel on What’s My Line? would have to guess the identity of the mystery guest). In an essay entitled “My Friend Harpo,” he performs a variation of this routine. Not until halfway through the essay does a reader learn that the Harpo of the title is not Harpo Marx of the Marx Brothers, but Woollcott’s poodle. By this point, Woollcott has already told us that Harpo “carries his approval of me to the mad length of thinking I have a kind of beauty.” It is a madness that Woollcott can believe because “many a times and oft I have read as much in the melting glance of his topaz eyes when he has been sitting with his head on my knee, the while I stroked his tousled foretop and tweaked his roguish ears.” “There is even some evidence,” adds Woollcott, “that he thinks I smell delightful.” The jig not yet up, what must the first­-time reader have thought as Woollcott described the intimacy of Harpo’s gaze? Harpo’s head on his knee? The foreplay of the stroked and tousled foretop? The tweaking of the roguish ears? And what evidence could possibly indicate that Harpo delighted in Woollcott’s smell?

Woollcott’s most famous close friend was Eleanor Roosevelt. He met her through her husband, for whom he campaigned and raised funds. On several occasions he was her guest at the White House, one time for two weeks when he was touring in The Man Who Came to Dinner. Part of what seems to have brought them together was their understanding of lost or unrequited love. After 1918, when Eleanor found out about Franklin’s affair with Lucy Mercer, their marriage had been incomplete. She was fond of quoting Woollcott’s quip that “humanity has yet achieved…abiding love only on paper.” And it was on paper that Woollcott was generally forced to express his love for Harpo.

For the nearly nineteen years they knew each other the two men wrote each other regularly, and their letters reveal even more clearly than Woollcott’s riddling essays or raving reviews the tenderness and tension that characterized their relationship. Yet they often couldn’t stop joking, even in the letters, for it was how they expressed their affection. On May 19, 1934, Woollcott wrote:

It was ten years ago today this evening that, thanks to an accidental tour to the Casino, I first laid eyes upon you. No other accident I have ever been involved in has contributed so much to my enjoyment of the world…. I love you dearly, and think the chances are that I will continue to do so until one of us dies. After you, Alphonse.

He may have been after Alphonse; he may have been waiting for Alphonse; he may have known it was all a vaudeville routine in which no one ever gets through the door.

The letters also reveal Harpo’s illiteracy to be as much a conceit as the stern uncle and naughty nephew routine they continuously acted out. In 1940, Woollcott suffered his first heart attack, and a worried Harpo wrote to cheer him up and to remind him who they were and where they stood. The letter opens “Dear Alec, I love you!” and closes “Alec, I hate your guts!” In between, Harpo promises to fly up to Vermont where Woollcott is recuperating. He will sneak up “through the bushes…just [to] watch your face.” But then, he recalls “I did that two or three years ago” and did it “naked,” only to be one-­upped by Uncle Aleck, who was playing croquet: “You tilted your head about three­quarters of an inch, gave me as cold a Gentile squint as ever I have seen and said [to Alice Miller], ;Alice, it’s your shot.;’” It was a generous act to retell this anecdote and give Aleck the last word, but perhaps even more generous was Harpo’s revelation elsewhere in the letter that “every morning while practicing the harp until Bach moves my bowels, I read: ‘It behooves your correspondent to report at once that that harleqinade [sic] has some of the most comical moments vouchsafed to the first nighters in a month of Mondays…. It is a splendacious and reasonably tuneful excuse for going to see the silent brother, that shy, unexpected, magnificent comic amongst the Marxes.’”

“Your correspondent” was Woollcott and the purple passage is from his original 1924 review of I’ll Say She Is. Woollcott’s own word was “sly,” but now Harpo corrects him, reminding his friend that, although this loving review has been very important to Harpo, Woollcott should not have characterized him publicly as “sly.” The emendation seems minor, but it re­establishes Harpo’s innocence and allows the two of them to resume their roles.

They would play their parts together for another three years, until January 1943, when Woollcott, while broadcasting from New York, grew agitated defending Roosevelt’s war policy against the isolationist position, stopped in mid­ sentence, wrote “I AM SICK” on a sheet of paper, and collapsed. He died a few hours later. Harpo and Susan adopted a second son that fall and named him Alexander.

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Images via Wikimedia Commons

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