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2010jan14. The first Friday Free Day of 2010. This means something to someone. I’ll be over here, packing my things.

2010jan18. Excerpts from Harpo Speaks! by Harpo Marx with Rowland Barber (1951).

There was one supreme holiday every two years, and there was nothing sad about it. This was not a family affair. It belonged to everybody. The poorest kid in town had as much a share in it as the mayor himself.

This was Election Day.

Months ahead, I started, like every other kid, collecting and stashing fuel for the election bonfire. Having quit school, I could put in a lot of extra hours at it. I had a homemade wagon, a real deluxe job. Most kids greased their axles with suet begged or pinched off a butcher shop, but I was fancier. I scraped genuine axle grease off the hubs of beer wagons, working the brewery circuit from Ehret’s to Ruppert’s to Ringling’s.

I hauled staves, slats, laths, basket-lids, busted carriage spokes, any loose debris that would burn, and piled it all in a corner of our basement. This was one thing the janitor helped me with. The Election Day bonfire was a tradition nobody dared to break. If you were anti-bonfire you were anti-Tammany and life could become pretty grim without handouts from the Organization. Worse than that, the cops could invent all kinds of trouble to get you into. So around election time, there were no complaints up the dumbwaiter shaft about the leaks in our garbage cans.

The great holiday lasted a full thirty hours. On election eve, the Tammany forces marched up and down the avenues by torchlight, with bugles blaring and drums booming. There was free beer for the men, and free firecrackers and punk for the kids, and nobody slept that night.

When the Day itself dawned, the city closed up shop and had itself a big social time – visiting with itself, renewing old acquaintances, kicking up old arguments – and voted.

About noon a hansom cab, courtesy of Tammany Hall, would pull up in front of our house. Frenchie and Grandpa, dressed in their best suits (which they otherwise wore only to weddings, bar mitzvahs or funerals), would get in the cab and go clip-clop, in tip-top style, off to the polls. When the carriage brought them back they sat in the hansom as long as they could without the driver getting sore, savoring every moment of their glory while they puffed on their free Tammany cigars.

At last, reluctantly, they would descend to the curb, and Frenchie would make the grand gesture of handing the cabbie a tip. Kids watching in the streets and neighbors watching from upstairs windows were properly impressed.

About a half-hour later, the hansom cab would reappear, and Frenchie and Grandpa would go off to vote again. If it was a tough year, with a Reform movement threatening the city, they’d be taken to vote a third time.

Nobody was concerned over the fact that Grandpa happened not to be a United States citizen, or that he couldn’t read or write English. He knew which side of the ballot to put his “X” on. That was the important thing. Besides, Grandpa’s son-in-law’s cousin was Sam Mars, a Big Man in the Organization. Cousin Sam had a lot to say about whose name appeared under a black star on the ballot. And it was he who made sure the carriage was sent to 179 at voting time. A man of principle, which Grandpa was, had no choice but to return the courtesy by voting.

Then came the Night. The streets were cleared of horses, buggies and wagons. All crosstown traffic stopped. At seven o’clock firecrackers began to go off, the signal that the polls were closed. Whooping and hollering, a whole generation of kids came tumbling down out of the tenements and got their bonfires going. By a quarter after seven, the East Side was ablaze.

Whenever our 93rd Street fire showed signs of dying down, we’d throw on a fresh load of wood, out of another basement, and the flames would shoot up again, After my stash was piled on the blaze, I ran upstairs to watch from our front window with Grandpa.

It was beautiful. Flames seemed to leap as high as the tenement roof. The row of brownstones across the street, reflecting the fire, was a shimmering red wall. The sky was a great red curtain. And from all over the city, we could hear the clanging of fire engines. Our bonfire never got out of hand but a lot of others did on election night. [pg 47]

I decided to take Groucho on as a partner (as Chico had once taken me on, in the cuckoo-clock promotion), when I found out that stores in the neighborhood were paying a penny apiece for cats. I’ve forgotten why they were. There must have been a mouse plague or a cat shortage, or both, that year.

So now I was a promoter. Groucho and I put on a show in our basement. We performed Uncle Al’s popular sketch, “Quo Vadis Upside Down.” Admission: one cat.

It was my first public performance. As I remember, we grossed seven cats at the boxoffice but made a next profit of only four cents. Three cats got away. Well, that was show business. [pg 59]

One scene I will never forget. We were presented in England by a famous promoter and sportsman named Cochran. When Cochran called for auditions to round out our show at the Alhambra, a mob turned up. Ever act in the British Isles – except the Coliseum Danseuse – wanted to share the bill with the balmy Marxes. Cochran, who hated to say no to anybody, had the painful duty of turning down ninety-eight percent of the hopefuls.

One of these was an aged hoofer – he must have been damn near eighty – who’d obviously spent his last copper getting his costume out of mothballs and into immaculate condition. He came out in gray suit, gray derby, gray spats, gray shoes, and swinging a gray cane – straight out of a Victorian music hall – and went into his song and dance. He put up a courageous, dapper front. But his bones creaked, and his voice and rusted to a croak. It was an embarrassing moment.

Cochran, down in the orchestra, raised a hand to stop him. “I thank you very much,” he said, unhappily. “I shall let you know.”

Then, instead of retreating in defeat and humiliation, to make room for the next act, the ancient hoofer stepped grandly down to the footlights. He leaned over and pointed his cane at the conductor.

“Maestro,” he said, “would you please play four bars for me to go off with?”

The conductor complied. The old gentleman danced offstage to the music, waving his derby, as if it were his fourth curtain call. Everybody in the house, including the impresario, broke into applause. [pg 151]

Crazy bits of Round Table talk come back to me still, over the years, like isolated lines from an old show whose title and plot I’ve long forgotten. I can hear the voices clearly, voices of some of the most brilliant people who ever lived, but what I hear them saying is not always brilliant, and never very profound. [pg 197; see also Flapper for more Algonquin Schmalgonquin]

Neysa had one failing as an art instructor. It was, as far as I knew, her only failing, period. That was her passion for fires. If a siren or bell should sound during one of our late-night seminars, that was the end of the seminar. Neysa was such a fire buff that she once dashed to Penn Station and jumped on a train when she heard there was a four-alarm fire burning in Philadelphia. [pg 203]

Not long after this, I felt in the mood for another good deed. The beneficiary this time was Tiffany’s, the famous jewelry store on Fifth Avenue. Tiffany’s, I told myself, was too stuffy for its own good, and something had to be done about it.

I bought a bag full of fake emeralds, rubies and diamonds, at Woolworth’s, then went to Tiffany’s. I asked to look at some diamonds. The clerk pulled out a tray of stones, and while I looked at them I turned over the bag from Woolworth’s behind my back. Jewels went spilling and bouncing all over the joint. Bells rang. Buzzers buzzed. Store detectives appeared out of the woodwork, hustled out all the other customers and locked the doors. Meanwhile the whole sales staff, including the manager, in cutaway coat and striped trousers, were down on their hands and knees retrieving my sparkling gems.

When they were all collected and put in my hat, the manager saw they were phony, every one of them. The attitude of Tiffany’s changed abruptly. The store dicks hustled me out the door, with the recommendation that I never return to the premises. On the way out, for a final touch, I tipped the doorman a giant ruby.

Tiffany’s, I found out, had a long memory. Five years later I went back there to make a legitimate purchase, some silver for a wedding present. The minute I stepped into the store, two detectives recognized me and grabbed me. I convinced them I was carrying no fake jewels. Nevertheless, they stood close by while I bought the gift, and followed me to the door with visible signs of relief.

On the way out, I tipped the doorman a giant ruby. [pg 207]

One time I was traveling with Beatrice and George to their country home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. We decided to have lunch on the train. The diner was crowded, and an old lady asked if we minded her taking the fourth chair at our table. That was okay with us. It was only mildly embarrassing to George. He was apprehensive, I could tell, that I might somehow get involved with the old lady and make a scene. But I said nothing to her. I didn’t even look at her.

She finished eating first. The waiter brought her check on a saucer. Still not looking up from my plate, I reached for the saucer, salted and peppered the lady’s check, and ate it. Kaufman twisted in such agony that I was afraid he was going to screw himself through the bottom of the car. [pg 209]

Our last excursion was to Naples, so Beatrice could pay one last visit to her favorite acquaintance in Italy – the sensitivo in the Naples aquarium. The sensitivo was a fantastic kind of shellfish. It drew into its shell whenever any strange object came near it, then peaked out of its shell when the object was pulled away – all in a weird, synchronized movement. Beatrice could watch it and play with it for hours. The real reason she was so fascinated, she said, was that she knew a lot of people who were sensitivos. She refused to name any names, however. [pg 263]

Our office was over a real-estate brookage, up a flight of creaky stairs. I was still a city boy who believed that stairs belonged only in tenements. Otherwise you took an elevator. So I preferred to do my business on the street.

When I whistled from down below, Rachel, the secretary, lowered my day’s paper work out of the office window in a basket, on a rope. I then sat on the curb of Beverly Drive attending to bills and correspondence. When I’d finished reading my mail and writing checks and memos, I’d reload the basket and whistle twice and Rachel would pull up the rope. It was a very efficient office. I never saw it. [pg 286]

When I returned to New York there was a cablegram waiting for me. It was from Chico, who was still in England. His message was desperate: Dying for sports news. Can’t get results here. Please send papers. I devoted the rest of the day to fulfilling Chico’s desperate request. I scoured the city and bought copies of the London Times, London Observer, Manchester Guardian and the Scotsman. In each paper I underlined scores of association football, rugby and cricket matches, and shipped the whole batch off to Chico. I cabled him that the papers were on their way with the latest results, and wished him the best of luck. [pg 342]