Harpo Marx Buys a Brush (Quest Story)

On the vaudeville circuit in a city in the Midwest, the Marx Brothers were broke, had no gigs, and where on the verge of breaking the act up. Harpo made a crucial decision using his feeling function that was the tipping point in the Marx Brothers persevering, and eventually finding success on Broadway and the movies. Here is Harpo’s story, found in his autobiography Harpo Speaks.

I was a man of nearly thirty years and here I was stranded in a strange city with seven cents in my pocket and no way of earning cent number eight. It was the only time I ever felt sorry for myself.

I came out of my daze.  I was startled to find I was standing watching an auction sale.  The inventory of a little general store in the suburbs – groceries, notions, and dry goods – was being auctioned off.  There were about twenty people there.  They must have been jobbers, mostly, because the auctioneer was knocking down the stock in big lots.  I was careful to keep my hands in my pockets, so I could resist any crazy impulse to make a bid, and blow my entire capital of seven cents.

The shelves were nearly emptied out and most of the crowd had left, but I still hung around, having nothing better to do with myself.  Finally everything was gone except one scrub brush, the former owner, hovering in the background, the auctioneer, myself, and an elderly Italian couple.  Either they had no money or they were too timid to make a bid on anything.  Whichever it was, they exchanged sad looks now that the auction was winding up.

The auctioneer was tired.  “All right,” he said.  “Let’s get it over with and not horse around.  I have left here one last desirable item.  One cleansing brush in A-number-one, brand new condition, guaranteed to give you floors so clean you can eat off them.  What am I offered?”

The old Italian guy and his wife looked at each other, searching for the key for the right thing to say.  The auctioneer glared at them.  “All right!” he yelled.  “It’s only a scrub brush!”  They held on to each other like they had done something wrong.

I said quickly, “One cent.”

The auctioneer whacked his gavel.  He sighed and said, “Sold-thank-god-to-the-young-American-gentleman-for-one-cent.”

I picked up my brush and handed it to the old lady.  She was as touched as if I had given her the entire contents of the store.  The old man grabbed my hand and pumped it.  They both grinned at me and poured out a river of Italian that I couldn’t understand.  “Think nothing of it,” I said, and added, “Ciao, eh?” – which was the only Italian I could remember from 93rd Street.

They thought this was pretty funny, the way I said it, and they walked away laughing.  I walked away laughing too.  A day that had started out like a nothing day, going nowhere except down, had turned into a something day, with a climax and a laugh for a finish.  I couldn’t explain it, but I hadn’t felt so good in years.  A lousy penny scrub brush had changed the whole complexion of life.

When I got back to the hotel the money had arrived from Uncle Al.  Just as I anticipated, it had been decided that Groucho should audition as a single, Zeppo return to Chicago with Minnie, and Chico hire out as a piano player.

To all of these decisions I said: “Nuts.”

This was the longest serious speech I had ever made in front of the family, and everybody listened.  Then everybody started talking.  We talked ourselves out, until all our self-pity was gone.  What had happened to us was our fault, not the Shuberts’ or anybody else’s.  And what was going to happen to us would also be our own doing, not the Shuberts’ or anybody else’s.

Aboard the east-bound Pennsy.  The other passengers on the coach kept complaining, so we bribed the porter a quarter and spent the night in the men’s room of the nearest Pullman car.  I tootled on the clarinet and played pinochle with Chico.  Grouch smoked his pipe and read a book.  Zeppo did deep knee-bends.  At the same time we were all working, throwing ideas into the kitty and putting together a show we could do back in New York.  None of us stopped to think how idiotic and deluded we were.  What show?  For whom?  We were not only exiled by the moguls, but now even the scavengers wouldn’t touch us.

Absolutely idiotic.  And thank God we were.  The train ride from Indianapolis to New York, clacking through the blackness from the end of the line to what looking like the beginning of nothing, was the most momentous jump we ever made.  For me, it was the prologue to a new kind of life in a new kind of world.

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