Happy Birthday, Mrs. Harpo
Today is the birthday of Susan Fleming (1908-2002).
Appropriately enough, the lady who would one day marry Harpo Marx began her career as a chorine, although she hadn’t appeared in a show or a film with the Marx Brothers themselves. She started out on Broadway in the chorus of the Ziegfeld production No Foolin’ (1926), and had a role in the George White musical Manhattan Mary (1927-1928). In both cases she was billed as “Suzanne Fleming”. (Thanks, Mathew Coniam!)
In 1931, she turns up in Hollywood as an actress. Her film career was an interesting mix of decent roles (usually in B movies), small speaking parts, extra work, and chorus parts. Her striking looks appear to have played a large role in her success. Among her earliest films was the western Range Feud (1931) alongside Buck Jones and John Wayne. Today as an actress she is best known for playing W.C. Fields’ daughter in Million Dollar Legs (1932) — she’s the one with the expensive gams. She’s also in the comedy He Learned About Women (1933) with Stuart Erwin and Alison Skipworth. You can also see her in the all star Broadway Through a Keyhole (1933), George White’s 1935 Scandals, The Great Ziegfeld (1936), and Gold Diggers of 1937. Her last film was the logging drama God’s Country and the Woman (1937), starring George Brent and Beverly Roberts, with an ensemble that includes Alan Hale Sr, El Brendel, Rosco Ates, and Billy Bevan.
She is said to have met Harpo at a dinner party at the home of Sam Goldwyn in 1932. The couple dated for four years, and after some initial foot-dragging on Harpo’s part, the pair married. Harpo’s initial reticence is a sign to me of integrity on his part. Chico and Zeppo were married twice; Groucho was married three times. These are the Marx Brothers we’re talking about. These boys RAN AROUND. The whole point of them was not to be tamed. Why make some poor woman miserable?
But by the time he and Fleming were married in 1936, Harpo was 48. He was ready to settle down. And he did. By all accounts, the pair and their four adopted children had an idyllic and blissful domestic life (which is not something that can be said of the marriages of Groucho, Chico or Zeppo — although Gummo seems to have had a relatively happy, normal marriage).
The happy role she played in Harpo’s life, and her minor movie career, make Fleming among the best known of the Marx spouses (perhaps vying for the top spot with Barbara Marx, Zeppo’s wife who later married Frank Sinatra).
For more on show biz history, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.