Monkey Business: The Lives and Legends of the Marx Brothers by Simon Louvish (out of print). A solid biography of Groucho, Harpo, Chico, Zeppo, and Gummo. Not to mention their frequent supporting player Margaret Dumont, whose mysterious background Louvish sorts out.
Elsa Lanchester Herself by Elsa Lanchester (out of print). Doing research in books peripherally relevant to your subject is like snacking from a host’s refrigerator: When you’ve found the ham that was your primary objective, you might as well see what else there is to nibble on. After gleaning from Elsa two anecdotes about Duck Soup’s underappreciated director, Leo McCarey, I was hungry to learn how the actress came up with the Bride of Frankenstein’s hiss and what it was like to be married to Charles Laughton.
Harpo Speaks! by Harpo Marx and Rowland Barber (Limelight, $20). Harpo was a madcap on and off the screen, but he was also the sweetest and sanest of the brothers. This memoir, which takes Harpo from street-urchin–hood to stardom and a happy family life, is hard to resist.
Groucho: The Life and Times of Julius Henry Marx by Stefan Kanfer (Vintage, $17). The definitive bio. Doesn’t make you like Groucho, but it’s good snappy reading.
Mank: The Wit, World, and Life of Herman Mankiewicz by Richard Meryman (out of print). Mankiewicz was fired as producer of Duck Soup, but he’d been involved long enough to justify my scarfing up the rest of his you’ll-laugh-you’ll-cry life story. Mank was a brilliant talker and screenwriter who reveled in disappointing people, particularly himself. “How’s Sara?” someone asked him. “Sara who?” “Your wife, Sara.” “Oh, you mean poor Sara.” But he doted on her.
Hollywood by Garson Kanin (out of print). From the paperback’s cover: “Swapping jokes with Carole Lombard. Barrymore answering the door in his birthday suit. Garbo confessing she had never received a love letter.” And McCarey putting things over on Sam Goldwyn and Harry Cohn, and Groucho being his richly tasteless self in a hospital elevator with one of Duck Soup’s screenwriters, Harry Ruby.