Harpo Speaks

I have mentioned this book before but not in detail. It is my favorite autobiography I’ve ever read. He starts off in his childhood in the late 1800s and ends up in the 1960s. I have read this book at least 7-10 times. It’s always my traveling companion on trips just in case I need something else to read. I’ve read books by and about Groucho and others written about the Marx Brothers but this book that Harpo and Rowland Barber wrote tops them all. He doesn’t go through all of the movies by detail but he packed so much living in his life that his life was full enough without much info about the movies.

He was always himself no matter what. The Brothers never would conform to anyone’s standards. He was counterculture before counterculture. Harpo jumped out of the window in 2nd grade and never came back but ended up hanging out with some of the best-known intellectuals of the 20th century and was a member of the Algonquin Round Table but yet he could hardly spell. He frequently stayed at William Randolph Hearst’s super-estate San Simeon. He called himself a professional listener…the only one of the bunch.

He taught himself the harp and played with an unorthodox style. Professional harp players would ask him to show them how he played some of the things he did…

Harpo was a good friend of Alexander Woolcott and Wolcott would invite Harpo and a select few to Neshobe Island in Lake Bomoseen in Vermont that Woolcott owned for the summers to play games and hang out every day. Harpo could make life interesting in the dullest of surroundings. He was friends with Robert Benchley, Salvador Dali, Dorothy Parker, Charles MacArthur, Alice Duer Miller, George Bernard Shaw,  Beatrice Kaufman, and Ruth Gordon.

Wolcott also arranged for Harpo to tour Russia in the 1930s. Harpo actually did a bit of Spy work for the American government at the time…transporting some papers on his leg out of Russia to America.

If you read this just to read about the Marx Brothers movie career…don’t…if you want to know what they went through to get where they did…then yes read it. This book tells what old-time Vaudeville was really like. Not a romantic version of it by some old timers that told their story after they retired. Awful boarding houses, spoiled food, and harassment by promoters.

He never seemed to age in spirit. He kept up with new things and was not stuck in the past.

His son Bill Marx wrote a book later on about his life with Harpo. When the Beatles came out Bill…who studied jazz and played piano, hated them. Harpo told him in 1964 that he better start liking them because their songs would last through time. He said this in 1964 before the Beatles matured. The guy had been around George Gershwin, Oscar Levant, and Irving Berlin. Bill said in 1970 he was playing piano in a club somewhere and what was he playing? Let It Be… “Dad was right.”

Harpo married Susan Flemming when he was 48 in 1936. George Burns asked him in 1948 how many children did he want to adopt? Harpo said “I’d like to adopt as many children as I have windows in my house. So when I leave for work, I want a kid in every window, waving goodbye.”

Harpo was known to wake one of his children up in the middle of the night if he worked late just to play games with them.

They ended up adopting 4 children…below was the house rules for the kids…

  1. Life has been created for you to enjoy, but you won’t enjoy it unless you pay for it with some good, hard work. This is one price that will never be marked down.
  2. You can work at whatever you want to as long as you do it as well as you can and clean up afterwards and you’re at the table at mealtime and in bed at bedtime.
  3. Respect what the others do. Respect Dad’s harp, Mom’s paints, Billy’s piano, Alex’s set of tools, Jimmy’s designs, and Minnie’s menagerie.
  4. If anything makes you sore, come out with it. Maybe the rest of us are itching for a fight, too.
  5. If anything strikes you as funny, out with that, too. Let’s all the rest of us have a laugh.
  6. If you have an impulse to do something that you’re not sure is right, go ahead and do it. Take a chance. Chances are, if you don’t you’ll regret it – unless you break the rules about mealtime and bedtime, in which case you’ll sure as hell regret it.
  7. If it’s a question of whether to do what’s fun or what is supposed to be good for you, and nobody is hurt whichever you do, always do what’s fun.
  8. If things get too much for you and you feel the whole world’s against you, go stand on your head. If you can think of anything crazier to do, do it.
  9. Don’t worry about what other people think. The only person in the world important enough to conform to is yourself.
  10. Anybody who mistreats a pet or breaks a pool cue is docked a months pay.

 

If you are looking for an autobiography…get this book.

Here is a small portion of Chapter 1 of Harpo Speaks!

I’ve played piano in a whorehouse. I’ve smuggled secret papers out of Russia. I’ve spent an evening on the divan with Peggy Hopkins Joyce. I’ve taught a gangster mob how to play Pinchie Winchie. I’ve played croquet with Herbert Bayard Swope while he kept Governor Al Smith waiting on the phone. I’ve gambled with Nick the Greek, sat on the floor with Greta Carbo, sparred with Benny Leonard, horsed around with the Prince of Wales, played Ping-pong with George Gershwin. George Bernard Shaw has asked me for advice. Oscar Levant has played private concerts for me at a buck a throw. I have golfed with Ben Hogan and Sam Snead. I’ve basked on the Riviera with Somerset Maugham and Elsa Maxwell. I’ve been thrown out of the casino at Monte Carlo.
Flush with triumph at the poker table, I’ve challenged Alexander Woollcott to anagrams and Alice Duer Miller to a spelling match. I’ve given lessons to some of the world’s greatest musicians. I’ve been a member of the two most famous Round Tables since the days of King Arthur—sitting with the finest creative minds of the 1920’s at the Algonquin in New York, and with Hollywood’s sharpest professional wits at the Hillcrest.
(Later in the book, some of these activities don’t seem quite so impressive when I tell the full story. Like what I was doing on the divan with Peggy Hopkins Joyce. I was reading the funnies to her.)
The truth is, I had no business doing any of these things. I couldn’t read a note of music. I never finished the second grade. But I was having too much fun to recognize myself as an ignorant upstart.
 
 I can’t remember ever having a bad meal. I’ve eaten in William Randolph Hearst’s baronial dining room at San Simeon, at Voisin’s and the Colony, and the finest restaurants in Paris. But the eating place I remember best, out of the days when I was chronically half starved, is a joint that was called Max’s Busy Bee. At the Busy Bee, a salmon sandwich on rye cost three cents per square foot, and for four cents more you could buy a strawberry shortcake smothered with whipped cream and a glass of lemonade. But the absolutely most delicious food I ever ate was prepared by the most inspired chef I ever knew—my father. My father had to be inspired because he had so little to work with.
I can’t remember ever having a poor night’s sleep. I’ve slept in villas at Cannes and Antibes, at Alexander Woollcott’s island hideaway in Vermont, at the mansions of the Vanderbilts and Otto H. Kahn and in the Gloversville, New York, jail. I’ve slept on pool tables, dressing-room tables, piano tops, bathhouse benches, in rag baskets and harp cases, and four abreast in upper berths. I have known the supreme luxury of snoozing in the July sun, on the lawn, while the string of a flying kite tickled the bottom of my feet.

I can’t remember ever seeing a bad show. I’ve seen everything from Coney Island vaudeville to the Art Theatre in Moscow. If I’m trapped in a theatre and a show starts disappointingly, I have a handy way to avoid watching it. I fall asleep.
My only addictions—and I’ve outgrown them all—have been to pocket billiards, croquet, poker, bridge and black jelly beans. I haven’t smoked for twenty years.

The only woman I’ve ever been in love with is still married to me.

My only Alcohol Problem is that I don’t particularly care for the stuff.

Author: badfinger20

Guitar, Bass, song writer,

89 thoughts on “Harpo Speaks”

  1. The book sounds interesting- and for you to read it that many times — i placed an order through the library system for it. Have you ever read Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime-[ especially himself} by Lewis Marx- son of Groucho? About Dean and Jerry- written in early 70’s but a fantastic read…

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    1. It’s a book that now I just open it and I read from where I open. It’s incredible they worked up from where they were. I think you will enjoy it. I just connected with Harpo…what a crowd he hung with.
      Is it Arthur Marx? I’ve seen that book but havent read it.
      I just finished “Raised Eyebrows” that was written by Steve Stoliar…he worked as a secretary for Groucho through the last years of his life. It’s sad but good…get this…Rob Zombie is wanting to make a movie of it…of all people.

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      1. Yes Arthur Marx wrote the Dean and Jerry book. I read it 30 plus years ago and was always hoping for an updated version but it never happened- Arthur died in 2011….. That is a head scratcher- Rob Zombie involved in that?.. There were two versions of the Harpo book the original release 1961 and a reissue in 2001- i ordered the re-issue…

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      2. You made the right choice…Bill Marx adds some… Bill Marx’s book is pretty dull…but I did love the Beatles quote…

        Rob Zombie surprised me…he is a big Marx Brothers fan but still… I will say the drama in that house in the 70s with Erin Flemming and the court cases are interesting but sad, to say the least…but Rob Zombie??? I know…

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      3. I always thought it odd some things that people were into that you’d never guess- Zombie- Marx Brothers — Ozzie and Lemme- being total stone cold Beatles freaks is another. Who would have seen the influence?

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      4. Lemme was strong on the Beatles…I mean ripping the Stones at times saying the Beatles were the tough ones…Coming from this guy it was hard to believe. Ozzie also…I don’t see the influence at all…

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      5. I’ve only seen the record store part on youtube…I’ve never seen the complete doc. I was knocked out…You would think he would say it the other way around…I was thinking…this guy is cool.

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      6. Yes that is very odd… I may be wrong on this…wasn’t Please Please Me a play on words from a Crosby song? The first time I saw Bing Crosby sing with David Bowie…It was surreal… at the time I knew Bowie for Ziggy Stardust…something was just off…it was great though.

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      7. I loved the Bing and Bowie Peace On Earth/ Little Drummer Boy… i guess it is easy to forget that when these guys were really young there was no rock and roll to listen to- they probably heard a lot of Bing etc…. like Slim Whitman being one of George’s heroes.

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      8. Yes before Rock and Roll it was Popular music.
        I love that video…I’m now used to it but at first it was odd…I kept seeing the guy that sang The Spiders from Mars

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      9. I wonder how familiar Bing was with Bowie’s music at the time? I can’t imagine him sitting around and listening to it… I am sure he knew the guy was a big rock star but other than that… its funny the other day listening to a local sports talk show from pittsburgh the host had a question and it was would you rather be a star athlete or a rock star- like david bowie– and he pronounced bowie– boo- e… certainly he knew how to pronounce it correctly?…….. which reminds me of a Myron Cope- the old Steelers announcer- someone told him back in the 70’s the carpenters were coming to town- he thought they meant Ruly Carpenter the Phillies owner.

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      10. Ruly Carpenter… that was funny… Yea Crosby probably knew of him and that is it. He probably liked being paired with someone current at the time….You would think he would be able to pronounce it…I mean Bowie is not just known to music fans…that’s pretty bad.
        For me…rock star…though I always wanted to play third for the Dodgers…that gig would not last a lifetime like a rock star would…at least you could still play at our age.

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      11. Yes rock star can now last forever- remember a time when neil young in his late 40’s going strong seemed odd… now they are well into their 70’s going strong. a baseball career ends…

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      12. it has to be hard for some of those athletes who love the spotlight- when its all over. Brett Favre comes to mind- should be about time for another Brett Favre thinks at 50 he can still play in the NFL story- and is awaiting a call…..Magic another media hog who has some way remained in the news- I like Magic but he likes being in the news….his rival Bird i think could care less if the media ever called again.

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      13. It’s sad to see an end to a career…the ones that play too long also… and they try to stretch the glory out. Brett doing his retirement thing got old. I’m sick of Magic Johnson…I respect what he has achieved but still… I do agree.

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      14. Magic and Favre seem to be the ones who just won’t go away… Jordan for the most part seems to stay out of the news… I think Labron has caught the Favre disease…. I really don’t follow the NBA but I hear enough about him…. I’d like to hear more about Mike Trout!

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      15. Trout is too good of a guy to get much attention. :Baseball stars just don’t register as high anymore. A-Rod did for all the wrong reasons…Jeter did because he was a Yankee…I’m not saying he couldn’t play but if he played for the Brewers he would still be known as a great player but not as he is now.

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      16. When I read that I just busted out laughing. I will say music wasn’t as mainstream back then as it is now…with the older generation. It’s a great story regardless.

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      17. We loved Myron and he was knowledable would sports and the steelers etc- but as far as pop culture….. i figure he had heard of the beatles- but i wouldn’t place a bet on it!

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      18. Lol I guess it was more of a divide back then and it just stayed that way with a lot of them. He did what he did and did it great and I guess that was his world.

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      19. A friend just called and asked me…Do you realize the two people you read a lot about are Harpo Marx and Keith Moon? I started to think about it…yes they are similar in a way minus the drugs. The ability not to be embarrassed… Harpo could handle it… I’m mostly a quiet person… I don’t know maybe I wish I had some of that ability…I’d probably be in jail lol.

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      20. That is me… Some things in public settings I want to do but never would… The Marx Brothers and Moon did these things before they got famous also…it just intrigues me.

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      21. Again I don’t how I miss comments… one of the reasons I started to blog was to help me improve my spelling and grammar… my writing usually consists of quick emails and instructions.

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      22. Thanks that means a lot… I told my wife if one person just tries any of the odd things I like and likes one thing…I will be happy. That is why you made my day with Bedazzled.
        I like listening to new old music and you have helped me expand that and I do appreciate it.
        I am going to check out the guy that you know…Daniel Johnston

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      23. Still waiting for my next batch of your suggestions to come in through the library system… they will probably all come in one day lol… We seem to like similar things- so I have a lot of confidence in your suggestions….. every time I have turned the tv on the past few weeks I have heard Daniel’s “The Story Of An Artist”- on that Apple commercial.

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      24. Yes, we do. I only have seen one artist that we feel different about…and I understand why you feel the way you do. Janis Joplin… I like her because she put everything she had into a song…sometimes she put too much. Her last producer was trying to show her how to really sing because her voice would not have lasted long if she continued singing from the throat.
        I’m sure I will know some of his songs when I hear them. My son and I are getting ready to watch The Wire next week.

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      25. I can also understand Janis Joplin’s appeal- over the years I have tried to like her- just one of those things that hasn’t worked! I am probably in a minority.

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      26. You were right though. Dying made her bigger than what she was at the time…I would have liked to see if she would have really learned to sing and go on.

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      27. I would have to think she would have evolved.. I remember reading- and I am not sure if this is true of course- that both her passing and Jimi’s passings were not front page news in the New York Times.

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      28. An old friend of mine told me in the 80s that he had a choice to see her in Nashville or the Cowsills playing at the same time…he picked Janis…Janis played in a small venue and the Cowsills sold out the Auditorium here. No, she wasn’t as huge as people think now.

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      29. I think he made the right choice historically- no one is going to care to hear “I saw the Cowsills” stories– but I saw Janis- yes… I taught with a woman who saw The Beatles in 1964. I asked her about that all the time.

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      30. Hey, look at my Cowsills T-Shirt! Yes, it doesn’t have the same ring to it. I’ve played softball with a guy who saw the Beatles. He lived in New York and saw them at Shea in 65. I quizzed him up and down. Of course, he said he saw them but didn’t hear a thing.

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      31. Have you watched the Paul Karaoke thing with James Cordon yet? … I can’t imagine being at Shea for that show.. or being at that bar when the curtains open and there is Paul and the band.

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      32. No but I will today. I have a lot of time on my hands. I was helping a neighbor move something yesterday and now I’m not moving because my back caught… I will catch on media stuff today because I can’t do anything else lol. As long as I don’t move I’m fine.
        Being at Shea would have been incredible. Seeing Paul at a bar? the best

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      33. Hope your back is feeling better..how come that stuff rarely happened when you are in your 20’s? . For some reason I didn’t see it until last night when it occurred to me- that is probably on youtube!… brought tears to my eyes I must say..

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      34. I know…I was feeling like superman and didn’t use my legs and this is what happens…50 year old backs are not as forgiving.
        I’m going to visit youtube today and catch it. I saw it on some site the other day but never watched it.

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      35. it’s only 23 minutes long.. I won’t say anything more and give anything away- will hold my comments back until you see it! ,,,, yes once I was helping life temporary type bleachers at school and hurt my back.. had to be careful every since… got to life properly the wife always tells me!

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      36. Well, I didn’t expect that. Corden will never top that one. I never saw the emotional part coming to Let It Be. When that curtain drew back like you said…That was magical. I was expecting them just to joke all the way through… That was great… Like we said before…Paul is a Beatle fan now.

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      37. I think Let It Be was personal for Corden- didn’t he mention his grandfather telling him it was the greatest song ever or something on that order? I bet one of the highlights of Corden’s career is going to be -when he got to sing Hey Jude with Paul…. can you imagine being in that bar and that happening?

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      38. Yes, you could tell it was real…I didn’t expect that and it was touching. I loved the She Loves You Yes Yes Yes she does… What a surprise it must have been for everyone there… Corden will never forget it that is for sure.
        When Paul was in Nashville a girl came on stage after holding a sign up and Paul signed her arm and she said he was going to the tattoo parlor and get it traced right after and she did…it was in the paper the next day… He is probably more personable now than he has been in years.

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      39. I just figured they were going to go into the bar and look around never expected them to play any songs or for his band to be there… The word he was there sure got out quickly both at the bar and at his boyhood home…

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      40. That is sad and it seems many great artists suffer from something. I’ve seen the trailers for The Daniel Johnston story and I want to see it.

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      41. I’ve seen that advertise also. The guy is interesting that is for sure. I will find it. It’s really cool that you know him and knew him when he started.

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      42. That is probably why I like the early stuff so well… I’d go over and he’d play his latest tune he made up that day… I was the first fan. In an interview once he compared to me to George Washington lol….

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      43. I can’t believe that. Like I said before wait….the 90s just happened. I still think of the Black Crowes as recent….yea I’m pathetic.

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      44. The Black Crowes aren’t recent? lol… I think of Son Volt’s album Trace as one of my favorite recent albums- i think it came out 23 years ago….

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    1. I can’t say how much I like it. It’s a wonder they survived vaudeville. That was a tough life. I have Groucho and Me but I havent read it in years…I’ll have to get it out again.

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  2. One of my very favorite biographies. So many great stories: the well-dressed gentleman Harpo would rush down to the street every morning to greet, the right field only baseball games …

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    1. I have had a copy since the 1980s and I always replace it when it wears out. I like how he describes Russia in 1933 and his trip in and out of it.

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  3. I am so disappointed- Harpo Speaks came in but I had ordered Harpo Speaks- New York- a very thin book which was just one chapter of Harpo Speaks! So I went back and ordered the whole thing- and now the wait starts all over again….

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      1. I think it will be worth the wait. What happened to me after I read it was to look up Robert Benchley, Alexander Wolcott Dorthy Parker, etc… Which at the time I had to go to the public library to do in the 80s…so one cheer for the internet…much easier now.

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      2. We are on episode 8 now of The Wire. The politics in the police force is crazy. They are as bad as politicians…some of them.

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      3. I like Mcnaulty but I feel for Dee or “D” so far. He is wanting out…The smartest guy is Freamon…the guy is great…. I like Kima also… she is smart… there are so many moving parts….I admit I watched the first episode twice…then it all fit together.

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      4. Yep got to watch #1 twice! Those are great characters it is hard to pick just one- the ones I don’t like are the upper echelon police types like Rawls and Burrell

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      5. Oh Rawls I can’t stand. That is what I was talking about politics. Who cares if the bad guys get caught…it’s all about him. It is addicting. We stayed up one night until 1 Monday night watching it…just couldn’t stop.
        He is not here tonight so I promised him I would not watch it.

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      6. Yes it is… tell me when you are finished with season 1 Life On Mars. I really liked the last 3 or 4 episodes. I can’t say anymore.

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      7. Oh no hurry… I just want to know what you think on how they wrap up the first season…
        Oh another blogger reminded me today of “Good Ol Freda”…a documentary on her…she worked for the Beatles and its a nice little bio if you run across it. I cannot remember her last name! I’m bad with names.

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      8. Watched episodes 5 and 6 last night of Life On Mars-that Man City- Man U episode with the murder and the intense hostage situation at the newspaper.Hope to finish season 1 off tonight.

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