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Susan F. Marx, 94; Widow of Comedian Harpo Marx

Obituaries

December 27, 2002|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

Susan Fleming Marx, a Ziegfeld Follies girl and film actress of the 1930s who appeared opposite John Wayne and W.C. Fields and later married comedian Harpo Marx, has died. She was 94.

Marx, who became a Palm Springs area politician and activist, died Sunday in Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage after a heart attack.

In her youth, Susan Fleming aimed for the bright lights of Broadway and danced her way into the biggest stage spots in the late 1920s. After appearing in Flo Ziegfeld's storied Follies revue, she was asked to come west as John Wayne's love interest in the western "Range Feud."

She was soon dancing again, this time before Hollywood cameras, as Fields' daughter in the 1932 comedy "Million Dollar Legs." As part of the publicity campaign for the film, Fleming's legs were insured for $1 million, said her friend, actress Gloria Stuart, of recent "Titanic" fame.

But Fleming disliked the Tinseltown routine. "There is nothing more boring than working on a movie," she told Britain's Hello! Magazine in 1995. "It took forever to get the lights sorted out. I hated it!"

Fortuitously, about the time Fleming decided she wanted little to do with the film business, she found herself seated next to Adolph "Harpo" Marx at a dinner party at the home of movie maker Samuel Goldwyn. The dancer was captivated by the comedian, who was about 15 years her senior.

Silent on screen while brothers Groucho and Chico kept up a fast repartee, Marx in person, Fleming discovered, was "a warm, fun, darling man to talk to ... [who] was wary of friendship."

It took the young actress four years of dating the womanizing Marx and three proposals -- all from her -- before they married on Sept. 28, 1936. (Marx died on their wedding anniversary in 1964 at age 70.)

As Susan Marx, she gleefully abandoned her own career and became what she described as her husband's "valet," touring with him and cleaning his trademark curly wigs. She also reared the three sons and one daughter they had adopted as babies.

The Marx Brothers, who included managers Zeppo and Gummo, were famous for such films as "Animal Crackers," "Monkey Business," "Go West," "Duck Soup" and "A Night at the Opera." A few years after the brothers made their final film together, "Love Happy" in 1949, Harpo and Susan Marx relocated to Palm Springs.

In addition to his music -- he played piano, clarinet, violin, trombone and cornet, as well as his trademark harp -- Harpo at his wife's suggestion began painting.

Susan Marx made elaborate wood frames for his paintings, drew and painted her own artworks, and took care of their family.

After Harpo Marx's death, she began building a career as a community activist and official. By the time her husband died, Marx had served three years as an elected member of the Palm Springs Unified Board of Education.

She was on the school board a total of 18 years, and once ran unsuccessfully for a California Assembly seat. She also was active in the League of Women Voters.

Proud of the desert community as it existed, Marx was co-leader of the Mountain Protective League, which tried to halt hillside developments. After attending the College of the Desert, she became an advisory planning commissioner for Rancho Mirage.

As a philanthropist, Marx donated generously to desert-area charities and gave parts of the art collections she had built with her husband to museums as far away as the Heritage Center Museum in Lancaster, Pa.

For many years she worked to complete a book-length manuscript, although it never found a publisher. Titled "Go Tell," the autobiography covered her marriage to Harpo Marx, rearing their children, and her years as a widow.

Susan Marx is survived by three sons, Bill, Alexander and Jim Marx; a daughter, Minnie Eagle; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

No funeral is planned.

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