Great job by Longform reprinting Ned Stuckey-French’s 1999 story on the relationship between Alexander Woollcott and Harpo Marx:
Keeping Harpo out of trouble was a full-time job, especially during the summer of 1928, when he and Harpo rented a villa on the French Riviera with their friends Alice Duer Miller, Beatrice Kaufman, and Ruth Gordon. Harpo set the tone when he had a tuxedo made of green pool table felt for the high-society soirées. When Woollcott alone was invited to one affair at the Eden Roc, he lorded it over the others, so Harpo and Gordon decided to crash it and surprise their friend. They sneaked in through the kitchen and got a table next to Woollcott’s. When the waiter arrived with the main course—a whole poached salmon—Harpo grabbed the platter and tossed it over the patio railing into the Mediterranean. “Don’t think I care for the fish,” he said. “What’s on the Blue Plate tonight?” Everyone but Woollcott laughed; he pretended not to know who the rude clown was.
Part of the problem that summer was Woollcott’s melancholy. His sister Julie had just died and he was feeling his own mortality. He’d quit his job as a drama critic and begun freelancing full-time in hopes that he could produce something lasting. The trip to France was part of his plan. He wanted to make a splash there with the international literary set. Instead, it was Harpo who made the splash. One day, Woollcott took him to meet Somerset Maugham at Maugham’s villa, lecturing him all the way about good behavior. When they arrived, Harpo was surprised to find Maugham younger-looking and less swishy and stuffy than he’d expected. He greeted them, Harpo recalled, looking “lean and brown” in “only shorts and sandals,” and “sizzl[ing] with energy and good cheer.” Maugham insisted on a tour of the house. Upstairs, he showed them the master bedroom, positioned so he could dive from its window straight into his pool. While Woollcott and Maugham were turned away discussing a painting, Harpo stripped down and made the dive. Woollcott acted appalled, assuming that Maugham also would be aghast, but the Englishman quickly shed his shorts and sandals, and followed Harpo through the window.
Another afternoon, Woollcott invited Mr. and Mrs. George Bernard Shaw for lunch. He fussed over arrangements all morning (“jittery as a girl on her first date,” said Harpo) and then had himself chauffeured into town to meet the Shaws, who were arriving by train. Harpo said “to hell with the whole affair” and went for a nude swim. As he dozed in the sun, the Shaws pulled up. They had missed Woollcott in town and hired their own driver out to the villa. Harpo just managed to get a towel around himself as the guests came up the walk, Shaw yelling “Where the devil’s Woollcott? Who the devil are you?” As Harpo introduced himself, Shaw reached down and yanked the towel away, laughed, and nonchalantly introduced himself. By the time Woollcott arrived, sweating and anxious, Harpo and the Shaws were fast friends. The three of them spent the next month palling around Antibes—much to Woollcott’s apparent chagrin. “Harpo Marx and Bernard Shaw!” he sniffed. “Corned beef and roses!”