Rancho Mirage resident Bill Marx is known both for being the eldest son of Harpo Marx (the mute, harp-playing Marx Brothers star) and for his own talent as a composer and performer. He and his wife, Barbara, are among those named in bold print as attendees at many local charity functions, and Bill is often a featured performer, combining his piano-playing talent with comedic stories about growing up Marx.
Raised in Beverly Hills, Bill became his father’s prop man at age 12 and his arranger/conductor by the time Bill was 16.
“Dad couldn’t read a note of music,” he says. “I’d write the notes in letters, and he could feel the rhythm and harmony.”
Bill’s dad decided that Beverly Hills was “too pretentious” and moved the family to the desert. Bill went on to study at the Juilliard School in New York and then settled in Los Angeles. While Bill’s father helped him hone his natural musical talent, most people don’t know how much his mother, Susan Marx, influenced who he is as a person.
Bill moved permanently to the desert in 1992.
“I wanted to look after my mother, and I took over the trusteeship of my dad’s estate and professional identity,” says Bill. “But instead of looking out for her, she had to look after me, as my shaky second marriage broke up. I thought I could always go back to living in Los Angeles, but when we started being together without my dad, (my mom and I) developed the best damn absurd relationship, so I decided to stay.”
Susan Marx was something of a trailblazer in the Coachella Valley. She had been in movies and was a Ziegfeld Follies girl before she married Harpo. They became parents to four adopted children; Bill is the oldest.
“When dad died, on their 28th anniversary in 1964, she had no ‘role’ to fulfill anymore,” says Bill. “She had no desire to remarry, although she was courted by lots of wealthy guys. She literally decided to ‘invent’ Susan Marx as a separate person.
“Mom broke into the Old Boys’ Club here, at a time when an outspoken feminist Democrat was not the norm,” Bill says. “She had an opinion on everything and wasn’t afraid to share it. She was the first woman on the board of College of the Desert and served on the board of Palm Springs Unified School District. She even ran for state Senate, endorsed by the local papers, and lost by only about 1,000 votes.”
Susan Marx had always been interested in education and preferred to give her support without fanfare. “Once, they wanted to honor mom by changing the name of a middle school,” says Bill. “Mom didn’t want her name on a building, but she said she didn’t mind them putting a small plaque on the door of the school library. She was just like that.”
When Susan died in 2002, Bill had already established himself in the desert, along with Barbara, whom he met in 1994.
“I had ‘de-citified’ myself,” he says. “Besides, I was doing Marx trustee work and playing a lot down here.”
While Bill is known for playing jazz and standards at various local venues and charity events, most people don’t realize the extent of his musical accomplishments. He is a classical composer whose work has included writing for movies, television and ballet; he’s also created concertos performed in major venues. He is the curator of the Marx Brothers’ legacy, and well known as a local “celebrity.”
“Celebrity isn’t what you create,” Bill says, with typical humility. “It’s what other people create about you. It’s my name value that has counted, more than who I am. I always knew I had a magical name, not just because of my dad, but also because of my mom, but she always said it was important that I get known not just for being my father’s son. I figured that when you have talent, you can use that talent rather than just giving a check or volunteering your time, so the best way I could help others was also my way of fitting into society down here.”
Bill has been using his talent for a greater purpose for more than 20 years. He has actively supported numerous causes, including ACT for MS, established by his old friend, local columnist and personality, Gloria Greer, who died in 2015.
“Mom had said to me early on, ‘There’s one person you need to know here, and that’s Gloria Greer.’ She asked me to be on the ACT for MS board, and I have been ever since.”
Bill currently performs for the public twice a week at AJ’s on the Green in Cathedral City.
“I was given the gift of music, and I like to keep testing my capability,” he said. “It keeps my brain alive, and I love the camaraderie and interaction with the audience. I had nothing to do with the gift I was given, but I do have to honor it. I think I’m the luckiest guy in the world.”
Bill has a large group of local followers, including other performers, who often show up when he is appearing. I was recently in the audience when jazz singer Diane Schuur, now a local resident, jumped up onstage with him and blew away the audience.
Bill has advice for young people: “It’s not enough just to have a door opened, even though it helps: You have to deliver. Set out to do something, and see it through—finish it. Don’t think of it as creativity; think of it as self-discovery. Everybody has a unique means of self-expression within them; it’s about how they choose to express it that makes the difference. When it comes out, it becomes unique to the one doing it.
“Trust your own instinct to find your talent. That’s the gift. I was just lucky enough to know what mine was.”
Lucky for us, Bill Marx is still discovering new ways to explore his gift and share it.
Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs Sundays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on KNews Radio 94.3 FM. Email her at Anita@LovableLiberal.com. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.