Harpo Marx (November 23, 1888 – September 28, 1964)
Adolph Arthur Marx, better known to the world as Harpo Marx, was born on November 23, 1888, to Samuel “Frenchie” Marx and his wife, Minnie Schoenberg Marx. The second oldest child, Harpo had an easy-going disposition, much like his father. The Marx’s home was unusual in several respects. Minnie and Frenchie’s roles were somewhat reversed. Frenchie worked out of the home as an unsuccessful tailor. Minnie working outside, working as a promoter for her brother, the famous vaudeville comedian Al Shean (“Absolutely, Mr. Gallagher” “Positively, Mr. Shean”). They were poor, with numerous family members liable to drop in for dinner, taxing Frenchie’s creativity with his cooking to the limit. But the family was loving, and Harpo grew up feeling loved.
However, he did not grow up educated. As the only Jewish boy in his public school class, and small for his age, he was the object of frequent bullying. The bullying got to the point of Harpo being tossed out a window onto the street on a daily basis. At the age of eight, after being tossed out of the window once too often, Harpo left school permanently.
Harpo began his street education at the age of eight, learning to fend for himself, find ways of earning money, and growing up with his fellow Marx Brothers. Leonard (Chico) the oldest, Julius (Groucho) the youngest, Milton (Gummo), and Herbert (Zeppo). He went through a dizzying array of different jobs growing up, including tin can singer and pianist in a brothel. However, one thing constantly lurked in the background of his life — and that was The Plan.
Minnie had planned for her sons to succeed on the stage, and her will was indomitable. Scrimping money together, she bought a used piano, and even managed to pay for music lessons. However, she could only afford lessons for one son. Chico, who was supposed to pass on what he had learned to Harpo. However, Chico was not a very motivated student, and only passed on the little that he learned. Leaving Harpo with a repertoire of only two songs. Harpo had gained, and lost, a long series of jobs, and had finally come upon steady employment. In a movie theater playing piano to accompany the movies that were playing. By playing his two songs fast, slow, with different tempos and in different keys, he was able to muddle his way through. But that changed in 1910, when Minnie’s Plan now changed to include Harpo.
As Harpo said, “I was being shanghaied to join Groucho, Gummo, and Leo Levy. On a stage. In front of people. … It was probably the most wretched debut in the history of show business.” However wretched it might have been, Harpo was now part of the troupe. For the next several years, the group performed across the country in some of the worst vaudeville venues. They were honing their skills as a singing group — not a comedy. One notable moment from those years came when Minnie leased an instrument for Harpo to learn, in order to add more class to the group — a harp. The group, initially the Three Nightingales, and now the Four Nightingales, and later the Six Mascots, worked strictly as a singing group. This changed, as did the Marx Brothers’ fortunes, in 1912.
After one performance, away from Minnie’s watchful eye, the Marx Brothers’ singing act broke out into some of the madcap comedy for which they would later become famous. I n response to a request for a different act for a second week’s engagement, they started performing a sketch titled “Fun in Hi Skule” (1912) which they had seen performed many times in vaudeville. This musical comedy gave them room to test out their comedic muscles. A later sequel, “Mr. Green’s Reception” (1913), followed afterward, as did “Home Again” (1914), “The Cinderella Girl” (1918), “On the Mezzanine Floor” (1921).
It was in “Home Again” that Harpo received a serious blow to his ego. Written with the assistance of Uncle Al Shean, it removed all spoken lines for Harpo. Uncle Al realized that Harpo simply couldn’t compete with the ad-lib verbal sparring that Chico and Groucho did nightly. Harpo didn’t agree, and simply ad-libbed his own material. Until a reviewer mentioned that Harpo was a talented pantomimist, who ruined his performance every time he opened his mouth.
Harpo took the hint and remained mute for virtually the remainder of his professional life.
With their change from a musical group to a comedy act, their fortunes had improved, to playing the highest venues, culminating in performing at the Palace. Next came an English tour, where the Marx Brothers were extremely successful, including command performances for royalty. When they returned to America, their success had gone to their head, leading to their alienating E. F. Albee, the most influential man in vaudeville. Harpo and the other Marx Brothers were blacklisted.
Even though this was the lowest point in their professional lives, it was Harpo who, with a one-word speech, rallied his family together, to move on to greater heights. With vaudeville closed to them, there was only one legitimate venue left to them — Broadway.
The Marx Brothers opened a new stage show, “I’ll Say She Is”. After 18 months of testing and fine-tuning, they opened in New York to great reviews. Most notably by Alexander Woolcott, who soon became Harpo’s best friend for many years.
Woolcott introduced Harpo to some of the most influential people in the country at the Algonquin round table — including Robert Benchley, Herbert Bayard Swope, George S. Kaufman, Harold Ross and Frank Adams, exposing him to a new world of ideas. Woolcott later invited Harpo to his island retreat where he became close friends with Dorothy Parker and many others.
The next several years were a combination of Harpo working on Broadway shows (“The Cocoanuts” in 1925, “Animal Crackers” in 1928), and playing with his friends from the Algonquin.
1929 should have been a wonderful year for Harpo. He and his brothers had completed their first film, “The Cocoanuts,” a filmed version of their stage show. However, two cataclysmic events occurred that year. In a personal tragedy, Harpo’s mother, Minnie, died after suffering a severe stroke. Harpo was with her at her deathbed and was the last of the Marx Brothers to see their mother alive. Also in 1929, Harpo and his brothers lost virtually everything in the stock market crash that signaled the beginning of the Great Depression.
Harpo and his brothers, however, were better off financially than most of America. In 1930, their second film “Animal Crackers” was filmed, and in the next years “Monkey Business“. In between, Harpo and his brothers continued appearing on Broadway. He also appeared in the London Palace Theater early in 1931. Harpo also appeared in two movies in 1932, The House That Shadows Built, and the famous Marx Brothers’ film Horse Feathers.
Also in 1932, Harpo’s future wife, Susan Fleming, co-starred in the comedy “Million Dollar Legs” with W. C. Fields. Harpo had been a lifelong bachelor, and the thought of totally changing his life terrified him. However, the thought of living his life without Susan terrified him more. After a long, unofficial “engagement” Harpo and Susan were married on September 28, 1936. During this time, Harpo’s life was extremely busy. He made several movies (“Duck Soup” in 1933, “A Night at the Opera” in 1935). He also had the honor of being the first Western entertainer to perform in the U.S.S.R. in 1934.
In 1938, in addition to making the movie “Room Service“, Harpo had his name legally changed from Adolph to Arthur. In another legal movement, Harpo and Susan adopted their first child, William Woolcott Marx. They later adopted Alex, Jimmy, and Minnie as well. William grew up as Billy, and became a musician in his own right. Billy composed and arranged two albums of harp music with his father Harpo.
In 1939, America entered the second World War, and Harpo traveled around the world entertaining the troops during the duration. He continued to make movies as well, including “At the Circus” (1939), “Go West” (1940), “The Big Store” (1941), and appeared in “Stage Door Canteen” (1943), and “The All-Star Bond Rally” (1945). His film career continued with “A Night in Casablanca” (1946) and “Love Happy” in 1949. In addition to his movie roles, musical concerts, and benefit performances, raising his growing brood was a full-time job.
Harpo wasn’t done performing, however. He began appearing on television, on such shows as “Candid Camera” (1953), “The Colgate Comedy Hour” (1954), a classic episode of “I Love Lucy” (1955) where he played himself, “Playhouse 90” (1957), “The Incredible Jewel Robbery” (1959) — which was the last time the Marx Brothers performed together on film, “The June Allyson Show” (1960) — portraying a mute man, “The Red Skelton Show” (1962).
In 1961, Harpo publishes his autobiography, “Harpo Speaks!,” which I highly recommend. On September 28, 1964, after having experienced 3 prior heart attacks, Harpo died following open heart surgery.
Trivia about Harpo Marx
- Recreated the mirror scene from Duck Soup (1933) in an episode of “I Love Lucy” (1951). with Lucille Ball made up as his Harpo character
- When he trained himself in the harp, he later learned that he did it the wrong way. However, when he became famous, many musicians came to him to learn his method of harp playing.
- Harpo first used the gag of chasing a screaming girl as a quick prank to throw his brother Groucho Marx’s timing off on stage. Groucho wasn’t fazed, but Harpo got in trouble when he found out the hard way that the girl had a violent mobster for a boyfriend. He quickly made peace with the man and incorporated the girl chasing for the rest of his career.
- Brother of Groucho Marx, Chico Marx, Zeppo Marx, and Gummo Marx.
- Ashes allegedly sprinkled into the sand trap at the seventh hole of the Rancho Mirage golf course in California, USA.
- Harpo was left handed.
- As a child, Harpo was apparently infatuated with music. He rejoiced when his family bought a piano. He then fell into despair when he found out that they could only afford to let one brother have piano lessons. His brother Chico Marx ended up with the lessons, which he did not take seriously. Harpo, of course, later mastered the harp.
- Harpo officially became a mime after a theater critic once noted that Harpo was brilliant until his character spoke. From then on, Harpo never spoke while in character.
- Nephew of actor Al Shean.
- Adopted father of Bill Marx, Alexander Marx, Minnie Marx and Jimmy Marx, from his marriage to Susan Fleming
- Died on the day of his 28th wedding anniversary.
- One of only two Marx Brothers to play a recurring role in their films (not counting when they used their own names). He played the role of “Pinky” in both Horse Feathers (1932) and Duck Soup (1933).
- Unmade-up and out of costume, the resemblance between Harpo and his brother Chico Marx was extraordinary. On the TV game show “I’ve Got a Secret” (1952), Chico once appeared in Harpo’s wig and costume, with the “secret” “I’m Pretending To Be Harpo Marx (I’m Chico)” and fooled all the panelists – including Groucho Marx.
- He was voted, as one of the Marx Brothers, the 62nd Greatest Movie Star of all time by Entertainment Weekly.
- Legally changed his given name to Arthur around 1911 because he much preferred it to the very German Adolph.
- Was seldom recognized when out of character because he was almost completely bald.
- The character of Banjo in George S. Kaufman & Moss Hart’s “The Man Who Came to Dinner” is based on Harpo.
- Once crashed a Hollywood costume party at the home of Marion Davies, dressed as Kaiser Wilhelm. He had to hitchhike to get home and ended up being arrested by Beverly Hills police on charges of vagrancy, illegal entry, escaping from jail in Gloversville, New York, impersonating Kaiser Wilhelm, and impersonating Harpo Marx.
- Groucho Marx explained the reason for Harpo’s not speaking while in character this way: Once while playing a theater in Winnipeg, Manitoba during a vaudeville tour, the Marx Brothers had a disagreement with the theater’s manager regarding their pay. At the end of the Marx Brothers’ engagement there, the manager paid them the amount they had demanded…in several large sacks containing the proper amount in the form of pennies, nickels, and dimes. Since the brothers’ train was departing in ten minutes, the brothers had no choice except to lug the sacks onto the train with them. As the train departed, Harpo shouted to the manager, ‘I hope your theater burns to the ground.’ And that night, it did. After that time, Groucho Marx always explained that the real reason Harpo’s voice was never heard on-screen was that his voice was like the axe hanging on the backstage wall of every theater: To be used only in case of emergencies.
- Is portrayed by ‘J.M Henry’ in Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994)
- Harpo was vacationing in England and was engaged in nude sunbathing when he was surprised by an elderly man and woman. He wrapped his towel around his middle and stood up and introduced himself. The husband introduced himself as George Bernard Shaw, the famous writer and philosopher. Without warning, Shaw snatched the towel away and then said, “And this is Mrs. Shaw!” It was the start of a lifelong friendship.