Surprising Facts About Harpo Marx, The Wild Child Of The Golden Era

If Groucho is the witty Marx Brother and Chico is the dopey one, Harpo is without a doubt the wild one. His persona of the silent, red-wigged lunatic who runs around wreaking havoc on everyone he meets is one of the most distinctive and instantly recognizable characters in movie history. But just who was the man behind that character? To shed some light on that question, here are unforgettable facts about Harpo Marx.

Harpo Marx Facts

1. His Birthdate Is Unclear

The life story of Harpo Marx began in New York City on November 23, 1888—or did it? Despite this being his officially accepted birth date in virtually all present-day sources, the comedian himself claims in his autobiography to have been born in 1893. Is this a discrepancy due to the poor record keeping of the time, or did Harpo want us all to think he was five years younger than he really was?

2. He Had An Unfortunate Name

As strange as it may seem, especially given the Marx family’s Jewish heritage, Harpo’s parents originally named him “Adolph.” Needless to say, back in the late 19th century, this name did not yet have the horrific connotation that it does today. Nevertheless, Marx must have had some special intuition or foresight—in 1911, long before WWII began, he changed his name to “Arthur,” since he simply didn’t care for his original name.

3. He Grew Up Amidst Hardship

Marx had a very difficult childhood on multiple levels. Despite coming from a large and loving family, he grew up in extreme poverty. The family lost its eldest child shortly before Harpo’s birth. For most of his childhood, all ten members of his immediate family lived cramped together in a tiny apartment—barely able to afford food, let alone rent.

4. He Had A Horrific School Life

Marx’s experience as a student in school did not go much better than his life at home. In the second grade, he faced relentless bullying due to his Jewish ethnicity—and things took a dangerous turn. According to Marx himself, bullies picked up a habit of throwing the young Harpo out the window of their second-story classroom whenever their teacher left to use the restroom.

5. Things Didn’t Get Better

The torment continued and showed no signs of stopping. Marx’s teacher never got involved or even knew about it, because it only ever took place when she stepped out of the room. Eventually, Harpo’s mother stepped in—but despite her good intentions, the attempt did not go well. She sent her niece’s boyfriend to Harpo’s class to confront his teacher about the situation.

However, she didn’t realize that the boy would be coming directly from work…

6. The Attempt To Help Backfired Badly

The niece’s boyfriend worked as a herring peddler, and stunk of raw fish as a result. He also had his buckets of herring still with him when he paid his visit to the classroom. Not only did Harpo’s teacher refuse to speak to him, but the absurd display gave Marx’s tormentors even more material and motivation to continue with their bad behavior.

7. He Quit School At The Age Of Eight

When his classroom woes became more and more frequent, Marx eventually had enough of it. One day, when the bullies threw him out the window in their usual ritual, the future comedian simply walked home rather than returning to class to face further torment—and he never returned. In other words, Marx had no formal education whatsoever past the second grade.

8. He Gained His Music Skills Second Hand

Music is a big part of what Marx is known for, but his entry into the medium had its challenges. Back when he could only dream of someday learning the harp, his family had a piano—but could only afford lessons for one child. They chose Chico, the eldest Marx brother, for this privilege. But Harpo didn’t let that stop him.

Everything the future harp player knew about music, he learned from secretly listening in on his brother’s piano lessons as a child and having Chico catch him up after the fact. This arrangement went on until the teacher finally caught him and refused to continue providing her unwitting two-for-the-price-of-one discounts.

9. He Lived The Gangster Lifestyle

After quitting school, Marx began a new chapter in his life. He became a juvenile delinquent, roaming the streets of New York for hours a day, swiping whatever odds and ends he could get his hands on, and making both friends and enemies with members of various street gangs. He quickly became known to the gangs as a “lone wolf.”

Marx had to learn which areas belonged to which groups, and which groups tolerated him passing through their turf. If that isn’t crazy enough already, never fear—things quickly got so much worse…

10. He Entered A Shady Partnership

Marx’s roamings and attempts to fit in with the people of the streets eventually led him to a business association with a suspicious character named Seymour Mintz. For several weeks, Marx and Mintz traveled together. Marx believed they were on their way to some sort of sales trip. But on three separate occasions, in three separate towns along the way, Mintz inexplicably disappeared—leaving Marx behind with unpaid dinner and hotel bills each time.

It was only a matter of time before this caught up to Marx.

11. He Wound Up Behind Bars

When Mintz left Marx hanging for the second time, authorities busted the future comedian under the suspicion that he was running some kind of scam. Upon getting out, Marx learned that the entire business operation had indeed been a scam—and that he had played an unwitting role in making it possible. Apparently, Mintz had been using him as a decoy to distract the authorities in each town they stopped in, so that he had plenty of free time to go door to door taking money and orders for non-existent items of clothing that he alleged to be selling.

12. He Lived In A Brothel

You’re probably thinking the story of young Marx’s street adventures can’t get any worse—but, believe it or not, it can and did! While still in his early adolescence, through more of his unsavory connections, Marx ended up moving into a Long Island cathouse and playing piano for the place’s guests every night. If the clientele had only known who they were listening to!

13. He Witnessed Some Scary Stuff

One night during this period of his life, Marx’s boss made him drive her somewhere late at night, threatening to take somebody’s life. Terrified and confused, Marx went along with the request—but no one ever showed up and they eventually left without incident. Around this same time, Marx noticed that one of his co-workers had mysteriously disappeared…

14. He Got Out Just In Time

Following these unsettling events, Marx left this job and abandoned this sketchy living arrangement—and it’s a good thing he did. Just one month after he left, newspapers reported that authorities had put his boss behind bars for running a burglary gang—and for the alleged murder of his missing co-worker. Yikes!

15. He Had An Embarrassing Performing Debut

Marx initially had no interest in show business. He only reluctantly went on stage for the first time when his mother desperately needed a fourth singer to join her other sons’ quartet act at Coney Island. She drafted him for the part at the last minute. Although Harpo tried to help out, his stage debut did not go well at all—he was so nervous that, in front of his family and the entire crowd, he wet his pants in the middle of the performance.

Hey, at least it can only go up from there!

16. History Almost Missed Out On His Comedy

Despite being one of the most famous comedy acts of all time, the Marx Brothers never set out to be a comedy act. Their mother, Minnie, wanted to live vicariously through her children by giving them the show business career she had always dreamed of—as a singing group. In fact, in their early Vaudeville days, any time the brothers started kidding around or adding some comedy to their act, she chastised them and insisted that they stuck strictly to doing only music.

17. He Played Pranks In Real Life Too

Marx’s reputation as a prankster became a big part of his real life identity. In fact, his famous “gookie” face came about from his habit of imitating the mannerisms of a cigar factory employee from his childhood neighborhood. He would do this impression on a regular basis as a youngster, just to get under the poor guy’s skin.

Little did this innocent fellow know that his bizarre facial expression would soon be immortalized forever.

18. His Harp Skills Were Unique

Despite being one of the world’s most famous harp players, Marx actually knew very little about the instrument. He had no knowledge or ability whatsoever when it came to playing the harp in the conventional manner and, instead, played it in a completely unique and strange way that he developed for himself. Multiple harp experts and professional players marveled at trying to understand how he brought his music out of the strings.

19. A Major Executive Threatened Him

When theater tycoon E.F. Albee hired the Marx Brothers, they considered themselves lucky—but the deal had its downsides too. Albee would do anything to keep his performers in line and maintain his power. When Harpo innocently appeared in a friend’s show at a small rival theater, the boss called him into his office to stare him down and intimidate him.

Albee’s message was clear: He watched everything his employees did and would not tolerate any behavior that he disliked.

20. He Kept Impressive Company

Despite the vast differences between their backgrounds and lifestyles, Marx became best friends with famous theater critic and socialite Alexander Woollcott. This friendship made Marx a core member of Woollcott’s now-legendary club, the “Algonquin Round Table.” This club has become one of the symbols of the Roaring 20s and functioned as the go-to meeting place for the greatest intellectual minds of the time—plus one hilarious comedian.

Not bad for a guy who never finished the second grade!

21. He Missed Out On A Big Opportunity

Being the silent guy in the act can be fun, but it also had its downsides. Because his character did not speak, NBC snubbed Harpo when it gave the Marx Brothers their own radio sitcom in 1932. In the midst of the Great Depression, Groucho and Chico each got paid more than $3,000 a week for just half an hour’s work—while poor old Harpo could not participate.

22. He Spoke In A Movie Once, But With A Catch

Although he never talked in his performances, Marx did actually have a line in a movie early on in his career—but there’s just one problem. It was a silent movie, so the clip doesn’t get us any closer to hearing what he sounded like. The clip consists of the silent Marx Brother soundlessly mouthing the words, “You sure you can’t move?”

23. He May Have Had One Slip

Although he never had a spoken line in a Marx Brothers film, some believe Harpo did once let his voice slip in one of them. In 1939’s At The Circus, Harpo’s character releases an exaggerated sneeze by shouting “Ah-choo!” in a clear voice. However, no one has ever settled the debate as to whether Harpo said this himself or whether he just mouthed the expression to someone else’s voice. Either way, it’s the closest he ever came to speaking on film.

24. He Almost Played A Whole Different Character

Today, it’s extremely hard to associate Harpo Marx with anything other than his silent, clown-like, curly-haired character—but this almost wasn’t the case. Initially, the brothers had considered having Harpo’s character be a stereotypical, freckled Irishman named Patsy Brannigan, accent and all. I think most of us are pretty happy they didn’t stick with this idea.

The Marx Brothers

25. He Had Friends In High Places

Marx’s friendship with Alexander Woolcott and the Algonquin Round Table definitely had its perks. During the 1920s, the comedian managed to befriend people like poet Dorothy Parker, New Yorker editor Harold Ross, writer Ring Lardner, and Citizen Kane co-author Herman J. Mankiewicz. One summer vacation with this crew even led to Marx befriending George Bernard Shaw, the famous Irish playwright.

26. He Created A Popular Expression

If you’ve ever used the expression “in the hot seat,” you might be surprised to learn that Harpo Marx originally coined it. During his social escapades, he attended parties at the famous mansion of William Randolph Hearst and noticed that whenever someone became less welcome, Hearst would seat them at the far end of the table near the fireplace. Being seated in the “hot seat” usually meant that you would soon stop receiving invitations.

Who knew that a silent performer could influence our language habits!

27. He Created An Urban Fire Hazard

Marx became obsessed with croquet during his summer retreats with his friends—to the point where he couldn’t live without the game in the winter. In one of his most ridiculous real-life antics, Marx tried to bribe the landlords of a Manhattan parking garage to let him turn their roof into a makeshift croquet field. They initially obliged, but the fire department promptly put an end to the arrangement as soon as they found out about it.

28. He Held Up The Government’s Business For A Game

Marx and his crew placed such a high priority on their croquet hobby that they once intentionally kept New York Governor and future Presidential candidate Al Smith waiting on the phone for a whopping twenty minutes, just so that they could watch as one of the club’s members attempted a difficult shot.

29. He Made History In A Big Way

In 1933, the United States opened up diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union for the first time in history. As a result, American artists could perform in Russia for the first time in a generation. President Roosevelt chose none other than Harpo Marx as the country’s goodwill ambassador, making him the first American to officially perform in the USSR.

30. He Witnessed History Firsthand

Marx’s trip to the Soviet Union became historic on several levels, and in no small part because it made him a rare American firsthand witness to the horrific events taking place overseas during the 1930s. On his way to Moscow, he passed through Hamburg and witnessed the early stages of Nazi Germany—seeing Jewish-owned businesses marked with special branding so that they could be boycotted.

He also saw Jewish citizens looking dazed and confused, horrified at what would come next in this new reality they were stuck living through. Seeing this with his own eyes, especially in the country that his parents had come from just a few decades earlier, made Marx feel utterly sick and depressed. He even vomited at one point while thinking about what he had seen.

31. He Witnessed More History

Marx’s trip also directly exposed him to the dark realities of life in the Soviet Union. During his eight-week stay, he witnessed the infamous bread lines, the inequality between government officials and ordinary citizens, and the horrific fear that Russians had of what their leaders would do to them if they stepped out of line.

The Stalin regime even assigned a government spy to accompany Marx at all times during his stay, monitoring all of his phone calls and mail. The normally happy-go-lucky Marx gained a stark new perspective on life from this trip, and he felt happy to have been able to bring some much-needed joy into the harsh lives of the ordinary Russians who lived through this period.

32. He Feuded With A Musical Icon

In case Marx hadn’t lived it up enough with the Algonquin Club in the 20s, he took his escapades to the next level during his time as a Hollywood bachelor in the 30s. The tabloids loved to cover everything he did, and he loved giving them material! On one occasion, he got annoyed by the loud piano playing of his neighbor—legendary classical composer Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Instead of just being happy he could live next door to someone so widely admired, Marx took it as an opportunity for an epic prank. He began repeatedly blasting one of Rachmaninoff’s own compositions out the window, as loud as he possibly could. This got to the point where the composer could no longer stand it and moved to a new house to get away from the comedian.

33. He Had Some Odd Living Arrangements

Marx spent over a year living with piano virtuoso and severe insomniac Oscar Levant, one of old Hollywood’s most bizarre characters and least stable people. You may know him from the film An American in Paris. Either way, he showed up uninvited at Marx’s home one day and never left. Rather than doing something about it, Marx befriended the troubled musician until he finally left on a whim 13 months later.

34. He Got Married In Secret

When Marx found out that actress Susan Fleming had long been a secret admirer of his, he began to fall for her. The tabloids went nuts any time someone spotted the pair together, despite the fact that they both hated publicity. When they finally decided to tie the knot, they did so in complete secret. Marx didn’t even tell his brothers about it until after the fact.

35. The President Blew His Secret

Despite the enormous lengths that Marx and Fleming went to in order to keep their wedding a secret, the public found out about it almost immediately after—and from a shocking source. President Franklin Roosevelt heard about the event from a mutual friend and inadvertently leaked the secret by publicly sending Marx a congratulatory telegram.

36. His Family Life Went Surprisingly Well

Despite being a Hollywood marriage, Marx and Susan Fleming shared a long, happy life together. Unlike Groucho, Zeppo, and Chico, Harpo remained married for the rest of his life and never had to go through the divorce process. The couple adopted four children, one of whom grew up to be professional pianist Bill Marx. I guess show business runs in the family!

37. His Solo Effort Turned Out Pretty Weird

In 1949, Marx came up with a story that he had begun working on as his first major solo film. However, his brother Chico had some serious gambling debts that he needed to pay off. So, Harpo agreed to have his story adapted into what would become the final Marx Brothers’ film, Love Happy. In order to raise the money needed to complete the film, they awkwardly incorporated the presence of advertising billboards into the story.

38. His Failed Project Gave Us A Major Legend

Harpo’s film project did so poorly that the Marxes themselves hated it. In future years, they often pretended that it never existed. However, the movie did have one surprising impact—it launched the career of the one and only Marilyn Monroe. The then-unknown starlet had a brief cameo in the film, her first big on-screen appearance. The rest, as they say, is history.

Harpo Marx FactsLove Happy (1949), United Artists

39. He Had A Weird Obsession

Although Marx didn’t have many serious vices, he had one weird quirk that he often took to extremes: An obsession with black jelly beans. Ever since his impoverished childhood, the candy had been a symbol of comfort and success in his mind because he could never afford to try it as a kid. As a result, during his adulthood, he once purchased a bag of thirty-dollars’ worth of jelly beans to snack on during a night out at the movies.

But his grand excess didn’t exactly go as planned. The bag exploded and caused a huge mess for the theater staff—not to mention a fair amount of confusion.

40. He Participated In An Epic Club

Along with his brothers, Marx was a member of the iconic Hillcrest Round Table—an elite club of famous comedians, most of whom remain legendary to this day. Because the Hillcrest had been one of the first country clubs to not discriminate against Jewish Americans, the biggest comedians of the day chose it as their hangout place. It ended up becoming the spot where many of the best-known comedy bits in history were developed and tested.

Some of the club’s other members included George Burns, Milton Berle, Jack Benny, and Eddie Cantor.

41. His Talents Were More Versatile Than People Think

Despite spending his whole life as a comedian, Marx eventually got the chance to play a serious dramatic role. In a 1960 Christmas-themed television play called A Silent Panic, he portrayed a deaf-mute character who inadvertently witnesses a murder and struggles to decide how to react. The performance is available on YouTube, and is actually pretty darn impressive!

42. His Dramatic Debut Did Not Go Well

Years earlier, Marx had a pretty awkward experience when asked to play a dramatic role. It was for a play called Yellow Jacket that had been his best friend, Alexander Woollcott, wrote. Marx co-starred in the play with former King Kong star Fay Wray, but there was just one problem—Marx had no idea what the play was about.

The script had gone totally over his head, and Woollcott refused to explain it to him. As a result, Marx did not take the performance seriously and turned it into a comedy bit. This infuriated Woollcott, who felt betrayed by the move. The incident caused one of the only fights that the two ever had in their several decades of friendship.

43. He Had Another Secret Talent

In his later life, Marx adopted the hobby of painting and became very proficient at it. After a series of heart attacks forced him into retirement, he began to devote more and more of his time to the craft and developed yet another talent to brag about. As if his music and comedy talents weren’t impressive enough already!

44. His Painting Lessons Were Unconventional

Marx had first learned to paint when a model had offered him the opportunity to paint her naked. He obliged, but then froze up as soon as she took her clothes off. He said he had no idea where to begin. Rather than taking offense at the bizarre episode, the naked model got up and gave the comedian an impromptu art lesson.

And with this absurd origin, another chapter in Marx’s epic life had begun.

45. He Broke The Silence

Marx spent an entire career going to great lengths to never speak in public. But that all changed on the night he publicly announced his retirement during a 1963 live show. When the audience learned they were witnessing a legend’s final appearance, the entire mood of the room changed. For the first time in his adult life, Harpo agreed to give a speech.

He spent several minutes reflecting on his career and his feelings about moving on, while the stunned crowd took in every word. Comedian Allan Sherman reportedly burst into tears when Marx confirmed that he truly was calling it quits. Comedian Steve Allen said of the speech that “Harpo wouldn’t shut up!” Sadly, no known recording of this event exists.

46. You Can Hear What He Really Sounded Like

Although no known recordings exist of Marx ever speaking in public, it is actually possible for people today to hear what he sounded like. Someone found a copy of a home voice recording the comedian made while working on his autobiography in which he recalls some of the crazy experiences of his youth.

The recording is available for viewing on YouTube, and it confirms the question we have all been wondering about—yes, he sounded like Groucho!

47. He Spied For The Government

During the one unsupervised moment Marx had in the Soviet Union, his visit to the American embassy, a government official approached him and asked him to smuggle a document back to the States. Though he never found out what the document was, Marx taped the envelope to his leg and successfully brought it with him on his way out of the country and delivered it safely into the hand of the Secret Service.

Yes, you read that right. This silly Marx Brother was an actual secret agent who carried out a real-life international spy mission. Pretty sure there isn’t a single James Bond actor who can make that claim!

48. He Inspired A Sci-Fi

Once the public found out about them, Marx’s experiences in Russia and his subsequent spy mission were considered so wild that they actually inspired a science fiction story. Author Randall Garrett’s novella, The Foreign Hand Tie, features several Marx Brothers references as it tells the tale of a telepathic spy with experiences reminiscent of Harpo’s.

49. He Suffered A Loss In Private

Although few people knew about it, part of the reason that Marx had remained a bachelor for so long was because he had a traumatic experience shortly after his arrival in Hollywood. He had dated someone he cared deeply about, but the girl had tragically lost her life in a plane crash the day before the comedian had planned on proposing to her.

Eerily, this girl’s last name had also been Fleming—the same as that of Harpo’s eventual wife.

50. His Main Characteristic Came About For A Surprising Reason

Harpo is best-known as the Marx Brother who never talks. If you’ve ever wondered why, it’s because very early on in the family’s Vaudeville days, the brothers realized that he had a serious problem with being able to memorize lines. Rather than trying to fix this shortcoming, they decided to simply make his character mute and have his comedy focus on pantomime and other visual routines.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17

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