If Groucho was the witty Marx Brother, Harpo was without a doubt the wild one. His persona of the silent lunatic who runs around wreaking havoc is one of the most instantly recognizable characters in movie history. But just who was the man behind the character? The answer to that is much different than people realize.
As a child, Harpo lived through a nightmare. Although his enormous family—including his brothers Groucho and Chico—were loving, they were also dirt poor in turn-of-the-century New York. Indeed, his domineering mother Minnie forced them to start scraping together pennies from almost the moment they could talk. The thing is, she did this in a VERY strange way.
While we now know that child stardom is a curse, Minnie Marx sure didn’t think so. She organized a singing quartet act with the rest of her sons...but they were missing their fourth singer. Desperate, Minnie recruited the young Harpo to come up on stage at the eleventh hour, pushing the shy boy into the spotlight. This went more horribly than anyone could have predicted.
When Harpo hit the stage that day, he immediately realized he had made a mortifying mistake. Still unused to performing, he was so nervous that, in front of his family and the entire crowd, he wet his pants in the middle of the performance. Unfortunately, Harpo soon discovered that this was only the beginning of his ordeals.
Harpo’s school life was somehow worse than his stage debut. When he was in the second grade, he faced relentless bullying due to his Jewish ethnicity—and things took a dangerous turn. According to Harpo, his tormentors loved throwing him out the window of their second-story classroom whenever their teacher left. This would have devastating consequences.
When his classroom woes became more and more frequent, Harpo eventually had enough. After yet another time where his enemies threw him out the window, the young boy simply walked home rather than returning to class. In fact, he never returned, and Harpo had no formal education whatsoever past the second grade. Yeah, this wasn’t a good thing.
After quitting school, Marx began a harrowing 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 even played piano in a brothel during this time. But one way or another, destiny came for him.
Around this time, the Marx Brothers’ act started to evolve into what we know it as today—but few people know its strange origins. See, they never actually set out to be a comedy act. Their mother, Minnie, was still obsessed with making them a vaudeville singing group, and whenever the brothers started kidding around in the act, she chastised them and insisted that they stuck strictly to music.
Of course, this only helped create the prankish anarchy the comedy group became famous for...and they were about to become very, very famous.
In the early 1910s, the Marx Brothers began developing their stage act in earnest, and this led to their first collaborative film, 1929’s The Cocoanuts, which starred the brothers Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Zeppo Marx in all their glory and various stage names. Not only was The Cocoanuts a newfangled talkie, but it was also one of the first films to have an overhead perspective shot. But even then, something was missing.
Early on, Harpo developed one distinguishing feature in the sibling act: He never talked. For the most part, his film career relied on sight gags, especially Harpo pulling extremely unlikely objects from his nearly ever-present overcoat. As we’ll see, there was a particular reason for his silence, but it sure worked. Within a few years, the Marx Brothers were the talk of Hollywood...and Harpo took full advantage.
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With the Marx Brothers’ comedy routine taking off, Harpo became one of the most notorious bachelors in 1930s Hollywood. One story from this time is legendary: He ended up busting into a costume party at Marion Davies’ house, while the starlet was still the mistress of tycoon William Randolph Hearst. And before long, Harpo’s reputation went from naughty to infamous.
For whatever reason, when he got ready for the party Harpo decided to dress up as Kaiser Wilhelm II, the former German Emperor and one of the most hated villains of WWI. Somehow, though, Harpo outdid even the Kaiser. Apparently bereft of any real friends at the bash, Harpo had to hitchhike home, and after taking a wrong turn, the authorities detained him for vagrancy, breaking and entering, and supposedly even impersonating Kaiser Wilhelm.
Harpo was definitely acting out, but there was a disturbing reason for this.
Even today, few people know that Harpo remained single for so long in Hollywood because of one incredibly heartbreaking and traumatic experience in his youth. Shortly after arriving in Tinseltown, Harpo started dating a woman he came to deeply care for, and he even planned on proposing to her. But before he could do anything, tragedy struck.
The very day before Harpo was going to ask for the woman’s hand, he received devastating news. His lover had lost her life in a plane crash, and he would never see her again. The loss affected him for years to come, keeping him at arm's length from any serious relationships for a good while after. But as for the not-so-serious ones, all bets were off.
Not even Harpo’s famous silence on screen could stop him from charming the skirts off of women. At one point, he was even dating fellow comedian Fanny Brice, the woman who inspired Funny Girl, “because he felt she would be entertaining, and he loved to be entertained.” Plus, you know, he didn’t want to think about his dead girlfriend. Yet like every Hollywood hotshot, Harpo had a wandering eye.
One evening, Harpo was attending a classic Hollywood party at producer Samuel Goldwyn’s house, with Fanny Brice on his arm. Little did he know, his life was about to change. His other seatmate was the starlet Susan Fleming, a former saucy Ziegfield girl and a currently reluctant actress who hated making films. Fleming had her eye on Harpo—and more than that, she had a secret weapon.
In an eerie turn of events, Susan Fleming shared the same last name as Harpo’s long lost love who had perished in a plane crash. This probably got her foot in the door with Harpo, but if it didn't her face certainly would; she was pale with dark hair, and absolutely stunning by any measurement. More than that, Fleming was absolutely obsessed with Harpo...and she wasn’t shy about showing it.
Fleming felt she could see through Harpo’s somewhat joking demeanor and into his sensual interior. She recalled that from the moment she met him, she found Harpo "a warm, fun, darling man to talk to" and that she was fascinated with his persona and career. Harpo, for his part, wasn’t going to say no to a face like Fleming’s, and he threw off Brice that very night to take up with the actress. But in the blink of an eye, it went from casual to cringeworthy.
Susan Fleming didn’t just have a crush on Harpo, she had a whole obsession. After all, Fleming had no use for her film career, and she spent the next four years chasing after Harpo with an intensity and single-mindedness that would probably make anyone take a step back, let alone a man still on the rebound from his corpse bride.
But even though Harpo could have no doubt of Fleming’s affections, she still made a shocking grand gesture.
Fleming was so certain Harpo Marx was the man for her, she was actually the one to propose to him, an action that polite society considered near unthinkable for a woman at the time. But she was in for a cruel surprise. Although Harpo still wanted to keep up his relationship with her, the wounded man turned Fleming down. Did this let-down stop her? Not at all. She just turned the dial up to 11.
When Harpo turned down Fleming’s offer of marriage the first time, the actress really proved her mettle...uh, if that’s what you want to call it. Undeterred, Fleming got down on one knee again some time later, and received yet another brutal rebuff. Finally, she asked him an incredible third time and, perhaps worn down at last, Harpo finally accepted. Only, Fleming may not have known what she was getting into.
Maybe Harpo was still a little uncertain about Fleming, because he married her in complete secret. Sure, this might have been because the pair were notoriously camera shy—except for just one glaring thing. Harpo didn’t even tell his brothers it was happening until after the fact. Ouch. And when the truth did come out, it was scandalous.
As it happened, people found out about Harpo’s top-secret nuptials almost right after they happened, and they found out from a shocking source. None other than President Franklin Roosevelt heard about the event from a mutual friend, and inadvertently leaked the secret by publicly sending Marx a congratulatory telegram. What a dummy, right?
The beginnings of Harpo’s marriage to Fleming seemed idyllic. She quit acting in films like she had wanted to all along, and they began raising a brood of adopted children. Then again, their dynamic would still make a lot of us squirm; Fleming was Harpo’s self-appointed “valet” during the union, basically acting as his assistant when they were at home or abroad. Ew.
When you picture Harpo, you probably aren’t picturing the real Harpo. Few people know or remember it, but for most of his films with the Marx Brothers, Harpo was wearing a blonde or red wig. Meanwhile, underneath that wig, the comedian was actually entirely bald, a fact that helped him go undetected in public whenever he felt like it, because people never recognized him.
In 1933, Harpo’s old friend Franklin Roosevelt made him one of the first “goodwill ambassadors” to Soviet Russia. It was even more harrowing than it sounds. On his way to Moscow, he passed through Hamburg and witnessed the early stages of Nazi Germany, and ended up literally vomiting at the harsh realities he witnessed first-hand to his Jewish people. When he reached Stalin’s Russia, however, it nearly turned deadly.
Ever suspicious, Stalin assigned a government spy to accompany Harpo at all times during his stay, monitoring all of his phone calls and mail and making sure he didn’t get out of line or carry any important information back to the United States with him for the President’s eyes. It sounds like paranoia, but the truth is the Soviets DID need to worry about Harpo.
Harpo had one unsupervised moment in the Soviet Union: His visit to the American embassy. Behind its closed doors, Marx kept a huge secret. While there, a government official 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.
Yes, you read that right. This silly Marx Brother was an actual secret agent who carried out a real-life international spy mission.
Harpo was a bit of a strange husband, but he wasn’t always a good friend, either. One year, one of his good friends, the screenwriter and playwright Alexander Woollcott, asked Harpo to star in his dramatic production Yellow Jacket alongside King Kong star Fay Wray. It should have been a golden opportunity, but Marx turned it into a betrayal.
When Harpo read Woollcott’s script, he simply didn’t understand the vision or emotional core that his friend was going for. Of course, Woollcott also refused to explain it to him. Perhaps a tad tetchy with his buddy, Harpo reacted by not taking the performance seriously at all, and instead turned it into a comedy bit, infuriating Woollcott and nearly ruining their friendship in the process.
Harpo was infamous for some eccentric habits during his single life, especially picking up semi-vagrant artists. He actually 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, who you may know from the film An American in Paris. Yet, as always, Harpo managed to give Levant a run for his money.
See, when Levant showed up on Harpo’s doorstep and never left, Harpo simply...accepted it. The comedian befriended the troubled musician until Levant finally left on a whim 13 months later. But when it comes to Harpo’s neighborly antics, that’s the least of them.
For a long time, Marx lived next to the legendary classical composer Sergei Rachmaninoff. His reaction to this was surprising. As a fellow music lover, you’d think that Harpo would feel lucky to get to listen to Rachmaninoff hone his craft, but nope. Rather than just be happy, Harpo got annoyed at the noise day in and day out...so he came up with a perfect revenge.
In classic Harpo fashion, Marx took this as an opportunity for an epic prank worthy of one of his films. He began repeatedly blasting one of Rachmaninoff's own compositions out the window as loud as he possibly could. Best of all, it worked. It got to the point where the poor composer could no longer stand it, and he moved to a new house just to get away from the comedian. Mission accomplished.
Marx spent his entire career going to great lengths to never speak in public. But one night, all that changed. It was the evening 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 altered. Then, for the first time in his adult life, Harpo agreed to give a public speech...but, uh, maybe he shouldn’t have.
In the end, Harpo spent several minutes reflecting on his career and his feelings about moving on, while the stunned crowd took in every word. The host Allan Sherman reportedly burst into tears when Marx confirmed that he truly was calling it quits, but Harpo didn’t stop there, interrupting Sherman when he tried to speak and generally just yammering on a bit.
As comedian Steve Allen joked about the speech: “Harpo wouldn’t shut up!” But hey, he earned it.
One of Harpo’s most famous comedic faces was something called “The Gookie,” and its backstory is perfectly “Harpo.” The face came about from his habit of imitating the mannerisms of a cigar store clerk from his childhood named Gookie. As Harpo remembered, when Gookie started rolling cigars, he got “so absorbed that he had no idea what a comic face he was making. His tongue lolled out in a fat roll, his cheeks puffed out and his eyes popped out and crossed themselves.”
Harpo would do an impression of this face on a regular basis as a youngster, just to get under the poor guy’s skin. Later, he incorporated it into every one of his screen performances.
When the Marx Brothers made their final film, Love Happy, they ended up despising the result and almost never talked about it afterward. Predictably, it was a flop, but this very last film has a very big claim to fame. 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 was always a troublemaker. When theater tycoon E.F. Albee hired the Marx Brothers, he expected them to bow down to him and be loyal. Harpo’s response made the man’s blood boil. Stirring the pot, the comedian "innocently" appeared in a friend’s show at a small rival theater, and when Albee found out he dragged Harpo into his office so he could stare him down and intimidate him.
In his later life, Marx took up painting and became surprisingly good at it. Still, he did get one super awkward anecdote out of the process. Like many an amateur artist before him, Marx started learning how to draw by hiring a body model. But the moment the beautiful woman took her clothes off, Harpo froze and couldn’t continue. Which is exactly when the situation took a strange turn.
As it happened, the woman Harpo had hired was actually something of an accomplished artist herself, not to mention cool as a cucumber on top of that. So when she saw Harpo’s distress, she actually got up and gave him a lesson about where to begin, calming his nerves in the process. Obviously, it ended up working out for both of them. I hope Harpo tipped well.
Harpo might be famous as a comedian, but he had another big talent: Playing the harp. Only, because this is Harpo Marx, he had to do even this with a twist. He only took up playing the instrument on a whim, and began learning to hold and play it by copying what an angel was doing in a picture he got from a corner store. Yes, this was the completely wrong way to do it, but that wasn’t all that Harpo got wrong.
Harpo didn’t know anyone who could play the harp, so he had to learn everything by himself, top to bottom, including tuning it. Three years later, he discovered that he’d actually tuned it wrong, and had done practically every else wrong, too. He did try to correct this and eventually took professional lessons, but his instructors would often simply marvel at his unorthodox yet brilliant technique rather than teaching him.
Harpo’s real name, as many people could have guessed, wasn’t actually Harpo—it was Adolph. For reasons (surprisingly) having nothing to do with WWII, Marx actually changed it from Adolph to “Arthur” as a young adult, which obviously ended up being a good call once Hitler actually did come to power. But how exactly did he get the name “Harpo”?
The simplest explanation is often the right one, and the same is true for Harpo and his nickname. Although some of the details are a little fuzzy, he almost certainly got the moniker at a card game from his friend Art Fisher, who referred to him as “Harpo” because...he played the harp. For what it’s worth, Fisher also gave all the Marx Brothers their stage names, minus “Zeppo.”
Back when he could only dream of someday learning the harp, Harpo's family had a piano, but they could only afford lessons for one child. Somewhat insultingly, they chose Chico, not Harpo, for this privilege. But Harpo didn’t let that stop him. Practically everything Harpo learned about music, he got from secretly listening in on his brother’s piano lessons. Naughty boy.
Marx became obsessed with croquet—to the point where he couldn’t live without the summer game, even in the winter. In one of his most ridiculous real-life antics, Marx bribed the landlords of a Manhattan parking garage to let him turn their roof into a makeshift croquet field. They initially obliged, but then quickly found out they had made an enormous error…
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 20 minutes, just so that they could watch as one of the club’s members attempted a difficult shot. To the landlords’ relief, the fire department promptly put an end to the croquet arrangement as soon as they found out about it.
Being the silent guy in the act can be fun, but Harpo once got cheated out of a huge deal. Because his character did not speak, NBC snubbed Harpo when they 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, all while poor old Harpo could not participate.
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.
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.
Harpo was a strange man, and 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 success in his mind, and as an adult he once purchased 30 dollars’ worth of jelly beans to snack on at the movies. Only, 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.
Although no known recordings exist of Marx 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 where he recalls some of the crazy experiences of his youth. The recording confirms some surprising things.
First, Harpo sounds a lot like his brother Groucho; and second, he has a thick New York accent.
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.
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, though he could have been mouthing someone else’s voice. Even so, there is another instance people cling to.
Sure, he never talked in his performances, but Harpo did actually have a line in a movie early on in his career—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 in a professional capacity. The clip consists of the silent Marx Brother soundlessly mouthing the words, “You sure you can’t move?”
Despite being a Hollywood marriage, Marx and Susan Fleming shared a long, happy life together. More than that, he and Fleming adored raising their large family. Harpo once quipped that when it came to children, he wanted, "So many that whenever we go out, there can be one in every window, waving to us." So when Harpo did finally pass, he went out in an incredibly fitting way.
On September 28, 1964, Harpo passed at the ripe old age of 75, leaving behind his wife Susan Fleming, his four children, and his beloved Marx Brothers. However, there was something special about this day. Always good with timing, comedic or otherwise, Harpo actually died on the very day of his 28th wedding anniversary with Fleming, which must have been a bittersweet event for the widow. But when his funeral came around, it was a full-on tearjerker.
As one of the elder Marx brothers, Harpo was also one of the first of his siblings to go, and the news particularly devastated his brother Groucho. Later on, Groucho’s son Arthur Marx recalled that Harpo’s funeral was one of the first and only times he had ever seen his father cry. Then again, that was good old Harpo; he’d make you laugh until you cried.
Harpo is best-known as the Marx Brother who never talks, but few people know the reason why. According to some, it’s because when they were first starting out in Vaudeville, the brothers had a stomach-dropping realization: Harpo had intense difficulty memorizing lines. Rather than trying to fix this shortcoming, they decided to simply make his character mute and have his comedy focus on pantomime. However, there may be a much different explanation.
Another story suggests that Harpo may have lapsed into silence in his film career not so much out of a canny choice, but rather because of a scathing review that he took to heart. After seeing him in one performance playing his usual foolish character, one critic noted that Harpo only achieved the effect he was going for “until he spoke.” The comedian fell silent from then on.
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