Arthur “Harpo” Marx (born Adolph Marx; November 23, 1888 – September 28, 1964) was an American comedian, film star, mime artist and musician, and the second-oldest of the Marx Brothers.
In contrast to the mainly-verbal comedy of his brothers Groucho and Chico, Harpo’s comic style was exclusively visual, being an example of both clown and pantomime traditions.
He wore a curly reddish blonde wig, and never spoke during performances (he blew a horn or whistled to communicate).
He frequently used props such as a horn cane, made up of a lead pipe, tape, and a bulbhorn, and he played the harp in most of his films.
Harpo was born in New York City. He grew up in a neighborhood now known as Carnegie Hill on the Upper East Side (E 93rd Street off Lexington Avenue) of Manhattan.
The turn-of-the-century building that Harpo called “the first real home they ever knew” (in his memoir Harpo Speaks) was populated with European immigrants, mostly artisans – which even included a glass blower.
Just across the street were the oldest brownstones in the area, owned by people like the well-connected Loew Brothers and William Orth.
Harpo’s parents were Sam Marx (called “Frenchie” throughout his life) and his wife, Minnie Schoenberg Marx. Minnie’s brother was Al Shean. Marx’s family was Jewish. His mother was from East Frisia in Germany, and his father was a native of France and worked as a tailor.
Harpo received little formal education and left grade school at age eight (mainly due to bullying) during his second attempt to pass the second grade. He began to work, gaining employment in numerous odd jobs alongside his brother Chico to contribute to the family income, including selling newspapers, working in a butcher shop, and as an errand office boy.
In January 1910, Harpo joined two of his brothers, Julius (later “Groucho”) and Milton (later “Gummo”), to form “The Three Nightingales”, later changed to simply “The Marx Brothers”. Multiple stories—most unsubstantiated—exist to explain Harpo’s evolution as the “silent” character in the brothers’ act. In his memoir, Groucho wrote that Harpo simply wasn’t very good at memorizing dialog, and thus was ideal for the role of the “dunce who couldn’t speak”, a common character in vaudeville acts of the time.
Harpo gained his stage name during a card game at the Orpheum Theatre in Galesburg, Illinois. The dealer (Art Fisher) called him “Harpo” because he played the harp.
He learned how to hold it properly from a picture of an angel playing a harp that he saw in a five-and-dime. No one in town knew how to play the harp, so Harpo tuned it as best he could, starting with one basic note and tuning it from there.
Three years later he found out he had tuned it incorrectly, but he could not have tuned it properly; if he had, the strings would have broken each night. Harpo’s method placed much less tension on the strings.
Although he played this way for the rest of his life, he did try to learn how to play correctly, and he spent considerable money hiring the best teachers. They spent their time listening to him, fascinated by the way he played.
In the autobiography Harpo Speaks (1961), he recounts how Chico found him jobs playing piano to accompany silent movies. Unlike Chico, Harpo could play only two songs on the piano, “Waltz Me Around Again, Willie” and “Love Me and the World Is Mine,” but he adapted this small repertoire in different tempos to suit the action on the screen.
He was also seen playing a portion of Rachmaninoff’s “Prelude in C# minor” in A Day at the Races and chords on the piano in A Night at the Opera, in such a way that the piano sounded much like a harp, as a prelude to actually playing the harp in that scene.
Harpo had changed his name from Adolph to Arthur by 1911. This was due primarily to his dislike for the name Adolph (as a child, he was routinely called “Ahdie” instead). Urban legends stating that the name change came about during World War I due to anti-German sentiment in the US, or during World War II because of the stigma that Adolf Hitler imposed on the name, are groundless.
Harpo married actress Susan Fleming on September 28, 1936. The wedding became public knowledge after President Franklin D. Roosevelt sent the couple a telegram of congratulations the following month.
Harpo’s marriage—like Gummo’s—was lifelong. (Groucho was divorced three times, Zeppo twice, Chico once.) The couple adopted four children: Bill, Alex, Jimmy, and Minnie. When he was asked by George Burns in 1948 how many children he planned to adopt, he answered: “I’d like to adopt as many children as I have windows in my house. So when I leave for work, I want a kid in every window, waving goodbye.”
Harpo was good friends with theater critic Alexander Woollcott, and became a regular member of the Algonquin Round Table. He once said his main contribution was to be the audience for the quips of other members. In their play The Man Who Came to Dinner, George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart based the character of “Banjo” on Harpo. Harpo later played the role in Los Angeles opposite Woolcott, who had inspired the character of Sheridan Whiteside.
In 1961 Harpo published his autobiography, Harpo Speaks. Because he never spoke a word in character, many believed he actually was mute. In fact, radio and TV news recordings of his voice can be found on the Internet, in documentaries, and on bonus materials of Marx Brothers DVDs. A reporter who interviewed him in the early 1930s wrote that he “…had a deep and distinguished voice, like a professional announcer”, and like his brothers, spoke with a New York accent his entire life.
According to those who personally knew him, Harpo’s voice was much deeper than Groucho’s, but it also sounded very similar to Chico’s. His son, Bill, recalled that in private Harpo had a very deep and mature soft-spoken voice, but that he was “not verbose” like the other Marx brothers; Harpo preferred listening and learning from others.
Harpo’s final public appearance came on January 19, 1963 with singer/comedian Allan Sherman. Sherman burst into tears when Harpo announced his retirement from the entertainment business.
Comedian Steve Allen, who was in the audience, remembered that Harpo spoke for several minutes about his career, and how he would miss it all, and repeatedly interrupted Sherman when he tried to speak. The audience found it charmingly ironic, Allen said, that Harpo, who had never before spoken on stage or screen, “wouldn’t shut up!”
Harpo was an avid croquet player, and was inducted into the Croquet Hall of Fame in 1979.
Harpo Marx died on September 28, 1964 (his and his wife, Susan’s, 28th wedding anniversary), at age 75 from a heart attack in a West Los Angeles hospital one day after undergoing heart surgery.
Harpo’s death was said to have hit the surviving Marx brothers very hard. Groucho’s son Arthur Marx, who attended the funeral with most of the Marx family, later said that Harpo’s funeral was the only time in his life that he ever saw his father cry. In his will, Harpo Marx donated his trademark harp to the State of Israel.
His remains were cremated, and his ashes were scattered at a golf course in Rancho Mirage, California.