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The Life of a Non-Lady Harpist

*honk honk honkhonk honk*

Arthur "Harpo" Marx
23 November
New York
External Services:
  • silent_harpist@livejournal.com
  • Silent Harpist AIM status

"I am the most fortunate self-taught harpist and non-speaking actor who has ever lived."
-Harpo Marx

Written OOC:

Arthur "Harpo" Marx Trivia:

> 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.
> Ashes allegedly sprinkled into the sand trap at the seventh hole of the Rancho Mirage golf course in California, USA.
> Left handed.
> As a child, Harpo was apparently infatuated with music. He rejoiced when his family bought a piano. He then fell into dispair 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.
> 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.


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.

Arthur 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. 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; 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, honing their skills as a singing group -- not 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. In 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 afterwards, 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, and 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 become close friends with Dorothy Parker and many others as well.

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 signalled 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, as well as appearing in the London Palace Theater early in 1931. Harpo also appeared in two movies in 1932, The House That Shadows Built, and 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), as well as having the honor of being the first Western entertainer to perform in the U.S.S.R. in 1934. In 1937 he was in A Day at the Races.

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, and composed and arranged two albums of harp music with his father Harpo.

In 1939, America entered the second World War, and Harpo travelled around the world entertaining the troops during the duration. He continued to make movies as well, including At the Circus, Go West, The Big Store, and appeared in "Stage Door Canteen" (1943), and "The All-Star Bond Rally" (1945). His film career continued with A Night in Casablanca 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).

On September 28, 1964, after having experienced 3 prior heart attacks, Harpo died following open heart surgery.

Quotes on Harpo Marx:

"Harpo played the right instrument. He was an angel. There was nobody like him, there never will be anybody like him. He was just simply wonderful. He never had a bad word for anybody"
-Gummo Marx

"Harpo was almost not of this world, he was saintly, ethereal. He was my favorite person..."
-Miriam Marx (Groucho's daughter)

"Harpo was a pixie-like person... a giant pixie. He was completely kin... Dogs and children would come to him as he got into a room... he absolutely was a saint."
-Norman Krasna

"Harpo was exactly what harp actually means: Angel... You know, there’s a church in Brussels, and on top are all little cherubs. And they all look like Harpo Marx."
-George Jessel

Works Cited

Arce, Groucho. Groucho. 1979

Louvish, Simon Monkey Business The Lives and Legends of the Marx Brothers: Groucho, Chico, Harpo, Zeppo with added Gummo. New York: St. Martin's Press. 1999

Marx, Groucho. Groucho and Me. Da Capo Press. 1995

Marx, Harpo. Harpo Speaks. New York: Random House, 1961

Marx, Maxine. Growing Up With Chico. 1980