Greatest Dead Angelenos #5: Harpo Marx

HarpoMarx41e.jpgWhat I really want you to do is read Harpo’s autobiography, “Harpo Speaks!” (with Rowland Barber). Chapter 1: Confessions of a Non-Lady Harpist starts off: “I don’t know whether my life has been a success or a failure…One thing I am not now and never have been is a Celebrity…People don’t recognize me out of costume. The public has never heard my voice. In this respect I’m a good deal different from my brother Groucho, who is a genuine, fourteen-karat Celebrity.”

Maybe you’ve heard of the Marx Brothers? They were the Beatles of Vaudeville (and later movies) and they were all completely different characters, on stage and off. On stage Groucho was lightning quick, witty, overbearing, the star. Off stage he was a bookworm who never enjoyed parties or nightlife or drinking or gambling. Chico onstage was sly, Italian and the counterpoint to Groucho’s point. (Groucho: This here is the sanity clause. Chico: Oh no no no no, you canta foola me, there ain’t no Santy Claus!) Off stage Chico was a gambler, a drinker, a partier, a ladies man, brilliant with numbers, but terrible at business. (Late in life, the brothers would loan him money from time to time.) Zeppo was on stage through the vaudeville years and on screen for the first five Marx Bros. films, playing a “normal” character that could bridge the Marx Brothers to the audience. He would also stand in for Groucho or Chico on tour when needed (He was just as funny). Off stage he was a mechanical genius, keeping the family cars running and later opening a company that machined parts for aircraft during WWII. Gummo worked a little bit on stage during the early vaudeville years, but was drafted into the army for WW I (the only brother to serve), though he never went overseas. Later he became a talent agent, representing his brothers, and others. Zeppo joined him in the business for a while, so the Marx Brothers were represented by the Marx Brothers.

And then there’s Harpo. The harp, top hat, red curly wig, giant trench coat and horn.

Harpo was born Adolph Marx on November 23, 1893. (Others report he was actually born in 1888 and that the studios wanted people to think the brothers were younger, so new dates were created. In his book, Harpo says 1893…) He was the second oldest of the five brothers and they lived in a tenement in a jewish neighborhood in the upper east side of Manhattan. They were poor. Harpo didn’t do well in school and left in the second grade, getting a better education following his older brother Chico around the streets of New York in the late 1890’s and turn of the century. Chico was a talker, a deal maker, and a great mimic. Harpo says, “I, on the other hand, being painfully conscious of my squeaky voice, was not much of a talker. Not to be totally outdone by Chico, I took to imitating faces and aping the way people walked.”

While poor, their parents were loving and supportive. Sam “Frenchie” Marx was a tailor, a terrible one, but a great cook. Minnie Marx was a force. She had a plan to get her sons into show business and by god nothing was going to stop her! They worked on acts and when the lads were teenagers they hit the road, on the lowest ends of the vaudeville circuits, sharing the dumpy stages with such luminary acts as The Musical Cow Milkers. (The husband led the cow on stage, the wife milked and they sang duets.) Harpo spoke on stage during these early years but stopped when his uncle said he would be better without words. Harpo disagreed at the time but then a review came out saying “The Marx Brother who plays ‘Patsy Brannigan’ is made up and costumed to a fare-thee-well and he takes off on an Irish immigrant most amusingly in pantomime. Unfortunately, the effect is spoiled when he speaks.” Everyone agreed, and though his pride was hurt, Harpo knew he could never outtalk Groucho and Chico. He never uttered a word in character again.

Minnie bought Harpo a harp (before he was named Harpo of course*) to class up the act. They could charge more at each theater since they had such high class talent as a harpist. There were no lessons to go along with the harp, so Harpo taught himself to play. And he loved it. Later when he was wealthy, he hired harp instructors to teach him to play properly, but they were so fascinated by how he tuned and played his harp that he never really changed his style.

The Brothers worked hard for years on the road and finally hit it big time in New York City and became the toast of the town with shows at the biggest theaters on Broadway. The first show was “I’ll Say She Is” written mostly by the brothers. The second show, backed by big time producer Sam Harris who demanded a top drawer writer, was called “The Cocoanuts” –Music by Irving Berlin and book by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind. After a wildly successful run, they wrote a new show called “Animal Crackers.” Then Paramount Pictures came calling.

With fame in NYC, Harpo met and started lifelong friendships with some of the best writers and wits of the day. He became a member of the Algonquin Round Table, a lunch table at the Algonquin Hotel that saw the likes of Dorothy Parker, Goerge S. Kaufman, Harold Ross, Robert Sherwood and Alexander Woolcott, among many others. Harpo was in the midst of this gang and as with his brothers, he knew he could never keep up with the witty banter, so he became a great listener. Harpo was more than able to keep up with the poker and cribbage, croquet playing and practical joking.

Talkies were hitting their stride and Paramount Pictures produced film versions of “The Cocoanuts” and “Animal Crackers.” Both were huge hits. The brothers moved to Hollywood in 1931 and began the next phase of their careers — the movies. But the stage work was never gone forever. Often they (and others, like Kaufman) would write the next movie and take it on the road, perfecting gags on stage night after night, then return to Hollywood to film the movie. For a complete list of their films, click here.

Harpo moved to Hollywood and considered himself “a transient from the East” and never expected to stay for the rest of his life. He moved into a collection of bungalows called “Garden of Allah” on Sunset Blvd. Many of his friends from the Algonquin moved west and lived in the complex as well as a few other famous names. Harpo had a run in with one, a piano player who practiced constantly, so much so that Harpo couldn’t focus on his practice of the harp. Harpo complained, finding out the piano player was some guy named Rachmaninoff and the management was not about to kick him out. Harpo then opened his door and all his windows, playing the first four bars of Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C-Sharp, over and over and over, fortissimo, for hours, until Rachmaninoff gave up and asked to be moved to another bungalow far away from “that dreadful harpist.”

Harpo met the love of his life, Susan Fleming, at a dinner party at Sam Goldwyn’s house. Apparently people were always trying to set Harpo up as he’d been a bachelor for quite some time but he wasn’t that interested as he felt he had a pretty good life. Then along came Susan and all that changed. She was 28 and Harpo was 43 (or 48?) and she had been a huge fan of Harpo for years. She was a young starlet but had recently had the lead role in “Million Dollar Legs”. Turns out, it was her idea to sit next to him at the Goldwyn’s. They dated for almost two years and after a lot of stalling on his part, though he knew he was madly in love with her from the first night, they drove out to Santa Ana and eloped on September 28, 1936. They kept their marriage a secret for almost two months, then finally told everyone to great fanfare.

Harpo was happy and settled and enjoyed married life. He and Susan adopted four kids, Bill, Alex, Jimmy and Minnie. Based on Harpo’s book, it seems like they had a pretty great growing up with such devoted parents and a circus for an extended family. Can you even imagine having Uncle Groucho and Uncle Chico? Holy cats.

There were more successful films (A Night At The Opera) and some not so successful films. The last “Marx Brothers” movie was called “Love Happy” and was not so good. Some say it was a deal made so Chico could pay off some gambling debts. Groucho hardly appeared in the film and it was not well received. The Marx Brothers seemed to be over and as his career was slowing down, Harpo and Susan moved to Palm Springs. Harpo could play golf all the time — a passion he’d had for a long time. He played the harp and painted and still made appearances and they raised their kids.

Toward the end of his life he had serious heart trouble and was told to stop playing golf and stop playing the harp. He had open heart surgery and died not long after on September 28, 1964. He was cremated and reportedly had his ashes scattered off the fairway of the 7th hole of his favorite golf course.

Harpo said about himself:

“There is a character who goes by the same name I do who is kind of a celebrity. He wears a ratty red wig and a shredded raincoat. He can’t talk, but he makes idiotic faces, honks a horn, whistles, blows bubbles, ogles and leaps after blondes and acts out all kinds of hokey charades. I don’t begrudge this character his fame and fortune. He worked damned hard for every cent and every curtain call he ever got. I don’t begrudge him anything–because he started out with no talent at all….When he’s chasing a girl across the screen it’s Him. When he sits down to play the harp, it’s Me. Whenever I touched the strings of the harp, I stopped being an actor.”

Harpo was a clown but that seems way too lame a title for him. (And I loathe clowns.) He was a sweet, smart, funny, bright spirit who seemed to never make an enemy and had tons of friends. (Except for poor old Rachmaninoff, I suppose.) Being a great listener provided Harpo with an amazing circle of friends around the world. I’m sure now, after he plays his harp with the angels, he sits at God’s table and listens.

*Harpo tells his version of how they all got their names: “In Rockford [Illinois], a monologist named Art Fisher started up a game of five card stud, between shows…At that time…on every bill there would be at least one Bingo, Zingo, Socko, Jumpo or Bumpo…When Art started dealing a poker hand he said, “A hole card for–‘Harpo.’ A card for– ‘Chicko.'” Harpo was an obvious one, and Chicko was next obvious as he was always chasing the chicks. (It got misspelled and mispronounced later on.) “Groucho” came from the fact that Groucho always kept his money in a “grouch bag” around his neck. “Gummo” wore soft soled shows and snuck up on people backstage. “Zeppo,” the youngest, was named after a performing chimp “Mr. Zippo” as Zep was always doing chin ups.

Read about the rest of the Greatest Dead Angelenos here.

“Harpo Speaks!” (Harpo Marx with Rowland Barber).
Drawing of Harpo by Salvador Dali, 1939

4 thoughts on “Greatest Dead Angelenos #5: Harpo Marx”

  1. “Harpo Speaks” is one of my favorite biographies of all time.

    While there is no doubt that Groucho’s quick wit was unsurpassed, Harpo remains my favorite Marx Brother, because the big heart he possessed in real life came through in his eyes and smile.

  2. “Harpor Speaks” is still my favorite book to this day. Harpo had to have been one of the coolest people ever. Funny, warm, sweet…
    I cried when I finished his book. We need more people like him out there.

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