Nov 232014


Today is the birthday (1888) of Adolph “Harpo” Marx (later Arthur “Harpo” Marx) legendary comedian, musician, and the second-oldest of the Marx Brothers. His comic style was influenced by 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. As a boy he was my favorite Marx brother. One of the things about him that still intrigues me is the utter change in his face when he played the harp – solemn and serene, not clown-like at all. You either know his work or you do not. So I’ll give you a bio and then, as an ironic gesture, give you a list of some of his quotes.

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, 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’s 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. (In Harpo’s autobiography, he says that mother Minnie Marx sent him the harp. Harpo 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 his movie performances he played the harp with his own tuning.

In his autobiography Harpo Speaks (1961), Harpo 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.

In 1933, following U.S. diplomatic recognition of the Soviet Union, he spent six weeks in Moscow as a performer and goodwill ambassador. His tour was a huge success. Harpo’s name was transliterated into Russian, using the Cyrillic alphabet, as ХАРПО МАРКС, and was billed as such during his Soviet Union appearances. Harpo, having no knowledge of Russian, pronounced it as ‘Exapno Mapcase’. At that time Harpo and the Soviet Foreign Minister Maxim Litvinov became friends and even performed a routine on stage together. During this time he served as a secret courier; delivering communiqués to and from the US embassy in Moscow at the request of Ambassador William Christian Bullitt, Jr., smuggling the messages in and out of Russia by taping a sealed envelope to his leg beneath his trousers, an event described in David Fromkin’s 1995 book In the Time of the Americans. In Harpo Speaks, describes his relief at making it out of the Soviet Union, recalling how “I pulled up my pants, ripped off the tape, unwound the straps, handed over the dispatches from Ambassador Bullitt, and gave my leg its first scratch in ten days.”

Harpo also took an interest in painting, and a few of his works can be seen in his autobiography. In the book, Marx tells a story about how he tried to paint a nude female model, but froze up because he simply did not know how to paint properly. The model took pity on him, however, showing him a few basic strokes with a brush, until finally Harpo (fully clothed) took the model’s place as the subject and the naked woman painted his portrait.


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. Unlike most of his brothers, Harpo’s marriage was lifelong. (Groucho was divorced three times, Chico once, and Zeppo twice.) The couple adopted four children: Bill, Alex, Jimmy, and Minnie. When 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.”


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. His son Bill recalled that in private he was “not verbose”; he preferred listening and learning from others.

Here’s a nice clip:

Harpo’s final public appearance came in early 1964 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.

Harpo died on September 28, 1964 (his and his wife, Susan’s, 28th wedding anniversary), at age 75, after undergoing open heart surgery following a heart attack, barely six months after his retirement. 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.

Harpo was cremated and his ashes were reportedly sprinkled into the sand trap at the seventh hole of the Rancho Mirage golf course, on which he occasionally played. In his will, he donated his trademark harp to the State of Israel.

Here’s some of his words:

If things get too much for you and you feel the whole world’s against you, go stand on your head. If you can think of anything crazier to do, do it.

But I guess that’s the way it is. When you lose something irreplaceable, you don’t mourn for the thing you lost, you mourn for yourself.

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

[on visiting Hamburg, Germany, shortly after Adolf Hitler came to power]: “I saw the most frightening, most depressing sight I had ever seen – a row of stores with Stars of David and the word ‘Jude’ painted on them, and inside, behind half-empty counters, people in a daze, cringing like they didn’t know what hit them and didn’t know where the next blow would come from. Hitler had been in power only six months, and his boycott was already in full effect. I hadn’t been so wholly conscious of being a Jew since my bar mitzvahs, and it was the first time since I’d had the measles that I was too sick to eat.

[on comedy playwright George S. Kaufman] He had great integrity. You never had to watch him when he was dealing.

The man who first inspired me was a guy called Gookie. Gookie had nothing to do with the theater. He rolled cigars in the window of a cigar store on Lexington Avenue. When he got going good he was completely lost in work, 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. Over the years, in every comedy act or movie I ever worked in, I’ve thrown in a Gookie at least once.

[on ‘Duck Soup’] It was the only time I can remember that I worried about turning in a bad performance. The trouble was not with the script, the director, or the falls I had to take. The trouble was Adolf Hitler. His speeches were being rebroadcast in America. Somebody had a radio on the set, and twice we suspended shooting to listen to him scream.

[on performing in vaudeville] If an audience didn’t like us we had no trouble finding it out. We were pelted with sticks, bricks, spitballs, cigar butts, peach pits and chewed-out stalks of sugar cane. We took all this without flinching – until Minnie gave us the high-sign that we’d collected our share of the receipts. Then we started throwing stuff back at the audience and run like hell for the railroad station the second the curtain came down.

[on accommodation, while touring] Cheap hotels in the South and Southwest were apparently set up as bug sanctuaries by some Audubon Society for Insects. Fleas, ticks, bedbugs, cockroaches, beetles, scorpions and ants, having no enemies, attacked with fearless abandon. They had the run of the house and they knew it. After a while you just let them bite. Fighting back was useless. For every bug you squashed, a whole fresh, bloodthirsty platoon would march out of the woodwork. In one hotel the ants were so bad that each bed was set on four pots of oxalic acid.

Duck Soup is, of course, a famous Marx Brothers movie, so the recipe of the day is a no brainer. At one time “duck soup” was U.S. slang for something easy to do – hence the movie title. I wouldn’t say that duck soup is any easier, or harder, than any other soup. I usually make it with the carcass of a roast duck in much the same manner as I do with leftover roast chicken. This is from Christmas 2012 when I made braised duck for my dinner and used the bones to make stock.


And this me in Osaka shinkansen station eating a soup with duck broth, noodles, and ground duck meatballs while waiting for a train.


I’m not inclined to make a soup from a whole duck because I like roasted duck so much. Good job I live in China where a whole roasted duck from a street stall runs around $4. Beside the fact that roast duck skin is ambrosial, I am inclined to think that whole duck broth would be fatty (or else the meat would be). Anyway . . . here is a traditional recipe from Poland (Czarnina) which I have not tried but seems as if it would be tasty. The trick is finding the duck blood !! The image is from here:


My recipe here is a bit of a compilation to suit my tastes:

Czarnina (Polish Duck Soup)

Joint a whole duck as you would a chicken, that is, into about 12 pieces (legs, thighs, wings, breast and back both halved). Place them in a large stock pot and add around 5 pints of chicken stock. Bring to a slow simmer and add (to taste) powdered cloves, allspice, and marjoram, plus salt and freshly ground black pepper. Skim the scum as it rises and then let simmer for an hour or until the meat is tender.

Remove the soup from the heat. Chill in the refrigerator overnight. In the morning skim off all congealed fat and bring the soup to a gentle simmer. I suspect Poles leave the fat, in which case you can skip this step.

With a slotted spoon, remove the duck parts and let them cool enough to handle. Strip the meat from the bones, and return it to the pot. I am assuming that at this stage you set aside the fat and skin, which can be used for other purposes. Add 2 cups of duck blood to the soup, stirring well to combine. Make a slurry of 4 tablespoons of flour with about a cup of cold water in a small bowl. Whisk well so that there are no lumps. Slowly add about a cup of the broth, whisking well. When it is a thin mixture add it to the soup, stirring well until it is properly blended. Add back the duck meat plus a handful of dried fruits such as cherries and prunes. Heat through and serve.


  3 Responses to “Harpo Marx”

  1. Great article. The Marx Brothers were our comedy essence, growing up Jewish. Then they were a statement during the 60s. Hard to say why, but they were. I grew up watching Groucho on “You Bet Your Life”.

    • Thanks Stu. Marx Bros movies were a staple of Australian television in the early 1960’s which is how I encountered them as a boy. Most of the humor was over my head but I got it about Harpo. I will admit to understanding “there ain’t no sanity clause.” I think I was actually a grown man before I realized they were Jewish — never occurred to me. The name Marx might have been a clue if I had known that Karl was a Jew. Poor innocent that I am.

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