Adolph Arthur Marx, popularly known as Harpo Marx, (November 23, 1888 – September 28, 1964) was one of the Marx Brothers, a group of Vaudeville and Broadway theatre entertainers who later achieved fame as comedians in the Motion Picture industry. He was well known by his trademarks: he played the harp, never talked, he often used a horn or whistled to communicate with people and frequently used props in sight gags — for instance, in Horse Feathers, he is told that he cannot burn a candle at both ends. He immediately produces, from within his coat, a lit candle burning at both ends.
In January of 1910, Harpo joined two of his brothers, Julius (later "Groucho") and Milton, to form "The Three Nightingales". Harpo was inspired to develop his "silent" routine after reading a review of one of their performances which had been largely ad-libbed. The theater critic wrote, "Adolph Marx performed beautiful pantomime which was ruined whenever he spoke".
Harpo got his stage name during a card game at the Orpheum Theatre in Galesburg, Illinois: the dealer called him "Harpo" because he played the harp. His other brothers were given names to match their personalities or hobbies; his brother Leonard became "Chicko" (Chico) because he was always chasing women ("chicks"), and his brother Milton became "Gummo".
He taught himself to play the harp because he could not sing, or dance, and did not talk very well, so he needed something to do. Al Shean sent him a harp (in Harpo's autobiography, he says that mother Minnie Marx sent him the harp). Harpo learned how to hold it properly by going to a five-and-dime store where he found a picture of a girl playing a harp. 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 tune it properly because if he had, the strings would have broken each night. His way 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, however, spent their time listening to him, fascinated by the way he played. In the movies he is actually playing the harp with his own alternate tuning.
Harpo changed his name to Arthur shortly before World War I. There was a great deal of anti-German sentiment in America during the first World War, and he thought Adolph sounded "too German".
Harpo appeared, without his brothers, in Too Many Kisses, four years before the brothers' first widely-released film, The Cocoanuts. In Too Many Kisses, Harpo spoke the only line he would ever speak on-camera in a movie: "You sure you can't move?" Fittingly, it was a silent movie, and the audience only saw his lips move and saw the line on a title card.
Harpo married actress Susan Fleming on September 28, 1936. Unlike most of his brothers, who were unlucky in love, Harpo's marriage to Susan was lifelong. The couple adopted four children (Bill, Alex, Jimmy and Minnie.)
Harpo was good friends with theater critic Alexander Woollcott and because of this became a regular member of the Algonquin Round Table. Harpo, who was quiet in his personal life, said his main contribution was to be the audience in that group of wits. The character "Banjo" in the play The Man Who Came to Dinner was based on Harpo and his friendship with Woollcott, who was the inspiration for the lead character.
In 1955, Harpo made a memorable appearance on Lucille Ball's popular sitcom, I Love Lucy, in which they re-enacted the famous mirror scene from the Marx Brothers movie, Duck Soup.
In 1961, Harpo published his autobiography, Harpo Speaks. In it, he tells one story of a man who did not believe that Harpo could actually talk. Many people believed he was mute. In fact, recordings of his voice can be found on the Internet, documentaries, and on bonus materials of Marx Brothers DVDs. In one story, he had a fairly distinguished voice like a professional announcer, though he did have a New York accent his entire life (for example: "girls" he would pronounce "goils.") See, for instance, this audio recording. Harpo actually had a much deeper and more resonant speaking voice than Groucho, which some suspect may be the real reason he was dissuaded from ever speaking in the act. For reference, his voice was fairly similar to Chico's, perhaps too similar, which would be another reason he developed his unique stage persona. He forged a career in after dinner speaking. He would often open with the line "Unaccustomed as I am to speaking...." to choruses of laughter.
His non-speaking in films was occasionally referenced by the other Marx Brothers, who were careful to imply that his character's not speaking was a choice rather than a disability. They would make joking reference to this part of his act. For example, in one early film his character was ironically dubbed "The Professor". In another film, this exchange occurred:
Harpo further distinguished his character by wearing a "fright wig". Early in his career it was dyed pink, as evidenced by color film posters of the time and by allusions to it in films, with character names such as "Pinky". It tended to show as blonde on-screen. Over time, he darkened the pink to more of a reddish color, again alluded to in films with names such as "Rusty".
Harpo Marx died on September 28, 1964, after undergoing open heart surgery. He was 75. His remains were reportedly sprinkled into the sand trap off the seventh fairway of his favorite golf course.
In his will, he donated his trademark harp to the nation of Israel.
According to family and friends, he often sent gag telegrams on occasion that kept with his silent persona on screen. They reportedly read, "NO MESSAGE - HARPO".