Forgetting your lines could be a deadly weakness for a comedian, but in Harpo’s case, it made his career. This was how he became the pantomiming one of the brothers. It was a deficiency that secured his place in Hollywood history.
Leaving school at eight years old, when not able to pass second grade, he joined the work force. He sold newspapers, worked in a butcher shop, and was an office errand boy, all while adding to the family income. In 1910, Arthur would help start the family business.
He, along with brothers, Julius and Milton created the group, the Three Nightingales. All the names would later change. They became the first version of the Marx Brothers, Groucho, Gummo, and Harpo.
The army would call on Gummo to leave the group. So the oldest and youngest brothers, Leonard and Herbert, would step in as Chico and Zeppo. Eventually Zeppo would join Gummo in offscreen theatrical management.
Of all Harpo’s adventures, the most exciting was an unscripted one. In 1933, he spent six weeks on a goodwill tour. During that time, he would transport secret messages to and from the US embassy in Moscow, at the Ambassador’s request. Harpo had to carry them on him for up to ten days at a time. They were taped to the inside of his leg under his clothing.
Three years later, he would marry his bride of twenty eight years, Susan Fleming. She encouraged his love of painting, making elaborate frames for his art. The two of them loved children, adopting four. He said once that he wanted to fill every window of his home with a child waving goodbye. To them, kids were never an after thought, they were their reason to come home.
Harpo valued listening and learning. Even though his unconventional way of playing the harp was part of his success, he spent a lot of money learning the proper technique. One of the few times he spoke on stage, was his last performance. He talked for several minutes as he announced his retirement, and how much he would miss performing.
It proved one thing, Harpo wasn’t a man without something to say, but one who knew when to speak. Words used properly have value. Talk isn’t cheap, as long as you consider beforehand what you’re about to say.
He was the quiet clown in a troupe of them. Yet his kindness resonated throughout the family. Arthur was a gentleman who loved performing, and loved his family even more.