Saturday, May 26, 2012

Harpo Marx, Super Spy

While reading “George F. Kennan: An American Life,” John Lewis Gaddis’ excellent biography of the Cold War diplomat and historian, I came upon a curious fact. In 1933, Kennan arrived in Moscow to set up the American embassy in the wake of United States diplomatic recognition of the Soviet Union. One evening, Kennan attended a performance of Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” accompanied by Harpo Marx. “There is unfortunately no record of what, if anything, they talked about,” Gaddis writes.
Harpo Marx in Moscow? In 1933?
Absolutely true, and there’s a bit more to the story than that.
Turns out, FDR appointed Harpo “a goodwill ambassador,” and Harpo’s six-week tour proved a huge success with Russian audiences. Remember, Harpo did not speak when performing, so there was no language barrier. And perhaps FDR slyly thought Russians would more easily accept someone with the last name of Marx.
In “Harpo Speaks!”, his 1961 autobiography (written with Rowland Barber), Harpo (1888-1964) admits to serving as a secret courier, delivering communiqués taped to his leg to and from the US embassy, no easy task given he was closely watched during his visit. At the tour’s end, safely out of the USSR, Harpo writes, “I pulled up my pants, unwound the straps, handed over the dispatches from Ambassador [William] Bullitt, and gave my leg its first scratch in ten days.”
This may seem unlikely, but a letter exists to Harpo from the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover, praising Harpo’s "loyal services" and suggesting, "there may be ways that you can help your country again."
I love the idea that Harpo worked as a spy, taking real risks in the land of Stalin.
Depite the dangers, Harpo certainly had fun while he was there (I suspect Harpo had fun wherever he went). Seeing his name spelled in Cyrillic letters, Harpo decided it sounded like “Exapno Mapcase.”
He liked to send cables to friends in the US, despite heavy Soviet censorship. One that failed to get through was to Alexander Woolcott, a fellow member of the Algonquin Roundtabe. Harpo, a champion croquet player, wrote: HAVE GONE THROUGH TOUGHEST WICKET. NO LONGER DEAD ON RED. EVERYTHING BUCKETY-BUCKETY. EXAPNO MAPCASE.
Much of this information comes from various websites, and if you’re interested in more information, just Google “Harpo Marx Soviet Union 1933.” One site I’d like to single out is “Harpo’s Place,” lovingly created by one of Harpo’s four children, Bill. “Harpo’s Place” reproduces Harpo’s 10 Rules:
1 Life has been created for you to enjoy, but you won't enjoy it unless you pay for it with some good, hard work. This is one price that will never be marked down.
2 You can work at whatever you want to as long as you do it as well as you can and clean up afterwards and you're at the table at mealtime and in bed at bedtime.
3 Respect what the others do. Respect Dad's harp, Mom's paints, Billy's piano, Alex's set of tools, Jimmy's designs, and Minnie's menagerie.
4 If anything makes you sore, come out with it. Maybe the rest of us are itching for a fight, too.
5 If anything strikes you as funny, out with that, too. Let's all the rest of us have a laugh.
6 If you have an impulse to do something that you're not sure is right, go ahead and do it. Take a chance. Chances are, if you don't you'll regret it - unless you break the rules about mealtime and bedtime, in which case you'll sure as hell regret it.
7 If it's a question of whether to do what's fun or what is supposed to be good for you, and nobody is hurt whichever you do, always do what's fun.
8 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.
9 Don't worry about what other people think. The only person in the world important enough to conform to is yourself.
10 Anybody who mistreats a pet or breaks a pool cue is docked a months pay.
I particularly like Number 8, and will now take leave to attempt to stand on my head. If this proves my last post, you’ll know why.


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