Harpo Marx was an undercover agent for J. Edgar Hoover, running secret documents out of the Soviet Union.
IN the golden age of Hollywood, Harpo Marx was the definitive clown – a wild-haired mute in a dirty raincoat who chased women, sounding a loud horn.
Yet the most anarchic of the Marx Brothers – in order of age, Chico, Harpo, Groucho, Gummo and Zeppo – was a secret agent for the US government. J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the FBI, was so impressed he wanted Harpo to work for him as well, according to US records to be released soon.
The 165cm-tall comedian was inducted into the dark corridors of espionage in the winter of 1933 when – after the commercial failure of the slapstick comedy Duck Soup – the brothers agreed temporarily to go their separate ways. Joseph Stalin, who was a fan, authorized a six-week tour of the Soviet Union for Harpo, a skilled harpist and mime who played with comedians across the country.
At the end of the tour, Harpo told his family, he was asked by the US ambassador in Moscow to take home some “diplomatic mail”, which he was instructed to conceal in his socks. The nature of the documents remains classified.
Marx Brothers enthusiasts who heard these stories after Harpo’s death in 1964 were unsure whether to trust them, but the records indicate there was more than a grain of truth in the comic’s tale.
Hoover spent much of his tenure as director of the national police force from 1924 to 1972 seeking allies to fight communist infiltration of the Hollywood community.
One letter from the FBI archives, signed by Hoover in 1949, congratulates Harpo on his “loyal past services” to his country.
Hoover hoped they might meet in the near future, saying: “There may be ways that you can help your country again.”
Although Harpo went on to entertain US troops during the Korean war, his family believes he felt his spying days were behind him.
His widow, Susan Fleming, who married him in 1936, still lives in Los Angeles. “Who knows what might have happened? Harpo Marx could have been the first James Bond,” a friend said.