Hello, and welcome back to the Poison Room, a podcast about dangerous texts. This week, we’re looking at some letters that were dangerous to be caught with.
It’s a story from 1933 about the best of the Marx Brothers. Now, for the kids out there who’ve never heard of them, the Marx Brothers were an American family comedy act popular in America during the first half of the 1900s and were some of the best comedians that century produced. They performed on Broadway, and starred in quite a few films. Their names were Chico, Harpo, Groucho, Gummo and Zeppo. The core three were Chico, Harpo, and Groucho, Gummo and Zeppo dropped out to pursue other careers. The best of them was, of course, Harpo. That’s my opinion, if you don’t like it, well… I don’t have others, because they’d be wrong.
Harpo’s comedy brand was visual, and it was non-verbal. He didn’t speak on stage, but did make honking and whistling sounds to communicate. He used a lot of props, and also incorporated musical elements. As you might have gathered from his name, the primary instrument was the harp, but he could play quite a few. He had a very distinct look for his performances, because he wore a big, curly, blondish wig. I’ll post a photo on twitter. Most importantly, for this story, he was the first American comedian to perform in the U.S.S.R., and it’s his trip there that is the focus of today’s episode.
Harpo hung out with a lot of the big socialites and creative types of the time, primarily through his regular socialising among the Algonquin Round Table, a group of people so called for their propensity to lunch at the Algonquin Hotel. It included such figures as Dorothy Parker, George Kaufmann, and Alexander Woollcott. Now, out of the three of those, the one you’re least likely to have heard of is Alexander Woollcott, but he’s the only one of them who’s important to this story. He was a critic and a journalist, and he was Harpo’s best friend.
The story that you’re about to hear comes from Harpo’s autobiography ‘Harpo Speaks!, excellently ghost-written by Rowland Barber. It was published in 1961, and also happens to be the first autobiographical – or even biographical book that I read cover to cover. I’d recommend it to anyone who loves the genre, or is looking for a good way into it. This was a weird story for me, as a researcher, because basically the only source for it is this autobiography. And because it’s so well written, I’m going to quote liberally from it. Or rather, Inari Porkka is going to quote liberally from it, as reward (or punishment) for first introducing me to the Marx Brothers, and Harpo, and Harpo Speaks!
Now, before we get to the story, it’s worth commenting on its reliability, especially since so few of the details can be fact-checked. Harpo himself admits in the book that his memory for times and places isn’t great – he doesn’t keep track of time, and doesn’t use calendars. And he’s not great with names, either. But there’s no reason to disbelieve the main elements of any of his stories. He’s not known as someone who liberally made stuff up. He was a prankster, for sure, but he wasn’t a straight-up liar. But bear in mind that his recollection isn’t great, and that the incident we’re about to hear about happened just under thirty years before the autobiography was published. I’ll talk more about the factual accuracy of some points of the story as we get to them.
But first, it’s time for our weekly dose of historical context. We need to talk a little bit about the USSR. There’s way too much going on to cover here – even if we spent the whole episode talking about it. So, he is the sketchiest of sketchy outlines: It’s 1933. The First World War had ended 14 years ago. After many years of bloody revolutions, the USSR had formed in 1922, with Lenin as the head of the government. But Stalin is already an important figure, and busy trying to consolidate his power. Lenin died in 1924, leaving in his wake a bunch of different men trying to grab power for themselves, and also stop other men grabbing power. It’s complicated political intrigue stuff, but by the end of the 1920s, Stalin has emerged as the top dog. His rivals have been expelled from the Politburo – the most powerful policy making committee of the communist party. Stalin has pushed for total collectivisation – i.e. peasants were to give up their individual farms and join large collective farms. This was achieved with significant violence. Millions of people were sent into exile, hundreds of thousands were either shot or placed in camps. Standards of living, at least for those outside the higher echelons of the government, were super Not Great. People are being overworked, are dealing with terrible living conditions. Most people are surviving on meagre rations. And then, to top it off, between 1931-33 there’s a famine, in large part caused by many of Stalin’s policies. It killed between 6-8 million people. Things are grim. But this isn’t stuff that people outside the USSR are really aware of. Stalin is lying to the rest of the world and letting them know that things are going super swell, actually. And there’s not exactly a thriving investigative journalism scene flourishing in the USSR. In short, by 1933, for the vast majority of people, things are grim and utterly miserable.
By the autumn of 1933, the USA was pretty much the only Western power that hadn’t formally recognised the USSR, but that’s about to change. At the time, Woollcott, Harpo’s close friend, was also a close friend of Roosevelt, the current American president, and, according to Harpo, he ‘flounced in and out of the White House like he owned a piece of the joint.’ (279). Roosevelt had made a campaign promise of recognizing the Soviet Union, and in the autumn of 1933 Woollcott contacts Harpo to tell him that he’s heard that Roosevelt is about to do just that. And he’s decided that Harpo should be the first American artist to perform in the USSR as soon as that happens. Harpo is far less keen on the idea that Woollcott, but Woollcott, as was generally the case, got his way. He’d already started sorting out the necessary visas to make it happen (280).
And so, ten days after, Harpo is in New York City to get on a boat to Hamburg. Woollcott shows up just before he leaves to give him a letter of introduction to a correspondent for the New York Times in Moscow called Walter Duranty. Duranty was another person who often appeared in the Algonquin Round Table’s meet-ups, but there’s no evidence that Harpo was acquaintances with Duranty before the trip to Russia. Much, much later, he, along with other journalists, will be heavily criticised for their complicity in hiding from the rest of the world how bad things were in the USSR during this time.
The passage to Hamburg is a ten-day voyage. After he gets to Hamburg, Harpo has to get across Germany, to Poland, to catch a train to Moscow. Now, Harpo had initially planned to do some sightseeing in Germany, but when he gets there, he changes his mind. And his own words on the matter are a stark reminder of what was happening in Europe at this time:
In Hamburg 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 mitzvah. It was the first time since I’d had the measles that I was too sick to eat.
I got across Germany as fast as I could go. (283)
So Harpo speeds through Germany, and hops on the train to Moscow at Warsaw. But the train ride is not uneventful.
On the train out of Warsaw I found another American, a guy who could speak Russian. He’d been back and forth from New York to Moscow several times, trying to drum up an export business in radios and spark plugs, and he knew the ropes. He asked me how light I was travelling. When I told him, he tipped me off that I’d have to pay for excess baggage at the Russian border.
Then he did me a favour. He lent me a hundred rubles, which I could repay him when we got to Moscow. The Russians were itching to get their hands on American money, he said. He had a hunch I could save a lot of dough if I insisted on paying in rubles instead of dollars. Some favor. Some hunch.
It was night when we got to the Polish-Russian town of Negoreloye, where we had to change to a Russian train. Everybody was ordered off and lined up by the border inspection station. It was freezing cold outside. It must have been thirty below and wasn’t much warmer inside the station, a wooden shed with newspapers tacked over the cracks in the walls. When it came my turn at the Inspector’s desk, everything seemed to be in order: passport okay, visa likewise. Good. I was dying to get on the train. Then the inspector handed me a form. It had my name on it, and a lot of figures, and at the bottom, “Twenty-five dollars.”
“Bog-gosh,” said the inspector, which I interpreted to mean “baggage.”
“How many rubles is twenty-five bucks?” I said, hauling out my roll of Russian bills. The inspector jumped to his feet and grabbed the money out of my hand. He yelled orders and pushed buttons. Bells rang. Buzzers sounded. Boots clomped all over the place as the guards came running.
They hauled me off to another shed. The officer-in-charge, a goon with so low a brow that his nose seemed to grow out of his hairline, questioned me through an interpreter. Where did I get the rubles? A guy on the train lent them to me. What was his name? I didn’t know his name. I was lousy at remembering names. I was lying, the Russian Colonel said. Tell the truth now: where did I get the rubles? I gave him the same answer.
A squad of guards lugged my trunk and harp into the shed. “Open the trunk, please,” said the officer. I unlocked it and the Russians began unloading it. When at first they only found a raincoat and an assortment of pants, shirts and ties, they were obviously disappointed.
Then they hit the jackpot. From the trunk they removed four hundred knives, two revolvers, three stilettos, half a dozen bottles marked POISON, and a collection of red wigs and false beards, mustaches and hands. More bells rang. More buzzers sounded. Whistles blew. More officials and more guards came.
They started grilling me again. Would I please explain why I was transporting weapons and disguises? I told them they were all props for my act. Act? What act? I said I had come to Russia to put on a show. Americans do not entertain in Russia, they said. I had better tell the truth. And I had better tell the truth about where I had bought my rubles, too. The law was that dollars and rubles could only be exchanged in Moscow. Illegal exchange was a serious offense. It undermined the economy of the Soviet Union.
Then they asked me what was in the harp case. When I told them, they ordered me to open the case and play something, to prove I was a harpist. This would have been my salvation any other time, any other place, but not in an open shed when it was thirty below zero. I was so stiff from the cold that I couldn’t get my gloves off. All I could do was run my gloved hands up the strings a couple of times and play that somebody there would recognize the professional touch.
There wasn’t much to recognize. One of the guards ran his hands up the strings and got exactly the same music out the harp that I had. The officials shook their heads and smirked. Then they got into a hot argument. I didn’t need an interpreter to get the drift of it. They were debating whether to have me shot now or wait for morning, when the firing squad would have clearer aim and would waste fewer bullets.
I didn’t know what the hell to do. This was one spot that no crazy stunt could get me out of … So I began to yell. I knew my rights! Take me to the American consul! Was this a free country or wasn’t it? I knew of course that I had no rights here and that there was no American consuls anywhere in Russia, which was not a free country, but I kept on yelling, because I didn’t know what else to do and because it made me feel a little warmer.
Then things got a lot warmer. The officials settled their argument. They turned on me, scowling, and Colonel Low Brow said, “Take all your personal belongings and come with us, please.” I shrugged, trying to appear nonchalant, but my knees began to wobble. The only personal belonging I cared about right then was my skin. “Where are we going?” I said.
I never got the answer. My friend from the train, who’d been looking for me, walked into the shed. He quickly explained, in Russian, about the rubles. Yes, he had lent the money to me. No, I had not given him any American money for it. It was simply a loan to be repaid in Moscow. And where did he get his rubles? In Moscow, through legal exchange, during his last trip to Russia.
The officials accepted his explanation. Only at one point did they look suspicious, like they might throw this guys story out the window. That was when he told the Russians I was a great popular artist in the United States. They had heard me play the harp. This was a great artist?
I paid the twenty-five bucks, American money, and got on the Moscow express. (283-85)
Now, we can’t know for sure whether the guards really would have shot him, but it wasn’t an unreasonable fear, and whatever the case, Harpo clearly thought it was a genuine, even likely, possibility. There’s no reason to doubt that he really did fear for his life – that’s the kind of detail that sticks with you, especially when you’re Jewish and have just come through Germany and seen what was starting to happen there.
So his train gets to Moscow, and there’s someone there to meet him:
Two minutes after the train came to a stop in the station, a Russian dame showed up in my compartment looking for me. “Mr. Marx, please?” she said. I identified myself and she shook my hand. “I am Comrade Malekinov,” she said. “I am your guide and interpreter for the duration of your visit to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Welcome. This way, please, for inspection of passport and visa.” Her English was pretty good.
I had to look at her twice to be convinced she was a dame. She wore a man’s double-breasted overcoat, which hung below the tops of her galoshes, a gray fur hat, steel-rimmed glasses, and not a smidgin of make-up The only color on her face was the blue of the rings under her eyes. Her eyebrows were unplucked and so was a patch of whiskers growing around a mole on her chin. I had to study her for quite a while before I decided she was very young, probably not more than twenty-five. (286)
Now, the reliance on a feminine stereotype might make you roll your eyes, here, but it also really shows the stark contrast between American and Soviet culture, what femininity looked like, and what it was expected to look like.
While I was getting my things off the rack she said, “Any questions, please?”
“Yah,” I said. “Do you mind if I call you Miss Benson?” She thought for a minute, then closed her eyes and nodded and said, “That is a joke.”
“No joke, honey,” I said. “I’m going to have trouble with a name like yours.”
“My name is Com-rade Mal-e-kee-noff,” she said, one syllable at a time, like a teacher talking to an idiot pupil.
We compromised. For the next six weeks I called her “Melachrino,” which I could remember because it was the brand of cigarettes I was smoking at the time. On one thing she never compromised. In my presence she never once laughed or cracked a smile. Later, when I had Russians rolling in the aisles with my pantomime bits, I used to sneak a look at Melachrino, watching from the wings. She would be nodding her head with her eyes shut. I couldn’t hear her but I knew she was saying to herself, “That is a joke.” The nicest thing I can say about the Russians is that Melachrino wasn’t a typical one. (286-87)
Again, you might eye-roll for the typical Anglophone disinterest in getting foreign-sounding names right, but I also want to point out that we can’t be sure Malekinov was her real name. It probably did sound something like it, given that it had to be close enough to Melachrino for that name to work. But since the whole point here is that he didn’t think he’d be able to get her name right, and therefore doesn’t actually use it, it’s not unreasonable to interpret this as ‘her name was Malekinov, or something like that’, especially since every search you do relating to that name comes up Harpo. If instead you search for ‘Russian Surnames + Malekinov’ you get precisely zero results, and a suggestion that you might have meant ‘Malenkov’. So I’d go so far as to say her name very probably wasn’t Malekinov, it might well have been Malenkov, but that we can’t be completely sure what her real name is, and don’t stand much chance at all of ever finding it out.
Anyway, Melachrino – and yes, that was the name of a real cigarette brand – takes him to his hotel, via limousine, along roads devoid of other cars. Harpo really doesn’t think much of the car. He thinks it looks like a reject from the production line. But Melachrino is completely taken with it, and thinks it’s ‘beautiful, beautiful.’ Harpo also really doesn’t think much of the hotel:
I had been in a lot of crummy hotels in my time, but the Moscow Nationale was the first crummy big hotel I ever checked into. The guy behind the desk saw that I was not too impressed by the looks of the joint. He apologized, explaining that a new hotel for international guests was being built, but it wasn’t ready yet. Ah, but it was going to be magnificent!
Nothing worked in the Nationale except the people. The heat was always going off, along with the hot water. The elevator was always “temporarily out of commission, ” and the telephone system kept breaking down. The only thing you could be sure of getting was ice water, usually out of both taps. But the service was overwhelming. While a Comrade Mechanic scratched his head and banged at the elevator mechanism with a monkey wrench, six women, all built like brick backhouses, carried my things up five flights of stairs, trunk, harp and all.
Naturally, I felt they deserved a fat tip when we got to the room. Melachrino was incensed. “The degrading practice of tipping in unknown in the Soviet Union,” she said, and made me put my money back in my pocket. The dames who had been carrying my things gave her a dirty look and trudged back downstairs.
I started unpacking. Melachrino made no move to leave. I excused myself and went into the can. When I came out she was still there. What was the score? Was she going to be my roommate? I got the picture of her at night, curled up on the floor like a dog at the foot of my bed. (287-8)
But Melachrino does eventually get the hint, and leaves, telling him that all he has to do if he needs her is to phone the front desk, and she’d reappear. Harpo decides to try and get in touch with one of the contacts he was given the details for: Walter Duranty, the journalist. But even with the help of the hotel operator, he can’t get hold of him by phone. So he decides to go for a walk by himself, to see what Moscow’s like. Of course, he does not go for a walk by himself. Melachrino intercepts him before he even manages to leave the hotel, apparently not much impressed by his attempt to wander off alone. She accompanies him. This, of course, means that he can’t wander around freely, but he still gets a glance at some slums hidden off the side streets as they walk past. Once again, he’s struck by the stark contrast between Moscow and cities like New York. The streets are full of people, but the roads are almost completely devoid of cars. He’s struck again by the amount of women doing jobs that, in non-communist Western societies, were seen as the purview of men: shovelling snow, breaking ice, driving trucks. Every shop has a long line of people patiently waiting to get in. And that’s ‘waiting to get in’ and not ‘waiting to pay’. Harpo decides to buy some clothes, and is rather mortified when, as he tries to join the queue, Melachrino grabs him and drags him past the queue and into the store, telling him that ‘party members and honoured guests have priority’. After that they head back to the hotel. Harpo once again fails to get in touch with Duranty. He invites Melachrino to hang out, and passes the evening practicing his harp, with Melachrino just sitting there listening. Eventually he tells her he’s turning in for the night, and she leaves. But he doesn’t go to bed immediately.
I was curious about something. Half an hour after she’d gone I went down to the lobby. There she sat, in a corner facing the stairs, overcoat and hat still on, reading a book. She looked up at me sharply, I smiled and waved at her. She nodded her head and, having seen that I was not dressed to go out, went back to her reading.
No doubt about it, she was a government spy. But that was okay with me. I had nothing to hide, nothing that the Soviet Union would want to find out. Still it was a creepy feeling, knowing that every move you made was watched and that every word you spoke probably went into a report to the secret police. (290)
Yeah, no doubt about it, that’s creepy. In the morning, he tries to get hold of Duranty again:
I talked on the phone to an English correspondent from Reuters, who told me that Walter Duranty was in Leningrad, and wouldn’t be back in Moscow for another week. Before I hung up I said, “Okay, Melachrino, honey, come on up.” The Englishman was puzzled. Nobody else on the wire was. Melachrino was in my room in two minutes. (290)
At this point Harpo decides not to wait for any of his contacts to show up, and, showing her a letter of introduction from the Intourist, which was the official travel agency of the USSR, asks Melachrino to take him to the director of the Moscow Art Theatre. She obliges. The director had been expecting him, but, with Melachrino acting as translator, asks what exactly it is that Harpo does. Harpo explains, and the director asks for a demonstration. Harpo explains that he needs his props, and they agree that he’ll come back the next morning at eleven to give the demonstration.
So I came back the next morning with costume, wig, and a hundred or so knives. The director had the rest of the staff with him, six or seven stony-faced characters who were a tough audience if I ever saw one. I got into costume, planted the knives up my sleeves and said I was ready for the stage.
“No,” said the director. “Not on the stage. You will perform here.”
I asked if somebody would volunteer to be my straight man for the bit. “No,” said the director. “We must see you perform alone. To perform alone is the only true test of the pantomime artist.”
So I had to play both parts, straight man and comic. I made some faces, winding up with a Gookie, then shook hands with myself to start the knives dropping. The silverware fell to the carpet of the office, not with a raucous clatter but with polite, soft thuds. Nobody cracked a smile. The room was deathly silent. Cold as it was there, I was drenched with flop sweat. It was the most miserably performance I’d ever given. (291)
The director tells him to come back the next morning at eleven. When he does so, it’s simply to be told that they didn’t think there was anything ‘exceptionally clever’ about his performance with the knives. Harpo tells them he can do lots of different bits, but they really require an audience. The director tell him that no, he can’t have an audience, but he should... come back tomorrow. At eleven. And do another performance.
So Harpo tries to figure out what routine he can do that’s going to work best without an audience, and decides on a routine in which he accompanies a girl singing ‘I’m Always Blowing Bubbles’ with a clarinet that, half way through, starts blowing actual bubbles. Of course, since he’s not allowed any assistants, his stony-faced audience will just have to imagine her singing. Once again, his routine only elicits silence.
The director and all the assistant directors studied the bubbles as they floated through the room. When the last bubble burst on the floor, they looked up at me, grim as a jury in a murder case. Melachrino said something to them in Russian. They shrugged it off, whatever she said.
They had a brief conference. They sat staring at me for a while, then the director said: “We will let you know. Please be here tomorrow morning at eleven o’clock.”
What I felt like saying wasn’t translatable, so I said, “This time I’ll let you know, Chief. Maybe I’ll come back and maybe I won’t.”
The director got up and left the office and his assistants got up and followed him. Melachrino watched them go. She shook her head. “I told them it was a joke,” she said. “Please believe me. I told them.”
“Yah, thanks,” I said. “You were one hell of a claque, honey.” (291)
A claque, by the way, is someone hired to give applause at a performance. Someone you might plant in the audience to get the ball rolling on applause, or even laughter. At this point, Harpo is done. He doesn’t care about being the first American entertainer to perform in the USSR. He just wants out. He tells Melachrino to get him a reservation on the next train out of Russia, and goes to start packing his bags. He calls the Reuter’s journalist and a couple of other journalists he’d met to let them know he’s leaving. They plead with him not to go, but he’s adamant. But as he’s sitting there, packed and waiting to leave, he gets a telephone call:
from a lady with a British accent. I missed her name when she introduced herself, and figured she must be the wife of one of the correspondents.
Spoiler alert: she is not the wife of one of the correspondents.
She told me she’d just heard I was in town to play, and she thought it was wonderful. I told her it had sounded wonderful to me once, but now it was all over, before it began. I was on my way out of Russian.
“But you mustn’t leave!” she said. “You don’t know how we’re looking forward to seeing you. Whatever has made you change your mind?”
I told her briefly and as politely as I could about my four-day run-around with the Moscow Art Theatre.
She wasn’t surprised. “That’s not the theatre for you,” she said. “You were sent to the wrong people.”
Well then, I asked her, where should I have gone? “I couldn’t say for certain,” she said. “But we’ll put you straight. My husband will be back from Washington in the morning, and I’ll see to it that you’re his first order of business.”
“He’s got connections here?” I said.
There was a pause. Then the dame with the English accent said, “Perhaps you didn’t catch my name, Mr. Marx. I am Ivy Litvinov. My husband, Maxim, is the Foreign Minister. I know he’ll be terribly sorry he wasn’t in Moscow to greet you. The conference with Mr. Roosevelt has lasted far longer that he thought it would.”
I don’t know what I said after that. I only know I agreed to put off leaving for twenty-four hours. Right after I hung up, Melachrino ran into my room. She was so pleased that she almost smiled. I couldn’t tell, however, whether it was the postponement of my departure that pleased her, or the fact that she’d had the honor of snooping on a conversation with the wife of the Foreign Minister. At that time the prestige and power of Comrade Maxim Litvinov was second only to that of Comrade Joseph Stalin. (293)
So he sticks around for the next day, as he said he would, waiting for a call. Eventually he gets tired of waiting, and sends Melachrino to go sort him a train ticket out again. So once again he’s sat there packed, just waiting to hear about the train, when, once again, something interrupts his plan to leave:
There was a knock on the door. “Come in, honey,” I said, “I’m decent.” It wasn’t Melachrino who came in. It was a delegation of eleven Russians, smiling Russians.
One of them, a tall young guy who looked a little like George Kaufman said, in English, “Mr. Marx? We are at your service.” He bowed and all the rest of the delegation bowed. They looked eagerly at the trunk and harp case, and my first thought was that they’d come to carry my baggage downstairs to the limousine.
Then the tall guy said, “Let me introduce your staff. My colleagues ask to be forgiven for not speaking English, but they too hope we shall have a long and happy association together.” The names of the guys all sounded like “Bensonoff” to me. After I shook hands with them, the spokesman made the rounds again, introducing them by titles: “Producer. Director. Assistant Producer. Musical Director. Writer. Arranger. Stage Manager. Company Manager. Scenic designer. Assistant Director. I myself am a writer.”
Litvinov had said the magic word. The next day I went to work – on the stage, not in anybody’s office.
And on the next day, at 7.50 A.M., to be exact, while I was having my prunes, rolls and tea in the hotel dining room, Russia became – officially – a friendly country. That was the rearranged time for the pact worked out between Litvinov and Roosevelt to go into effect. The United States now recognized the Soviet Union, and the U.S.S.R. now recognized the U.S.A. (294)
So Harpo and his new crew get down to rehearsals. During this time the elusive Walter Duranty finally gets back to Moscow, along with another American writer called Eugene Lyons. Duranty introduces Harpo to William Bullitt, the first American ambassador to the Soviet Union. When they put on the preview performance for the international press and some high-ranking Russians, William Bullitt is the guest of honour. The preview is such a hit that they have to put on a second one. Then, Harpo tell us:
We had our opening for the Russian public (“public” in this case meaning Party members in good standing who could con the Commissariat out of tickets). We were a great success. It went over twice as big as either preview. On the morning after, Melachrino read me the review in Izvestia. It was the most flattering thing written about me since Woollcott’s piece in the New York Sun, back in 1924. (295)
Izvestia is, by the way, the name of a real newspaper. The show continues to be successful, and Harpo settles in:
What had been two weeks before a city on the other side of the moon was now my new home town. I got a hell of a kick seeing the posters all over the main streets advertising the show, and recognizing my name in Russian print. It looked like this: XARIIO MARKC. The nearest I could come to pronouncing it, from the way it looked, was “Exapno Mapcase.”
So I was Exapno Mapcase, the Toast of Moscow. (298)
So things are going well. Melachrino relaxes and Harpo is allowed to go out on his own most of the time. He gets a chance to see some of the sites, including the Kremlin, and sort of accidentally catches the end of an international chess match being conducted on stage, but via long-distance calls. The Russian kid won. He sees some other productions, too. He also hangs out with Duranty and a bunch of other foreign correspondents.
I got into a poker game with them one night. My luck was good, but I came away a loser. We played for rubles, not dollars, and Russian paper currency was so thin that it would disintegrate after being handled a few times. It was the first time I lost at poker due to the money wearing out.
You could buy a lot of rubles for an American dollar, and if you spent them before they wore out you could get some good bargains. Cablegrams were a good bargain. I sent cables back home to everybody I knew, by the bushel, at approximately two cents per wire.
Some got through uncensored, some didn’t. One which didn’t get through at all was a cable to Woollcott: “HAVE GONE THROUGH TOUGHEST WICKET. NO LONGER DEAD ON RED. EVERYTHING BUCKETY-BUCKETY, EXAPNO MAPCASE.” This must have kept the lights burning all through the night at the department of the GPU. (317-18)
After a few weeks performing in Moscow, Harpo takes the show to Leningrad, then some small towns, then back to Moscow. He’s a hit everywhere. Despite things loosening up, his sight-seeing, success, and having some fun, Harpo later reflects on his way home on a different aspect of what it had been like in Moscow:
I couldn’t shake off the awful feeling (it hits you in the pit of your stomach) that I was being watched wherever I went, by eyes I couldn’t see. I never, not for a minute, felt I was really alone. I was a stranger who had stumbled into a deadly conspiracy, who had to be kept from finding out what the plot was all about. The worst part of it was knowing that, if I wasn’t within hollering distance of the American Embassy, I had no one to turn to for help. I couldn’t call a cop or a lawyer, or complain to the government, or appeal to the guys I was working with. They were all part of the plot, every last one of them. The actors as much as everybody in the audience. The charming Litvinovs as much as the unsmiling Melachrino and the scar-faced general at the border. The devout Jewish stagehand as much as Comrade Stalin.
What tipped me off to the Russians were the things I admired them for at first, their ability to concentrate, their frank curiosity, their enthusiasm in the theatre, their capacity for hard work, their respect for regulations. Wonderful qualities, but deadly – deadly because I did not come across, among the thousands of Russians I saw, one screwball, one crackpot, one wise guy, one loafer or one scorehead. I never saw anybody do anything just for the hell of it. I never saw anybody pull a spontaneous gag. (327-28)
Eventually, the shows are over, and Harpo’s all set to go home. Now we finally get to the part of the story that earns it a place on this podcast.
On the morning of my last day in Moscow Walter Duranty telephoned to ask if I would please meet him at the Embassy. The Ambassador would like to say good-bye to me.
In Mr. Bullitt’s private office the three of us drank coffee—good, American coffee—and talked about this and that. At one point Bullitt said, casually, “Harpo, could you do me a favor? I’d like these delivered back to the States, in person.” He held up a thin packet of letters tied with string.
I said I’d be glad to. I reached for the letters. Bullitt didn’t let me have them.
“It’s not as simple as you might think,” he said. “This packet must get to New York undetected. No one – no one – must know you have it. It will be strapped to your leg, under your sock. You still want to do it?”
Sure I still did. Why not? Nobody would ever suspect me of being a diplomatic courier. Exactly why he was asking me to do this little service, Bullitt said. “So who do you want it delivered to ?” I asked, and he said I didn’t have to worry about that. I would be contacted as soon as I got home.
“Okay,” I said. “Strap me up.”
We bound the packet to the inside of my right leg and secured the straps with adhesive tape. “Just forget you’re carrying it,” said the Ambassador. “Except,” he added, “when you go to the shower.”
He thanked me, wished me bon voyage, and we said good-bye. Duranty dropped me off at the hotel. Melachrino was waiting in the corridor outside my room. Boy, oh boy! I thought. Wouldn’t she pop her cork off if she knew that I was now a secret agent too!
“Honey,” I said. “I forgot to tell you something. I’m also a spy. I’m smuggling the designs for the Ford tractor out of Russia.”
She closed her eyes and nodded her head. “That is a joke,” she said, and I agreed. It wasn’t very good, but it was a joke. (322-23)
Now, Harpo mentioned ‘driving tractors’ being one of the few things he ‘knew’ about Russia. Probably because the USSR was making a big push toward industrialisation at this point. But… Ford is an American company. There were no Ford plans that Russia had that America did not. Ford had started working with Russia a few years earlier to train people and help set-up a plant producing tractors, so I guess the ‘Ford’ thing is probably part of the joke – he’s smuggling out documents they already have, which would at least make the joke seem a little less dangerous.
Harpo gets back to his hotel room, finishes packing, says goodbye to the stoic Melachrino. He has one final celebrity appearance, performing his knife-dropping routine in front of a the statue of Pushkin in Pushkin square, and poses with the statue for some cameramen, making it look like the knives are falling out of the statue’s sleeves. Eventually, Duranty and another man from the Embassy show up to take him to the station.
In the station Duranty said it might amuse me to know that the Izvestia critic who reviewed my Moscow opening had just been executed for a crime against the State. But he hadn’t been shot for raving about my decadent, bourgeois comedy. He’d been shot for making an illegal exchange of rubles and valootye. (324)
Just interrupting here to say that I spent way too much time trying to find an online edition of the right issue of the newspaper, to see if I could find the review and possibly figure out who the journalist was, and what happened to them. I had precisely zero luck, but I can tell you that it 1933, there were on average around 400 executions per month in Russia (Berg 1983: 158). What the journalist was doing was indeed illegal – trading in currency outside official channels was classed as financial speculation. People were certainly arrested and exiled for it, but I don’t know how common execution for it was. But in 1930 Stalin had granted the police the power to summarily execute people without trial. So it’s not at all implausible. Anyway, back to Harpo.
Until Duranty told me that, I had actually forgotten about the packet of letters strapped to my right leg. Now it felt like a manacle. When the Poland express pulled out of the station I was thinking of nothing else. So I really had had a close shave at the border, that night I entered Russia. I was clutched by a sudden chill. What if Low Brow and his crew were on duty when I crossed over on the way out, and they recognized me? Suppose they gave me a working over, just for old time’s sake? God Almighty! What had Woollcott gotten me into?
I could hear myself saying to Melachrino, eight hours earlier, “Yah, it’s a joke, honey.” Some joke. I was scared. I was so scared I fell asleep and slept through the dinner hour.
The next thing I heard was some gruff voice saying “Marx! Marx! Tovarich Marx!” I opened my eyes. It was daylight. The train was stopped. The voice belonged to a Red soldier of the border guard. I recognized him from two months ago, and he recognized me. He jerked his head to signify I should come with him. I put on my coat and hat, took down my suitcase, and followed him off the train.
By this time most of the other passengers were lined up by the inspection station, waiting to have their papers checked. I asked the guard, in pantomime, if I hadn’t better get on line. He told me, in the same language, “No.” He led me into the station. There, waiting for me, was my old friend Colonel Low Brow.
“Your passport, please,” he said through his interpreter. I handed over my passport. Low Brow gave it to a soldier, who disappeared with it.
The colonel said, “Please come with me to the headquarters.
I couldn’t think straight. I may have walked straight, but I felt like a seasick unicyclist condemned to ride the deck of a ship in a storm. We came to headquarters. Low Brow opened the door and motioned for me to go in. I went in. Waiting for me, standing in the middle of the office, was a Red officer who must have been at least a field marshal, a beefy guy decorated with an equal number of scars and stars. He was squinting hard at me and grinding his teeth.
I said, “Any of you fellows know any verses to ‘Peasie Weasie’?” The general looked at the colonel. The colonel looked at the interpreter. The interpreter said “Please?” I didn’t answer him. I couldn’t.
The general broke into a diabolical grin, which with all the scars on his face looked like a map of Rock Island Railroad. He grunted and waved toward a table on the other side of the office. On the table, around a hot samovar, were bottles of wine and vodka, stacks of bread, pots of sour cream, and platters of caviar, herring, sausages, pickles and piroshky.
The general issued an order. “Eat,” he said. “It’s your last chance. In Poland they eat like pigs.”
With no further ado the general obeyed his own order. That’s why he’d been grinding his teeth. He couldn’t wait. In fifteen minutes he had consumed half the goodies on the table, washed it down with half a bottle of vodka. I didn’t do too badly either, having missed dinner on the train.
Colonel Low Brow reassured me, while I was eating, that my papers and baggage were being processed by his men. An honored guest of the Soviet Union, he said, must not be permitted to wait in line. When three other officers came into headquarters, they were surprised to see me there. The Colonel set them straight on who I was. I could recognize the words “Tovarich Marx” and “Tovarich Litvinov” Name dropper.
A soldier brought me my papers, and the interpreter said, “It’s train time, please.” The general licked sour cream off his fingers and waved me good-bye. The other officers crunched my hand, one by one, and I was escorted over to the Warsaw express. I was stuffed and groggy when I plopped onto my seat. I had nothing to be scared of now, I told myself, but a delayed reaction set in and I began to shake. Knowing no other cure for my condition, I shook myself to sleep. (324-26).
Now, Harpo’s original plan for his journey back included staying a week or so in Paris and then heading to London to meet up with Chico, who was going to perform there in January. Shockingly, given the circumstances, he revises his plan.
I stopped only when I absolutely had to, and for no longer than it took to change trains. I was so conscious of what I was carrying under my sock that I favoured my right leg, without thinking, and I caught myself walking with a limp. Id always been an inconspicuous type guy offstage, but now people seemed to stare at me as if I had forgotten to put my pants on.
It was amazing how many counterespionage agents I could identify, by their dark looks and shifty movements, on trains and in stations. I must have spotted altogether six hundred give or take half a dozen. The most dangerous ones, I knew, not the dark and shifty characters. They were too obvious. The ones to watch for were the characters like the guy who rushed up to me between trains, slapped me on the back, and said, “Hey, boy! Am I glad to see another Yankee Doodle Dandy! Are you comin’ or goin’?” I was goin’. I got away from him fast. Pretty clever, trying to throw me off my guard like that. But not old Mapcase. I was onto his game. (326-27)
If it’s not obvious, I don’t think Harpo at this point honestly believed by the time he comes to produce his autobiography that the guy had been a spy. He’s not claiming he really could identify 600 odd counterespionage agents. He’s telling us what it felt like – he’s so scared that he’ll be caught that he’s seeing potential danger everywhere. He’s so scared that, when an innocent American tries to talk to him, he just wants to get away as fast as possible.
Anyway, the ship journey took seven days, though Harpo says it felt like seven months. Rather understandable, I think. But he also says that the seven days is ‘according to the records of the French Line’. Which suggests someone did some actual fact-checking here, since it’s not likely Harpo remembered it precisely. To start with, he decides to just stay in his room the whole time, but by the end of day two, after innumerable games of solitaire, he finds himself checking that the papers are still secure on his leg every time he turns up a face card, and realises that this is ridiculous, and that he needs to get out.
I let myself out. I decided to play it nonchalant. I should mix it up. Circulate. Roam the ship and case the broads, like any old spy named Joe. I played a few rubbers of bridge, talked to an elderly couple who looked trustworthy – and cased the broads.
There wasn’t so much to this cloak-and-dagger business, I told myself, once you got the hang of it. The main thing was to act like you didn’t have a worry in the world. Still, I slept with my socks on, and took showers with my right foot sticking out of the bath compartment, standing like a ballet dancer with the gout.
The voyage dragged on, and on. The waves got farther apart and the ship’s clocks slowed down. I couldn’t sit still long enough to play a hand of bridge. I circulated. I roamed. I fidgeted. The stewards and the waiters and the bartenders were growing darker and shiftier by the minute. I began to wonder about the elderly couple in the library. They were the ones to watch. Trying to throw me off my guard.
Twenty-four hours to go. Twelve hours. Time to change to city clothes and pack my suitcase. Time to make a final check of the straps around the packet. Might get jostled getting off the boat.
There was a knock on the stateroom door. I tried to pull my pants leg down the same time I jumped to my feet, and fell flat on my face. I missed busting my nose on the edge of a chair by an inch.
It was only the steward. “One hour from docking,” he said.
“God bless you, said I.
A lot of corny lines had been written about the Grand Old Lady of New York Harbor, and what the sight of her meant to a traveler returning home. Now I knew how true they were. When I saw the Statue of Liberty, out of the porthole, I couldn’t think of anything corny enough to say about her. She may have been nothing to seagulls and pigeons but to a big, green latrine, and nothing but a menace to ferryboat captains – but to me she was the most beautiful broad in the world. In thirty-five minutes we’d be tied up at Pier 88. Somebody knocked on my door. It wasn’t the steward’s polite rapping. It was a solid belt that said, Open up or else! I didn’t have to open up. The door was flung open. Two hulking, stony-faced bruisers came into the stateroom, slammed the door behind them, and turned the lock. I hadn’t seen either of these guys at any time during the voyage. They were dressed for going ashore, and carried their hats and overcoats. One of them carried a black brief case. They both wore suits with padded shoulders, plenty bulky enough to conceal holsters and pistols.
They stood there for a minute or so without speaking, towering over me, glaring at me, waiting until they were sure nobody had followed them.
The one with the brief case said, in perfect English, “Marx, you have something we want. You probably have it strapped to yourself somewhere under your clothing. You will be good enough to remove it and hand it over.”
Well, Exapno Mapcase, I said to myself, you gave it a try but you didn’t make it. The jig is up.
Then the guys took out their wallets, flipped them open, and showed me their identification. They were agents of the Secret Service. Thu United States Secret Service.
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. It was a beautiful scratch, sheer ecstasy. It was all the reward I wanted for what I had done.
When the ship tied up at the pier it was announced over the loud speaker that there would be a short delay before passengers could debark. I was the only passenger who knew the reason for the delay. It was to allow me to be the first to go ashore. The ship’s officers saluted me as I stepped off the boat. I walked down the gangplank, followed by the two agents. I turned and waved back at the passengers crowded against the rail. Without knowing why, they applauded me. What a finish!
The agents led me straight through customs, stopping only to flash their wallets and to explain that Mr. Marx’s baggage was tagged for diplomatic priority. How I was ever more ecstatic – on account of my trunk was full of illegal rubles and hot icons.
On the pier, on the free side of the customs barrier, were Gummo and his wife and Aleck Woollcott. When the Secret Service boys saw I had friends waiting, they shook hands with me and said, “Sure appreciate this,” and “Glad it didn’t put you out any,” and then ran down the pier toward the street.
Aleck was so glad to see me and so stunned by the way I had been escorted off the boat that he couldn’t speak. He waggled his head and grinned and held up his hands and puffed with pride. Gummo and Helen hugged me and kissed me. It was a wonderful homecoming.
Now I could say it and mean it: it had also been a wonderful trip. (328-330)
So that’s that. Harpo has carried what was one of, if not the first, secret dispatch from the newly appointed Ambassador to the USSR back to the USA.
I did try to fact-check the main part of the story. To start with I poked around to see if Bullitt had written an autobiography. He had a very interesting life. But alas, he did not write an autobiography. A biography of him was published much later – in 1987, and it does also briefly mention Harpo and the letters, but given that it’s published after Harpo’s autobiography, the authors neglect to state their source, and the details match up with Harpo’s own account, I suspect that their source was, in fact, Harpo. (Brownell, & Billings 1987: 142). Bullitt’s assistant at the time, George Kennan, did publish an autobiography. An incredibly detailed autobiography, and drawn from his extensive notes and diaries. He doesn’t mention the incident with Harpo. In fact, he doesn’t mention Harpo at all. His omission of the story can be accounted for either by the fact that he didn’t want to mention it, or because he didn’t actually know about it. Harpo doesn’t mention him as being in the room, and at that point he’d only just become Bullitt’s assistant. (Kennan 1967).
What about Walter Duranty? He didn’t write an autobiography, either. He did write at least one article that mentions Harpo’s visit, but it’s touched on only very briefly. We can’t know why he doesn’t mention it – perhaps he’s forgotten, or perhaps he thinks it imprudent to mention it (William Seabrook and Walter Duranty “You’re telling me!” The American Magazine).
Now, whilst I was trying to find any other sources for this story, I ran across a bunch of online articles from the very end of 2002 and the start of 2003 telling some version of a story in which a letter from J. Edgar Hoover, then head of the FBI, to Harpo was found in the FBI archives, thanking him for his services to his country. Several articles state that the letter is in documents ‘soon to be released’, but nothing more. They’re all pretty short articles, and I wouldn’t call them meticulously researched, and none of them give their primary source for this information. I poked around but couldn’t find any mention of Harpo in the FBI files you can search online. So make of that what you will.
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Alternatively, write me a letter, find a travelling entertainer, and convince them to strap it to their leg and bring it to me.
Transcripts of this episode are available at poisonroom.com, where you can also see the references and bibliography. As always, if the sources are publicly available, they’re linked to.
You have been listening to The Poison Room, a podcast that fully endorses having secret spy names based on trying to read Cyrillic letters as if they were Latin letters.
The voice of Harpo Marx was: Blehanble Norkka. The voice in your ears has been up all night censoring cable messages.
I’ll leave you with some final words from Harpo:
One thing, only one thing, was missing to make the triumph complete. I was a Secret Agent who didn’t know what his Secret was. I had no idea whatsoever what might have been in the envelopes I had carried, strapped to my leg, all the way from the other side of the moon.
I still don’t know. I never will, of course. (330)
- Brownell, W. & Billings, R. N. (1987) So Close to Greatness: a Biography of William C. Bullitt, MacMillan.
- Harlow, W. (2002) ‘Harpo Marx Smuggled Stalins Secrets in his Socks’ The Sunday Times.
- Kennan, G. F. (1967) Memoirs, 1925-1950 Little, Brown & Co.
- Khlevnuik, O. V. (2015) Stalin: New Biography of a Dictator, (trans. Seligman Favorov, N.) Yale University Press.
- Marx, H. & Barber, R. (1961) Harpo Speaks!, Limelight Editions.
- Shearer, D. R. (1998) ‘Crime and Social Disorder in Stalin’s Russia’ Cahiers du monde russe : Russie, Empire russe, Union soviétique, États indépendants, Vol. 39: 119-148.
- Taylor, S. J. (1990) Stalin’s Apologist: Walter Duranty: The New York Times’s Man in Moscow Oxford University Press.
- Van den Berg, G. P. (1983) ‘The Soviet Union and the Death Penalty’ Soviet Studies Vol. 35: 154-174.