Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Birthday: the man who had to be born on Valentine's Day

Frank Harris was an objectionable little man. He was sallow as a gypsy. He had bat ears, dark hair with a crinkle in it that grew low on the forehead, and a truculent mustache. People remarked on the richness of his bass voice. His charm was great, particularly for the opposite sex. He had the gift of gab to a sublime degree and a streak of deep scoundrelism that was the ruin of him.

John Dos Passos, 1963

Frank Harris (1856-1931)
Author, editor, journalist

By the time he was 24, Frank Harris had been a runaway, a bootblack, a porter, a laborer, a construction worker on the Brooklyn Bridge, a hotel manager, a cowboy, a Kansas lawyer, and a widower. He scarcely needed a second act. He not only produced a dazzling one, but satisfied audiences with a dramatic downfall for the finale.

A son of Galway and a Royal Navy officer, Harris so hated boarding school that when he set his mind to run away, he went as far as away as he could get: America.

Act II saw Harris in London, a foreign correspondent for an American paper, trying to make his way as a writer. He worked his way through a number of London dailies before ending up editor of The Saturday review, which- even with Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells on the contents page- he found in need of shaking up.  He was a born contrarian, defending the Boers against the Brits, Charles Parnell against adultery (that one got him deselected as a Tory candidate for Parliament) and his great friend, Oscar Wilde, contra mundum.

After his disgrace, Wilde remembered their heydey in an 1897 letter to Harris:

The pleasure of being with you is in the clash of personality, the intellectual battle, the war of ideas. To survive you one must have a strong brain, an assertive ego, a dynamic character. In your luncheon-parties, in old days, the remains of the guests were taken away with the d├ębris of the feast. I have often lunched with you in Park Lane and found myself the only survivor.

By 1913 Harris was editing another magazine, Modern Society. He was determined to be its exemplar, in his life and its coverage. After being hailed into court for influencing a pending divorce case, Harris floored the judge:

‘It seems to me you have a certain disdain for this court,’ noted the judge during his trial. ‘Oh, if I could only express all the disdain I have,’ replied Harris.

That crack cost Harris six months’ liberty at Brixton Prison. HIs growing collection of scandals, and the advent of World War I, made a change of scene desirable, and he left for America, leaving Shaw to remember,

‘He blazed through London like a comet, leaving a trail of deeply annoyed persons behind him.’

Back in New York, Harris edited the American edition of Pearson’s, a British magazine that leavened its quality fiction with doses of mild socialism. The US Postmaster General, Albert Burleson, was not tinctured pink, and banned it from the mails for the duration of the war. Harris managed to keep the thing afloat nonetheless, until 1923.

As Act III opened, Harris became a US Citizen in 1921, then left for Berlin to seek a publisher for his memoirs, My Life and Loves. It was privately printed  in four volumes between 1922 and 1927.

Jack Kahane, the British owner of Paris’s Obelisk Press, published a mass-market edition in 1931; Harris joined James Joyce, Anais Nin, Radclyffe Hall and Henry Miller on the house’s list of banned smut-peddlers.

However gratifying it may have been to write, Harris’s great work sank his reputation like a stone.  All his best work- novels, essays, two books on Shakespeare, biographies of Wilde and Shaw, fell before Harris’s lubricious memories of himself as the real-life Harry Flashman, changing history in between bouts in bed with babes. His friend Max Beerbohm said of the work, “He told the truth only when his invention flagged.”

Harris winked, commenting, “Memoirs are a well-known form of fiction.”

He seemed ordained to scandalize. One of  more famous confessions, to a British lord, was, “My dear Duke, I know nothing of the joys of homo-sexuality. You must speak to my friend Oscar about that. And yet, if Shakespeare had asked me, I would have had to submit.”

The comment became so famous Beerbohm caricatured it.

My Life and Loves was banned in New York, where a judge had no trouble finding it “unquestionably obscure, lewd, obscene, lascivious and indecent.” The ban in the US and UK lasted more than forty years.

The sexual passages were pretty mild; Harris was not so much a Casanova as a man keen to lash out gobs of cash for prostitutes, then make notes. What horrified polite society about his memoirs was the idea of  book that combined photos of nude women, accounts of sex outside marriage, and the author's memories of the Brownings, Thomas Carlyle, Joseph Chamberlain, Winston Churchill, Gladstone, Heine, George Meredith, Cecil Rhodes and Lord Salisbury- including tidbits about their romantic lives.

In 1950, Harris’ third wife- his widow- sold a hundred pages of Harris’ notes to Maurice Girodias, Jack Kahane’s son, who had picked up the family’s banned book business after World War II. He paid her $30,000. A ghostwriter cobbled up the other eighty percent of what became My Life and Love's fifth volume, published in 1954.

Harris died in Nice in 1931. Since then he has become a stock figure in books and movies, plays and TV shows, set in 1890s-1900s Britain.

#LiteraryBirthdays  #HenryBemisBooks #Charlotte

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