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Frank Harris: pants on fire?

The latest in Neil Titley’s series on eminent Camden Victorians is a notorious writer and editor

11 June, 2020 — By Neil Titley

How Vanity Fair portrayed Frank Harris in 1913

ON May 18 1895 two men stood on the top of Parliament Hill gazing out over London. One was Frank Harris (1855-1931). The other was Oscar Wilde.

In a last ditch attempt to save Wilde from jail, Harris pointed to the distant Thames estuary and explained that he had moored a yacht at Erith ready to carry the fugitive to France. Although Wilde decided to reject the offer, Harris said that: “The beauty of the view from the Heath seemed to revive him.”

Oscar said of the incident: “Frank has the mind of a schoolboy’s annual. I think he rather wanted to hoist the flag of the skull and crossbones above the yacht.”

The editor and writer Frank Harris, although shortsighted and only 5ft 5ins tall, was a powerfully muscular man and possessed a voice that could shatter brass. But for all his abounding self-confidence, it was easy to spot the raffish adventurer beneath.

Once, as he boasted of his schooldays at Rugby, someone noticed that he was wearing an Old Etonian tie.

In fact, he was born in Galway, Ireland, and ran away to sea aged 15. Landing in the USA, he worked as an unskilled labourer on the Brooklyn Bridge and as a cowboy in the West, while also participating in rustling raids into Mexico. He claimed that he was “the only cowboy-rustler who carried a copy of JS Mill’s Political Economy in his saddlebag”.

It was a tribute to Harris’s indomitable bounce that, within three years and without the backing of contacts or wealth, he rose from this dubious early life to become the most successful newspaper editor in London.

In 1884, through a mixture of bluff and bravado, (and possibly seducing the wife of the proprietor), he was appointed as editor of the Evening News. He astutely decided to pitch the paper to appeal to the imagination of a 14-year-old boy, the mental age that he regarded as the norm of the British public. Remembering that his own interests at 14 were “kissing and fighting”, he virtually invented sex and violence sensationalism, raising the paper’s circulation from 7,000 to 70,000 copies.

Moving on to the Saturday Review, Harris sacked the existing staff and appointed Bernard Shaw as the new drama critic, Max Beerbohm as satirist, HG Wells as the book reviewer, and Thomas Hardy, Joseph Conrad and Rudyard Kipling to write poems and short stories. This policy turned the Saturday Review into possibly the best magazine ever produced in London.

Unfortunately his entry into society was a guaranteed disaster. Bernard Shaw said that: “The trouble with Frank was his appalling and ruthless candour delivered in a voice which filled the largest theatres and dominated the noisiest dinner parties.”

When Harris announced that: “There is not a great house in London at which I have not dined,” Wilde murmured: “Yes, Frank – but only once.”

While lunching at the Savile Club, Harris gazed around the members and suddenly bellowed: “I suppose that one cannot expect in this assembly of faded prigs to find a glass of good wine”. That was the final straw and his invitation to represent the Tory Party was withdrawn.

Then in 1898, after Harris sold the Saturday Review for £20,000, his luck turned against him. Losing the money in unwise purchases of hotels on the French Riviera he was soon living in very reduced circumstances indeed.

His editorial offices were enlivened by repeated scenes of bailiffs breaking down the front door while Harris lowered his most valued possessions to safety by rope from a rear window. After a failed attempt to blackmail King Edward VII over letters to a mistress, Harris retreated to the USA. During the First World War he publicly supported the German cause.

Harris’s real place in history rests not so much in his life as in his loves. Women found themselves attracted to his energetic and demanding character and he pursued them voraciously.

In 1919 he immortalised this obsession in his memoir entitled appropriately enough My Life and Loves, which described in explicit detail over 70 of his sexual encounters.

His comments on his contemporaries included his view of Bernard Shaw’s very limited sex life. “Shaw was the first man to cut a swathe through theatre and leave it strewn with virgins.”

The response to his book was electric with his new Riviera home being raided by police in search of pornography, while his USA agent was arrested. Admittedly the French police reaction was probably strengthened by the rumours of orgies organised by Harris for his friends and local girls.

How many of his adventures were genuine was open to question. When Max Beerbohm was asked if Harris had ever been known to tell the truth, Max replied: “Sometimes – when his invention flagged.”

In spite of his flagrant misbehaviour, his marriage to his second wife, Nellie O’Hara, lasted till the end of his life and he remained faithful in spirit if not in body.

He said of her: “There are some women nobler than men and thank God I have met one or two of them that have heightened my estimate of the possibilities of human goodness.”

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