Frank Harris (1856-1931) – a confidential editor

Frank Harris (1856-1931)  Photo credit: wiki

He claimed to be sexually active as a 5 year-old. «He has visited all the most famous homes in London. Once» Oscar Wilde stated. Frank Harris was one of the most controversial characters of the Victorian era. A self-proclaimed sex-guru, hypochondriac and editor with upper class access, he was a colorful addition to the revolt against late Victorian morality.

Michael Wynn is the editor of historyradio.org

Ireland, at the middle of the nineteenth century, was on the brink of trouble. Hunger had just arrived and gangs of smugglers ravaged the coastlines. Thomas James Harris was named after his father, Thomas Harris, who worked for the British Coastguard. His father spent a lot of time at sea and the two were never close. His mother was a distant figure, even if he never disliked her. It was the violent and aggressive father he hated, and later he changed his name to Frank Harris.

The young Harris left for England to attend a boarding school. There is something confined about his childhood memories, something unpleasant about his description of the masculine boarding schools. He left a dysfunctional home for a school system in which the teachers turned a blind eye to abuse. In this unfriendly environment, he learnt to fight back. He taught himself boxing and achieved the respect of his peers. He grew emotionally and made his sexual debut.

Across the Atlantic
At the age of 16, he sets out on a journey to America, without any goal and almost without money. He makes acquaintances on the ocean liner and on embarking in New York. He finds a girl and works full-time on the construction of Brooklyn bridge. At this time he came to a painful realization: He was ugly. This was, according to his autobiography, a sinister moment in his life, «but it only motivated me to greater achievements in the bedroom»

From New York Harris headed west toward Kansas where his older brother was already settled. In Kansas he became a cowboy on the great trek north. He was also a witness to the great fire that struck Chicago at this time. He believed that vaporized water added air to the flames, and consequently he did his utmost to prevent anyone from throwing water on the flames.

Student
After a short business career, Harris attended the University of Kansas. After finishing his law degree he works his way via San Francisco back to Europe to continue his studies in Germany. His social skills were modest, and he is expelled from the University of Heidelberg for beating up a student that bumped into him on the street. He finishes his studies at Gottingen and then returns to Ireland. There he finds a deaf and whitebearded father and his mother’s grave.

A year later Harris is in London. The center of the empire was alive with activity. Socialists were beginning to organize, unions were formed and the proletariat were challenging the aristocracy and the nouveau rich. Harris is transformed politically and becomes a member of Henry Hyndman’s Social Democratic Federation. However, due to disagreements, he leaves the organization. According to Hyndman, Harris was an eloquent speaker who passed through almost every political affiliation. London contained many of them, and was the center of the imperialist economic system. Harris was not only caught up in the political turbulence of the capital city, later, as a publisher, he was forced into an alliance with the new commercial interests.

Editor and society

Photo credit: wiki

The lawyer Frank Harris arrived in London with a recommendation from his old professor Byron Smith. He met Thomas Carlyle, who after half an hour, became so intimate that he confided his own impotence. Through Carlyle, Harris met Richard Sutton, the editor of The Spectator. Harris gained experience from The Spectator and The Fortnightly Review and became editor of the conservative newspaper London Evening News. The circulation plummeted and the paper was desperate. Harris cut the staff and promoted sensational celebrity gossip. He seduced the masses and the circulation exploded. Frank Harris, the tabloid journalist, was born out of gossip and innuendo.

A power struggle forced Harris to leave the editorship of the London Evening News, but now he had proven himself. From the 1880s he worked as editor of two of the most famous contemporary publications: The Fortnightly Review and the Saturday Review. He met all the celebrities, such as Karl Marx. «While Herbert Spencer was contemptuously angry when he was opposed, Marx was politely inattentive», Harris commented.

Harris built a career on gossip. In Contemporary Portraits, a series of 5 volumes, Harris continues his description of contemporary greats. He describes how famous personalities breaks wind at the dinner table, why Thomas Carlyle never had sex with his wife (according to Harris he was gay) and how a man like Randolph Churchill drifted into madness. On request, he passed his dirty stories on to the prince of Wales and he had a close relationship to princess Alice of Monaco. He ran for office for the Tories, but lost because he defended Charles Parnell who had been unfaithful to his wife.

Blackmail
Because of his tabloid journalism, Harris was often in trouble with the authorities. He bragged of the fact that he had blackmailed celebrities for money and that he had participated in orgies with 13 year olds. One of his siblings had died of consumption and Harris was convinced that such afflictions were hereditary. He thought that stomach aches were due to too little movement of the relevant muscles, and he developed a routine of daily exercises. When he over ate, he resorted to a stomach pump.

At the end of the century; Harris left journalism to become a writer. «Like mothers , we writers tend to judge our offspring by the pain the cause us,» he remarked, « and we worship them to compensate for a cruel world.» Even if he had made money on the private lives of others, Harris developed an ambiguous relationship with public life. When Oscar Wilde was jailed for “sodomy”, Harris advised him to leave the country. After 2 years Wilde was released from prison, and Harris was one of very few to still acknowledge him.

War and Exile
At the outbreak of WWI Harris fled his sanctuary in France. England had betrayed both him and Wilde, and America was the only option. In New York, he sided with Germany against England, and was labeled a German agent. Depressed and isolated life became a struggle for existence. «The truth is, I assume, that my vanity is as abnormal as my ambition». He failed as a novelist, but he was hungry for recognition. For a short period, he reaches his former glory as editor of Pearson’s Magazine. He begins a crusade against poverty and bourgeoisie hypocrisy. When Theodore Dreiser had one of his novels cut by the censors, Harris, who sees a similarity between Wilde, Jesus and himself, rushes to his defense. Society had forced Harris into a corner. The postal service refused to distribute his publications, and he faced the threat of legal sanction. He was on the verge of financial ruin, and he wanted to return to Europe.

Death and the moral
France was hardly an improvement. In the absence of publishers, he was forced to publish his own works. He begins his autobiography, a monstrous volume which he finishes over a period of several years. My Life and Loves had the subtitle «the most candid biography ever written». Everybody got what was coming to them. Harris opened the closet to expose skeletons and intimate details. He was declared persona non-grata in America. Bookshops in France, America and England were rushed and copies of his biography confiscated. Once he was even stopped in customs because his autobiography was considered pornography. Tired and abused he died in the arms of a nurse in 1931.

A few years after the publication of his autobiography, a reply was published in the form of the book The Lies and Libels of Frank Harris, penned by some injured parties from his dubious past. His ability to emphasise himself at the expense of others made him many enemies. The bourgeoisie choked on his many shameless descriptions of sexuality. At dinner with the social elite he produced witticisms in the style of «new cunt, new hope» George Bernard Shaw’s wife would not have anything to do with him and even faithful friends turned their backs to him.

In 5 volumes Harris portrayed himself as a hero who mastered life and conquered women. But the truth was obvious to everyone. Despite his photographic memory, Harris carefully selected his facts. He lied about his own past a cowboy, he exaggerated his own role as war correspondent in the Russian- Turkish war, he lied about how popular he was and how good he was in the sack. There was a vulnerability behind this total lack of irony. The roles he took on where as feigned as his new name, Frank Harris. The pauper, Thomas James from Galway, had turned his own life into a gossip column.

Michael Wynn