Forgotten Londoners: Frank Harris, editor, prisoner and pornographer

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 wrote My Life And Loves in 1922 when he was 68. It was partly about his career as an editor of the Evening News and Saturday Review in London, where he had championed critics like Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw, but it was mainly about sex.

Harris was a rumbustious character with a voice so deep that one of his many mistresses claimed ‘it made her sex open and shut’ when she heard it. His memoir was scandalously candid, and featured several photographs of naked women, to emphasise the point.

It was these – ‘too much for the English’, Harris later observed – as much as Harris’s candid discussion of sex (he was particularly keen on cunnilingus) that saw the New York Supreme Court rule the book ‘unquestionably obscure, lewd,
lascivious and indecent’ and it was banned in several countries and pretty much did for Harris as a serious writer and journalist thereafter.

It had been a turbulent career. Harris was born in Ireland, educated in Wales and after a series of adventures in America, settled in London in 1882, where he talked his way into newspapers. His greatest triumphs were at the Saturday Review, the London paper he edited in the 1890s, publishing criticism by HG Wells, Shaw and Wilde and gaining a reputation for being unreliably unspoken and outrageously opinionated for a man of his position. He later wrote a biography of Wilde, who surely would have agreed with Harris’s insistence that ‘Modesty is a figleaf for mediocrity’.

As George Bernard Shaw said, ‘He blazed through London like a comet, leaving a trail of deeply annoyed persons behind him.’ Harris was briefly adopted as a Conservative candidate for South Hackney, resigning after he defended Charles Parnell during an adultery scandal. He also defended Wilde during his trial, and suggested he flee the country while out on bail, and took the side of the Boers during the Boer War. 

Years later, Harris looked back on his time as editor with satisfaction. He believed in positive criticism, not handing out brickbats and instructed his critics to celebrate, rather than denigrate. “When I was editor of the Saturday Review,’ he said ‘with the greatest assembly of literary men in history, I had a policy and I believed in sticking to it. There was Shaw and Wells and Rowe and oh, everybody else. I called a dinner and I said: “Gentlemen, it has come to my attention that people have started to call it the Saturday Reviler. Well, this sort of thing doesn’t get us any place. Hereafter the Saturday Review is going to try to find stars, and if it can’t find stars, it won’t merely hurl bricks. What good does it do? Insults, raps, knocks! Mainly lies. Nobody’ll remember them in fifty years. If we can’t do something constructive,” I said, “we won’t do anything.” Well, it worked.’

By 1913, Harris was editing a magazine called Modern Society and was charged with prejudicing a trial after publishing an ongoing divorce case.  ‘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 did it. Harris refused to apologise publicly and was sent to Brixton Prison for contempt. The cartoonist Max Beerbohm visited Harris in Brixton and drew a cartoon, ‘To the best talker in London – from one of his best listeners’. Prints were made and posted all over London in a bid to raise public awareness with the message: ‘This is the man that was sent to prison.’

Harris was released after three months, complaining afterwards that ‘what I suffered most from in prison was lack of books’. Shortly after his release he left London and never lived there again. He died in Nice in 1931.

Max Beerbohm's cartoon of Frank Harris

For more on Harris, visit this excellent Odd Books website.

8 responses to “Forgotten Londoners: Frank Harris, editor, prisoner and pornographer

  1. Pingback: Extra, Extra | Londonist

  2. Roger Stuart

    Frank Harris was a self-serving liar and contributed to the ruin of Oscar Wilde. Read Robert Sherard’s last book

  3. Pingback: Mr Selfridge newspaper editor is based on Frank Harris | Sheela-na-Gig aka Jeanne Rathbone

  4. Pingback: Beginnings – Odyssey of A Liberal – Freda Utley Ch. 2 | Caotica

  5. john patrick green

    his version of his time in a public school seem to have been taken from Tom Brown Schooldays and made me very suspicious of the rest of his life story

  6. Never heard of him….until one day a long lost cousin in New York got in touch via Facebook, telling me how her great grandad who was my granddads uncle Charlie lived with Frank Harris in New York during the early C20th. Another famous man also lived in the same household at the same time…Fiorello H. La Guardia, the 99th Mayor of New York. Random stuff.

  7. jerusalemmortimer

    My impression from biographies is that Frank Harris wasn’t all that much of a liar. In “My Life and Loves” he changed the names of women, some details of appearance, and often the year in which the relationship happened. Which, I’m afraid, is the act of a gentleman.

    But every report by people who knew him make it clear that he didn’t have to exaggerate the extent of his sexual adventures.

    The other kind of “lie” you’ll find in “My Life and loves” is exaggeration of some of the non-sexual incidents and conversations to make them more dramatic or interesting. I don’t know about most people, but I find this pretty human, and forgivable.

    Often bits of his autobiography have been rubbished by people who haven’t done the work. For example, he says he worked on the building of the Golden Gate bridge. Rubbish, said assorted critics. Until the record of a fall and injury by one Frank Harris was found in the Golden Gate construction job paperwork. The fact is, he really did get around. Did he ride the trail with Buffalo Bill, for example? Yep, he did.

    Similarly, his circle of acquaintance when he was in London now seems astonishing, but you have to remember two things. 1. He was one of the most famous men in London at the time, and 2. London was much smaller then. The astonishing talents of Victorian and Edwardian London did tend to know each other and hang out together.

    As for the claim that he contributed to Wilde’s downfall, this is simple and utter nonsense. He advised Wilde against suing the Marquis of Queensbury. When Wilde withdrew his legal action, Harris warned him he’d be arrested within days, and arranged a yacht to take Wilde to Paris, to stay away until it blew over.

    He was one of the few who didn’t desert Wilde after his imprisonment, visiting, urging the authorities to treat him more gently, and giving him money after Wilde’s release.

    As Wilde said when he dedicated “An Ideal Husband” to Frank Harris, Harris was a true and faithful friend.

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