I have done a number of book signing and speaking events for Oscar’s Ghost, and invariably someone will tell me “I went to Oscar Wilde’s tomb in France.”
There was a little skirmish surrounding the sculpture that took place in Lord Alfred Douglas’s most litigious period. I had to leave it out of the book for space. It is tangential to the book I’m working on now as well, so having no book in which it quite fits, I will share it with you here.
Lord Alfred Douglas had been trying to get a picture of Wilde’s controversial tomb, the work of sculptor Jacob Epstein, for his book Oscar Wilde and Myself.
His innocent protestations to the contrary, as Robert Ross was behind it, Douglas undoubtedly meant to to show how inappropriate and immoral the monument was. Douglas had been successfully getting books banned and pulped, and Epstein did not want a noisy campaign against his work.
Douglas had the sculptor arrested for sending him a threatening letter which said, “If you attack my monument to ‘O.W.’ in any way derogatory to me in England I shall have you in the Courts. Should you disregard this warning I shall spoil the remains of your beauty double quick.”
Given the tone of the letter, and the fact that Douglas seems to have been stalking Ross at that very moment, the court appearance was surprisingly amicable. Epstein represented himself.
“Are you willing to be bound over?” asked the judge.
“What is that?” Epstein asked.
“That you undertake to pay the King any amount I may think fit that you conduct yourself and keep the peace. Will you undertake to pay £100 and to do that?”
“I will be satisfied with that.”
“What about costs?”
Douglas’s counsel said he believed they were entitled to costs.
“I wish to say that I only received the summons last night and I should like an adjourment until Monday,” Epstein said.
“Because of the question of costs?” asked the judge.
The judge turned to Douglas, “You will be satisfied if he is bound over?”
“Yes,” Douglas said. “There need be no trouble about costs.”
And so Epstein paid his fine and they went their separate ways.
I heard from an old friend today who I hadn’t talked to in a while. I remember having lots of great conversations with her, but then the old e-mail bounced and I couldn’t find a new one, and you get busy and, and, and…
If Arlo can write an 18 minute song, I can write a ridiculously long blog post. My apologies in advance. As a famous author once said “I didn’t have time to make it shorter.”
So it’s the end of an era. There was a large tranche of my life in which Arlo figured very prominently. I must have gone to two or three shows a year, maybe more. And in a year of loss, there’s a strange feeling to losing something that’s not really been a part of your life for a while because you get busy and, and, and…
So in writing this I hear Arlo laughing over my shoulder, “What’s any of this got to do with me.” It’s making me self-conscious as I write. Because I am well aware how subjective it is when you think about other people, especially musical people. Music creeps into your memory as part of its texture.
For example, one of the vivid Arlo-related memories is the 25th (I think it was 25th) anniversary Woodstock concert. It was one of those days that stands out as singular in my mind. I was there with my great friends Lynda and Will, hanging out in their van in the mud. Arlo’s performance was a highlight, though I couldn’t tell you much now about it. I remember the place, and the experience and the feeling of being part of something that was outside of everyday experience.
I was between worlds at that moment, I’d left my second radio job and was in the process of moving to Virginia for a third. On the first day of work at that job, I took some time to find a computer and type out my experience so I wouldn’t forget. I didn’t forget, but I lost the thing I wrote. It’s probably in a file in a drawer in storage somewhere. I hope it still exists at any rate. But even if I found it, it’s about my experience of something that involved Arlo. It meant a lot to me, but it’s not really about Arlo. It’s not one of those great stories that sums up who he is. It’s about me and my experience. (I guess that’s the only way I can talk about concerts.)
I’ve been feeling nostalgic. The writer in me instinctively wants to explore the feeling. But I want to talk about it, as much as I can, without getting all literary. It’s an occupational hazard. The technique starts to kick in, all that craft of story-telling built up over the years. I don’t want to be false. So I’m just going to try for first thoughts if you’ll humor me.
I’ve been thinking back to that past self, past selves even, who inhabited places and times where the folk singer was central. Those old selves are connected to me somehow. I remember them, but am not them.
I find that looking back on a past self is like watching children. You have experienced more than they have, but you have to let them make their own mistakes and find their own joys. You can’t judge them. Even if there were some way that your present self could go back tell them what you know, they wouldn’t listen. You really only get what you live.
So I’m looking back, cataloging some of the episodes that were filed in the recesses of my brain with the keyword “Arlo.” They span different eras of my life and different selves. My interest began with my first internship in radio. I wrote here before:
Interestingly, it was while working at 89X that I discovered Arlo Guthrie. The program director, for some reason, had decided to line up an interview with Arlo. I think she was, personally, a fan. The music director, who I was then working with, was on the air and he resented having to do the interview. He didn’t think it fit the format. His first question to the folksinger was “Our listeners probably don’t know who you are…” and it did not improve much from there. I was impressed, however, by the man on the other end of the line, his grace and humor and I wanted to know more.
I guess there is a bit more I could say about this. What I responded to, when I listened to Alice’s Restaurant, was the sense that this artist had created something that was all his own. My late father always used to paraphrase Robert Frost that the goal in life was “to unite avocation with vocation, as two eyes make one sight.” I thought that was what I was seeing. This mix of biography, and craft, the audacity of recording a song that had no chance of being played on the radio. There was a naturalness to it that I aspired to and felt I lacked.
I continued the narrative of my experience of Arlo in the next blog post, and I’ll repost that here as well:
I promised that I would continue my narrative with the music of my adult life. I realized that I have already written some of this, however, and so I give you this excerpt from the book Arlo, Alice and Anglicans. It discusses my first radio job after graduating from broadcast school:
Not long after, I got my own airshift at “your light rock, more music station KJF” in Cadillac, Michigan. At the time, the station’s format was AC/Gold, which meant that it played a combination of the innocuous hits of today with a generous helping of oldies. I worked at KJF at the end of an era. My co-workers and I actually cued up records. For those who are too young to remember, the word “record” is short for recording. It referred to black vinyl discs with grooved surfaces. Cuing a record involved putting the stylus in the groove, finding the very beginning of the sound and then spinning the record back a quarter turn, thus allowing the turntable to get up to speed before the music began. (When it was not up to speed you got an embarrassing swoosh into the song.)
Cuing records didn’t allow a D.J. a lot of time to sit around. Today, with automation technology, D.J.s are generally unnecessary. If there is an actual human being in the booth, the music is usually played by a computer. If you hear the announcer say, “We’ll be back after this 20 minute music marathon,” that actually means that, if there was a live announcer in the booth at all, she’s now going to go away and let the music marathon play from a computer while she does other things. Back in the cuing vinyl days, this was not the case. While the song played, an announcer was busy selecting the next record, cuing it up on the turn table and getting the commercials which were all recorded on individual cartridge tapes.
When I say “selecting the next record,” I don’t simply mean taking it out of its jacket. In those days, the music was not chosen with the aid of a computer program. Disc jockeys actually had some say in what we put on the air. The station manager did have a way of making sure we didn’t play the same songs over and over. We had what was called a clock hour. It was a pie chart, representing an hour, divided into three minute intervals. In each section was a color representing a category of music to be played in that time. Each song we played was written on the top of an index card. The cards were kept in the studio. When you played a song, you wrote the time and day on the card. You had to play music from the correct category at the correct time. As long as two other air shifts had played the specific song since you had, you could play it.
This method allowed D.J.s to do theme shows, take requests… and go to the bathroom. In every radio station I’ve ever seen, the bathroom is about as far as humanly possible from the air studio. Therefore, if nature called, a D.J. either had to be very quick or he had to play a very long song. If you ask a D.J. who worked at a rock station in the 1970s or early 80s, he can probably tell you the exact lengths of the long songs from memory. The longest song on our official play list was Don McLean’s “American Pie” at a wonderful, get a snack, 8:28. It was always the background music for studio emergencies. At KJF, we were always getting in trouble for playing certain songs more frequently than others. Our station manager believed we all loved Chicago’s “Beginnings” (7:41 with a full one minute drum fade at the end), The Beatles “Hey Jude” (7:02) and Al Stewart’s “The Year of the Cat” (7:38). They weren’t really our favorite songs, we just had to go to the bathroom, and those Dave Clark Five songs (1:51) were just useless.
In the 1970s, long songs were very popular. I believe this was the bathroom phenomena at work. After releasing a 6:26 song, a band would suddenly get lots of air play. When MTV came about in the 1980s, the VJs didn’t actually stand around and play the videos. They had all the time they needed to go to the bathroom, so short songs came back into style.
Of course, it was possible for an artist to carry the long thing a little too far. Even in the vinyl disc days of radio, it was difficult to drop in a song that was the length of the average sit-com. Such was the case with “Alice’s Restaurant.” Our station manager refused to have a copy of the 18 and a half minute record on the premises. It would have gotten what they call “saturation play” late at night while overnight D.J.s (another casualty of automation) took naps. There was, in fact, a whole mythology among DJs surrounding that song. Many announcers had colorful stories of things they had done during that 18 minutes. (Most of them were probably lies)
Despite it’s enduring popularity, “Alice’s Restaurant” was never a chart hit. Apparently, the record company couldn’t figure out how to release an 18 minute song on a radio-friendly 45 without having it fall off the edges of the disc. (An abbreviated version, Alice’s Rock & Roll Restaurant, made it to number 97 on the charts.) Once a year at Thanksgiving though, the KJF public wanted to hear nothing else. The story that Arlo Guthrie tells in “Alice’s Restaurant” begins on Thanksgiving. It is a tenuous connection to the holiday at best, the song has about as much to do with Thanksgiving as it has to do with, well, Alice. But as the marketing people would say, Arlo found a niche that was not being serviced. Can you name another rock and roll Thanksgiving song? Can you name another Thanksgiving song, period? That is why, once a year, members of the baby boom generation called KJF to request it.
One thing I failed to mention in this introduction is that listeners had this strange belief that radio stations had magical access to every recording ever made. When people called to request “Alice’s Restaurant” and I said we didn’t have it I meant we did not have it. The only Arlo Guthrie record we physically had in the studio was “City of New Orleans.” Callers, for some reason, found this hard to believe.
That is, of course, the story for public consumption.
Then there are the memories that can’t be unwound from the personal, and they have not been told, and most probably never will be. One of my first vivid “Arlo” memories has to do with a picture that I had cut from the back of a CD long box. Do you remember CD long boxes? For a brief moment, to make CDs fit in the space for LPs, they packaged albums in these disposable rectangular boxes with all the album art. It seemed wasteful to me, so I liked to cut them up and put my favorites on my refrigerator.
The picture to the right, from “Alice’s Restaurant,” was stuck to the fridge with a blue magnet in the shape of a frog, painted psychedelic colors. (The magnet, for some reason, really draws me back to that time.) But the image from the CD box is distorted in my memory because of how I looked at it, up from the floor, where I was lying with a phone cord stretched into the bedroom as I tried to get to the ex-boyfriend who was stalking me to understand I didn’t want him to call any more. That now-ancient history dominated every waking moment of my life for a time. Only the unplugged phone and an Arlo CD on repeat provided a respite. If I could have told that young woman she would not have believed it: Things that are all consuming in the moment can be almost forgotten years later.
I went to my first Arlo concert when I lived in Pennsylvania, working at my second radio job. It was the early era of the internet, and I also discovered a community that existed on message boards that you dialed into with Prodigy and later AOL.
I wrote a letter to the Rolling Blunder Review (Arlo’s entertaining newsletter) around this time asking why the “27 8×10 color glossy photos” in the movie of Alice’s Restaurant were in black and white. It got printed with a response, but Arlo couldn’t read my signature and I became L?L in that close-knit world.
And so I will continue, to quote from another old post here:
There was a period of my life when I was entirely Arlo immersed. That voice, his pauses, his relaxed comic delivery, lived in my mind in familiar phrases. I could share those catch-phrases with others in the greater Arlo community, which I assure you does exist and is quite as vibrant as I imagined it might be when I had hippie fantasies stoked by the film version of Alice’s Restaurant.
Incidentally, when you go to a lot of Arlo Guthrie concerts in the same year, you tend to hear the same stories repeated…
Arlo’s way of talkin’, the music of it, has found a permanent place in my thoughts and is probably a subconscious and generally unacknowledged influence on my writing…
I thought of The Garden Song and that moment when Arlo asks the crowd to sing along and then says, “Stop the song.” The audience is with him, but they are not enthusiastic enough. They’re happy to listen, but not yet ready to participate.
“Why should I sing along with that dingleberry folk song anyway?” In another version of this narration Arlo takes on the voice of an audience member and says, “I’m not going to sing that song because I hate gardens, and I hate songs about them.”…
II tried to imagine how I could use this tactic. (To sell books) “I’m not going to buy that book because I hate words, and I hate books filled with them…”
I tried to imagine how I could start from that spot, modulate the cadence, bring people along until there was a crescendo of enthusiasm, good feeling and support; take my audience from passively clicking like to clapping and singing out loud, telling their friends what a great story they have experienced.
Ah, but I’m not Arlo. Print is not verbal poetry. And I don’t play the guitar.
And at this point, the narration of my experience of Arlo becomes more difficult, because I did get to know him a little bit when I moved to New York on the Massachusetts border, but I find that I’m more comfortable still telling Arlo-adjacent stories rather than Arlo ones.
That part of my history started when I wrote a book about the old church that was the setting for Alice, and then became involved in The Guthrie Center, and had a part time job at Arlo’s office in the front where there was a shop called the Arlozone.
As I described it here before “This ranks up there with shopping mall Easter Bunny and professional mime as one of my oddest jobs. The job itself was not all that odd. I worked a cash register, rang up coffee, CD purchases and bowls of soup. What was odd is that I was working in a shop that sold Arlo Guthrie merchandise, cups of coffee and bowls of soup.”
I made a note at one point when I was working there: Most commonly heard question at Arlozone: “Does Arlo ever come in here?” And its variation: “Is Arlo here now?” Weirdest questions: “Did Arlo make the coffee? Did Arlo use the soap?”
A lot of little bits and pieces of that experience ended up in the novel Identity Theft. I tend to find that I need to draw on a real physical space to ground my writing. So some of the little details of the office are based on experience, although none of the characters in Identity Theft were based on anyone I knew. (Except maybe aspects of myself.)
To self-quote again: “The shop did not have huge traffic. So I had a lot of time to sit and think about writing. It was there that I started to imagine that a famous person’s office (and the mundane, every day tasks there) would make a good setting for fiction and to further imagine that a great dramatic conflict would be to have someone use his insider status to pose as a celebrity and wreak some kind of havok– what kind, and how it would play out I did not initially know.”
Most of my memories surrounding Arlo are joyous. They are social and involve community, the community of The Guthrie Center mostly. But also the community of fans who met up a few times a year at concerts. The nostalgia for those times at “The Church” listening to music, inventing programs (some that worked, some that didn’t) talking to people while ringing up a t-shirt in the Arlzone. It’s all intertwined now with a general nostalgia for face to face community. There is a quality to face to face interaction that can’t be replicated. There’s a sense of belonging that is built among people who are breathing the same air.
If I could time-machine myself back and do it again, and appreciate it more, and stress about life less, and do everything better I would. It’s one of those grand existential crises that you can really only laugh about. You live it first, you learn how you should have done it only when it’s too late to do anything about it.
So that’s the thing about Alice’s Restaurant, any number of songs, the musical riff contains that dysfunctional relationship with my ex-boyfriend, it contains my first radio job, and burning out on my last radio job. It contains the time I spent with some of my closest friends at an anniversary concert for Woodstock, the times I met Arlo face to face, and the communities that it connected me to. I can give glimpses, but I can’t share with you the shape of the emotions those memories evoke. I’m sure you have yours too.
I’ve been giving some thought to how many concerts Arlo Guthrie must have performed over his life, how many people attended each, and the memories and the feelings are exponential.
It’s too early to talk about something as grand as “legacy.” Arlo’s retirement message said he is giving up touring but he’s not going anywhere. So I think that my overall feeling is gratitude that we all have an opportunity to share what some of those moments meant to us while he’s still around. Right now while we’re thinking about it before we get busy and, and, and…
As I was going through some of what I wrote for Oscar’s Ghost as I research my follow up book (coming soon) I came across a bit that ended up on the cutting room floor. As it doesn’t fit into the next book either, I thought I’d share the snippet with you. It talks about some events that occurred in 1912 in the period after Lord Alfred Douglas read Arthur Ransome’s book on Oscar Wilde, discovered that De Profundis had been a letter to him, decided to sue, and received the unpublished parts of De Profundis as part of the discovery for his libel case. This segment came after that but before the trial itself.
Both the First Stone (Crosland’s attack on De Profundis) and Crosland’s Sonnets were published in time for Christmas, 1912. They were the first two books by a new publishing firm, John Richmond. The masculine name was a cover for a wealthy American socialite, Irene Osgood, recently and acrimoniously divorced from Robert Sherard, her third husband.
Osgood had rented offices over a Rolls-Royce showroom off Regent Street and created her own publishing house with one goal in mind– to disprove Sherard’s claim that he had been the real author of her books. Osgood had met Sherard in 1892 when she was married to a Colorado coal baron who had started a publishing firm “Cleveland Press” in order to put his wife’s books on the market. The Cleveland Press published one of Sherard’s anonymous novels. (He wrote fourteen novels in his lifetime, mostly mysteries, and mostly flops.) Sherard and Osgood may have had an affair at this time, and Sherard would later claim that he was the co-author of Osgood’s first, and most famous book, The Shadow of Desire. Thesensual autobiographical novel was published in 1893.
The Osgood marriage did not last, and Irene received a highly favorable settlement in her divorce. (He divorced her claiming desertion.) Her second husband, an English squire named Charles Pigott Harvey, died in 1904 leaving Osgood two-thirds of his estate which provided her with a small fortune of £12,000 a year and all of the independence and power that came with it.
Sherard, meanwhile, had been on a downward trajectory. After a successful expose, The White Slaves of England, published in 1897, his drinking made him unreliable. He was fired by The Bookman and The Author, was separated from his wife Marthe in 1901, and was living in the back of a dingy grocer’s shop. His fortunes improved somewhat in 1902 with the publication of the first Oscar Wilde biography, Oscar Wilde the Story of an Unhappy Friendship. A well-regarded book of memoirs, Twenty Years in Paris, followed in 1905.
After reading Twenty Years in Paris, Osgood got back in touch with Sherard. She hired him as her “literary secretary” and gave him £100 to divorce his wife. In 1906, he helped her revise her first book in nine years, To A Nun Confess’d. They married two years later in Paris. In the fighting surrounding their bitter divorce three years later, in spite of the fact that he was living off £250 a month in alimony from Osgood, Sherard would file a suit claiming that he authored all of his wife works from 1906 to 1910. He became misty-eyed on the stand over her attempts to gain custody of “the only friend he had” a cat named Gainsborough. The spectacular divorce was covered in the press with headlines like “Writer Sues Wife for MSS. And A Cat.”i
Sherard made the bold declaration that “Everything published by my wife under the name of Irene Osgood during the last five years, except the novel To a Nun Confess’d had been written by me. I, Robert Sherard, am Irene Osgood.”ii
It is worth noting that the one title for which Sherard did not take credit, To A Nun Confess’d, was the story of an unhappily married woman who writes confessional letters to a Catholic sister about her “struggle between love and honor.” The main character has fallen passionately in love with an Irish aesthetic playwright and poet by the name of “Mr. Savage,” a character clearly based on Oscar Wilde.iii
In order to refute Sherard’s claims, Osgood sought the help of Charles Sisley, who had published both To A Nun Confess’d and Servitude. She asked him if he had ever seen an original manuscript of Servitude in her own writing. He had not, but they discussed the idea of launching a publishing company so she could put out new works and prove she had the ability to write. She liked the idea and created a male persona to act as publisher to avoid any accusations of “vanity publishing.” Her next step was to find what Sisley called a “tame manager.” She found it in the person of T.W.H. Crosland. One of Osgood’s first acts as publisher was to put out a list of forthcoming John Richmond Limited books. In this, and every list the company every put out, Servitude was listed, although there is no evidence it was ever put out.
The next John Richmond project was a short-lived version of The Academy, called The Antidote. The magazine reunited the Crossland/Douglas editorial team. It was a modest production, sixteen pages, and existed primarily to make John Richmond seem like an established publisher. The Antidote ran no ads except for John Richmond’s forthcoming (or supposedly forthcoming) titles. It had a regular column of pithy sayings written by Irene Osgood, many containing barbed references to her ex-husband, for example, this reference to Sherard’s suit in 1911, in which he had cried on the stand, “A tearless woman scares the gods, a weeping man makes them laugh.” The Antidote carried on the Douglas-era Academy’s proud tradition of attacking everybody. Articles of interest include an unsigned article ridiculing Frank Harris for being a flatterer, a moralistic article by Crosland that attacked Arthur Symons, poet laureate John Masefield and the Jews, and an unsigned scolding of The English Review for publishing phallic verse through which “the mind of English youth is debauched and corrupted.”
In this iteration, Crosland seems to have taken on most of the editorial duties, with the alternately raging and suicidal Douglas focusing only on the main editorials and contributing poetry while Crosland did everything else. In a letter to Siegfried Sassoon, Crosland called The Antidote “my paper.”iv
I’ve had a lot of requests to share this talk that I did a couple of weeks ago.
I apologize that it was recorded in grid mode, so I’m not as central on the screen as I probably should be. I have uploaded it to Youtube for easier posting, but it is an unlisted link, which means it will not turn up in the search, but people who have the link can share it.
After I did the talk, I listened through and wrote down some things I wanted to expand upon before sharing it, but I then lost the notebook in which I wrote it. Not having the gumption to watch it all again, (I don’t love watching myself) I’ll have to leave it as it is.
There are a couple of things that I do remember I had wanted to share.
One has to do with the part involving T.W.H. Crosland and Maurice Schwabe, which comes in the second half somewhere. I mention Crosland visiting Maurice Schwabe’s flat. The actual details of those associations are actually a bit more complicated. Crosland didnt spend time at Schwabe’s flat, but he and the friend Bosie was hanging out with at Schwabe’s flat were spending time together and went on a vacation together where a lot of debauchery allegedly happened and Crosland was part of that trip. All of this is to be detailed one day in my forthcoming book on Maurice Schwabe. (Really, I keep promising, but it is on the way.)
In the second part, around the 27 minute mark, as I recall, I realized that I was a bit fuzzy on the details of the seemingly endless series of trials between our combatants. It is hard to keep all the details in one’s mind. When Oscar’s Ghost was still being put together, I wrote a primer on the trials with the idea that it would be an appendix. In the end, it wasn’t included. I don’t know if I have ever posted it here, but I thought it might clarify some of my wobbling in the middle.
The Wilde Trials
Oscar Wilde was famously ‘three times tried’. He filed the first action for criminal libel against Lord Alfred Douglas’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry. This backfired and led to two criminal prosecutions.
1. Regina vs. John Douglas (Marquess of Queensberry). March-April 1895.
In the preliminary hearing in the magistrates’ court, before R. M. Newton, Mr C. O. Humphreys appeared for Wilde and Sir George Lewis for Queensberry. In a further preliminary Lewis was replaced, because of a conflict of interest, with Edward Carson and Mr. Charles Frederick Gill. The libel trial was heard by Justice Richard Henn Collins with Sir Edward Clarke, Charles W. Mathews and Travers Humphreys acting for the prosecution (Wilde) and Edward Carson, C.F. Gill and A. E. Gill acting for the defendant (Queensberry). Wilde withdrew his case against Queensberry before all the evidence had been heard, supposeddly on a gentlemen’s agreement that if he did there would be no criminal prosecution.
2. Regina v. Oscar Wilde. April 1895.
Wilde was arrested for a violation of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 based on evidence Queensberry had collected for the libel case. Wilde was tried with a co-defendant, Alfred Taylor. They were charged with twenty-five counts of gross indecency, procuring and conspiracy to procure. Edward Clarke represented Wilde pro bono. Taylor was represented by Arthur Newton. (Lord Alfred Douglas contributed towards the costs of Taylor’s defense.) In the preliminary hearings C.F. Gill prosecuted. Travers Humphreys appeared for Wilde and Newton for Taylor. The Old Bailey trial opened on 22 April 1895 before Justice Arthur Charles. C.F. Gill and Horace Avory prosecuted. Edward Clarke, Charles Mathews and Travers Humphreys defended. The jury was not able to reach a verdict and the case was postponed until the next session. The Morning published what purported to be the actual results of jury vote. If their account is accurate, the jury was divided 10-2 on most questions, with the majority in favor of a guilty verdict.
3. Regina v. Oscar Wilde and Regina v. Alfred Taylor
Upon a joint application by counsel to the defendants Wilde and Taylor were tried separately before Justice Alfred Wills. The solicitor general Sir Frank Lockwood (uncle of Douglas and Wilde’s friend Maurice Salis-Schwabe) prosecuted with C.F. Gill and Horace Avory. Edward Clarke, Charles Mathews and Travers Humphreys again appeared for Wilde and J.P. Grain for Taylor. Taylor was tried first and was found guilty of gross indecency but acquitted of procuring as no evidence had been presented that Taylor took money for the introductions he made. Wilde’s trial followed and he was found guilty. Both defendants were sentenced to two years’ hard labor. J.P. Grain would go on to represent Wilde in his bankruptcy.
Lord Alfred Douglas and T.W. H. Crosland
In the early 20th Century Lord Alfred Douglas became associated with writer and notorious litigant T.W.H. Crosland and joined in his particular brand of sport. One of their many courtroom adventures is relevant to our story.
Henry Frederick Walpole Manners-Sutton v. T.W.H. Crosland December 1909-February 1910
The son of Viscount Canterbury (and later the next holder of that title) had been one of Lord Alfred Douglas’s best friends until he said he would only invest in Douglas and Crosland’s literary journal if Douglas agreed to take a pay cut. In retaliation, Crosland published a series of critical articles that hinted at Sutton’s identity. Sutton was reluctantly all but forced to sue for libel. Solicitor Arthur Newton (who had once acted for Sutton to extract him from an attempt at blackmail) initially acted for Crosland. After the preliminaries he stopped working for Crosland and testified for the prosecution (Sutton) in the trial. The case was heard before Sir F. A Bosanquet (whose nickname, coincidentally, was ‘Old Bosie’.) Marshall Hall, George Elliott and Storry Deans prosecuted. J.P. Valetta and Mr Rich defended. Crosland was found not guilty of libeling Sutton. Although it had no clear connection to the case at hand, Marshall Hall cross-examined Lord Alfred Douglas on his relationship with Oscar Wilde, giving him his first opportunity to tell his story on the stand. He interpreted the verdict as affirmation that he was an excellent witness. Robert Ross, who had fallen out with Douglas, was offended by what he read about the case. Particularly, he was offended by Douglas presenting himself as a reformed character. It was a catalyst that convinced him to ‘set the record straight’ about his former friend.
The Proxy Wars
Ross and Douglas sparred indirectly a number of times before they actually faced off in court.
Douglas v. Ransome and Others April 1913
Douglas sued author Arthur Ransome and the Times Book Club for writing and distributing respectively a biography called Oscar Wilde A Critical Study. This case was the hub around which the battle between Ross and Douglas turned. Ross had assisted Ransome with his biography and gave him select access to Wilde’s personal letters, including unpublished portions of De Profundis. Douglas was upset by the depiction of his role in Wilde’s downfall and sued for libel. Ross bankrolled the defense and provided personal letters that Douglas had written both to Oscar Wilde and to himself as evidence. The letters from Douglas to Ross were some of the most damning as they showed that Douglas was attracted to his own sex. Paradoxically, in a case where the actual libel was that Douglas had abandoned Wilde, the defense argued that a death bed message that Douglas had sent to Wilde through Ross, which contained the line “send him my undying love,” proved that Douglas had prevented Wilde from being reformed after he left prison, which made him responsible for Wilde’s downfall. (Note that this is different argument than the later understanding of Douglas as responsible for Wilde’s downfall because he involved him with rent boys. It was the fact that they were reunited, and continued to love each other in an “unnatural” way, that outraged the court.)
The trial was heard before Justice Charles Darling. Cecil Hayes acted for the plaintiff (Douglas). Hayes was a personal friend who had been a member of the Bar for less than two years. He probably worked pro bono. Ransome was represented by J.H. Capbell and H.A. McCardie. The Times Book Club by F.E. Smith. The jury found that the passage at issue was libelous, but also true. They also found that the Times Book Club had not been negligent in circulating it. Douglas filed an appeal, but was forced to withdraw it because he had been declared bankrupt and was unable to give security for the costs of the trial. Infuriated by what had happened in the case, Douglas and his friend Crosland began a campaign of libel against Robert Ross.
Ross v. Crosland April-June 1914
Following a long campaign of harassment, Ross finally went to court. He was well advised by Sir George Lewis not to file any libel actions that touched on the issue of his sexuality. Ross found an opportunity, however, to sue for conspiring to induce a witness to file a false police statement. (The witness was a young man who claimed to have been kissed and fondled by Ross.) Douglas was out of the country, so Ross filed his lawsuit against Crosland alone. It was clear that Crosland and Douglas were on a vendetta against Ross. But Ross had the misfortune of drawing Justice Horace Avory, who had acted for the prosecution in Wilde’s criminal trials. Not only was Avory prejudiced against anyone associated with Wilde, he had an apparent dislike of F.E. Smith who led the prosecution. Crosland was defended by Cecil Hayes, and supported financially by Douglas’s mother. At issue was whether or not Crosland believed the boy was lying. Crosland was found not guilty. Bolstered by his success, Crosland went on to sue Ross for wrongful prosecution. This time Crosland lost.
Ross and Douglas
Robert Ross and Lord Alfred Douglas only confronted each other directly in court once.
Rex v. Douglas November 1914
Robert Ross finally was harassed into charging Lord Alfred Douglas with criminal libel for pamphlets accusing him of gross indecency and blackmail. The case was heard by Justice Coleridge. Ross was represented by Ernest Wild and Eustace Fulton and the defense by Comyns Carr. The trial was turning against Ross, and both were running out of money. The solicitors negotiated a settlement in which Ross agreed to drop the charges and pay court costs, and Douglas agreed to stop libeling Ross. Douglas found a loophole and had a sporting publication publish a libelous article on Ross’s lover, Freddie Smith. The dossier of compromising letters that Ross had assembled for the defense in the Ransome case continued to haunt Douglas well after Ross’s death. It was used against him in legal proceedings until the early 1920s.
I wanted to take a moment to thank everyone who attended my Zoom talk on “Oscar’s Ghost” yesterday. It was fun, and I do plan to make the recording available when I’ve had chance to edit out some of the zoom awkwardness at the beginning.
In the meantime, I thought I would share this video highlighting an artifact from the trial at the heart of the story, the libel case between Lord Alfred Douglas and Arthur Ransome, which was more of a proxy battle between Douglas and Robert Ross.
This is the document from which the prosecution read in court. You will notice that on the first page of the typescript the salutation “Dear Bosie” is hand written. I believe that a typescript copy, sent to Douglas in discovery before the case, did not have this handwritten salutation.
Early on in the case, Douglas tried to deny that De Profundis was addressed to him. He only admitted it was when he saw the handwritten copy for the first time on the witness stand. He would only have done this if the document he had seen lacked the salutation. The lawyer for the Times Book Club even argued in his closing, based presumably on a similar copy of the typescript he had been given to prepare his case, that “Wilde in the De Profundis letter had not mentioned the plaintiff’s name.”
This video reflects the widely held belief that the reading of De Profundis caused Lord Alfred Douglas to lose his case. In fact, after taking up two days of the court’s time with it, the judge instructed the jury that it should not give it much weight. As I wrote in Oscar’s Ghost:
The reading of De Profundis, however, as dramatic as it was, did not cause him to lose his case. Justice Charles Darling, in his summation urged the jury not to take the prison letter at face value. He called it a “most remarkable and interesting document.” He said it should be taken as a study of what a bad man of genius had gone through in prison and its effect upon him. “It would be a great mistake to take all that he said as Gospel truth. The document was an excuse and an apology.” If De Profundis had been the only evidence, Douglas would probably have won the case. As we shall soon see, what swayed the judge, and caused him to direct the jury as he did, were damning personal letters provided by Robert Ross that proved beyond a doubt Douglas was guilty of the same crimes as Wilde. The defence team had strategically held back the letters, saving them as to use as rebuttal evidence in cross-examination. This meant that they did not have to include them in the initial plea of justification. In a statement for a later legal case, Ross would claim that he had produced the letters “under subpoena.” This is unlikely because if he had not made the decision to show them to the Ransome legal team, they would have had no way of knowing of their existence in the first place.
As the judge said in his summation, Douglas had been badly advised when he brought the case, but he had not known that these letters still existed until he was confronted with them in court. If he had known what was about to be unleashed on him, even the litigious Bosie might have thought twice about bringing the action.
The prosecution, financed and instructed by Ross, had used a carefully curated selection of letters to tell a story that Oscar Wilde came out of jail a reformed man only to be dragged back into a shameful life by Lord Alfred Douglas, who left him as soon as the money ran out.
I won’t go into the specifics of the letters here, and how well they represented the truth, but if you have an interest in that, it’s in the book.
Christopher Millard (Wilde bibliographer and editor of Three Times Tried) called Darling’s summation “a brilliant speech for the defence.”
Darling defended Ross’s decision to cut out the unpublished parts of De Profundis while publishing the rest.
The fact that the trustees of the British Museum agreed to take it proved that it was a valuable document. After bringing the case, Douglas could not now complain that the defence had produced De Profundis to show what Wilde’s view was of their relations. Nor, he said, could Douglas complain that his old letters had been produced. “He apparently did not know that those letters had been kept.”
It was on those letters that Darling put the greatest importance. He read one that Douglas had written to Wilde in 1899. The press declined to print it, but Darling described it as containing a “conversation which a decent pagan of the time of Pericles would not have referred to.”
Darling spoke of the attempts that had been made after Wilde’s release from prison “to enable him to redeem his past, and perhaps to still again become a great literary man if only he would give up his evil life. The plaintiff had referred to Oscar Wilde as a ‘devil incarnate.’ If it was true that Wilde was trying to lead a better life, what term might he not well apply to the man who had written that letter?”
He said that it had been proved that Lord Alfred Douglas was the subject of the text in Ransome’s book, and that De Profundis proved that Wilde did hold Douglas responsible for his downfall, and that further letters showed that he did believe Douglas behaved badly after he left prison and that Wilde feared his influence. His final thought before putting the case in the hands of the jury was devoted to De Profundis. “Oscar Wilde was writing this, and it is plain that he was writing it for his own glorification, whether it is true or not. That is quite plain.”
…It took the jury only 45 minutes to find that the words in Ransome’s book were libellous, but also true. They found that the Times Book Club was not negligent in making the book available. From then on there was no more talk of Wilde being driven to excess by “admirers” in the plural. Douglas was now the only suspect in Wilde’s ruin. The only question his supporters and detractors would fight over was just how culpable he was.
I’ve been thinking about that Matthew Arnold quote a lot lately.
Wandering between two worlds, one dead
The other powerless to be born,
With nowhere yet to rest my head
Like these, on earth I wait forlorn.
It is as though we got here via a bridge that collapsed behind us and we’re standing on a platform with the way forward obscured by heavy fog.
The support systems you would rely on when you’re going through a rough time are going through a rough time. Lots of great causes to donate to, lots of artist friends to support, lots of businesses you value that are stressed— and no money coming in. You just want to give everyone who is disrupted, anxious, depressed, broke, lonely, a hug. And you can’t.
If we were oblivious to it before we are not now. We do not exist in isolation. We are interdependent. We need each other. We need a deeper connection than a social media feed. How can we share what it is to be human while keeping a distance?
A couple of weeks ago our ballet master class tour ended, and we faced some challenges getting my partner Valery Lantratov back home to Moscow. When Russia closed its borders to Europe, but not yet to America, I scrambled to find a flight from Detroit to Moscow that was affordable and did not go through Europe. It’s not so easy to find a flight to Moscow from here that does not go through Europe. I found one from Chicago on Azerbijani Airlines that went through Baku, but this was less than ideal, and so we had to drive to New York where we could catch a direct Aeroflot flight. Things were changing quickly at that time, and long story short, we got him back home two days before JFK closed for all international passenger flights.
It was an emotionally draining experience. Being in the airport itself was a bit like being among the last two people in a horror movie who have not yet been taken over by the body snatchers. To send him off and to be left alone there was even more ominous, especially given the uncertainty of when he would be able to come back.
I sought refuge at the home of nearby friends. He is a musician, and his work had dried up a couple of weeks before. Because he makes his living from playing live he was not sure when he would have income again, and of course, he missed playing and being with people.
We came up with a system, using a cell phone, and a tripod, to put on a little live streaming show. We didn’t announce it in advance, not knowing if it would work. We thought a few friends might log in. What happened was quite amazing. About 50 people discovered the feed and logged in, and they posted requests, and thanks, and said it was just what they needed. A half hour later the video had been shared and more than a hundred had seen it. By the next morning it was 1,500.
For the duration of the show people felt connected, music and art have always done that. They share an essential aspect of what it is to be human across distance and time. To hear a familiar song, to know that others are experiencing it with you, is to remember that our culture connects us, that our humanity connects us, even when things around us seem to be falling apart. We are still us.
That’s why people are singing from their balconies, and dancing in the streets. We are still us. We still sing. We still dance.
The arguments we’ve been making for years for art tend to fall flat. The grant writers and the patrons of the arts ask for and give funding in spite of these arguments, not because of them. They are disingenuous. The people who make art don’t want you to support it because it helps downtown development. They don’t want to have music classes in schools because it improves math scores. They want art to be supported because art matters.
What we have learned this past month is that when the buying and selling stops we need to know that other people have felt what we do, and that it connects us. When everything else stops, we sing.
Here’s a song for the friends you’re thinking of who you can’t be with physically at this moment.
You rarely hear much these days about Donald Trump’s 1999 shot at the presidency as the candidate of the Reform Party. Because I enjoy going through old newspaper archives, I thought I would take a look back at commentary on Trump’s campaign (or was it really a PR campaign? The commentators were not sure) of 20 years ago.
Watching Desperate Romantics on Pluto recently I found myself wondering about our current era in arts. How do we approach art making and receiving in our age? Who would the “pre-Raphelites” be?
Each age has an idea about what art aims to do, and argues over it. Having a sense of the goal of art allows one to critique it, to recognize corruption, how it deviates from the ultimate expression of that goal.
Writing this I am reminded of a scene in the movie Dead Poet’s Society in which Robin Williams’ character John Keating has his students rip out the introduction to a book on poetry, which conflicts with his own philosophy of the purpose of literature.
The film came out when I was in college, and the perfect age to accept its message. It is an age in which your whole life is focused on finding yourself and your place in the world. One of the great challenges is to separate what you really think and feel from what you’ve been taught you should think and feel. And at this moment, Keating’s view that the purpose of art is to lead the viewer to greater self-discovery and self-expression made perfect sense. I cheered the liberation that came with tearing the introduction out of the “Pritchard text.”
A number of years later my father gave me a book that was nearly falling apart. My father was raised in a home that did not emphasize book learning, and after dropping out of high school, he enrolled in the Marines which gave him the opportunity to take the GED and use the G.I. Bill to go to college. The book, Sound and Sense by Laurence Perrine.This book, along with a supportive teacher, was the gateway that allowed my father to become a professional writer.
When I started reading Sound and Sense something about it sounded familiar “Once we have answered the question, What is the central purpose of the poem? we can consider another question, equally important to full understanding: By what means is that purpose achieved?”
After a bit of research I discovered that indeed Sound and Sense was the model for the hated “Pritchard” text in Dead Poet’s Society. Perrine warned against the “false approach” to literature that “always looks for a lesson, a moral, a bit of moral instruction.”
Today I believe Perrine/Pritchard were in the right. The way to judge the value (The film version of the book calls it “greatness”) of a work of art is to measure the result against its aims.
I also recognize that Keating won the day. Today, judging by the many writing blogs I’ve come across, we tend to talk about art as self-expression. We use the word “creativity” to refer to inspiration, not the hard work of making something out of that spark of inspiration. We’re most likely to critique art in terms of the moral instruction embedded within it. Art is affirmation, instruction and an illustration of how we should be in the world.
Arts movements are influenced by technological change. The invention of photography meant that a realistic image could be captured. This sparked Impressionism as artists tried to capture what a camera could not.
Our era is defined by the invention of ubiquitous computer technology and the interconnectedness that came with the internet.
I would argue that the biggest impact of this on literature is not that ebooks have changed the economics of publishing (although they have), but that the smartphone has fracutred our attention.
I recently went to the theater and during intermission, instead of sitting and talking about the first act, a large portion of the audience was checking their phones. Almost all experiences of art today are interrupted by the checking of Facebook and Twitter. There are pictures of friends, news headlines. Every experience becomes a mosaic or patchwork quilt.
At the same time, we edit out the pauses in some forms of entertainment. We watch an entire season of television in a week instead of over the course of a year with week-long breaks.
Creators can no longer count on their works being experienced in the form in which the artist envisioned them. Everything is remixed.
Books have always been enjoyed in isolation, and now, with streaming, you can enjoy music and theater the same way. You watch what you want, when you want, on a device that is always in your hand.
Yet, while we may experience these media in isolation, we do so with an awareness that we will be called on to act as critic, to give 4 stars or to post to a blog. We will have the opportunity to comment on the work and make that part of our public persona. That makes us self-conscious viewers.
How does the self-conscious audience and the self-conscious creator– aware of how the work might be star-rated and dissected–shape the current art movement?
My sense is that in the online environment, as we fight for attention and likes, and try to “build a platform” in order to have any chance of making a living, we are prodded to see ourselves more in competition for scarce resources than as a “brotherhood.”
It is common to say that the internet has made it possible for the first time for the audience to participate. Art used to be a one way street, the artist created and the viewer consumed. This is true only of the 20th century, when recording and broadcasting made it possible to reproduce and send works across space and time in one direction. For most of human history most art was participatory. People told stories by the fireside, they went to the theater in person, the popular songs were sheet music that you played at home, or songs that you sang at a party with friends. Artists existed in communities, which supported them and knew them.
What is different in our era is having participation by an audience with whom you have no personal or physical connection. Today an artist can put something out, and it will be built upon, commented upon, and so on, by people the artist has never and will likely never meet. Unlike mass communication it is participatory, unlike the older forms, it is not community oriented. This environment creates a multi-directional public pose.
It’s October 22, and being the anniversary of Lord Alfred Douglas’s birth, it is the traditional time to post about his awfulness. “Evil queen” and “a dick” are a couple of the memorials that flashed through my twitter feed today.
I have just finished watching the 2009 BBC 2 series Desperate Romantics, which is streaming for free on Pluto these days. Ten years down the line, I imagine the statute of limitations on spoilers is probably passed, but if you haven’t watched this yet, I’m letting you know that I’m going to talk about plot points from the end of the series.
Desperate Romantics is a fun (it is customary to say “racy”) modern-paced, boy band version of art history. Dante Gabriel Rossetti is the swaggering front man of the band. He gets all the attention and the women. John Everett Millais is “the cute one.” He’s the guy who can play six instruments well, can learn any instrument he picks up, he writes the tunes that bring the band to the attention of the hot critic of the moment. (Also he wears a fantastic purple coat.) William Holman Hunt is the drummer. They call him “Maniac.” Finally there is Fred. He’s the guy who loves music and musicians, and decides to be the manager.
As in any good VH-1 Behind the Music, we follow the band from its beginning as a brotherhood of struggling artists. Then life experiences and varying levels of success pulls them apart. At the end Millais is trying to get the band back together again but it seems the reunion tour is just not going to come together.
All three of the artists have amorous adventures with women that came into their lives as model/muses. Poor, loyal, Fred–the only one who is not paired up in the series– is the first to spot the aesthetically perfect milliner Lizzie Siddal. All of the artists fight for the chance to paint her, and Millais has the first success. But she is drawn to the bad boy Rossetti, who promises to bring her into the world of artists by teaching her to paint.
The drama centers more on love making than the art making. The only painting that is really dwelt upon is Millais’ Ophelia. It is used as a foreshadowing device, and Lizzie Siddal by the end of the tale, becomes Ophelia, driven mad by love of an inconstant man. This Ophelia drowns herself in laudanum.
Each episode begins with a disclaimer that historical liberties have been taken. Not knowing a great deal about the historical figures, my commentary will focus on how they were interpreted as television characters.
Millais is the marrying kind. He is serious and stable and blissful in his family life. Hunt is driven by an internal conflict between a religious desire to renounce the flesh and his lust for a woman of low birth. Rossetti is a selfish womanizer whose brief marriage to his co-muse is depicted as disastrous. The a-historical Fred is mostly there to narrate it all.
The passionate relationship between Rossetti and Siddal gets the most screen time and attention. Siddal is drawn to Rossetti because of his talent and because he can usher her into a new world. She has artistic ambitions of her own, and he helps her to realize them, in spite of his own occasional jealousy at her success as he struggles.
She worries that he will never marry her and give her security. His inability to commit is chalked up to his enjoying the chase and only wanting what he can’t have. Yet, after Siddal almost dies from an overdose, Rossetti reluctantly marries his great love. Rather than being happy ever after, it is the beginning of the end. For Siddal’s artistic mentor John Ruskin stops giving her financial support and tutoring after she is a married woman, and Rossetti is already flirting with his next model at the wedding. The distraught Siddal takes her own life.
Rossetti is crushed and vows to change his ways. He throws a book of poems that he wrote into her grave. In the last scene, however, he digs the grave up in order to retrieve them.
Thus the problem is cast as Rossetti, and by extension, Hunt, valuing art over relationships. The drama seems to come down firmly on the side of relationships over art. These men could not really love, and that is a tragedy.
In our culture, we tend to attribute characters’ actions to innate personality and character and we give much less weight to societal and external factors. Was Rossetti broken emotionally and Millais healthy or could there be another explanation for the successes and failures of their relationships?
All of the members of the brotherhood prioritized creating art. Rossetti had less commercial success. To prioritize art, for him, meant financial struggle and irregular income. (He is squatting in someone’s atrium for most of the story.) Millais had early, and continuing, commercial success. This allowed him to prioritize art while making the kind of comfortable living that would allow him to raise 13 children with the help of various servants. If Millais were squatting and only getting the occasional commission he might be as reluctant to marry as Rossetti. If Rossetti were rich he might have bought a palace for his muse, and even if he did have affairs, it might not have threatened her entire sense of safety.
It strikes me that while we do tend to chalk male character’s actions up to “character” we make more allowance for the effect of social forces on female characters. We’re quite ready to see female characters as being acted upon, in spite of their best efforts. Although Lizzie Siddal is a strong character, with talent and ambition in her own right, she is thwarted time and again by social forces. When she marries she becomes, in society’s eyes, a wife, and loses her external financial support for her art. Yet, she is not married to a man who can give her the traditional role of wife. He is reluctant to have children. He is powerless to support her career. He is not even able to stay focused on her when he finds a new muse model.
After her death the brotherhood sits with Rossetti and discusses the tragedy of his character, his inability to love what he can have. We’re not invited to question Siddal’s love for Rossetti. Does she also prioritize art over love? Is she attracted to Rossetti because she believes the only way to realize her art is to attach herself to this man?
Whether Siddal actually took her own life, or whether it was a tragic accident, has been much debated. The official report was accident, but Siddal as Ophelia is a much better story.
Watching this series got me to musing on what artistic period we’re living in today, and that will be the subject of a future post.