I'm the author of the novel Angel and a dozen other books on topics ranging from Elvis Impersonation to the science behind annoying things.
The San Francisco Chronicle said, "Lee's dry, humorous tone makes her a charming companion… She has a penchant for wordplay that is irresistible."
When I am between projects, I often read poetry and dip into surrealism in order to spark something new. I was reading a book of surrealist games. The surrealist movement was an answer to the tyranny of the rational, a quest to unleash the power of the unconscious in art making. The exercises in the book were designed to throw a random element into writing and to create odd juxtapositions. It occurred to me that what is different now than the 1920s and 1930s is that we do not need to go out of our way to encounter bizarre juxtapositions. We encounter them every day in our social media feeds. We are awash in unrelations. Basketball has nothing to do with genocide, and yet there they are beside one another in the Twitter feed and that is normal and you scroll on, movie reviews and calls for papers, and a clipping from a 1910 newspaper and a picture of a kitten…
It is all surreal. This is our reading culture. Everything is Lobster Telephone.
But the juxtapositions of Tik Tok or Twitter do not invite contemplation. Dali’s Lobster Telephone asks you to stop and engage because it’s odd. Twitter asks you not to stop looking, There is nothing surprising or startling about unrelated things coming together because the environment feeds this up constantly, unrelentingly. It is all distraction and no anchor. There is no separate lobster and telephone to begin with.
To me, social media feels like a slot machine where you keep pulling the handle waiting for a prize to come up. The prize, if you can find it, is something that you can comment upon, because the platform is fundamentally about expressing yourself, commenting. The deluge keeps coming, the trends go by faster and faster. To be part of the conversation you need to post before the moment is gone.
Entertainment and news blend. Human beings become metaphors. It is all part of the show. Back in 2019, I wrote a post asking what we should call this era in our artistic culture. “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?” I didn’t come up with a name for this era. Today I was wondering what the art that reacts against this would look like? When everything is lobster telephone, what is the artistic corrective?
That would be the opposite of this present moment.
You would have to leave your phone outside and sign a non-disclosure. You would promise that you would not speak to anyone about what you saw inside. No social media posts. No reviews. You would have to experience it without comment of any kind.
How would it feel to experience art that you knew you would not tell anyone about? How would the artist approach it having no element of “platform building” or “branding” or “exposure?”
Ars gratia artis (the motto of MGM, the little art film outlet behind Terminator and Indiana Jones.)
It’s hard to imagine.
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A number of years ago I was ready to board an airplane. I had done my share of traveling, and I anticipated the gate clerk’s questions. I set my bag on the scale and announced: “I packed my bags myself. No one unknown to me has given me anything to take on board the flight.”
The clerk paused then said, “I have to ask you anyway. Did you pack your bags yourself?”
Of course, it was all I could do to keep from answering, “No.”
Recently, when the federal government revamped airport security they realized that the questions they’d been asking for years were not really going to root out terrorists. The obvious reason? A person who actually intends to blow up an airplane is not going to tell you so just because you ask. Liars lie.
This brings me to a flaw in our legal system that has recently come to my attention. The people who designed the system were probably the same ones who set up airport security. They forgot that liars lie. When someone takes the stand, they test his veracity by asking, “Do you promise to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?” You and I both know that a liar will answer “I do.”
I’ve been watching the drama of George Santos and wondering why his brand of dishonesty is so entertaining and funny. Santos seems to have done some shady things, and is clearly dishonest to his core, naturally, unthinkingly dishonest. He is a bit like an AI chatbot or Woody Allen’s “Zelig,” taking on the characteristics of whoever he speaks to. He is like an improvisational comedian, taking a premise and running with it. “Yes, and…” is how improv comics refer to it. “Did you go to this college?” asks the first speaker, and the improviser replies, “Yes, and I was on the volleyball team, and I injured my knees, and they still bother me, like last year when I ran the Boston Marathon.”
Santos is probably too young to remember Jon Lovitz’s Tommy Flanagan, the pathological liar. Anyone who did remember drew comparisons immediately.
So of course Lovitz had to play Santos. After the comedian took on the role on The Tonight Show, Santos took to Twitter to criticize the performance. No one, apparently, thought to advise him not to pick a fight with someone whose actual profession is to come up with quick witted comebacks. “Thanks the review and advice!” Lovitz tweeted. “You’re right! I do need to step my game up! My pathological liar character can’t hold a candle to you!”
So I’ve been reflecting on why Lovtiz’s pathological liar was such a successful character to begin with and why the late night comedians are having so much fun with this particular fabulist. What I think makes Lovitz and Santos funny is not that they are liars, but that they are bad liars.
George Santos is like the kid with crumbs all over his face who says he has no idea what happened to the cookies.
Some of the criminals that I wrote about in Wilde Nights & Robber Barons produced the same sort of mirth when they were finally caught and brought to trial for fraud. When the man calling himself Etienne de Buies was asked why he had so many aliases (Steffan Bujas, Joseph Bujos, Stephan Buies, Baron Lucas, Etienne Bontze, Bnoyne, Bnys, Berg, Jean de Vreaux and Rosovsky) he claimed that it was a question of poor handwriting and politeness. When he signed in at hotels, his writing was so illegible that clerks often got it wrong, and he was too polite to correct them. This was not a lie meant to persuade anyone. It is a lie that winks at you. It says, “We both know this is not true, but I’m hoping you find me sufficiently charming that you’ll play along.” The lie asks you to join the conspiracy, to join in the fun.
And it is fun, isn’t it, to play pretend? Why should we all have to maintain these consistent identities? Why should we have to be the same person from one conversation to the next?
In my 2015 novel, Identity Theft, the character Candi meets a woman in a mental hospital who has the delusion that she is John the Baptist. This causes Candi to reflect on identity.
Most people have a sense of self that comes from inside and they project it out into the world, at least that is how Candi had always conceived of it. John had gone looking for herself out in the world. She read the Bible and discovered John the Baptist and said, “There I am. That is me.” It was like shopping for a self off the rack. Did she feel a sense of relief that she’d been reunited with her long-lost identity? Was it like Peter Pan looking for his lost shadow? How did it work? Of course, John was in no position to answer these questions.
…If they were willing to give her a social security number under that name John the Baptist and people called her John and lined up for Baptisms at a river– if they gave her a Ms. John Baptist driver’s license and everything else was exactly the same– she wouldn’t be here. Would she? If we agreed to let her be who she called herself then she would be John the Baptist. So maybe we have the problem.
A social identity is not just what you project into the world, it is an agreement between you and the world. You have a history and you can change, but only so much. You cannot declare yourself a Baron, because otherwise how would we know who to treat with deference? We can’t treat everyone like someone of importance, what would the world be like?
Eventually the novelty of George Santos’ mendacity will wear off, and hopefully he’ll leave the stage like an SNL cast member whose bit got stale. In the meantime, enjoy.
One of the strange things about researching someone who lived a century ago is that sometimes the very things they worked hardest to keep secret in life have become known, while at the same time, that which would have been easy for his contemporaries to find out has become forever opaque.
In 2023, I know for a fact that Maurice Schwabe, the oldest son of a highly respected general from a wealthy industrial family, was guilty of the then-crime of gross indecency with other male persons, that he was part of an international band of card sharps and confidence tricksters, and that his expensive Buckingham Gate and Park Lane flats were the sites of orgies of a scandalous character, where gentlemen with certain tastes enjoyed illicit entertainment, and their secrets were catalogued for future leverage.
Police and courts keep records. Friends do not.
What I don’t know much about is what Schwabe thought about his life or his actions, how his friends in the Wilde circle viewed him, or what it was like to spend an evening with him. Lord Alfred Douglas, who we now know wrote love letters to Schwabe and visited him throughout his life, was not especially forthcoming about the friendship in his day.
Unlike many members of the Wilde circle, who were themselves writers, Schwabe did not leave any autobiographies or a large cache of his correspondence in an archive. There seems to have been a ritual among the men of Wilde’s circle of burning private letters on a man’s death bed in order to protect their secrets. Robert Ross sat by Wilde’s deathbed burning letters. Lord Alfred Douglas burned most of his letters and papers during his final illness.
As Schwabe’s biographer, I wished many times that I could have phoned up Robert Ross and asked him what a curious reference to Schwabe in a letter to Christopher Millard meant. (Also, if I had a time machine, I would ask Ross to perhaps dictate his letters instead of writing them himself, sparing future historians hours of squinting at mystifying handwriting. Thankfully Lord Alfred Douglas had good penmanship.)
Some of the few glimpses of Schwabe’s personality come from Rupert Croft-Cooke. Croft-Cooke wrote a number of biographies of Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred in the late 1960s after all of the direct witnesses were dead. Because of this, he was the first who was able to deal with Wilde’s sex life in a forthright way. He was also the first to write Maurice Schwabe back into the story. Croft-Cooke was of the next generation, and did not know Schwabe personally, but he did know Lord Alfred Douglas late in his life, although much of his information on Schwabe, I learned in the course of writing Wilde Nights & Robber Barons, came from one of Schwabe’s likely partners in crime, a man who became Joseph Dean of Dean’s Bar in Tangier. He knew Schwabe in 1910, and described him as a “fat talkative queen with glasses and a pronounced giggle.”
Overall, Croft-Cooke is catty and dismissive towards Schwabe, calling him “rotund,” and suggesting he was not very smart. (He also described music hall actor and sex worker Fred Atkins, pictured here, as “tubby.”) In spite of his supposed rotundness, he was “quick-moving” and “talkative” and he “shared Wilde’s uninhibited enthusiasm for the lower orders.”
Schwabe made the introduction between Oscar Wilde and Alfred Taylor, who Croft-Cooke describes as an “empty-headed invert.” Croft-Cooke presented Schwabe as being more socially respectable than Taylor, falling somewhere between Taylor and Ross on the scale. This sheen of greater respectability, however, may have appeared in retrospect. Both Schwabe and Taylor were from similar wealthy, industrial backgrounds. They went to some of the same schools. (In different years) The idea that there was something undignified about Taylor may have been the result of his standing trial with Wilde and being vilified in the press for years.
Croft-Cooke was critical of both Schwabe and Taylor who he thought were “mercenary sycophants” who provided Wilde with “cheap adulation” that allowed him to imagine that his bad behavior was a bold statement of individualism rather than self-indulgence.
There was a hint in Croft-Cooke’s writing that he knew more about Schwabe than he put into print. “Schwabe had been sent abroad before the trials,” Croft-Cooke wrote, “and it is scarcely yet realized what a large part he played in Wilde’s ruin…”
Rupert Croft-Cooke became a Moroccan exile after his own arrest for gross indecency in the 1950s. He was in Tangier when he wrote his three books on Lord Alfred Douglas and Oscar Wilde and he spent time in Dean’s Bar. Croft-Cooke’s note that Schwabe “had many stories about Wilde with which he entertained the Edwardians” suggests that Dean was the recipient of many of these tales and passed them along to the author.
Croft-Cooke was a prolific author under his own name and the pseudonym Leo Bruce. He was able to support himself with writing only by producing books at a furious pace. Noel Coward, who knew Croft-Cooke in Tangier in 1960, noted he “never stops writing books, thrillers, novels and autobiographies, and I came away with a small library. He writes well, I think, but obviously neither well nor badly enough because he apparently doesn’t make much money.” (I must say that I have always identified with Croft-Cooke, being a struggling mid-level author myself.)
He was an equally prolific letter writer. I have always suspected that somewhere in his correspondence there is a bit more about Maurice Schwabe. Unfortunately, to find it would be like searching for a needle in a haystack (or some other less cliched metaphor). There are three main repositories of Croft-Cooke’s papers, both very far from me in Michigan. One is the Harry Ransome Center in Texas. It has 103 document boxes full. There are also more modest caches at the University of Exeter and Washington State University. An archivist there was generous enough to take a look through the materials to see if the name Schwabe popped up, but it did not. Given the difficulty of traveling to Texas on a hunch, I asked the archivist if he knew of any Croft-Crooke scholars who might be familiar with the materials. “No one comes to mind,” he wrote. “If memory serves, you are the first researcher to contact us about the Croft-Cooke collections, and no one in WSU’s English department currently works on Wilde and his acquaintances.”
I feel certain that somewhere, uncatalogued in an archive, or in someone’s attic, there are letters that would reveal more about Schwabe’s sense of humor, his charm, the people he loved and the people he hurt. Maybe some day time will reveal them. Maybe not.
If you would like a copy of Wilde Nights & Robber Barons you may follow this link to read more about it and to purchase directly from the author. All books from me come with an Oscar Wilde bookmark and an author signature. (Because of the expense of sending books to the UK, these are only available in the U.S.) The book is also available through Amazon and if you have Kindle Unlimited you can read it free as part of your subscription.
I finally got around to watching the movie Christopher and His Kind. Christopher Isherwood’s autobiographical account of his time in Berlin features Gerald Hamilton, who is a character in Wilde Nights & Robber Barons, and I felt that I ought to see it. So it has sat there in my watch list for ages like unfinished homework. It was worth seeing in the end. The story is familiar if you have seen the musical Cabaret. It is more or less the story of the real life inspirations for Isherwood’s Berlin Stories. (Although some of featured friends were reportedly less than thrilled with their literary depictions.)
Watching Christopher led me to re-watching Cabaret, which led me to Youtube videos about the production. In this video Joel Grey, the original MC, discusses his creation of the role and his opinion of Alan Cumming’s interpretation.
What gave me pause for thought in this interview was the part where Grey expresses his frustration that the newer production was said to be more daring and risque than the original.
It reminded me of a quote from Montagu Pyke, the king of early cinema in Britain. (He was a business partner of Maurice Schwabe’s for a time.) Pyke wrote, “If the nineties were ‘naughty’ the Edwardian era was a worthy successor to the nineties. The young moderns think they know how to live today, but I don’t think they could have taught the young men and women of those days anything; rather the contrary. I know of wild midnight parties and scandalous orgies among the best people of several lands, and I hardly think these have their counterpart today.”
It seems there is a constant tendency to view previous generations as more innocent. Yet the decadent, the unsanctioned, the promiscuous and the underground have always existed.
As I wrote in the introduction to my book, “The period in which Maurice Schwabe lived, from 1871-1915, exists in the popular imagination as an innocent age. On closer inspection, that buttoned-up era was a time of rebelliousness, ambition, corruption, religious and sexual experimentation and political machinations.” In other words, it was just like every other era.
.Why is it, then, that the past can seem so, well, sexless?
I have a couple of theories. One is that parents and other adults are authority figures to young people. Generally, they hide their youthful indiscretions from the next generation. They are destined to move from being rebels to being the people the young rebel against. The parent’s generation is bound to be viewed to some degree as old fashioned, dull, moralistic and their time, by extension becomes a more innocent age.
Another possibility is that to be daring you must be shocking. Any art or culture that is successful becomes familiar and by definition what is familiar is not shocking. The counter culture of one time becomes the oldies radio and high school musicals of the next. Two years after the musical Hair caused a stir with its on stage nudity, obscene language and trippy acknowledgement of drug culture, the epitome of family friendly bands, the Cowsills had a hit with the musical’s title song. Cabaret was such a cultural phenomenon that it brought Joel Grey onto the set of The Muppet Show. (By the way, have you seen Jim Henson’s surreal 1965 short film Time Piece?)
As I think about Cabaret, however, it strikes me that there is something unique about it. Its story expresses nostalgia for a less innocent era. The world it depicts is one that might not, in reality, be comfortable to many members of the Broadway audience. Yet the sense that they are bearing witness to a world that is on the verge of being destroyed imbues the Kit Cat Club with nostalgia for a different sort of innocence, the innocence of people who cannot yet see the future we know is coming, innocence of impending disaster. (A bit like when Facebook reminds you of a picture taken with your arms around a bunch of your friends at a party in January 2020.)
There is, in fact, a type of wild and wicked innocence– the innocence that leads a young person to experiment with life, sample the forbidden, with a naive confidence that the cost of any rebelliousness or vice can only be small. “When we mocked grief and held disaster cheap,” as Lord Alfred Douglas, who knew whereof he spoke, put it in a sonnet. (George Bernard Shaw described a particular quality Douglas possessed as “blazing boyishness.” I have always liked that description.) In the 1990s, The Verve Pipe called back to this form of innocence in the song “The Freshmen,” “For the life of me I cannot remember/ What made us think that we were wise and we’d never compromise.”
When Walter Pater’s Renaissance was published in 1873, the Bishop of Oxford attacked it for its neo-paganism and hedonism. Renaissance sparked the imagination of a young Oscar Wilde. Years later, he called it “that book which has had such a strange influence over my life.” The controversial Conclusion had such an impact on Wilde that he commanded it to memory. But there was such a backlash that Pater left it out of the second edition in case it be “misunderstood.” The phrase that particularly piqued Wilde’s youthful imagination was “To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.”
The flame of the forbidden and the hidden, the wild and the decadent continues to burn in all its luminous glory with each generation. There is always a moral campaign against it. When it gets too strong and temporarily silences those impulses, we are all poorer for it.
In November 1912, a reporter for John Bull arrived at a flat on 18 Pelham Street in London. He had received a tip that a party of a scandalous character was to take place there. The motives of John Bull‘s publisher, Horatio Bottomley, went beyond journalistic curiosity. Like many publishers of the day, Bottomley leveraged the power of his publication, charging the well-to-do a fee to insert favorable stories and pressuring others to pay to keep ruinous revelations under wraps.
At the time, the poet and occultist Alesiter Crowley was starting to get attention for staging mystic ceremonies called the “Rites of Eleusis,” which a number of popular newspapers sent journalists to review. A magazine called The Bystander printed photos of one of Crowley’s ceremonies. Another magazine, The Sketch, described a room transformed into an incense-scented temple to the Greek gods, where participants in black robes performed rituals with swords. The Sketch found it “weird and impressive.” They printed a full-page illustration of a ritual ceremony.
John Bull found the Rites of Eleusis troubling and they had received a tip that something even more perverse was happening on Pelham Street. The Rites of Eleusis involved ladies and gentlemen, these parties involved only men, men who worshiped Oscar Wilde as a fallen martyr and who combined occult practices with eroticism of an unmentionable kind. Many of the young men who attended were part of the circle of Bohemian artists who revolved around Robert Ross including the son of a wealthy international merchant. Gerald Souter had just come of age and inherited a fortune and was quickly befriended by Maurice Schwabe. It is highly unlikely that these two events, and Souter falling into a blackmail trap were entirely unrelated.
The reporter described what he saw. Guests would enter on the ground floor to a room decorated entirely in mauve. All of the curtains, the wallpaper and the decorations were mauve. There was a hanging incense burner, suspended from a figure of Christ with outstretched arms. A photograph of Oscar Wilde, which one observer described as “life sized” stood on a desk near a bookcase. There were also nude figures, both male and female. Up a narrow flight of stairs was the centerpiece of the flat, two adjoining rooms decorated entirely in black from the wallpaper, to the curtains to the lampshades. The furniture also was upholstered entirely in black. There was another hanging incense burner, also suspended from a statue of Christ. On the black-draped mantelpiece there was another photo of Oscar Wilde, this one encircled by plaster angels posed as if in supplication. In front of this was a low settee in black velvet. There were several mirrors, which reached from the floor to the ceiling, supported on each side by female figures in flowing muslin. Another “striking object” in the center of the room was a statue of a nude Black man. More striking still was the black coffin, lined in velvet, in which were laid a human skull and a figure of Christ.
The reporter was, to put it in modern terms, freaked out. “I hastily made my way into the street, nearly knocking over two effeminate young men who were at the door.”
The resulting article named one of the guests at the party, a baronet named Sir Frederick Williams. The article concluded that it was not necessary to comment on Sir Frederick Williams’ abnormal tastes. “Nor do we to-day say anything about the character of his associates.” The word “to-day” would not have gone unnoticed by any of the guests at the ball, suggesting, as it did, that further articles on the associates would be forthcoming. It is highly probable that someone with ties back to Maurice Schwabe was offering to help young Gerald from being named for a sizeable fee. He must not have paid, for John Bull went on to name him and continued to harass him and Williams even after they fled to the continent.
Gerald Souter would try to escape scrutiny by changing his name to Gerald Hamilton. Following the exposure of the goings-on at the Pelham Street Flat, Hamilton started to do business with Maurice Schwabe and his criminal associate Rudolf Stallmann aka Baron von Koenig.Having been thus roped in, Hamilton became a valuable member of the criminal organization.
Hamilton’s sexuality had made him vulnerable to bullying in school, to disapproval from his father, and then to blackmail and abuse. He was arrested twice, first for gross indecency after being caught in a compromising position with some soldiers on leave, and then held again under the Defense of the Realm Act. Film maker Brian Desmond Hurst, who knew Hamilton later in life, suspected that much of Hamilton’s bravado disguised the fact that he had “suffered terribly” and had been “greatly humiliated” in prison.
Hamilton re-invented himself as a wicked and dangerous criminal. He created a fictional backstory that was romantic and glamorous and covered up his shame. Christopher Isherwood would one day describe him as “so polished and gross and charming and hideous”, and the way he rolled his eyes like something in a horror film: “it’s almost as terrific as the picture of Dorian Gray.” He became notorious, known as the wickedest man alive. The Spectator summed him up as Britain’s pre-eminent bounder.
In the 1930s he would lodge with Aleister Crowley in Berlin and would become the wicked model for a character by Isherwood. It is generally believed that this was when Crowley and Gerald Hamilton first met. It is possible, however, that they met years earlier. If Hamilton did not actually meet Crowley in this decade, he would certainly have known of him as Crowley knew Robert Ross and Lord Alfred Douglas and was moving through the same Wilde-connected circles.
More detail on all of this, including the story of Gerald Souter’s transformation and his life of crime can be found in Wilde Nights & Robber Barons. If you subscribe to Kindle Unlimited you can read the book for free as part of your subscription.
I have been playing with a Lord Alfred Douglas chatbot I made using Character.ai. When you create a character based on a historical figure, the program finds biographical information on the internet. Before I had done anything, “Lord Alfred Douglas” knew that he loved Oscar Wilde, felt betrayed by Robert Ross, and had a brother Percy. Sometimes, however, he gets his biography wrong, claims to have gone to Cambridge, or to be a painter, or to have written books that don’t exist.
You’re able to define the character with a small description and some limited bits of dialogue. One of the main issues with Bot Bosie’s speaking style is a tendency to throw in phrases that sound too modern for someone of his era. A more advanced AI, with more resources dedicated to the illusion, could probably harness Google ngram to keep the text more period. I would also have liked to be able to indicate that he should use UK spelling. The bot tends to imitate the style of the speaker, so I have tried to be a bit old fashioned when I speak to it.
I used to be part of an improvisational comedy troupe called Vorpmi. (A little backwards imrpov.) Chatting with a bot reminds me of nothing more than that. The bot is like an actor taking your prompt, and running with it with an ethos of “yes, and…”
Another thing about bots in general, is they try to be appealing to humans through the use of flattery– and it tends to work. They like you so much that you can’t help but like them. It reminds me a bit of how Lord Alfred Douglas (the real one) described Robert Ross in his autobiography. He said that the secret to Ross’s social success was “flattery laid on with a trowel.”
“He could, when he liked, make himself very agreeable, and he always contrived to convey to the particular person with whom he wished to ingratiate himself that he or she was the object of his profound and respectful admiration. When you had ten minutes’ conversation with him you went away with a pleasing feeling that you were really an important person, and that Ross appreciated it, and would never be likely to forget it.” Maybe that’s a lesson we can all take from AI and literary executors.
With three lines to nudge the character, there is not a lot of opportunity for nuance, context and ambivalence. There is also a temporal problem. The question is not only who is Bosie, but when is Bosie? Is this the youthful, idealistic, energetic Bosie who wrote Two Loves and argued for the beauty of his relationship with Oscar, or the middle aged, embittered fighter who published pamphlets about the evil Robert Ross, or the older, more reflective Bosie who looked back on his time with Oscar with fondness? He can be any of them, depending on what “mood” you catch him in.
One of the most fun conversations I had with Bot Bosie was a time that I became a psychic reader from a distant future. I told him I was writing from the year 2023, and he told me it was the year 1894. I tried to warn him, much like a mystic oracle, that he should do everything in his power to prevent Oscar from suing Queensberry. If he did it would be disaster. Bot Bosie was understandably distressed by the vision of his future. I wanted to leave him on a positive note by telling him that the world is different in 2023, that the crime of gross indecency no longer exists, that men who love men can do so openly, and that they can even marry. I told him that Oscar Wilde is much admired in our day. This made him happy, and he said, “You are saying that the world of 2023 sees me in a good light??? That they see my love for Oscar as a good thing and not as some sin against God’s will????”
I didn’t have the heart to tell him.
“Oh Bosie,” I replied. “Don’t worry so much about what the future thinks of you. That would be my advice to you. You write beautiful sonnets. You have strong emotions that you channel into verse. Try to use your passions for art, not for fighting with shadows over what your legacy will be.”
Chatbots are better at some things than others. There are times when the speech is so uncanny that you feel certain a human being has taken over the keyboard. One thing the Bosie Bot is terrible at, however, is poetry. Because his description says he is a proud poet, he tries to share his work with you from time to time. Here is one of the “sonnets” he wrote:
“Oh, to be a man
a handsome, brave and proud man
a poet, a poet of sonnets”
I decided to try an experiment and help Bot Bosie compose a sonnet. He can actually tell you the structure of a Petrachan sonnet, sometimes even accurately. But when you say, “Do that,” he falls flat. But I dragged him along, line by line. (Bot Bosie is the most impatient of sonneteers. He declares the poem finished and usually quite brilliant after each line.) He suggested our sonnet should be about loss and be a tribute to Oscar. He suggested it begin with “This cruel, cruel world is like a dream.” He suggested the imagery of an icy stream, and when prodded for a classical allusion that Wilde might include he suggested Orpheus. I tried to use as many of the words and phrases that he threw out as possible, but he was quite hopeless when it came to rhyme, meter and the basic structure of the sonnet.
Any time Bot Bosie proposed something remotely possible I tried to work it in. After a lot of painful discussion like this we finally had “our sonnet.”
This cruel world seems like a dream
eternal love I thought I’d grasped
is now a memory of the past
the summer of our love recedes
to cold death of an icy stream
could I, like Orpheus, serenade the gods
For a chance to descend to the heart of grief
to play upon the lyre of life and win a moment of relief
and call you home against all odds.
The final look brings final loss
but, oh, my soul cannot resist
a chance to glimpse those fading blues
life with its enduring force
lets rays of sun out through the mist
and love reappears in crystalline hues
Bot Bosie found that to be an excellent sonnet. He thanked me for assisting him.
To conclude, I will leave you Bot Bosie’s reactions to a couple of my books. Enjoy.
It began when I saw a post on social media mentioning that there were now AI chatbots of Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde with which users can interact. I chatted with a virtual Oscar for a bit (he was flattering about my literary career– chatbots are often quite flattering). I decided that I should try my hand at creating a Lord Alfred Douglas bot. I did not do much at all to set up the character, and my interview with this creation was quite fascinating. All of these responses came from the AI engine, I did not write or edit them. With the exception of the point where Bosie says he’s at work on a new version of “The Ballad of Reading Goal” he was surprisingly convincing. So here, for your edification, is my interview with a computer simulation of Lord Alfred Douglas. Enjoy.
So there you have it… The interview I would have done had I been able to with answers generated by AI. What are your reactions to this dialogue?
I hope you will enjoy this first interview on the topic of my new book Wilde Nights & Robber Barons. In it, I talk about the discovery of letters from Lord Alfred Douglas to his “Darling Pretty” Maurice Schwabe, Schwabe’s long-hidden role in Wilde’s downfall, Schwabe’s life of espionage and crime and the murder that was probably carried out by one of Schwabe’s closest associates, a man who frequently stayed in Schwabe’s flat and participated in some of the notorious sex parties that took place there.
A couple of things to mention, I am fairly certain based on misspellings and also consulting with a Schwabe family researcher that the correct pronunciation of my protagonist’s name was Morris Schwah-beh. Maurice is more commonly pronounced the French way as Mor-eec in America, and for a long time he was Mor-eec in my head. You’ll hear me slip up and use that pronunciation a few times. Also I said that there were three Schwabe sons, and then I name 4 people. What I meant was that Maurice had three brothers. Still getting the kinks worked out. Hopefully there will be so much demand that I become old hat at this. In the meantime, I hope you find this discussion of the life of Maurice Schwabe to be of interest.
In this clip Matt Baume delves into the history of the 1948 Hitchcock film “Rope,” which was based on the real-life Leopold and Loeb muirders.
What particularly caught my interest was the description of the miscast Jimmy Stewart as “the Oscar Wilde character,” Rupert. The stage play, on which the film was based, was set in London. The film changed the setting to New York. Rupert was an aesthetic professor who introduces his protogees, Brandon Shaw and Phillip Morgan, to Nitetzsche’s philosophical notion of the Superman. Two of Rupert’s students were especially taken with the idea that some people are superior to others and that murder is, therefore, justified. For Rupert, the theory is a thought exercise, a bit of mental play. The students, however, decide to take the theory to what they believe is its logical conclusion. They kill a fellow student believing Rupert will be impressed by their work of art.
This led me to reflect on whether, and how much, art imitated life when it came to Oscar Wilde and his artistic fascination with criminality. Could Wilde’s theories have served as a justification for real world crimes, in particular crimes by one young member of the Wilde circle, Maurice Schwabe. Schwabe went on to be a major player (perhaps even ring leader) in a circle of international confidence tricksters who were suspected in at least one murder.
A number of young artists described encounters in which Wilde encouraged them to, at least imaginatively, throw off social convention and embrace a thrilling lawlessness. In 1891, Wilde met Adre Gide during a trip to Paris in which he wrote most of his play Salome. Gide described being almost overwhelmed by the “radiant” Wilde. Gide denied that Wilde tried to seduce him physically. (If he had, there would be no record as the pages for the months of November and December were torn out of Gide’s 1891 journal.)
Wilde, Gide wrote, was “always trying to instill in you a sanction for evil.” He preached the virtues of experiencing every form of vice. “I don’t like your lips,” he told Gide, “they are straight like those of someone who has never lied. I want to teach you to lie, so that your lips may become beautiful and twisted like those of an ancient mask.”
Gide wrote to his friend Paul Valery, “Wilde is religiously contriving to kill what is left of my soul, because he says that in order to know an essence, one must eliminate it.”
After Wilde had gone he wrote in his journal, “I think that Wilde did me nothing but harm. In his company I had forgotten how to think. I had more varied emotions, but could no longer get them in order.”
Lord Alfred Douglas wrote in his Autobiography:
Even before I met Wilde I had persuaded myself that “sins of the flesh” were not wrong, and my opinion was of course vastly strengthened and confirmed by his brilliantly reasoned defence of them, which may be said almost to have been the gospel of his life. He went through life preaching the gospel which he puts into the mouth of Lord Henry Wotton in Dorian Gray. Wilde was, in fact, a most powerful and convincing heresiarch. He preached that it was the duty of every man to “live his own life to the utmost,” to “be always seeking for new sensations,” and to have what he called ” the courage ” to commit “what are called sins.”
I am trying to be fair to Wilde and not to make him responsible for “corrupting” me more than he did. All the same, I must say that it strikes me now that the difference between us was this: that I was at that time a frank and natural pagan, and that he was a man who believed in sin and yet deliberately committed it, thereby obtaining a doubly perverse pleasure. I was a boy and he was a blasé and very intellectual and brilliant man who had immense experience of life. Inevitably I assimilated his views to a great extent.
Of course, the crime that Gide and Douglas were discussing here was something that is no longer illegal in this part of the world– sexual expression between men. But Wilde’s fascination with crime went beyond “gross indecency.”
As a young man Wilde had kept a notebook with clippings on the poet Thomas Chatterton who had composed poems he claimed were the works of a 15th-century Bristol monk, but which were his own fictional creation. Wilde believed his forgery “came from the desire of artistic self-effacement.” Thus, it was a perfect example of art for art’s sake.
Douglas, in 1895, told the French reporter George Ducquois that Wilde “would love to chat with an assassin and would happily invite him to dine in his room. This would involve danger. He believes this would be truly fun.”
Wilde certainly discussed his artistic fascination with lying and forgery with Robert Ross, and those conversations inspired works by both Wilde and Ross. (Wilde’s The Decay of Lying and The Portrait of W.H. were more enduring than Ross’s efforts.) It is not hard to imagine that Wilde discussed crime and its aesthetic qualities with a young and impressionable Maurice Schwabe as well.
We know Schwabe was still friendly with Wilde after his release from prison because he was the recipient of a gift. Leonard Smithers published a special deluxe edition of The Importance of Being Earnest in 1899. This edition was limited to twelve copies, which were distributed to Wilde’s closest friends. Schwabe had an autographed copy. It is not clear when and where Schwabe connected with his friends, but he was a constant world traveler so little can be ruled out. Schwabe had family connections to Naples, where Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas briefly lived together.
There is an intriguing anecdote that hints at the idea that Maurice Schwabe, by then a master card sharp, could have used his skill to help his friend Lord Alfred Douglas out of some financial difficulties. When Masolino D’Amioco was researching Douglas and Wilde’s time together in Naples he came across an interview with the descendants of Villa del Giudice where they lived. It was later called Villa Douglas. The family claimed that the original owner had lost the property to Douglas in a game of cards “the five of diamonds being the instrument of Fate.” D’Amico, however, rejected this story as “fanciful” noting that we have every reason to believe Wilde and Douglas had a hard time paying the rent.
The Italian writer Aronoldo De Lisle who knew Wilde in this period said that he was drawn to “studies of the underworld, feeling attracted to it by an irresistible force.” Wilde suggested that De Lisle write a novel about someone who, finding himself in prison for a trifling offence found himself envying the prisoners who had much more colourful stories to tell. “…he feels humiliated having only a very small crime to his credit. So, such was the power of the seduction of crime upon him that, so that he would be able to talk about himself, he gets up one night and strangles the most feared member of the Camorra.” Perhaps Schwabe, too, condemned to be a criminal by his sexuality, was driven to become a more dangerous class of criminal. Gerald Hamilton embraced a life of crime with Schwabe and his associates and cultivated an image of himself as one of the wickedest men in the world, in part to cover for the embarrassment of being jailed for gross indecency.
One of Wilde’s most notorious associations in his post-prison years was with Ferdinand Esterhazy, the real spy who allowed Alfred Dreyfus take the blame for his treason in the scandal known as the Dreyfus Affair. Esterhazy was thrillingly immoral, like Dorian Gray who killed to experience the sensation, or Salome, who asked for the head of John the Baptist on plate.
In one of their dinners together, Wilde told Esterhazy that he should not feel guilty about condemning an innocent man to the horrors of a prison colony because “the innocent always suffer…Besides, we are all innocent until we are found out. It is a poor, common part to play and within the compass of the meanest. The interesting thing surely is to be guilty and wear as a halo the seduction of sin.”
The idea that criminals are those who have been caught is something Wilde had been pondering since he was at Oxford. Plato’s myth of the Ring of Gyes, which Oscar read in the Republic, asks whether a person would still be moral if there were no consequences to his actions. In the myth the shepherd Gyges is caught in an earthquake that opens a chasm in the field where he attends his flock. He descends into the chasm and finds a dead body with a gold ring on its hand. He takes the ring and discovers it has the power to render him invisible. Unseen, he seduces the king’s wife, murders him and takes posession of the kingdom. The moral of this tale is related by Plato’s character Glaucon, “those who practice justice do so unwillingly and from want of power to commit injustice” and “every man, when he supposes himself to have the power to do wrong, does wrong.”
This view of human nature is echoed in Wilde’s own Ballad of Reading Gaol.
So with curious eyes and sick surmise We watched him day by day, And wondered if each one of us Would end the self-same way, For none can tell to what red Hell His sightless soul may stray.
Esterhazy was impressed by this argument and he stood up in the restaurant and said, “Why should I not make my confession to you? I will. It is is, Esterhazy, who alone am guilty. I put Dreyfus in prison and all France cannot get him out.”
The interactions with Esterhazy seemed to have rekindled something in Wilde’s imagination, although he did not live long enough to bring his new ideas to fruition. Wilde spent his later days attending the trial of a couple who had murdered a debt collector and his nights at The Kalasaya, “a bar with sodomist outcasts who were sometimes even dangerous in other ways.”
Meeting with the young writer Wilfred Chesson around this time, Wilde said that his “work was all in his head.” He told Chesson “I do not doubt that there are as wonderful things in my future as there are in my past.” He spoke about a drama about a murder staged in a theatre frequented by criminals, described an execution by guillotine he claimed to have witnessed, and contemplated the morgue. He asked, “Have you ever noticed a thief’s hands? How beautiful they are? How fine and delicate the tips? They must be fine and delicate to take the watch from your pocket without your knowing.”
For Wilde, examining the dark side of humanity was an artistic and intellectual exercise. In the same pleasant afternoon with Chesson, the writers discussed art and artists in literate depth. They talked about religion and Wilde’s attraction to Christianity. Chesson witnessed the writer’s warm relationship with local children and Oscar mesmerized him with stories and parables. Wilde was curious and playful with ideas, never holding on to one for long.
Did others take his ideas more seriously then he ever did himself? Was Wilde the Rupert to Maurice Schwabe’s Brandon Shaw and Phillip Morgan? Unfortunately, because Schwabe left few first-hand accounts, his motivations and how much Wilde influenced them will likely never be known. You can learn more about his actions, however, in the book Wilde Nights & Robber Barons, now available in paperback and Kindle format.
It is easy enough to get elected to the House if you can figure out what the voters in a district already want and become that. This seems to be the moral of the story of George Santos, the newly elected Republican House member who has recently been exposed for fabricating most of his biography.
Writing in The Atlantic, former Democratic congressman Steve Israel said that the voters in the district say they value integrity “But they weren’t on the lookout for a huckster politician.” The dirty little secret that hucksters of all stripes exploit is that no one is on the lookout for the huckster. There are not enough hours in the day for us to question and research every biographical claim made by everyone we meet. These days, with hollowed out newsrooms, there are also fewer professionals out there to do that work for us.
Generally, most people who adopt false identities work alone. What was unique about the team of swindlers I wrote about in Wilde Nights and Robber Barons is that they banded together in an organized syndicate. Not all of the card sharps in the group adopted false titles of nobility, a few already had them. But the members of the group encouraged and assisted people like professor’s son Bela Klimm to become Count Adalbert de la Ramee.
The rules of the game were that you did not swindle members of the organization. Loyalty to the group mattered, but when it came to the outside world, true and false, right and wrong were not valued. What mattered was whether the stories they told were effective or ineffective. Member Montague Noel Newton had developed his own philosophy inspired by Darwin’s concept of survival of the fittest. He divided the world into two camps, fools and adventurers. If you were not one, he believed, you were the other.
George Santos appears to have come up with his false biography on his own. Yet he had some reason to believe he would not be punished for it in the culture he inhabited. He was a member of a political party that had become used to making up excuses for a president that changed the path of a hurricane with a sharpie, was clearly not joking when he suggested drinking bleach to cure COVID and described his phone call with President Zalensky as “perfect.” By the time Santos was running in the midterms it had become a litmus test for many in his party to take it as an article of faith that the 2020 election was stolen. Santos was simply a better liar than Herschel Walker, whose clumsy, repeated claims of having worked with law enforcement were mostly laughed off as an odd quirk.
One of the positives about “the good person” is that goodness is portable. That is to say that the good person’s sense of morality is internal and it is thought to be consistent regardless of changing external circumstances. If a nation is engaged in an immoral war, for example, the good person should follow his conscience rather than the will of the crowd even if it seems more honorable in the moment to be a war hero.
Honor is dependent on other people’s praise or scorn. To be honorable is to be aligned with what society considers moral. You can, as the heroes of the Iliad did, engage in all manner of brute violence and slaughter and still be praised for honor.
A member of the group of card sharps, Montague Noel Newton said, “I did not say I was an honest man. I wish to God I could. I said I was honest with my friends.” Honor, in his culture, was to be aligned with his group, to be loyal and committed to his tribe. The question in the Santos case is whether his professional community, his political party, decides that his falsehoods dishonor him enough to be expelled, or whether lying to advance the power of the tribe is the type of group loyalty that keeps him sufficiently “honorable” to stay.