Author: lauraleeauthor

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."

Lord Alfred Douglas and T.W.H. Crosland’s Monte Carlo Adventure

Manners Sutton Case

In 1905, T.W.H. Crosland, Lord Alfred Douglas and Freddie Manners-Sutton took a trip together to Monte Carlo. Recently, in the course of my continuing research into Maurice Schwabe and his criminal associates, I found some information that made me think about the Monte Carlo trip again. Could Schwabe’s criminal enterprise have been behind some of Crosland’s gambling woes? Crosland was a life-long gambler who went to Monte Carlo the moment he had some money to throw away and this trait would have been appealing to Schwabe.

We know about the Monte Carlo trip because it came up in a 1910 libel suit which recounted events that took place at Schwabe’s flat with the mysterious Rudolph Stallmann aka Baron von Koenig. Douglas also wrote about the trip in a special chapter that appeared in the French version of his autobiography. He did not mention whether Schwabe was with him. Although he was not shy about mentioning Schwabe’s name in court (Sutton had not mentioned it and only wrote it on a piece of paper), he became evasive when he was questioned about Schwabe’s association with the Wilde trials. This may suggest that Douglas and Schwabe were still lovers at this time.

In any case, if the Monte Carlo trip was a swindle arranged by Schwabe—as there is some reason to suspect– based on the jaunty way Douglas talks about the trip in his memoirs he did not suspect anything.

Crosland believed he had a fool-proof system to beat the house at roulette and he persuaded Douglas to give him 150 to play it. “He had a mania for laying down the law on matters which he did not understand,” Douglas told his friend Sorley Brown, “His ‘system’ and his methods of gambling where childish. I found also that such as his system was, he was quite incapable of sticking to it.”

Crosland may have been tricked into his belief that he had a winning system. In his book My Confessions, a Stallmann confederate, Montague Noel Newton, described how he conned a player into believing he had come up with a winning roulette system. He asked the player to explain his system, and as they had no roulette table, he would test it by dealing out cards one at a time which would represent the winning color, red or black. Then the player could make his calculations and figure out how much he would have won if they had been playing for real. Of course, Newton controlled the cards, and when the man made a big wager on red he would throw out a red card. If he bet big on black, a black card would come up. When the mark was pleased that he could make a fortune with his system, the swindler agreed to fund a trip to Monte Carlo. After which the overly confident mark was ripe for the picking.
If Crosland’s later court testimony is to be believed, the boys were up to no good in Monte Carlo. Sutton tried to secure the services of a young German prostitute from a woman, and was scratched when the girl turned out to be unwilling. He came back to Crosland, borrowed money from him saying “lucky at cards, unlucky in love.” Douglas had his wallet stolen, and does not seem to have reported it to the police, suggesting it was taken in compromising circumstances. The Monte Carlo trip was just the initial information-gathering gambit. It allowed the cons to see what types of temptations could be used to play up the Viscount of Canterbury’s son. (Schwabe was already well aware of Douglas’s appetites and weaknesses.) The big score was yet to come.

Shortly after this trip, Sutton was swindled by Baron von Koenig, who he had met at Schwabe’s flat. The episode is chronicled in Oscar’s Ghost.

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Seeking Treasure and the Joy of Not Knowing

One of the greatest moments in historical research is when you discover there is a file of documents in an archive that relates to some aspect of the story you’re trying to uncover. You don’t yet know what is in it, but from the moment you learn that the file exists you begin to dream about what secrets may found there. Perhaps there is a key that will unlock an entire new path.

Getting to that material is not always– or even usually– easy.  If the archive is in another state or country–and isn’t it always?– you either have to travel, to find a local researcher to help or to pay the institution to make scans. All of these are time consuming and sometimes cost prohibitive. The very difficulty of the task makes the file seem indispensable.

I am enjoying a moment of anticipation at the moment, as I wait for a 91 page document to be scanned and sent to me from the UK. Will it provide the missing piece of the puzzle that will answer all of my remaining questions about that enigmatic con artists from the Wilde circle, Maurice Schwabe? Or will it be a big nothing?

In the course of researching Oscar’s Ghost, and in my continuing search for Schwabe, I’ve driven across states to read rare books that had nothing particularly relevant in them. On the other hand, there was a wonderful moment when a bankruptcy file provided the only example I have of Schwabe telling his own story in his own handwriting.

Early on in my research I learned (through a note in a review of a book on Gilbert and Sullivan) that Lucas D’Oyly Carte, the son of the impressario Richard D’Oyly Carte, had kept a diary during his time at the Winchester school. I knew that he and Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas had been students at the same time and that Bosie and Lucas had had a relationship throughout their school days that Neil McKenna described as “a tortured love affair.” Love letters from young Lucas had been stolen by blackmailers and used against Bosie.

Bosie wrote a poem inspired by Lucas:

To L —
Thou that wast once my loved and loving friend,
A friend no more, I had forgot thee quite,
Why hast thou come to trouble my delight
With memories ? Oh ! I had clean made end
Of all that time, I had made haste to send
My soul into red places, and to light
A torch of pleasure to burn up my night.
What I have woven hast thou come to rend ?

In silent acres of forgetful flowers,
Crowned as of old with happy daffodils,
Long time my wounded soul has been a-straying,
Alas! it has chanced now on sombre hours
Of hard remembrances and sad delaying,
Leaving green valleys for the bitter hills

A diary could be very revealing indeed. So where was it?

As it happened, I could not get my hands on a copy of the Gilbert and Sullivan book, or track down its author. So I wrote to the author of the review who contacted the author and asked about the diary. He said it was in the British Library, so I contacted them. They told me that it was not, and they directed me to another institution in New York with a large Gilbert and Sullivan collection. That institution directed me back to the British Library. By now a year had passed, and I wrote back to the author of the original review explaining my troubles and asking if he had any more information for me. He went back to the author who said that he had interviewed the man who had owned the diary and that he was certain he had donated it to to the British Library but that it was part of a large Gilbert and Sullivan collection which had not been cataloged yet.

Armed with this information, I went back to the British Library (through e-mail), and the very helpful librarian there confirmed that they had received a collection which was not yet cataloged but she couldn’t give me any idea of when that might happen.

A couple of years had gone by and I wrote back to the original reviewer to tell him about my lack of progress. He finally put me in touch, directly, with the Gilbert and Sullivan book’s author. He told me that while the diary was still in a private collection, he’d had a chance to scan it. He confirmed that the diary did mention Bosie, and he offered to send the scan to me.

At long last, after three years of searching, I would finally have the diary of Lucas D’Oyly Carte and I could read for myself what he had to say about Bosie…

Which was, as it happened, not much.

Lucas D’Oyly Carte liked to report on the weather and the time he took breakfast (usually 9:30). When Bosie appears it is usually in reference to sport. For example, “Very showery all the afternoon…Bosie made 50 odd runs, I made 7…”

What I learned from all of that searching was that it sometimes rained when the boys were students and they sometimes played sports.

Yet somehow experiences like these have failed to dim my excitement over archives and the documents they contain– cataloged and not yet cataloged.

The Angel and the Idiot

1358983This rare book, tweeted out by Provincial Booksellers Fair Association, caught my eye, combining, as it does two of the themes of my novel Angel: The Angel and the volcano.

The working title of Angel was “The Minister and The Mountain” and I suspect on one of the character Paul’s self-critical days this is the title he would give his story.

If you want to buy The Angel and the Idiot it will set you back £850. You can get Angel for just $15. Bargain!

Yucky Framing: The Dollar Value of a Farmer’s Life

Somewhere along the line we assimilated the idea that in order for an argument to be taken seriously it had to be framed in quantifiable economic terms. People who are making a moral or aesthetic or quality of life case feel the need to make the argument that somehow doing the less moral thing is also more expensive.

A story in the Economic Hardship Reporting Project goes this route in an article on the high suicide rate among America’s farmers. It is higher than the rate of suicide among military families although it receives much less attention.

The article talks about a plan to replicate a successful local mental health initiative on a national scale, a program called  the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network (FRSAN). The program was approved as part of the 2008 US Farm Bill, it was not funded. The man behind the program Dr. Mike Rosmann complained that politicians “promised support to my face and to others who approached them to support the FRSAN, but when it came time to vote … they did not support appropriating money … Often they claimed it was an unnecessary expenditure which would increase the national debt, while also saying healthy farmers are the most important asset to agricultural production.”

You could make a moral argument that such politicians have a set of human values that are seriously out of whack. Instinctively, however, well-intentioned people try to argue in the language that they presumably understand: money. It’s not that having farmers living with such desperation that they end up taking their own lives is a shame upon a wealthy country that could do much better by them. The argument instead becomes that it’s actually more expensive to have farmers kill themselves than to fund the program.

The program, which would have created regional and national helplines and provided counseling for farmers, was estimated to cost the government $18m annually. Rosmann argues that US farmers lost by suicide totals much more than this – in dollars, farmland, national security in the form of food, and the emotional and financial toll on families and entire communities.

I am sure that Dr. Rosmann does not actually view the farmers who call him for help in these marketplace terms, but the fact that he feels compelled to argue in this way says something about our culture.

The thing is, these arguments don’t actually seem to work. The political party in power now has demonstrated with its tax bill that they are not opposed to deficits, they just have particular priorities about what they think is worth going into debt for– and it seems that it is not preventing suicide in agricultural communities. Perhaps it is time to start making unashamed moral arguments about what our priorities should be.

And I Feel… Fine

 

Although it is for an old New Year, this video from last year’s Colbert show seems to strike the right note at the moment.

I (and a number of family members) were struck with flu over Christmas, mine reaching its feverish peak during a snowy drive back from Minnesota to Michigan. Still dealing with a heavy cough, but today I managed to sit down and work on my next novel for a while.

I wrote for about two hours and was about done with my document when in a fast type I swiped the touchpad and the cursor jumped back and deleted everything. It left  only the word I happened to be completing just then. Tried “undo” but it wouldn’t come back. After that my little second wind blew away.

 

The Christmas Spirit

evening public ledger dec 24 1921This 1921 news story, which I found posted on a blog called Strange Company, reminded me of something odd that happened this Christmas, which I hadn’t planned on mentioning. Frankly, I’m not sure I come out so great in this tale.

I woke up on Christmas morning and as is my habit when I first get up, I quickly checked my various communications media, my e-mail, Facebook and twitter feeds. I noted with passing interest that the topic of the day seemed to be that the president had made some claim about bringing back the phrase “Merry Christmas” and this inevitably had people declaring which side of the culture wars they were on.

In the comments on one post was something from a man (I assume) with an American flag image for his picture. For whatever reason, before I headed off to enjoy the time with my family, I responded to what I thought was an a-historical appeal to tradition by pointing out that the Puritans had outlawed the practice of Christmas in the early days. Not that it matters, but my point was that we Americans have never been entirely unified in our traditions around Christmas or anything else. (The whole “War on Christmas” thing is not really about history or tradition, but about declaring what segment of society ought to be treated as the default “real Americans” now.)

By now I was enjoying a house full of kids, parents, stockings and sweets. I noticed the notification when I took my phone out to snap a picture of the cousins in their Christmas light necklaces. This elicited three responses with far more capital letters than I thought necessary.  The general themes were that America was founded as a Christian nation and that I was an ignorant fool.  His replies made it clear that it was not the specific tradition of saying “Merry Christmas” but the notion of America as Christian that was important to him.

There is something about someone condescending to you that is hard to ignore, as much as you ought to. So I responded. I pointed out that I knew a fair amount about history and that I didn’t agree with his premise, but that it was Christmas and that I had family commitments and didn’t want to spend the day arguing about what text should be on the banners in shopping malls. I wished the stranger a “Merry Christmas.” I expected that we would agree to disagree.

The next time I took the phone out there was another condescending response beginning with LOL taunting me that the only reason I was leaving the discussion was that I knew he was right. He was determined to have the last word.

In spite of myself, as the kids tried to plunk out Christmas carols on the piano, I found myself getting aggravated. “Are you arguing that we should have an official state religion?” I wanted to ask.

But I stopped myself. We had driven 14 hours to be with our extended family for Christmas. Christmas is one day a year. Here we were together, and this annoying and senseless debate was intruding. What am I doing? What should I care if some person I don’t know or respect thinks he bested me? It’s Christmas!  I should never have commented to begin with. I deleted my original tweet and all the replies and blocked the stranger so there would be no temptation whatsoever to get drawn back in.

Isn’t it ironic (don’t you think?) that someone felt so strongly about keeping the “Merry Christmas” in Christmas that he was willing to spend Christmas day arguing with strangers about it?

 

Yucky Framing: The Economic Impact of Crib Deaths

I have become frustrated with meaningless news stories that talk about “rolling back regulations” but do not talk about what those regulations are. The president on December 14 had a big media event where he cut a giant red ribbon to represent bureaucratic red tape.

Most of the stories on this spectacle followed the lead of the event organizers and talked about the number of pages of regulations being cut. To cheer cutting regulations without saying what they are is foolish. “Yea, extra rat parts in my food!”

I searched up and down for a list of what those regulations were. The best article I found was at Bloomberg. Bloomberg’s reporters Alan Levin and Jesse Hamilton did the work of going through government records to identify all of the regulations that the administration was touting as deregulation victories. The frame of the article was that the president was taking credit for ending regulations that were already dead.

A rollback of one of the regulations, which fined nursing homes that delivered substandard care and put residents at risk, got a scathing treatment in Esquire.

In my quest to find out what was in that stack of symbolic paper, I came across an article in CNN Money. This article provides the following examples of deregulation:

 

Coal mining companies won’t be obligated to protect the nation’s streams from debris when extracting coal from mountain tops.

Firms that operate in hazardous industries, like electrical contractors and freight truck operators, face looser reporting requirements when their employees get hurt or sick on the job…

He’s halted a bid to address risks of bumpers on baby cribs that have been known to lead to infant deaths.

His administration has imposed an 18-month delay on the so-called fiduciary rule that would require brokers who manage retirement accounts to act in their consumer’s best interest rather than their own.

He’s postponed enforcement of a rule that would minimize 2.3 million American workers’ exposure to silica dust, a known contributor to lung cancer. He’s abandoned plans to streamline patient medical information into a one-page form to make it easier for consumers to understand how to use their prescription drugs safely. And he’s blocked efforts that would prohibit federal contractors from winning taxpayer-funded contracts if they violate basic labor and employment laws.

Here is where the yucky framing comes in. The focus of the article is about the economic impact of the deregulation. The last word:

“These policies have not yet fully gone into effect,” said Dan Goldbeck, a research analyst on regulatory policy for American Action Forum. “It is too early to judge the economic impact of this shift. It’s reasonable, however, to think that the magnitude of these changes — both in slowing down and rolling back regulatory burdens — will have a positive effect.”

Should we ensure that vulnerable populations in nursing homes receive basic standards or care? How about making sure that the stuff in cribs doesn’t kill the infant?

I don’t know, how much will we save if we don’t do that? Bleecchhh.