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."

A Few Wilde (Nights) Discoveries

Researching Wilde Nights & Robber Barons gave me the opportunity to play historic detective. Now that the book is available, I thought I would share a few of my favorites with you.

This image of Fred Atkins

Fred Atkins was a young sex worker who had a close relationship with Maurice Schwabe. Rupert Croft-Cooke said that Schwabe and Atkins had been “practically living together” for some months in 1892 when Atkins became acquainted with Oscar Wilde. “Freddy does not seem to have regarded Schwabe as a prospect, but rather as a friend, even a collaborator,” Croft-Cooke wrote. Atkins and Schwabe met around the same time Schwabe became part of the Oscar Wilde circle. Before he met Schwabe, Atkins worked with a 50 year-old bookmaker named James Dennis Burton, alias Watson. Atkins would go to a pick-up spot and get someone to take him to a hotel. Burton would give them enough time to have sex, at which point Burton, claiming to be the boy’s uncle, would barge in and demand money for the victim’s silence. Their con was famous enough in certain circles that Burton was known as “Uncle Burton.” Atkins and Burton are often described in a jaunty way as “a two act.” This description gives Atkins far more agency than he could have had. Atkins was born in Otterbourne, Hampshire in 1874, the fifth of nine children of a railway guard. He had been sent to work for Burton fourteen years before the Wilde trials. This would have been in 1881 when Atkins was seven years old. Fred had a break with Burton just before he met Schwabe. Schwabe arranged for Oscar Wilde to travel to Paris with Fred, and joined his friends there. After Schwabe left for Australia, Atkins went back to blackmailing men with Burton. In 1895, Atkins signed with a new music hall agent, and Boxing World ran a small feature naming Fred Denny a vocalist “of considerable promise… he has appeared and secured engagements at the leading London halls for some years to come, and being merely a youth, he has every prospect of having an enviable career before him.” His promising career was cut short, however, when a police detective knocked on his door asking him questions about Oscar Wilde. Atkins was compelled to testify in Wilde’s first criminal trial. He lied about some of his criminal past on the stand. According to Montgomery Hyde, Fred Atkins was sent to jail for perjury after the Wilde case and the name Fred Denny disappeared from the music hall notices.

Montague Noel Newton, one of the members of Maurice Schwabe’s team of card sharps, came close to being cast in one of Wilde’s plays.

When asked about his family, Montague Noel Newton did not care to talk about his parents. The only family member he mentioned was a favorite aunt. His father’s sister, Henrietta was a wealthy patron of the arts, connected to almost everyone in the world of the London stage. Madame Gabrielli, her married name, was infatuated with OscarWilde’s brother, Willie Wilde. Two of Gabrielli’s closest theatrical friends were the actor-manager Charles Wyndham and his future wife, actress Mary Moore. Wyndham and Moore supported Gabrielli in her final illness, visiting her regularly. Newton was disappointed that when his aunt died in 1899, she left nothing to him. Instead, the bulk of her large estate went to the actors. Wyndham, Newton said, was good enough to give him the family portraits, but that was all he ever received. Beerbohm Tree thought Madame Gabrielli’s nephew n had charisma and invited him to take a non-speaking role as a guardsman for the Roman soldiers in “Hypatia,” which was to open the 1893 season at the Haymarket Theater. “It felt frightfully important just walking on,” Newton said. After “Hypatia” wrapped, Tree offered him an opportunity to take a speaking role in his next production, but Newton had too much stage fright to accept. Had Newton accepted a part in Tree’s next production, he would have acted in the new comedy by Oscar Wilde, “A Woman of No Importance.”

Gerald Hamilton’s True Past

One of Maurice Schwabe’s business partners was Gerald Hamilton, who would become the model for Christopher Isherwood’s Mr. Norris. Hamilton was a lifelong fabulist. Hamilton would claim that in 1913 he met Roger Casement who was in Berlin seeking support from Germany for the Irish cause. Gerald said he asked to become a member of Sin Fein, he became friends with Casement, and implied there might even have been more to the relationship. Hamilton would later attribute all of his problems with the law to his political activism with the revolutionary Irishman. This fact became a major part of Hamilton’s biography, but it was an elaborate lie. Hamilton did not know Casement. He probably never met Rasputin, another of his frequent tales. In reality, Hamilton, under his birth name, Souter, was hounded by a reporter for John Bull. The paper had learned of parties that combined alternative sexuality and occult practices inspired by Alesair Crowley (Hamilton would later share a flat in Berlin with Crowley). The publicity forced Hamilton and his friends to flee the country. Hamilton was later arrested for gross indecency with British soldiers. Brian Desmond Hurst, a film maker 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. In the company of confidence tricksters, Hamilton was able to reinvent himself whenever he liked.

Stay tuned for more highlights…

Our Fascination with Con Artists

A century before there was the Tinder Swindler, Ana Delvy or Elizabeth Holmes there was Baron von Koenig, and Count Adalbert de la Ramee and Maurice Schwabe. The period in which they operated was considered to be the golden age of the con. These figures, like their modern counterparts, made use of the fact that we are easily seduced by the trappings of success.

To the right is Rudolf Stallmann. Although he hailed from a respectable, upper middle-class family he wanted a life of glamor and adventure and decided that he would claim an aristocratic title. He became Baron von Koenig. He loved the excitement of posing. He was attracted to crime and espionage “like a drug.”

People like Stallmann realized that their marks would play along with the game because they enjoyed the status that came with being associated with gentlemen who were clearly powerful, rich and well-connected. Explanations were rarely needed, but when they were, a bit of confidence and bravado went a long way.

“An atmosphere is created by innuendo and suggestion,” said trickster Montague Noel Newton. “I never say I am a man of means, I just play the part.”

This was true when it came to getting a first class cabin on a ship on credit or when it came to seducing wealthy women– a specialty of Bela Klimm aka Count Adalbert de la Ramee, or selling a dubious business ventures, something at which Maurice Schwabe excelled.

Just as Elizabeth Holmes marketed herself more than the technology her company intended to make, men like Schwabe sold their own personalities and connections. Schwabe and Holmes both relied on “the social proof heuristic,” a fancy way of saying that when you see prominent people investing in something, you assume that it is a project you want to get involved in. Schwabe sought respected military men and people with aristocratic titles (even appropriated ones) to put their names down as investors.

In the Edwardian era, businesses were increasingly impersonal, complex and national– even international– in scope. Without personal relationships, investors relied on cues like persuasive advertisements, or aristocratic names on a slate of investors to assess the trustworthiness of an enterprise. It was hard for the public to even recognize a white-collar criminal. In the cultural imagination a “criminal” came from the “dangerous classes.” A man with a walking stick and a valet was given the benefit of the doubt, even when his financial scheme lost money for its investors. It was easy enough to chalk it up to bad luck.

In the 1937 book The Criminals We Deserve, criminologist Henry Rhodes reflected on the relationship between crime and society. “The criminal and his crimes are social phenomena,” he said. He argued that the “kind of crime committed at any particular stage of social development is an index of the social phase… Show me your crimes, and I will show you the nature of your society.”

Rhodes argued that this sort of crime appears when “The capacity to appreciate and desire better conditions is instilled without there being adequate machinery to satisfy those desires.”

The age in which Schwabe and his conspirators operated was a golden age of the confidence trickster. Perhaps rising inequality has brought us to another age of the imposter. In the Victorian era only a lucky few possessed titles of nobility. Today, when the top 1% of earners own more than the entire middle class, there is a similar temptation to use lies and cunning to claim a place among the elect.

This explains their existence, but not our fascination with them. Why do false barons traveling on ocean liners, scamming heirs to fortunes, seem glamorous to us? What, besides Matt Bomer’s insane good looks, drove audiences to follow the adventures of Neal Caffrey for six seasons? The series Suits, about a college drop out who brazened his way into a job at a top law firm ran for 9. Why did Catch Me if You Can make $352.1 million at the box office?

Incidentally, a recent podcast, Pretend, provides evidence that Frank Abagnale, the man portrayed by Leonardo di Caprio in the film, made up the adventures that his autobiography and the film dramatize. Abagnale could not have posed as a lawyer, doctor and college professor because he was in jail when these events supposedly happened.

Similarly, Maurice Schwabe’s business partner Gerald Hamilton became an anti-hero in his later years. Author Christopher Isherwood based the character of Mr. Norris from his Berlin Stories on Hamilton. Hamilton crafted his own back story. Supposedly he had spent time with Rasputin in Russia and went to prison because of political intrigue with Roger Casement. Hamilton even seemed to suggest there might have been something more between him and Casement. In fact, he never met him. The records show that Hamilton invented a romantic past to cover for his great embarrassment, being sent to jail for “gross indecency” with British soldiers.

The aforementioned Montague Noel Newton also turned his criminality into a relatively lucrative career as a writer and speaker for a time. He published his “Confessions,” which were a mixture of fact and fiction. Many of the stories in it were daring crimes that people in his orbit, but not himself, had carried out.

Hamilton and Newton were not apologetic about their crimes. Modern main-stream entertainment cleanses the story of the criminals it glamorizes by one of two methods. In the biographical films on Anna Delvy and Elizabeth Holmes, the story focuses on how they were ultimately brought to justice. In Suits, White Collar and Catch Me If You Can, the frauds are reformed and using their talents for the good guys or they are using their position to do good in the world.

Dr Tim Holmes, a lecturer in criminology at Bangor University told the BBC, “There’s still the idea that they’re a Robin Hood figure, not a criminal,” he says, adding that many films, like the Ocean’s Eleven adaptations, portray the con artist as “a rogue stealing from someone who deserves it.”

There are many theories as to why we are fascinated by confidence tricksters. The Conversation posits the con “fills us with a mix of surprise at their audacity –and glee and relief that it didn’t happen to us.” I believe it is something else. Confidence tricksters’ refusal to accept normal societal limitations shines a light on how flimsy are the signifiers that separate the rich from the poor, the glamorous from the plain, the envied from the ordinary. By following the stories of those who break the rules, we have an opportunity to imagine revolting against those boundaries ourselves, inventing our own high-status identities, and through cunning, getting away with it.

In writing Wilde Nights & Robber Barons, however, whenever I found myself falling into the trap of admiring the con artists’ audacity, something would come up to remind me of the cost, people whose lives were shattered by their encounters with these criminals. Rudolf Stallmann, for example, was physically abusive to his girlfriend, whose small savings he had taken. After forcing her to support them both by selling sex, Stallmann took on the identity of a baron and abandoned the lady with the statement that it was ridiculous that someone of her lowly station would be engaged to an aristocrat like him. Successful cons have not only cleverness but a lack of conscience.

If you are fascinated by those who put on poses and commit crimes, I invite you to read about where it all began with the confidence tricksters of the last century. Available now. You can order from your favorite local book store. Also available in the UK at Amazon UK in the U.S. via Amazon or get an autographed copy with a special Oscar Wilde bookmark directly from the author.

Maurice Schwabe’s Story: Now Available

In 2011, a pair of letters was discovered in a previously uncatalogued archive in Sydney, Australia. They were passionate and uncensored declarations of love from one young man to another. The writer referred to the recipient as his “darling pretty.” He talked about how much he missed him and imagined sending “millions of kisses all over your beautiful body.” He signed off “from your loving boy-wife.”

The letters were addressed to a young man named Maurice Salis-Schwabe. Of much greater interest was who they came from– Oscar Wilde’s lover Lord Alfred Douglas, known to his intimates as Bosie.

Until the discovery of the letters, Schwabe had been an obscure figure in the Oscar Wilde story. Although he introduced Wilde to his co-defendant Alfred Taylor, and was, himself, accused of having sexual relations with Wilde, his name was initially concealed, written on a piece of paper instead of being spoken in open court. The testimony made clear, however, that the mysterious “gentleman on the paper” was a catalyst for much of what followed. After Wilde’s first criminal trial ended in a hung jury, the decision of whether or not to re-try him fell on one man, Maurice Schwabe’s uncle, Solicitor General Frank Lockwood. Douglas wrote an article suggesting that this pointed to a cover up, and yet he and Schwabe remained close until Schwabe’s death.

But this is just the beginning of Schwabe’s story. In the early 20th Century, Schwabe hosted all-male sex parties for an aristocratic clientele, all the while collecting scandalous secrets that insulated him from prosecution. He spied and cheated on several continents as part of an organized crime syndicate of well-dressed, elegant men. The gang made their living traveling around the world on luxury ships, cheating at cards, selling shares in dubious business enterprises, seducing for profit and collecting secrets to be used for blackmail and espionage. They were even suspected of at least one murder. The colorful characters in Schwabe’s orbit were so grand that they seem to have been ripped from the pages of fiction, but it is all true. Hidden for a century in police files, business documents, letters and and articles in many languages scattered in archives in multiple continents, Maurice Schwabe’s story can finally be told.

More Supernatural Adventures of the Wilde Circle

Lord Alfred Douglas and Robert Sherard were not the only members of Oscar Wilde’s circle to be featured in the pages of spiritualist publications. So I thought I would share a few snippets found in the archive.

Maurice Salis-Schwabe’s mother, Mary, was an associate of the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research and wrote articles on fire walking and the psychic visions of her maid. The visions were usually of Mary’s children and her reports, along with confirmation from the children of their accuracy at times provided insight in my research as to where the Schwabe siblings were and what they were doing. Maurice’s grandparents Salis and Julia Schwabe appear in the journals in a description of a hypnotism party they held with the Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind.

In 1885, an account of a meeting of a Psychical Research group elicited the following response:

A correspondent of Truth—‘‘ Whats in a name?” asks Juliet—writes that the ladies at a Psychical Research meeting “seemed to be in that semi-dazed state which is half-way between hysteria and lunacy,” and the men ‘‘ more or less in tho same condition as the weaker vessels.” Then, why weaker? ‘‘ The only celebrity present was Oscar Wilde ”—-as if that would account for the condition alike of the men and women. If there are men capable of writing such stuff to newspapers, we must still wonder that there are editors stupid enough to print it.

There was also an 1890 account of Oscar Wilde attending a demonstration by a psychic.

The archives reveal a seemingly endless desire for conversations with the dead poet. Tales of Wilde speaking through seances and Ouija boards abound. There were even tales of Oscar’s ghost wandering among us, like this one published in The Light in 1935.

And finally, as promised, O.L. Holland sent this letter to The Light in 1938 describing a spiritual encounter with his sister just before her death.

Lord Alfred Douglas: Modern Mystic

The International Association for the Preservation of Spiritualist and Occult Periodicals archives its collection at the Internet Archive.

One of the surprising discoveries is a 1937 article by Catholic convert Lord Alfred Douglas in a publication called Modern Mystic.

“Lord Alfred Douglas, who contributes an article to this issue,” wrote the editor, “is perhaps the finest living poet in the sonnet form. Some of his work is being set to music by Havergal Brian, a composer whose real stature is by no means fully appraised. The work is being scored on Brian’s usual massive lines; an orchestra of Berliozian proportions and full chorus. The same composers Gothic symphony, the last movement of which is a magnificent setting of the Te Deum, has not yet been heard. The cost of the unusually large orchestra and chorus would be prohibitive, although many attempts by America’s leading conductors to secure a performance of the work have been made.”

The story that Douglas relates in his article “A Daniel Come to Judgment” is familiar. He recounted an episode of what he considered divine intervention in his feud with Robert Ross in his Autobiography. Douglas, searching for evidence to back him his claim that Ross was “a sodomite” had gone to meet a man who claimed something had happened between Ross and his son. As I summed up the episode in Oscar’s Ghost:

The account in Douglas’s Autobiography embellishes a rather ordinary episode of showing up at the wrong door with prayers to St. Anthony of Padua and an angelic child appearing to guide him to the right address. He believed it to be “a supernatural experience…mysterious and wonderful.” The boy “had an angelic face and smile. And how did he disappear inn the space of time, a few seconds, between when I let go of his hand and when I looked round again?”

In retrospect this is, perhaps, a bit of a flip way to describe what seems to have been a meaningful experience for him, one he sincerely believed was mystical even if its effect was the ability to gather ammunition in an ongoing feud that was not a stellar example of Christian forgiveness.

The Modern Mystic article was written eight years after the Autobiography. The tone it takes towards the feud with Ross, who at this point had been dead for nearly 20 years, is relatively subdued. This may have been an editorial decision on the part of the publication rather than a reflection of Douglas’s own attitudes towards Ross.

“I will not mention the name of the man whom I libelled (he has been dead for more than fifteen years),” he wrote, “nor will I give any details as to the nature of the accusations I had made against him, in self-defence, and in the last desperate resort, to protect myself against a cruel enemy in a life-and-death struggle in which he was the aggressor and the chooser of the weapons employed.”

Douglas alludes to an argument he was having in print regarding Oscar Wilde’s work, although he refrains from naming the playwright.

I have recently been engaged in a newspaper controversy with a certain dramatic critic who differed with me over the merits or demerits of a play. I admired the play and he did not admire it, and in fact scoffed at it, although it had stood the test of triumphant production and several revivals, and was written by a man whose name is celebrated all over the world as a dramatist and a poet, and who, if he were alive to-day (he has been dead for nearly forty years), would only have to write a new play to find a dozen London managers or producers anxious and eager to compete for the privilege of producing it and paying the highest price for that privilege.

The dramatic critic in question complained that the play (a comedy) which I admired was “melodramatic.” Well, I have found in my own experience, and to my cost sometimes, that Life, of which a play is, or ought to be, the mirror, is melodramatic. The history of my own life is quite as fantastic and melodramatic as any novel by Balzac, and if it had been turned into a novel or a play it would no doubt have been condemned as wildly absurd and improbable by the type of critic who judges the worth of a work of art in literature (poem, play, or novel) by its relation to his own workaday experiences and limited imagination.

Reproduction of Hester Traverse Smith’s automatic writing.

In this period the medium Hester Traverse Smith’s supposed conversations with Oscar Wilde from beyond the grave were a constant subject of discussion, and the spiritualist journals were full of accounts from her and others who claimed to be in communication with the dead poet. (The first thing Oscar supposedly said to Traverse Smith was “Being dead is the most boring experience in life. That is, if one excepts being married or dining with a schoolmaster.”) The same issue of Modern Mystic contained an article by Robert Sherard debunking these communications and at the same time revealing many of his impressions of his friend and of the crime for which he was convicted.

But who that knew anything about Wilde could imagine him asking for pity ? The most extreme superbia, bordering almost on arrogance, was one of his strongest characteristics. Dr. Fodor, I see, quotes from the first script the words “Pity Oscar Wilde” as having been said by the man himself…

I was very glad to see that Dr. Nandor Fodor nowhere quotes from the Psychic Messages the passages in which Oscar Wilde speaks of himself as a criminal. He had never any sense of doing wrong in what he did, and for which he was punished. This is one of the characteristics of the dementia from which many homosexualists suffer. Sir (later Mr.) Roger Casement is a case in point, as also that unfortunate Stuart Mason, one of the most scholarly of men and a worker if ever there was one. Neither of these two men had any idea that they were criminals as the world sees them. They kept careful diaries of their horrible performances. Roger Casement’s diary helped to send him to the gallows, and Stuart Mason’s to prison on more than one occasion. Wilde certainly had no idea he was doing wrong or had done wrong. This is why I have always represented him as irresponsible and therefore free from criminality. On the first night of his third trial I was with him in Oakley Street and he was telling me that what was most painful to him during that painful day was seeing the gang of witnesses whom the prosecution had collected against him. He said: “And they jeered at me when they saw me, but I never did them any harm. I never tried to be anything but kind to them.” And really at that moment his eyes were dimmed with tears. He imagined that his extraordinary love for these boys was nothing but a sisterly or motherly affection, It was the most complete case of biological introversion. The apologetic and whining admissions of criminality which stud the pages of Psychic Messages are as obviously inauthentic as the alleged “ confessions” which Frank Harris professes to have received from Oscar’s own lips on earth…

Sherard did not entirely discount the idea of psychic communication. In fact, what seemed to bother him most about Traverse Smith’s book was plagiarism. Sherard had published his own account of posthumous communication with Wilde’s spirit, an episode involving Andre Gide, in his own book.

“This account, which I gave in my book, The Real Oscar Wilde, seems vaguely to have inspired the automatist or the ouija board in some of the remarks passed through them by Wilde to the world at Mrs. Travers Smith’s séances, though the lady declares that although she knew the book she had not read the passages which I fancy have inspired her subconsciousness.”

Lord Alfred Douglas and Robert Sherard were not the only members of Oscar Wilde’s circle to be featured in the pages of spiritualist publications. Next time I’ll report on a few more gems from the occult publications, including a report from O.L. Holland of a vision he had of his sister, Mrs. Oscar Wilde, just before her death.

Positively

On Good Friday morning, I was driving in my car and I saw the purple cloth draped over a cross at a local Catholic church. It reminded me that it was Easter. I keep a notebook in my car, to jot down thoughts and phrases that come into my head. “It is a time of resurrection, of life returning,” I wrote. “Relearning the habits of being alive.”

Pandemics do not end. They fade into the background. There is no declaration, no celebration in Time’s Square. It’s a process of reorienting yourself, relearning the habits of being alive. Two years ago, my family and I, in our separate houses, watched a livestream of Andrea Bocelli singing in Milan’s empty cathedral, as drone footage showed all of the deserted city centers. I feel a strange nostalgia for those early days, when we were all in lockdown, dazed and confused and recognizing that everyone– everyone on earth– was experiencing the same thing. Today the suffering is diffuse. The big collective efforts happened back then. Picking up the pieces, we’re much more on our own.

A short time after I wrote these thoughts, I tested positive for COVID. (Before you ask, I am vaccinated.) What came as a surprise to me was how emotionally light I felt. After two years of disruption, of constant mitigation and anxiety, the undercurrent of danger, suddenly here was something concrete. For the first time in two years I was not in limbo. There was a floor under me. I had forgotten how certainty felt. I didn’t have to worry about whether I was doing the right things or how anyone was judging my actions. I just need to be sick and get over it. That I know how to do.

In March 2020, at the very beginning of the pandemic, I read an article in the New Yorker by Stephen Greenblatt called “What Shakespeare Actually Wrote about the Plague.” Greenblatt wrote, “It is… striking… that in his plays and poems Shakespeare almost never directly represents the plague…In Shakespeare, epidemic disease is present for the most part as a steady, low-level undertone…”

I remember making a note to myself that I should give some thought to why this might be. Pandemics, I decided, made for poor drama. We like stories of human heroes and villains, where people’s actions produce results. Contagion is too indiscriminate. Perhaps audiences, confronted with so much death, wanted escapism not more of what was already around them.

But as time wore on, the idea of the plague being a “steady low-level undertone” became entirely understandable. Unless you are a doctor or nurse, illness is not the main experience of living through a pandemic. The vast majority of people, even before vaccines, survived their infections. So for most people the overarching pandemic experience is disruption.

Illness recedes, but does not disappear. Life fades in, and then back out. Plans are made, and plans break down. Everything is uncertain and difficult and just a bit of a mess. Viruses are impersonal. They make for unsatisfying villains. Because we can’t go to war with them, we battle each other instead.

Greenblatt noted that only one of Shakespeare’s plays directly references the plague. It is Romeo and Juliet. The plague is the context that keeps a messenger from conveying the important information to exiled Romeo that Juliet is not dead she just appears to be. The messenger is forced to quarantine, can’t get word to Romeo, he arrives and finds Juliet dead and the scene is set for the final tragedy.

We usually talk about Romeo and Juliet as a great love story. But it is not a story of love conquering anything. Romeo, as the play opens, is infatuated with another woman, also a Capulet. What Romeo and Juliet have is not great love, but youthful love. It is passionate, innocent and foolish. Romeo and Juliet are not wordly-wise enough to accept the social constraints of the feuding families. In Romeo and Juliet, the insignificant plot device of the plague reminds us that this is a world where nothing is certain, any plans can be disrupted, and the one thing people feel they have control over is their hatred for “the other.” That is, until the innocent young people remind them of the high price of their foolishness. It is a world a lot like our own.

Yucky Framing: Connecting With People in Tough Times is Good for Your Brand

It is hard to write about depression on social media. First of all, you are depressed, and that is not a state that is famously good for creative output. Beyond that, there is an unwritten rule of social media that thou shalt be positive.

I did a quick search today for advice on how to talk about going through hard times on social media and the first thing I stumbled upon was an article that belongs squarely in the “Yucky Framing” series. It’s from something called the Search Engine Journal and the headline is “How to Use Social Media to Survive & Thrive in Tough Times.” Sounded promising, but the opening line was not at all what I had in mind: “Connecting with people can create strong brand loyalty that stands the test of time.”

After a bit of talk about the “challenges” of these “uncertain times” the article proposes that social media can be used to foster long-lasting relationships with one’s “user base.” Gentle readers, when I imagine who I am speaking to in these posts I am not picturing a “user base.” The article suggests using the 50/50 rule, half your content should be connection building and the other half promotional. Wanna buy a book?

I am not one for a lot of self-disclosure in my posts generally, but if you have been a close reader you might have come across references to my Russian partner. Valery is a ballet dancer and we spend half of the year touring the country teaching ballet master classes. He is my partner in both the business and personal senses of the word. A little more than 15 years ago we started the project in a couple of cities and little by little it grew to 47 states. When 2020 started we were booking two years out and between the tours and writing projects, I was on course to have a very good year.

2021 was to have been our 15th anniversary tour, but embassy staffing issues due to the pandemic meant that although we had visa approval we could not get him a visa. A year went by, the approval expired, we have applied for a renewal. In the meantime, in the political tensions between the U.S. and Russia, the Kremlin is not allowing the U.S. to staff its embassies and they are not processing any visas except for a few emergency cases.

Having your personal relationship and business all tied up together is not for everyone, but it has worked well for us. The problem I have now discovered is that a disruption can leave you without your meaningful work, your income and your relationship all at once. It has been hard, and I don’t know how long we will be in this limbo.

We tend to talk about depression as something akin to a physical disease, a chemical imbalance. It can be. But that answer is also dissatisfying. It doesn’t really say much about the particular experience. Nor does it invite much in the way of reflection or community. I have written here in the past about Van Gogh’s Blues, and the idea that artists are prone to a certain kind of ennui that derives from having a drive to put out creative products that may or may not find an audience at all, which may or may not earn money to survive. The author of Van Gogh’s Blues called it a “meaning crisis,” and that resonated with me, but it is not what I am experiencing now.

John Hari, author of “Lost Connections” said, in the podcast Upstream, that we have been taught to think of depression as an individual problem. “We’ve been told these extraordinarily simplistic stories… Depression is purely a result of a biological malfunction… This thing you think of as an individual problem is largely a response to big changes in the way we live. Think about depression. Depression has doubled in the last 18 months. No one hearing that has any difficulty understanding why. We all know what we’ve just lived through… But what happened in the last 18 months is not some spontaneous chemical imbalance in everyone’s brains. What happened was a huge imbalance in the way we live… If you’re depressed, if you’re anxious, you’re not weak, you’re not crazy, you’re not, in the main, biologically broken, a machine with broken parts. In the main you’re a human being with unmet needs.”

Sometimes things just suck, and you burn out your ability to be resilient for a while. I suspect I am not the only person who has fallen into this state of numbness after a year, two years, of disruption and crisis after disruption and crisis. The scale of the problem defies the “6 things to do today to improve your life” tone of much of our public discourse.

This is by way of apologizing that I have not been a prolific blogger. I have had a lot of thoughts of things I wanted to write about, but no momentum to write them. I hope to share some of them with you in the future. I also apologize that I have been unable to quite pull off the “positive & supportive brand voice” in my post. Maybe next time.

Pandemic Villanelle

I look across an empty space

The tables have been pushed away

I smile but you can’t see my face

Warning signs are everyplace

The children can’t come out to play

I look across an empty space

You turn away, just in case

How long must we survive and wait?

I smile but you can’t see my face

Such an empty form of grace,

The church where no one congregates

I look across an empty space

Ceremonies were replaced

The best laid plans have been undone

I smile but you can’t see my face

When will we finally embrace?

The future has refused to come

I look across an empty space

I smile, but you can’t see my face

Semi-Leagues Further

Well, I have finished a book I was working on for the past eight years or so. I am not sure yet how I am going to get it into the world, but I will keep you posted. One aspect of the research was that it involved a lot of sources in other languages, and I would often go to Google Translate to make sense of them, which provided me with a great deal of mirth if not quotable translation. So while the wait continues for the new book I have decided to pass the time by creating a little quiz. Each of the following is a famous English text, most are poems, but one or two are prose. I have translated them into another language using Google Translate and then back into English. Can you name them? Answers at the end.

1.

How do I like you? Let me count the ways.

I love you in depth and breadth and height

My soul can reach, when you feel invisible

For Human Conclusions and Appropriate Grace.

I love you to the everyday level

Need for great peace, sunshine and candlelight.

I love you freely, as people fight for what is right;

I truly love you, as they turn to Psalm.

2.

I deliberately went to the woods with the desire to live, bringing only the essential facts of life to the fore and seeing if I could learn what it had to teach. I didn’t want to live something that wasn’t life. Living is very important. I also didn’t want to practice resigning unless I needed to. I wanted to live deeply, suck out all the bone marrow of my life, and live like a Spartan, sturdy enough to rout everything that isn’t life.

3.

Everyone kills his loved one

Let everyone hear;

Some make him look bitter,

Someone with a comforting word,

The fearful man works with a kiss,

The warrior with the sword!

4.

Die, fall asleep;

Sleep, perhaps, will dream – yes, that’s the problem:

For in that death dream there may be dreams,

When we shuffle this death coil

Gotta give us a break – that’s respect

It turns such a long life into trouble.

5.

But Musi, you are not your lane.

To prove foresight can be ineffective:

The best Mice an ‘Men plan.

Aft gang

‘lea’e us naught but grief an’ pain,

For happiness worth it!

6.

You can write me in history

With your bitter and complicated lies,

You can trample me on the ground a lot

But still, like dust, I get up.

7.

Semi-leagues, semi-leagues

Semi-leagues furhter,

All in the valley of death

We went for six hundred.

“Forward, light brigade!

Charge for weapons!” he said.

In the valley of death

We went for six hundred.

8.

Because I could not stop dying –

He lovingly stopped me –

The car was held, but we:

And immortality.

9.

Oh, somewhere in this lovely earth the sun is shining,

Somewhere the band is playing, and somewhere the hearts are light;

And where men are laughing, and where children are screaming,

But there is no happiness in Mudville – the mighty Casey has begun to come forward.

10.

There was a time of good, a time of evil, a time of wisdom, a time of stupidity, a time of faith, a time of distrust, a season of Light, a season of Darkness, a spring of hope, a winter of despair, a winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing to go to, we all went straight to Heaven. , we were all moving in the other direction – In short, the times were like the present, so that the most noisy authorities demanded that they be taken only for a higher or worse level at a comparative level.

11.

I say this by sighing

Somewhere in age and age thus:

Two roads parted from a tree, and I –

I took less transported,

And it has made all the difference.

12.

Twas brillig, and sleek toes

Or girona and gymnastics wabe;

All the mimics were borogoves,

And mom is skillful

13.

Then this black bird makes my sad fantasy smile,

Judging by the serious and stern expression on his face,

“Although your coat of arms is shaved and shaved,” I said, “you are certainly not faint-hearted,

Terribly dark and ancient Raven, wandering from the Nightshore –

Tell me what your name is on the Pluto Night Coast! “

The Raven said “Never.”

14.

What is your name? He said, “My name is Love.”

Then the first straightforward turned himself to me

And he cried, “Go, for his name is Sword,

But I love, and I do not want to marry

Alone in a nice garden, until he came

Dark at night; I am True Love, I write

Hearts of boys and girls with mutual respect.”

Then sigh, saying to another, “Have your will,

I am a lover who does not want to say his name. “

15.

I saw the best insanity of my generation destroyed, hysterical bare hungers,

dragging themselves down the Negro streets at dawn, looking for an angry solution,

angel-headed hipsters burn in ancient celestial connection with a star dynamo in a night machine…

16.

Come live with me and love me,

And we will have all the fun to prove,

That valley, grove, hills, and fields,

Woods, or steep mountain yields.

17.

What happens to a postponed dream?

It dries

like a raisin in the sun?

Ή refresh like a wound—

And then run?

Does it smell like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar on top—

like a sweet syrup?

Maybe it just hangs

like a heavy load.

Or is it exploding?

18.

In Exadu did Kubla Khan

Outstanding entertainment setting:

Where Alph, the holy river, fled

With caves that cannot be measured by man

Under the sunless sea.

Then twice five miles of fertile land

The walls and towers were plastered all around;

And there are gardens that sparkle with lilies,

Where the incense tree flourishes;

And here are the ancient forests like the hills,

Increasing areas with green sun.

19.

Old age will graze age

You will stay, and you will be in another woe

Our friend, who is yours,

“Beauty is true, true beauty, – that’s all

You know the earth, and all you need to know. “

20.

Can I compare you to a summer day?

You are more charming and more angry:

Strong winds shake the sweet buds of May,

Summer rent is too short;

The eyes of heaven are overheated,

Often its golden color fades;

Fair trade will ever decline,

Untrimm’d random or natural changing trends;

But your eternal summer will not go away,

Don’t lose the fairgrounds you have to get;

You will not boast of death in his shadow.

As you grow up in the eternal line:

As long as men can breathe or see with their eyes

It lasts so long and it gives you life.

 

 

Answers:

1. “How Do I Love Thee” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning translated into Zulu and back

2. “Walden” by Henry David Thoreau translated into Japanese and back

3. “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” by Oscar Wilde translated into Hawaiian and back

4. “To Be or Not to Be” speech from Hamlet by William Shakespeare translated into Russian and back

5. “To a Mouse” by Robert Burns translated into Thai and back

6. “Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou translated into Tajik and back

7. “The Charge of the Light Brigade” by Alfred Lord Tennyson translated into Ukranian and back

8. “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” by Emily Dickinson translated into Armenian and back

9. “Casey at the Bat” by Ernest Lawrence Thayer translated into Punjabi and back

10. “A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens translated into Turkmen and back

11. “The Road Less Traveled” by Robert Frost translated into Finnish and back

12. “Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll translated into Latvian and back

13. “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe translated into Russian and back

14. “Two Loves” by Lord Alfred Douglas translated into Hmong and back

15. “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg translated into Estonian and back

16. “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” by Christopher Marlowe translated into Hatian Creole and back

17. “Harlem (Dream Deferred)” by Langston Hughes translated into Greek and back

18. “Kubla Khan” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge translated into Xhosa and back

19. “Ode on a Grecian Urn” by John Keats translated into Somali and back

20. “Sonnet 18” by William Shakespeare translated into Mongolian and back

 

How did you do?

Oscar Wilde’s Tomb: Another Oscar’s Ghost Outtake

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.

“Yes.”

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.