Oscar’s Ghost

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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On This Day in 1900: Oscar Wilde Died in Paris

On November 30, 1900, Oscar Wilde drew his last breath in Paris. His friends Robert Ross and Reginald Turner were at his side.  Robert Ross had sent Lord Alfred Douglas, in Scotland, word that Wilde was dying just the day before.  As he made his plans to return to France, Douglas wrote a letter to Wilde through Ross that said, “Give him my undying love.” This message, and word that Wilde had died, crossed in the mail.

The end of Oscar Wilde’s life is only the beginning of the story I tell in Oscar’s Ghost. Lord Alfred Douglas and Robert Ross would spend most of their lives wrestling with the roles they played in Wilde’s downfall, and fighting over the mansucript Wilde wrote in prison, a long essay in the form of a letter to Douglas, which Ross named De Profundis.

Would you like to know more?

Read some reviews and interviews here.

Or order an autographed copy.

 

“One of the Most Fascinating Gay Love Stories”

The Guardian today published a joint review of Nicholas Frankel’s The Unrepentant Years and my own Oscar’s Ghost. called Oscar’s Ghost “a fascinating account of the feud between Robert Ross and Alfred Douglas and of Wilde’s legacy…” and concludes:

 

While the relationship between Wilde and Douglas cannot simply be seen as just a great tragic love story that was thwarted by dark forces, nonetheless the complications that beset it, and the personalities of the two lovers themselves, make it one of the most fascinating gay love stories.

The Battle for Oscar Wilde’s Legacy

oscar-bosie

Thank you to Jacke Wilson for having me on the wonderful History of Literature Podcast.  Really an excellent interview and great to speak to someone so knowledgeable about literature. You can stream or download the interview, and I hope you will! Here is the description:

In Episode 87, we looked at the trials of Oscar Wilde and how they led to his eventual imprisonment and tragically early death. This episode picks up where that one left off, as the incarcerated Wilde writes a manuscript, De Profundis, that eventually leads to a bitter feud between two of his former friends and lovers. Laura Lee, author of Oscar’s Ghost: The Battle for Oscar Wilde’s Legacy, joins Jacke to discuss De Profundis, the battle between Lord Alfred Douglas and Wilde’s literary executor Robert Ross, and how Wilde’s legacy grew out of a web of blackmail, revenge, jealousy, resentment, and high courtroom drama.

See You There?

Oscar Wilde NYC

Getting in my little orange Kia and driving to New York City. If you’re in the area, I hope you’ll come see me tomorrow at the Oscar Wilde bar in NYC. A bit far? I’m also on my way to Cleveland and Pittsburgh:

November 4: New York, NY: Oscar Wilde NYC. 2-4 PM. Book signing. [Learn more!]

November 6: Cleveland, OH: Cuyahoga Public Library Beachwood Branch. 7:00-8:00 PM. Discussion of Oscar’s Ghost and book signing. Free but advance registration is required.

November 7: Swickey, PA: Penguin Books. 7:00-8:00 PM. Discussion of Oscar’s Ghost. Short talk and book signing.

Also Detroit Metro Area friends, don’t forget the upcoming Oscar Wilde Tea. Be sure to make a reservation for that one, as space is limited, and you want to get in before the cucumber sandwiches are gone:

November 12: Rochester, MI: Tonia’s Victorian Rose Tea Room. 2 PM. Discussion of Oscar’s Ghost and a lovely tea. This is a ticketed event. Here are all the details.

Adventures in Exile

DNkRI9iXUAAbku2La Cause Litteraire today (via its Twitter feed) made me aware that November 1 is the anniversary of the death of Alfred Jarry (pictured right).

This gives me an excuse to share one more of my Oscar’s Ghost outtakes. This passage describes what happened when Oscar was finally granted bail before his second criminal trial:

 

Robert Sherard had rushed to Wilde’s side and was buzzing around, proud to be able to do “menial work for my friend.” This consisted mostly of fetching him glasses of claret. Oscar was deeply depressed and asked Sherard, “Oh, why have you brought me no poison from Paris?” Sherard immediately went to his club library and looked up the effects of various kinds of poison. He told Wilde that he should not consider prussic acid because death only came after forty minute of “indescribable agony.” Wilde decided not to poison himself after all.

Sherard had joined the chorus of people urging him to flee. He was willing “to take the whole care and responsibility of the evasion on my shoulders…” and he took up “counter-police manoeuvers” to see if they were being watched. His emotions were in such a state that Alphonse Daudet, who came to visit him from Paris, was afraid he was losing his mind. Sherard’s dramatizing was exhausting everyone and (Oscar’s brother) Willie Wilde offered to do whatever it took, including to sell his library, to raise the money to send Sherard back to Pairs. Daudet came to the rescue, distracting Sherard by suggesting that they write a book together. The book became Daudet’s My First Voyage: My First Lie, published in 1901.

Sherard would one day write that Wilde’s arrest had ruined his career. After the “crushing blow” he found it difficult to write and his income plummeted. (Writers are always looking for something on which to blame their writer’s blocks and difficulty making a living. Sherard had actually been suffering from financial problems for some time.)

Bosie was no longer encouraging Oscar to stay and fight. He was begging him to come join him on the continent. (Bosie’s brother) Percy Douglas even promised that if he did he would personally reimburse Rev Headlam (who had contributed half of the bail) for his portion of the bail. Sherard, recalled some of the letters that Bosie sent him (which Willie had seen and kept teasing his brother about) “…a curious medley of attractions was set out. There was moonlight on the orange-groves and there were other inducements which need not be particularised.”

Perhaps we can help Sherard on that score. When Douglas arrived in Paris he found a community of artists, sympathetic to Oscar Wilde, who welcomed him into the heart of French Bohemia. The circle revolved around the editors of the Mercure de France, Alfred Vallette and his wife the cross-dressing Rachilde who described herself as a “man of letters” on her calling cards. One of the only women in the circle, she was also the most famous writer of them all.

The Mercure was then based in two second-floor rooms in the three-room home of its editors. It was located on the rue de’l’Ėchaudé off the boulevard Saint-Germain, a dark avenue best known for its many houses of ill repute. The first two rooms were a small reception room, and an office-library. The third was the couple’s bedroom.

There, in a dark red, smoke-filled room, on any given Tuesday could be found an invited assemblage the leading lights the French artistic avant-garde. Paul Valéry referred to them as “a fermenting mix of striking personalities.” They gathered to discuss religion, aesthetics, philosophy, politics and art. There were no formalities, and no servants. Vallette, who hated pretension, opened his own door to his guests himself often dressed in a short jacket paired with his house slippers. Léon-Paul Fargue described the scene, “Almost instantly the little salon was thick with tobacco smoke. The air could be sliced like a loaf, one could barely see anything. All these famous persons seemed as if painted on a canvas of fog…” Wilde had been a habitue of Rachilde’s salon. He once asked if the “enigmatic creature in the black woolen dress” could really be the author of Monsieur Venus.

chat_noir_poster_steinlein-During Wilde’s trials and in the first part of his incarceration Douglas was frequently seen in the famous cabaret the Chat Noir of Rodolphe Salis in the company of the symbolist writer Alfred Jarry, the writer and caricaturist Ernest LaJeunesse and his protoge, the angelic-looking decadent artist Léonard Sarluis. Of Sarluis it was said “La Jeunesse was his mentor and Oscar Wilde was his god.”

As we have seen, Douglas had a religious devotion to the philosophy he believed Oscar Wilde represented. The couple had never been sexually exclusive and so being loyal to the incarcerated Wilde, as Douglas understood it, was not maintaining a chaste celibacy until his return. Rather it was remaining devoted to both Wilde and “the cause.” Being loyal to the cause meant partaking in the sacrament of sex. The extent to which he did so, however, is an open question.

Alfred Jarry’s autobiographical novel Days and Nights disguised the names of the real people who were its characters. The journalist Edouard Julia decoded the names of the characters in penciled notes in his copy, identifying “Bondroit” as Lord Alfred Douglas. The nature of the novel makes it difficult to know exactly how historical these coded adventures were. Sengle, the hero of Days and Nights makes no distinction between day and night– waking consciousness and dreaming. It is all a continuum. Therefore the scene including Douglas could be a faithful memory, an embellished memory or pure fantasy.

The novel describes a group sex scene at Sarluis’s studio, which included Douglas, Sarluis, Henri Albert, Ernest La Jeunesse and one woman, the actress Fanny Zaessinger. The novel dates this as happening before Jarry’s military service in November 1894, but Alastair Brotchie, author of a biography of Jarry, believes it must have happened (assuming it did) around this time.

Bosie wrote from the Hotel des Deux Mondes in Paris on 15 May, “My own darling Oscar, Have just arrived here. They are very nice here and I can stay as long as I like without paying my bill, which is a good thing as I am quite penniless. The proprietor is very nice and most sympathetic; he asked after you once and expressed his regret and indignation at the treatment you had received… Do keep up your spirits, my dearest darling. I continue to think of you day and night, and send you all my love. I am always your own loving and devoted boy Bosie.”

The Times They are A Changin’

I’d like to thank Nataliya Shpylova-Saeed for the interview for The New Books Network. It is always a pleasure to be interviewed by someone who took the time to read your book and to prepare thoughtful questions.

I was especially pleased that Nataliya touched on some of the larger themes in Oscar’s Ghost, the social context in which the feud between Lord Alfred Douglas and Robbie Ross took place. In the early 20th Century London society had an entirely different feel depending on whether you were of Douglas’s social class or of Ross’s. For people like Robbie, the expanding middle class opened up a wealth of possibilities. For Douglas the decline of aristocratic power and fortunes felt like social collapse.

In the interview I touched briefly on how Lord Alfred Douglas moved from being generally conservative to being a proponent of right-wing conspiracies.  The fear that emerged of outside forces and cultural change among the elite of that era has a lot of echoes of our own.

Here in the United States, the conventional wisdom that Trump rode to victory on a wave of anger from displaced workers who were motivated by economic hardship. Researchers who have studied the data have found that this is not true. In fact, Trump voters were better off economically than most Americans, and the poor, white working class was actually slightly more likely to vote for Clinton.  What motivated Trump voters was fear of cultural displacement.  That is, it was people who could always count on being considered the “default” Americans, and know that public policy would be based on what was best for them. Slowly that sense of security has been eroding. They see a future where instead of requiring everyone to learn English they may have to learn Spanish, where the law might not support one’s aversion to two dudes kissing. In short, a world where people who have always had others adapt to them might have to do the adapting. In the UK the Brexit vote was likewise propelled by anti-immigrant sentiment.

There was a similar fierce overcorrection to cultural change in the 20th Century.  Here is a passage that I wrote for Oscar’s Ghost but cut to get the word count down:

The year marked another milestone in the loss of status of the aristocracy. Historian David Cannadine called the 1911 Parliament Bill “the instrument of [the Lords’] permanent emasculation.” It was a blow from which their power and prestige never recovered, ‘the citadel of patrician pre-eminence had finally fallen.’ The bill had come about as the result of proposed budget changes in 1909, which had outraged the Lords. Lloyd George effectively portrayed them idle and self-interested labeling them ‘ordinary men, chosen accidentally from among the unemployed.’ The Lords veto of the budget activated the Liberals, and an emboldened Asquith brought a series of resolutions to the Commons to limit the power of the peers, giving Lord Alfred Douglas yet another grudge against him.

The continued erosion of the aristocrats’ way of life caused a great fear that they were becoming, in the words of D. Pryce Jones, ‘in a scrap heap instead of a social class.’ This caused many of these former masters of all creation to seek scapegoats and to embrace extreme ideologies especially on the far right, but also to the far left. The far right drew from, among other sources, a series of exposes on immigration written by (Oscar Wilde’s friend) Robert Sherard. While his xenophobic articles describing immigrants as physically and morally degenerate did not specifically refer to them as Jewish, there were enough coded references to allow his readers to make the inference. An undercurrent of discourse at this time linked Jews to anarchism and socialism, even though Jewish immigrants were not prominent in those groups; and to criminality, even though statistics did not bear this out. It did not matter that there were no facts to back up the prejudices. A population that feared decay was looking for an outside force to blame. Immigrants, especially of another religion, were an obvious choice.

Freddie Manners-Sutton (a close friend of Lord Alfred Douglas) was prepared to disseminate the most extreme version of such prejudice, by publishing a controversial posthumous work by Sir Richard Burton. The Jew, the Gypsy and El Islam was an attack on what Burton saw as the cruelty of Judaism. Its most contentious chapter claimed that Jews had been involved in human sacrifice and ritual murder. Burton’s executor, W.H. Wilkins, had been skittish about publishing any of the book but felt he could not go against the wishes of the deceased author. He did, however, cut the most offending section. Somehow Sutton got wind of this and bought the chapter from Wilkins with the intent to publish. This led to a lawsuit, in 1911, by D.L. Alexander who claimed Wilkins had no right to sell the material and successfully received an injunction to prevent its publication. These extreme points of view were gaining prominence in certain segments of Bosie’s social circle and its forces were priming his imagination, although it would be a number of years before he would be taken in by the conspiracy theories.

In the long run, these reactions failed to turn back the clock on social change.  I will hazard a guess that the current wave of reactionary politics will not take America back to the “Leave it to Beaver” days either.