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.
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