His Life? His Loves? | Newberry

His Life? His Loves?

Would you pay $1,000 for the autobiography of a Chicago hotel clerk? Would you pay that if what was for sale was just the first volume of a four (maybe five) volume book? Of course, each volume was published in severely limited editions, but still….

I’ll tell you the truth, kumquat dumpling: if I had a good copy for sale, I might well ask that. And that despite the fact that when I read it, I didn’t think much of it.

His story starts in a typical way: Irish kid is sent off to school, doesn’t like it, and runs away. At the age of 14, he winds up in New York City, where one more Irish kid would not be so unusual. He worked at a bunch of nothing jobs—shining shoes, building the Brooklyn Bridge—before he got old enough to move west. He wound up in Chicago, where one more Irish teenager wasn’t that much of a novelty either, and worked as a hotel clerk. At the hotel, he met a lot of cattlemen in town on business, and was inspired to head west again, where he worked as a cowboy. Eventually he got bored with Texas, and studied law at the University of Kansas.

He was admitted to the bar, and got tired of THAT, so at the age of 27, he went back across the pond and made himself a legend in his own mind…time. He was an important editor, championing the more liberal side of the literary world (George Bernard Shaw was one of his regular contributors), and among other things, is said to have tried to interview Robert Browning by asking, “Did you learn everything you know about sex from Elizabeth Barrett?” (Browning turned away and did not reply.)

When World War I started he went back to the United States, but his liberal stance became less popular when we entered the war. He got tired of defending his magazine (at one point banned by the post office) and looked around for new things to do. So he went off to Europe, where he found publishers who would print the erotic adventure novel he called his memoirs. One reviewer accused him of resorting to the truth only when he couldn’t make up something more interesting. He died not long after the so-called autobiography saw print, and whether or not he actually wrote the fifth volume, published thirty years later, is a controversy that would have amused him very much.

This was the larger than life literary genius (his letterhead proclaimed that he and Shakespeare enjoyed a friendly rivalry for supremacy) Frank Harris, whose My Life and Loves became an underground classic, telling about his magazines (about a fourth of the text) and his escapades with women (all the rest.) The early parts of this novel were made into a movie, Cowboy, starring no less than Jack Lemmon as the Irish kid trying to make good. The individual parts were printed in small numbers, as purchasers were almost certain to see the book confiscated by Customs if they tried to take it home, and by the 1960s, only Grove Press, a publisher which liked to push the envelope, cared to publicly offer a one-volume edition for sale.

Some of the truth of his story can be found in literary memoirs which discuss matters at the turn of the last century. Frank Harris is remembered as a Presence (you always knew if he was in the crowd) and a genuine champion of unpopular causes: antiwar in a time of war, disdaining the fine dining habits of the rich in an era of opulence. (He sneers at one unnamed man in his memoirs who, he said, could think of nothing but the next meal. This in a thousand page book about his quest for the next bedroom.) His defense of Oscar Wilde was public, unashamed, and occasionally a nuisance. (Wilde once told him, “You are defending me at the risk of MY life.”) You can find any one of a dozen publicity photographs of him online: a big man with a big mustache, absolutely the embodiment of the melodrama villain.

And, come July, you will probably find one of those fat paperback Grove Press reprints of My Life and Loves in the Books and Authors section. I am sure you will buy it mainly to read about being a Chicago hotel clerk in the 1870s, but go ahead and browse through the rest of it. See if YOU think of Jack Lemmon.

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