Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for the ‘Oscar Wilde’ Category

Happy 150th Birthday, Robbie Ross!

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 25th May, 2019

Edwin Thomas, Gyles Brandreth, JF“A real friend,” declared the American gossip columnist Walter Winchell, “is one who walks in when the rest of the world walks out.” That statement perfectly encapsulates Robert Baldwin Ross, erstwhile lover and devoted friend and literary executor to Oscar Wilde as well as mentor to several younger writers, including the First World War poet, Siegfried Sassoon. Last night, in the gorgeous ballroom of the Savile Club in Mayfair, members of the club and of the Oscar Wilde Society gathered to celebrate Robbie Ross’s 150th birthday, which falls today. The club Chairman, Robert Harding, spoke of Robbie’s short tenure at the Savile (at that time based on Piccadilly), as well as of Oscar Wilde’s failed attempt to join. The actor Edwin Thomas, who played Robbie in Rupert Everett’s film The Happy Prince, read the speech that Robbie had himself given at a huge dinner at the Ritz Hotel in 1908, when Wilde’s creditors had all been paid off (largely thanks to German interest in his work). The chef at the Savile recreated deliciously much of the menu of that event over a hundred years ago. I gave the after-dinner speech highlighting Robbie and the value of friendship. Gyles Brandreth was the Master of Ceremonies.

Robbie Ross cover 1Ross was born in Tours, France, on 25 May, 1869, but moved to London with his widowed mother and siblings while still a child. He was precocious and cheeky and remarkably confident in his own sexuality; at age 17 while a house guest he seduced Oscar Wilde. Later he was friends with Oscar’s passion, Lord Alfred Douglas, until they had a terrible falling-out. “Bosie” Douglas then persecuted Robbie for years, the stress undermining Robbie’s already weak constitution. For several years he had rooms in an extraordinary establishment run by Nellie Burton at 40 Half Moon Street, Shepherd’s Market — a haven for bachelor men of letters. It was there (and at the Reform Club) that Robbie entertained Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and others. I wrote about all this in my biography, Robbie Ross, which is still available in paperback and as an ebook:


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Taking Oscar Wilde to Kazakhstan

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 20th December, 2018

01D71BDB-BC00-4005-8EF1-0221582BB0EFEarlier this month I did a whirlwind lecture tour of Almaty, Taraz and Kulan in Kazakhstan, in the company of the Aitmatov Academy’s Director, Rahima Abduvalieva. The trigger for the visit was the 90th anniversary celebrations of the esteemed Kyrgyz writer, Chinghiz Aitmatov, author of Jamila and other novellas and short stories, as well as evocative memoir. I had prepared a lecture on interesting parallels between Aitmatov and Oscar Wilde, which I delivered at Al-Farabi and TIGU universities. Though the two writers lived in different centuries, thousands of kilometres apart, they were both outsider-insiders, who had moved from the colonial periphery — Ireland and Kyrgyzstan — to the metropolis (London and Moscow) and won literary success. That was all the more remarkable in the case of Aitmatov, whose father was a victim of Stalinist oppression as an “enemy of the people”.

9326E15F-E174-4CA8-A6F2-71AACBE68C7CIn Almaty I gave master classes on Wilde’s life and work to both Kazakh and Russian language philology students and presented copies of my short biography of Oscar Wilde to the universities. I was interviewed in Kulan by a local TV channel, and on my return to London took part, with Rahima Abduvalieva, in a full-length programme on Chinghiz Aitmatov for the BBC Kyrgyz Service. Oscar Wilde was of course a major feature of my contribution then as well, and I like to think that he would have guffawed with pleasure at the thought of having been transported to the Kazakh steppes.

The BBC Kyrgyz programme is available on YouTube.

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The Robbie Ross Centenary

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 5th October, 2018

Robbie Ross photoOne hundred years ago today, the Canadian art dealer and literary figure Robert Baldwin Ross — Robbie to his friends — died in London at the age of 49. He had made the British capital his home, though he was born in France and had plans to move to Australia to establish a gallery. His health had been poor, yet his death was unexpected and received little public attention in a country focussed on the final stages of the First World War. But for a close band of friends — including young poets such as Siegfried Sassoon, to whom he had served as a mentor — the news was a shock. Robbie was cremated and his ashes later transferred to Paris to be placed in the tomb of playwright Oscar Wilde, to whom he had been a devoted friend, lover and literary executor. That relationship with Wilde somewhat overshadowed other aspects of Robbie’s life and was in sharp contrast to Oscar’s tempestuous affair with Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas. Douglas cost Wilde a fortune, as well as his reputation, and was instrumental in Wilde’s conviction for gross indecency. Robbie, on the other hand, was waiting for Oscar in France when he was released from prison, together with a significant sum of money that had been raised from friends and supporters. It was he who managed Oscar’s allowance — delivered in installments, as he knew the profligate Oscar would blow the lot if given the chance — and after Wilde’s death it was Robbie who carefully managed the literary estate so that Wilde’s two sons would benefit. In December 1908, a grand dinner at the Ritz Hotel in London was held to honour Robbie when Wilde’s debts were cleared, and it is in the spirit of that dinner that some of us will be celebrating Robbie’s 150th birthday next May. Coincidentally, Rupert Everett’s film The Happy Prince, about Wilde’s last two years of life, prominently features Robbie, played by Edwin Thomas, is now in cinemas on both sides of the Atlantic and available on DVD. My own biography of Robbie is available as a paperback and ebook:

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The Happy Prince ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 16th June, 2018

The Happy Prince 1In Richard Ellmann’s magisterial biography of Oscar Wilde, the Irish playwright’s final couple of years — in other words, the period between his release from prison and his death in the Hotel d’Alsace in Paris — gets somewhat short shrift, partly because Ellmann himself was a dying man as he struggled to complete his book. I have long maintained that that means that Wilde’s exile is nearly always portrayed as pure tragedy, whereas in fact any close reading of his voluminous letters from 1897 to 1900 makes clear he enjoyed many good times and sexual encounters in France and Italy, free of the moral strictures of perfidious Albion (less so in Switzerland, where he thought the people looked like turnips). Indeed, as his devoted friend and first homosexual lover, Robbie Ross, recalled soon after Oscar’s death, apart from a few barren periods when his monthly allowance ran out, he was able to have champagne every day. I was delighted that in Rupert Everett’s films, The Happy Prince, which is now on release in London, the champagne does indeed flow. As do the willing youths of Naples and the Paris boulevards, including the delightful young soldier Maurice Gilbert, who was passed around among members of what would in the 1930s would wittily be dubbed The Homintern of well-connected queer gentlemen.

The Happy Prince 2But Rupert Everett (who wrote, directed and partly produced The Happy Prince, as well as playing the lead role) focuses particularly on the tragic triangle of Oscar’s main loves: his wife Constance (by this time handicapped after a fall down stairs in the House Beautiful in Tite Street and doomed to die before her husband), Robbie Ross, and the “golden boy”, Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas. Colin Morgan (unrecognisably blond) was an inspired choice to play Bosie, as he radiates exactly the sort of pretty petulance and sporadic vindictiveness that made Bosie mad, bad and dangerous to know — a true scion of the Black Douglases. At times one wants Oscar just to slap him, though one knows that he won’t, besotted as he is, despite everything that has happened. Instead, it is (in this film’s imaginative relating of the story) Robbie — sensitively and beautifully played by Edwin Thomas — who lashes out at Oscar’s graveside. But it is an empty victory, because everyone has in fact lost, in the battle for Oscar’s love and compassion.

The Happy Prince 3Rupert Everett’s own portrayal of Wilde externalises the playwright’s inner torments and bitter regrets, so that his face is often distorted and his visage a ravaged mockery of his own glittering past — a sort of walking Picture of Dorian Gray, brought down from the attic. I am not convinced that Oscar or Reggie Turner (Colin Firth, as one has never seen him) would have been quite so ready with the expletives as they are in the film. But a lot of the scenes are redolent of fin-de-siecle atmosphere and historical fact, though the notion recounted that Robbie Ross at the age of 17 picked up Oscar in a public lavatory was actually the scurrilous tittle-tattle of the self-aggrandising pornographer Frank Harris, rather than the more prosaic truth that Robbie came into Oscar’s orbit because Constance (Emily Watson in the film) and Robbie’s mother were both active in the Chelsea Women’s Liberal Association. Of course, film-makers must be allowed some poetic licence, and Everett only had the length of a feature film to put over his concept of Wilde, a person who has dominated much of his artistic thinking for years (as it did earlier with Stephen Fry). The title of the film comes from Oscar’s first real literary success, a book of short stories for children, originally composed for his young sons, Cyril and Vyvyan, but then polished and made suitable for an adult audience as well, with a profound moral message, unlike some of the sanctimonious twaddle wrapped up in some other Victorian fairy tales. The story is used imaginatively to bookend the film, and is at other times cleverly woven into the narrative. So although this movie is not perfect, there is much in it that is beautiful, and sad, and gives one cause for reflection.

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In Memoriam Jeremy Thorpe

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 4th December, 2014

Jeremy ThorpeJeremy Thorpe, who has died aged 85 after a long battle with Parkinson’s Disease, was a politician of great charm and brilliance who was brought down by a persistent streak of recklessness that prevented him achieving his full potential. The scion of a family steeped in Conservatism, he dressed like an Edwardian but identified himself as a radical at a time when the Liberal Party — saved from oblivion by the canny and charismatic Jo Grimond — was distinctly unfashionable. I first met Jeremy when I was Secretary of the Oxford University Liberal Club about 1971 and he came to speak at the Oxford Union, as Liberal Leader. He was funny and gracious, a scintillating speaker and at heart a great showman. Which other party leader in those days would have dreamt of conducting an election tour by hovercraft? But he very nearly destroyed the Party he loved by his feasting with panthers (as Oscar Wilde would have put it), though in Jeremy’s case it was not a young Scottish aristocrat who would prove to be his nemesis, but a stable lad and sometime male model, Norman Scott, who became the target of an extraordinary plot by some of Jeremy’s associates, which famously led to the death of Rinka the dog. It should be stressed that in the subsequent trial Thorpe himself was found not guilty of conspiracy to murder, but the case against him could hardly have been more damaging to his political cause. Yet he rashly thought (wrongly) that the people of North Devon might forgive him and re-elect him. Jeremy was bisexual, but too traditional to admit that publicly, and the lies he told to some of his parliamentary colleagues to cover up his true nature made him persona non grata with some in the Liberal Party and then the Liberal Democrats who never forgave him, though others of us remained faithful friends. His second wife, the concert pianist Marion Stein — who predeceased him — was amazingly resolute in her support for him and it was always a pleasure to visit them at the beautiful house in Orme Square that she had received in settlement from her previous husband, the Earl of Harewood. The last time I saw them together was at Jeremy’s 80th birthday celebrations at the National Liberal Club, when they were both in wheelchairs, and one had to get very close to Jeremy to hear what he was saying. But his brain remained razor sharp till the end.

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