Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘Robbie Ross’

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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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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Holy Smoke! Oscar’s in with the Vatican!

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 17th July, 2009

TG*558099The Irish playwright Oscar Wilde flirted with Catholicism for most of his life. He was tempted to convert while an undergraduate at Oxford, but he was threatened with disinheritance by a fervently Protestant relative if he did, so perversely and typically became a freemason instead. He was later minded to follow his young seducer and devoted friend Robbie Ross into the Roman Church, but Robbie suspected (rightly) that Oscar would never be able to take the faith seriously. After all, Wilde had declared that ‘I am not a Catholic; I’m simply a violent Papist!’ and on another occasion, that the Catholic Church was ‘for saints and sinners alone. For respectable people the Anglican Chiurch will do.’ When he went to Rome after his release from prison, where he had served two years with hard labour for gross indecency with various young male persons, he was so excited by an audience with the Pope that he thought his walking stick was going to burst into bud, or so he quipped. This did not stop him engaging in a some hanky-panky with a young ordinand behind the altar in an Italian church.

It is all the more remarkable, therefore, that a new study of Wilde, by the Italian writer Paolo Gulisano, has just received a laudatory review in the Vatican’s official newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano. Wilde is described in the article as a man ‘who, behind a mask of amorality, asked himself what was just and what was mistaken, what was true and what was false.’  It lauded him as ‘one of the personalities of the 19th century who lucidly analysed the modern world in its disturbing as well as its positive aspects.’ Wilde was eventually received into the Church on his death-bed in a small hotel in Paris. More than a century later, he has become a sort of secular saint, an iconic figure in the struggle for sexual liberation. But given the views on homosexuality held by the current Pope, Benedict XVI, it is hard to believe that Oscar is quite on the road to canonisation yet.

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Robbie Ross at the Ritz

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 1st December, 2008

A hundred years ago today, the cream of London’s literary and artistic world (sugared with a sprinkling of aristocracy) gathered for a huge dinner at the Ritz Hotel in London to honour Robbie Ross, Oscar Wilde’s devoted friend and literary executor, who had just succeeded in clearing off the late playwright’s debts and thereby brought his bankruptcy to an end. Henceforth, Wilde’s two sons, Cyral and Vyvyan Holland, would be able to benefit from the proceeds of Wilde’s literary estate. Though the dinner was a tribute to Robbie Ross’s tireless efforts over the preceeding eight years, it also marked a milestone in Wilde’s posthumous rehabilitation. There was one notable absence from the occasion, however: Oscar’s nemesis, Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas, who boycotted the event.

Last night, a much smaller but nonetheless splendid dinner was held, also at the Ritz, to mark the centenary of that remarkable gathering, as well as to reiterate the tribute to Robbie Ross, whose biography I wrote. Organised by leading lights of the Oscar Wilde Society (of which I am a Patron), the celebration was marked by very short readings from letters of appreciation from guests at the original dinner, some of whom complained about the length and poor quality of the speeches, with the notable exception of that by Robbie Ross himself, whose words — reprinted in an elegant souvenir pamphlet given to guests last night — still bring a lump to the throat as an extraordinary testament to friendship and determination.


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