On This Day – Drivetime – 14 February 1856 – Frank Harris, cowboy, editor, biographer, and bon vivant




Around the time of the foundation of the Irish state it would probably have come as a surprise to many Irish people that the author of ‘that filthy book’ My Life and Loves, the notorious Frank Harris, was a compatriot. But indeed he was. The only mitigating factor in his otherwise unrelievedly Irish origins was that his parents were Welsh, his father being a naval officer from Fishguard. Though this probably had little to do with his voracious sexual appetite and his repeated committal of his sexual history to paper. He had a reputation in the 1890s of being ‘the best talker in London’ at a time when Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw and Winston Churchill provided stiff competition for the title.

Harris, feted by a few as a writer who pushed out the boundaries of journalism and loathed by many as a rampant pornographer, was born in 1856 in Galway. It was his departure from Ireland at the tender age of twelve that began the process that would result in the publication of My Life and Loves. He was sent to school in Wales, didn’t like it, and ran away after a year. Most callow teenagers would have headed for Cardiff …  or London if they were more adventurous. Harris, however, travelled instead to America. There he held down a number of menial jobs before finding his feet in the American west in the 1870s by working as a cowboy.

He was inveigled into that hazardous profession by a man known only as Mexican Bob.  The dangers of the open range included weather, wildlife (literally and metaphorically), water, women, weapons and wrongdoing. Despite his subsequent notoriety Harris managed to avoid the metaphorical wildlife, his youth meant he steered clear of cow-town women and a range of colourful and painful venereal diseases. But he almost succumbed to the literal variety when bitten by a rattlesnake. Only the attentions of two colleagues kept him alive. As in much of his literary output Harris was prone to exaggerate his western adventures. He describes, for example, one incident in which he claimed that he and four other cowboys managed to hold off a one hundred strong raiding party of Native Americans.

Returning to the UK Harris became a successful journalist, his greatest achievement probably being his editorship of the Saturday Review, a periodical which included H.G.Wells and George Bernard Shaw as contributors.

Harris became an American citizen in 1921 and the following year travelled to post-war Berlin where he began publishing, privately, the four volumes of biography / erotica for which he is most notorious.  His descriptions of his alleged sexual encounters, highly graphic for the time and accompanied by illustrations that left nothing to the imagination, resulted in the book being widely banned. Inevitable comparisons were made with D.H.Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Love.  In the US and Britain the ban lasted for over forty years. In addition to describing and probably greatly exaggerating his own sex life he also discussed the nocturnal activities of, amongst others, Charles Stewart Parnell, Randolph Churchill and William E.Gladstone.

Harris numbered Oscar Wilde among his friends. He, sensibly as it turned out, advised Wilde against suing the Marquis of Queensberry for defamation in the trial that destroyed the Irish playwright. Wilde had dedicated his play An Ideal Husband to Harris. So ill-suited was Harris to that particular designation, he was married three times, that we might well assume the playwright had his tongue firmly in his cheek when he did so. Harris also wrote a, not entirely favourable, biography of Wilde. He died, in 1931, of a heart attack at the age of 75.

Frank Harris, cowboy, editor, biographer, and bon vivant was born 158 years ago on this day.