Frank Harris's Last Interview
The following article by Raymond Toole Stott appeared in the issue of Everyman magazine for December 10 1931.
It is some years since Frank Harris, who was seventy-five when he died, startled the lierary world with the publication of his frank and outspoken - and still unfinished autobiography. For although he has been recognized as one of the finest exponents of short story writing in the English language, it is as the somewhat notorious author of My Life and Loves that he is more familiarly known to the younger generation.
For the last five years Mr. Harris had been living in Nice. He had a luxurious apartment only a minute or two from the sea, overlooking some beautiful gardens. All round the walls were the originals of the famous cartoons by Spy which brought Vanity Fair an international reputation. He also possessed a unique collection of Galsworthy and Shaw first editions, nearly all of them inscribed to him personally, and of less famous writers who have been indebted to him for help and criticism. One of the most interesting mementoes of his early days was a framed letter written to him by Walt Whitman, whom he considered "the greatest man who has ever come out of America."
When I first visited Mr. Harris he was convalescing from a severe attack of bronchitis. His health of late years had not been at all satisfactory, mainly because he refused to obey doctor's orders and remain in bed. "He is incorrigible," his wife told me. It was difficult to associate ill-health with Mr. Harris, for he simply radiated vitality. In spite of his energetic life - he had been twice round the-world - he had worn well, and looked hardly sixty, and he was still brimful of energy and obviously refused to allow the encroaching years to spoil his enjoyment of them. In appearance he was short and thick-set, with thick luxuriant locks, streaked with grey, and long curled moustaches. His most striking feature were his eyes, which were of a cold, steel blue. But his greatest charm of all was hisvoice. Until one had come under the spell of his beautiful resonant voice with just the faintest touch of an Irish brogue, one knew nothing of the real Frank Harris.
My real motive in approaching Frank Harris was to confirm the rumours that were going round that he was engaged on another novel. I asked him if it were true.
"Yes," he confessed, "but it would be more correct to say that I am contemplating writing one. So far, I have only worked the skeleton out. It will be a novel based on English family life, but I haven't the slightest idea when it'll be finished. A lot depends upon my health." [No such novel ever appeared - AA]
"What made you choose a novel?"
"Well, when I finished my study of Shaw, my wife asked me what I was going to attempt next, and I thought a novel. It might just as likely have been another critical study."
"Which do you consider is your best work?" I then enquired.
"My autobiography," replied Mr. Harris, with a smile, "but perhaps you disagree."
I suggested Unpath'd Waters might prove a better choice.
" Perhaps you're right. It represents a phase of my youth [!? It was published when FH was 56 - AA.] I like to look back upon. I think it is my most finished and characteristic work. I got the title from Shakespeare, by the way," and he quoted softly, "From Unpath'd Waters to Undream'd of Shores." And then, with a change of tone, "Charlie Chaplin, I hear, considers Montes the Matador the best story ever written in the English language. I shan't contradict him because I have an affection for the book myself.""You always think a novel out first ?
"Naturally. It is the only satisfactory way of writing. I invariably spend weeks thinking out what I am going to write, sorting out the characters; getting the sequence right, and so on. Not until everything is clear in my mind do I put pen to paper."
"Do you still find writing easy ?"
"Easier. Writing comes easier as one grows older. That's my experience anyway. The only thing that worries me is writer's cramp; I can't write for days sometimes. I suppose I overdid it in my youth. That is what induced me to try dictating. It is less of a strain. I found it rather difficult at first, but nowadays I dictate the greater part of my work."
"Are you a quick writer ?"
"It depends on what I'm doing. I dictated threequarters of The Bomb in one night. i started dictating at 7.30 in the evening and finished at 6.30 the following morning. Incidentally, I didn't see my typist again for three days."
"May I ask what your methods are?"
"I write the first draft and then have it typed. Then I revise it by hand, and have a second copy typed. From this copy I dictate the final draft. So you see it has been rewritten two or three times. Articles I dictate right off without any revision."
"What do you find is your best time for writing ?"
"I have no regular hours. When I am in good health I am continuously at work. Usually I start about ten, write until twelve, then again from four to seven, and nine to twelve. Occasionally, when I am in a good mood, I go on writing through the night."
I asked him if he had ever attempted a play.
"Yes, I wrote a play over twenty years ago called Mr. and Mrs. Daventry in which Mrs. Patrick Campbell took the chief part. It ran for 198 nights and we all made a lot of money. Mrs. Campbell now tells me she is contemplating reviving it in New York. But I haven't much heart for playwriting. For one thing you can spend weeks on a play; and then it is so pulled about at rehearsals, first by the producer and then by the actors, that when it comes to be produced you hardly recognize it as your own work. The man who produced Mr. and Mrs. Daventry did commission me to write another, but he was so high and mighty about it, I got tired, and the- project fell through. Besides, I can make much more money writing short stories."
"Have you ever contemplated writing for the films?"
"No, but an American film `company have approached me over the film rights of Montes the Matador. I understand they have engaged Sydney Franklyn, the famous American matador for the chief part, but the project is held up because of some complicated law prohibiting the exhibition of bullfights on the screen. So it is all rather in the air at the moment."
He added that four volumes of his remarkable autobiography have already been published - all of them privately - although an unabridged version.is being prepared in French. In this connection it is interesting to note that his American publishers are bringing out an abridged edition of the four volumes similar to that already published in German.
I asked whether he expected the book would be banned when he wrote it.
"Yes, but I have still hopes that one day the censor will see fit to remove the ban. People are getting more broadminded nowadays. Anyway, I'm in fit company, I believe," and he asked whether James Joyce's Ulysses and Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover - " by far the best thing that talented young man ever wrote," were still banned in England.
"Do you travel very much nowadays?"
"Not a great deal. I have been approached by American lecture agencies with very tempting offers, but I have turned them all down. Anyone who has had an experience of lecturing in America will know the reason. As a matter of fact, I did go to America two years ago to lecture on Shakespeare, but it was quite an unofficial visit."
While we were on the subject of America, for which country he has a deep affection since he spent the early part of his manhood there, Mr. Harris gave a very illuminating sidelight on the recent enquiry into the allegations made by young women against certain New York magistrates presiding over the night courts.
When Mr. Harris became Editor in 1916 of Pearsons' Magazine which paper he made a tremendous success from a news point of view, one of his first actions was to conduct a personal investigation of New York's Night Courts, the result of which he published at length in his paper. The public outcry which followed was as great that they were closed.
But during the investigations he was approached by certain individuals who made him tempting offers if he would cease pursuing his enquiries further.
"Of course, I refused," said Mr. Harris, " and the net result was several attempts were made on my life. More than once a sandbag was dropped with a thud at my feet as I was walking g the pavement. Fortunately, as soon as I succeeded in my abject in getting the night courts closed they ceased molesting me. Now, to judge from the newspaper reports, they have drifted back into the old way again."
"Have you any other diversions apart from reading ?" I asked.
"Only my work. I depend chiefly far entertainment upon my friends. Bernard Shaw always drops in when he is this way, and we correspond regularly. Nevinson was here yesterday and he left me a copy of his latest book.'-' On the fly leaf was inscribed "To Frank Harris from one bad boy to another - H. W. Nevinson."
Mention of Bernard Shaw induced me to ask him whether, like his famous contemporary, he was a vegetarian.
Mr. Harris laughed.
"Mr. Shaw occasionally dilates on the benefits he has derived from a vegetarian diet, but I tell him I don't believe in eating grass, and anyway I'm too old to start now.""Do you smoke ? "
"I used to - to excess. But I haven't touched tobacco for years. That is the one thing perhaps on which Shaw and I are agreed."
Before I left I asked him whether he ever contemplates returning to England: In answer he took me to the window and drew aside the curtains. A glorious medley of green lawns and brightly coloured flower beds, bathed in warm sunshine, stared up at me. "Do you wonder," Mr. Harris said softly, "Why I love Nice, when almost every day those gardens are like that. I have a great affection for England, but a greater one for the sun. At my age do you blame me ?"