‘I’m an artist, not a reporter’: Ray Burke on journalist and writer Frank Harris

An Irish Diary on a talent for scandal

More than a century before the advent of what’s called the post-truth era in politics and journalism, a distinguished Fleet Street editor gave scandal when he declared: “Any damned son of a bitch can put down what he’s heard. I’m an artist, not a reporter”.

The editor, Galway-born Frank Harris, was responding to accusations that he had fabricated an interview with the Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle. Harris insisted that he had had several conversations with Carlyle and that his controversial portrait of him was “imaginary”.

Harris is best remembered for his five-volume autobiography My Life and Loves, first published in 1925 when he was in his 70th year. Described by one reviewer as “sufficiently pornographic to be banned in most countries”, it led to the publication of no fewer than nine biographies or part-biographies of Harris himself. One of these was titled Lies and Libels of Frank Harris; another was subtitled The Life and Loves of a Scoundrel.

Harris need not have embellished his life story. Many of its facts are undisputed and extraordinary. He was born in 1856 in Galway city, where his father was based as a Royal Navy lieutenant commanding a revenue cutter. Sent as a boarder to a harsh grammar school in Denbigh, north Wales, at the age of 12, Frank Harris absconded three years later with a £10 scholarship prize and made his way to Liverpool, where he bought a one-way ticket to America.


In New York he worked initially as a shoeshine boy and, for a month, as a labourer in the highly dangerous and back-breaking but lucrative excavation of the foundations for the Brooklyn Bridge. He then moved to Chicago, where he worked as a hotel bookkeeper before venturing further West, first as a cattle driver, and later a cattle rustler. A chance meeting on a train led to his abandoning physical labour to obtain a law degree at the University of Kansas.

Returning to Europe, he spent time in Paris and attended universities in Heidelberg and Athens without graduating before settling in London, where he talked his way into being appointed editor of the Evening News at the age of 27. He massively increased its circulation (“tenfold”, he claimed) but he was sacked within four years. By the age of 30 he was editor of the Fortnightly Review and eight years later he purchased and edited the Saturday Review. There, he appointed the young George Bernard Shaw as drama editor and he hired HG Wells to review novels, and Thomas Hardy and Rudyard Kipling to write poetry and prose.

He sold the Saturday Review for a large profit but squandered the money on bad investments. He edited a number of smaller magazines, including Vanity Fair and Hearth and Home, and he was sent to Brixton Prison for contempt of court after an alleged defamation in another small magazine he edited, Modern Society. His support for Germany during the first World War was one of the reasons for his return in 1915 to New York, where he edited Pearson’s Magazine. Denied a visa to return to England, he settled in Nice in the south of France, where he died in 1931.

The notoriety of the unexpurgated My Life and Loves endures. An episode extracted by Edna O’Brien for her 1979 book Some Irish Loving begins: “It was at Ballinasloe that I was surprised by the sheer loveliness of the innkeeper’s daughter.”

Unreliability and alleged plagiarism notwithstanding, Harris’s literary legacy is not inconsiderable. As well as numerous articles for magazines in England, the United States and France, he also wrote 25 books and a stage play. He wrote three books on Shakespeare in three successive years. His magazine articles on Shakespeare were described as “surely brilliant” in James Joyce’s Ulysses. His biography of George Bernard Shaw sold 21,000 copies on the day that it was published in London and it became a bestseller in the US. His biography of his longtime friend Oscar Wilde was acclaimed by critics but challenged by some of Wilde’s friends and family.

Wilde, like Shaw, remained loyal to Harris when others abandoned and condemned him. Wilde dedicated his 1895 play An Ideal Husband to Harris, but he declined to take Harris’s advice to flee London during the Old Bailey trial that resulted in his being sentenced to two years’ hard labour.

Wilde’s quip about his friend may have been as accurate as it was acerbic. He said: “Frank Harris has been received in all the great houses of England – once!”