Oscar Wilde and Thomas Langrell Harris
—A Guest Blog by Matthew Sturgis—
In February of 1900, Oscar Wilde wrote to his young friend and admirer, Louis Wilkinson, lamenting, ‘I am very sorry you are in correspondence with Langrel Harris [sic]. He is a most infamous young swindler, who selected me – of all ruined people – to swindle out of money. He is clever, but little more than a professional thief. He introduced himself to me, and induced me to make myself responsible for his hotel bills, left me to pay them, and stole money besides. What the French call “un sale individu”. Don’t write to him any more, or know him. But how did you know him? Please tell me by return.’1
In Merlin Holland and Rupert Hart-Davis’s magisterial 2000 edition of Wilde’s letters, a short note remarks – ‘This curiously named character [Langrel Harris] has eluded identification.’ In the past twenty years, however, the World Wide Web has grown ever larger and ever finer – and it has become possible to catch even such elusive figures – and recover something of their fugitive careers. And the career of Thomas Langrell Harris – as he was more properly called – was fugitive in more senses than one.
Wilde met Harris as a young American artist in Paris – talented, handsome, in his early twenties, seemingly well-connected and even well-to-do; with an air, too, of sexual danger about him, and – perhaps – sexual availability. Although he never attended university, he may possibly have been the new friend that Wilde described to Robbie Ross (on 6 June 1899) as ‘a charming American youth, expelled from Harvard for immoral conduct!’ – adding, ‘He is very amusing and good-looking.’2
Langrell Harris certainly was amusing and good looking, and prone to immoral acts. He had been born in Petersburg, Illinois – on 29 October 1876. His father, Harry Harris, a coal and grain merchant, named the infant after his late and illustrious grandfather, Congressman Thomas Langrell Harris, hero of the Mexican war, and sometime political sparring partner of Abraham Lincoln’s.
His childhood in Petersburg remains pretty much a blank. The family moved in the early 1890s to Kansas City, Missouri. And it was there, in the growing metropolis (pop. c. 150,000) that the young ‘Tommie Harris’ developed his artistic talents. Although there is no evidence that he attended the Kansas City Art Institute (where Walt Disney was later a student), he seems to have been able to acquire an impressively international and experimental outlook – encouraged no doubt by the many European art periodicals that were available in the States. (The Yellow Book was not alone in being published simultaneously in England and America.)
His Kansas City contemporaries viewed his work as daringly ‘impressionist’.3 He was described, elsewhere, as being ‘evidently strongly influenced by such draughtsmen and designers as Degas and Steinlen.’ His colour and composition were praised as ‘both remarkably audacious and striking’ while his ‘drawing, summary and suggestive, flexible and free,’ was thought to have ‘in it an element of wit and pungency which is highly enjoyable.’4
As a precocious youth he got work doing black-and-white drawings for a local newspaper, while establishing his own practice in making miniature portrait paintings, which – for all there stylization and ‘daring’ use of colour – were considered to evince an ‘astonishing ability in characterization’.5
He was recognised as a young man of strong enthusiasms and erratic passions. One tale was told of how, having had an ‘idea for a painting,’ he insisted on being locked in his rooms to work on it, fearing that otherwise he lacked the ‘will and application’ to carry out his vision. ‘There he stayed constantly for seven days and seven nights painting at intervals on the canvas. Each evening the friend [who had taken responsibility for his well-being] would call to see him. Harris sat before his canvas and on a table at his side was a pint bottle of whisky and boxes of cigarettes. Intermittently he drank whisky and smoked and painted. The painting was finished. It was an impressionist study of Life and Death presented as the figures of women. Afterwards he tore the canvas to shreds.’6
By such stunts – no less than by his actual work – he soon gained a reputation as ‘an embryonic genius’, and it was a vision that he readily endorsed. He felt that he was an exceptional figure. There was no doubt that, simply on a visual level, he stood apart from his peers. One contemporary recalled, ‘He looked like a handsome girl masquerading as a boy’.7 And he ‘frequently startled his more prosaic acquaintances with his ideas of color and dress.’ On one memorable occasion he created a sensation by appearing ‘on the street… wearing a cowboy hat and a monocle.’8
Disliking his ‘slight’ and effeminate looks, he compensated for them with his extraordinary daring and assurance – an assurance that both got him into trouble and helped him out of it. He developed a blithe disregard for consequences, for money, and for personal property.
It was said: ‘If Harris met a friend who was dead broke and he was without money himself, he would take him to the best café in town and order a sumptuous dinner and tell them to charge it. If they wouldn’t charge it well they couldn’t take it away from him, they could not kill him.’’9
On another occasion he wanted a piano: ‘across the hall from his studio were the rooms of a teacher of music. Young Harris calmly rolled the piano into his own room and enjoyed it, while the mystified and unhappy music teacher nearly burst a blood vessel trying to think how on earth the piano had disappeared.’10
He framed such pranks as part of a campaign of self-realisation. One of his typical assertions was that ‘999 of 1,000 people are afraid to do anything. They cling to the place where they find themselves. At best they crawl about holding on. They hold on to laws and precedents and standards and fear miserably to let go. Genius is freedom – independence.11 He regarded himself as that one man in a thousand.
It is tempting in all this (the posing, the dandyism, the willful extravagance, the refusal to conform, the desire to shock, the need for ‘independence’) to see the influence of Oscar Wilde. And it is certainly possible – likely even – that the young Harris read The Picture of Dorian Gray, and perhaps Intentions too. Both had been published in the U.S. and were readily available.
And perhaps there was more. The young Harris seems to have fallen out with his parents. (He was later described as having been ‘adopted’ by an aunt – although this seems to have been an exaggeration.) The grounds for the family rift are unknown. The break could have been due to Tommy’s reckless expenditure; or it may have had a sexual dimension. The references in posthumous newspaper articles to the boy’s girlish good looks and ‘queer ideas’ may well convey – either innocently or knowingly – a suggestion of homosexuality. If so, Wilde’s fall and imprisonment would have had a special interest and resonance for him.
By 1898 the twenty-one-year-old Harris was ready to escape the provincial confines of Kansas City, and make his bid for freedom and independence. The great ‘goal of his ambition’ was to get to Paris, the home of Art and artistic experiment.12 But he did not take a direct route. Although his movements are hard to follow with certainty, he seems to have gone first to New York.
There he was able to support himself ‘partly through an income derived from the sale of portraits and partly through the indulgence of a patron’. (Whether this patron also had a sexual interest in the young artist is unknown, but something in the phrasing suggests the possibility.) Harris ‘opened a studio on Sixteenth street near Broadway… two little rooms in the back part of a large building. And he painted at intervals with curious intensity.’ Amongst those who sat for one of his miniature portraits was the stage star Mrs Leslie Carter – who was just then enjoying a huge success in the risqué French drama, Zaza.13
After some months, however, Harris moved on to Montreal.14 He was equipped with a letter of introduction which ‘speedily admitted him to a rather fashionable literary and art circle.’ As in New York he opened a studio and was soon getting commissions to paint miniatures of the fashionable and well-to-do. ‘Invariably well dressed’, he cut a distinctive figure. In what would seem to have been an homage to Wilde’s celebrated American lecture-tour outfit, he ‘usually wore a pair of knickerbockers when engaged in his artistic operations.’15
The moment, however, did not last. Harris left Montreal, without warning or ceremony, when one of the city’s leading tailors – through whom Harris had ‘replenished his wardrobe’ – tried to call in his debt.16
Harris went south to Boston, arriving in the late autumn of 1898. Perhaps he had other letters of introduction. Certainly he gravitated, once again, to a charmed circle of artistic movers and shakers. He secured as a champion, and a friend, the aesthete, photographer (and publisher of both Wilde and Beardsley), F. Holland Day. Indeed the thirty-four-year-old, homosexually inclined, Day, became quite infatuated with the ‘beautiful boy’.17 He made numerous photographic studies of him – in ‘a Golf suit’, in his knickerbockers, dressed in quasi-Biblical robes – together with one powerful full-frontal nude image, showing the lithe young man with his arms above his head, his face in shadow.18
Fred Holland Day (1864—1933) c/w his nude study of Langell Harris >
Day also developed a ‘great admiration’ for Harris’s own art. He began making a collection of his drawings and portrait miniatures, and even, it seems, encouraged the young man to experiment with photography.19
Day – whatever his personal feelings – was a keen judge of art, and his admiration for Harris’s work suggests that there was real quality there. His friend, the photographer, Edward Steichen, also recalled the collection as a trove of ‘treasures’ – and referred to Harris, as ‘one of the biggest men of our time’ artistically. (This was in 1907 when he was soliciting Day for a selection of Harris’s pictures for an exhibition of ‘modern paintings’, to be held at the New York ‘Camera Club.’ Unfortunately, though, the entire collection had been lost three years earlier in a fire at Day’s studio. And no other examples of Harris’s work have been identified. It is a tantalizing lacuna.)20
Day’s friends were not entirely won over by ‘the Harris Child’. Louise Imogen Guiney thought him ‘an awful little barbarian, despite his cleverness’.21 While Day’s fellow photographer, Gertrude Kasebier, who had used Harris as a model, was not keen to repeat the experiment; she admitted that she had ‘heard unpleasant things of H. from Canada.’22
Day, however, refused to be swayed. He was in love. To a Mr Mosher, who sent a clipping from the Montreal Star detailing Harris’s transgressions in that city, Day replied that the charges smacked of ‘malicious gossip’: he himself had ‘no cause for anything but the kindliest personal feeling for Mr Harris’, besides a great admiration for his work.23
Nevertheless such circling rumours perhaps encouraged Harris in his determination to move on to Europe. He left Boston in the Spring of 1899. He went first to London.
Later press reports gave a highly coloured (and possibly fanciful) account of his career there, and ‘his remarkable ability to make the acquaintance of noted persons of the brilliant society in which he moved.’ He did begin to get commissions. Day’s friend Roger Clark referred to him as ‘busy doing his portraits’.24 And his work was considered ‘strangely pretty and refined.’25
So, it seems, was he. It was said that ‘he was the most elegantly dressed young man of the literary and art circle…. famed for the variety and magnitude and taste of his wardrobe. He lived in sumptuous apartments, decorated after his own designs by the best decorators.’26
With credit readily available to one of his practised presumption, he pursued a course of willful extravagance. ‘On one occasion he asked a noted actress for a sitting and painted on ivory something very costly. The outlines did not suit [him] and he calmly destroyed the material to the astonishment of an English painter of note, who called on the actress at that moment.’ “Oh, I often do that,” said Harris, indifferently, although at the time he hung dangling between the arch and the sky of ruin on the slender rope of his wonderful nerve and assurance.’27
He also evolved his aesthetic pose in what seems to have been a distinctly Wildean manner. It was recalled how, on entering a room, he might ‘suddenly scream and cover his face.
“What is the matter?,” the hostess would cry in alarm.
“Oh. It is nothing,” [he would assure her.] “I am better now.”’
After a while, though, he would confess that some ‘incongruous grouping of colours in the hangings of wall paper’ had thrown his delicate artistic sensibilities ‘into a fit.’ He liked to claim that he could not live in many places due to ‘the lack of harmony of something that jarred his refined organism.’28
Much of this, however, was played out over the following year. Harris’s initial stay in London seems to have been very brief. He soon went over to France, spending the Summer of 1899 in and around Paris – the stated goal of his pilgrimage. With his gift for aligning himself with the influential and the interesting it is no surprise that – once in Paris – Langrell (as he now styled himself) sought out Oscar Wilde, then recently returned from Genoa and living at Hotel Marsollier. And, with his youth, good-looks, and artistic gifts, it is no surprise that he charmed him.29
By that July, when Oscar was drawing up a schedule of those of who should receive a presentation copy of the small-paper issue of Smithers’ imminent edition of An Ideal Husband, ‘Langrel’ was listed – along with such established friends as Ernest Dowson, Ernest La Jeunesse, André Gide, Arthur Humphreys and Frankie Forbes-Robertson. It was a signal honour – and coupled with the use Harris’s given name – suggests the warmth of this new attachment.
Wilde spent the whole of July 1899 out of town at a charming inn – l’Ecu – on the L’Isle d’Amour, Chennevières-sur-Marne. His friend, Rowland Strong, described the setting as ‘ravishing’, and the place itself as ‘a cabaret artistique full of delightful souvenirs and interesting bric-a-brac including D’Artagnan’s boots (authentic) and a door from the old Mazas prison.’30 And it seems that Harris joined him there. (He would later refer to the pleasure of escaping Paris and ‘luxuriating amongst green trees.’)31
Their romance – whatever its details – while intense was all too brief. It does not seem to have outlasted the summer. And although the grounds of their falling out are vividly suggested by Wilde in his letter to Louis Wilkinson (the theft of money, Wilde being stuck with Harris’s hotel bills etc.) the specific details are obscure. An outline of them, however, can perhaps be traced in a letter addressed to ‘Monsieur Osc Wildd’ [sic] from the landlord of the Cabaret de l’Ecu:
‘Lorsque Mr Harris est venu pour solder votre note qui se montait 110 fr 80 il n’avait que 100 fr et me les a remis. Il devait revenir le mardi chercher le reste de [illegible] qui n’etait pas revenue de chez la blanchineuse. J’eu ai 11 et une paire de chaumettes noires. Comme il n’est pas revenue je ne savais pas quoi faire. Vous pouvez faire prendre quand vous voulez en finnisant de régler la hote.’
[When Mr. Harris came to settle your bill which amounted 110 fr. 80 he only handed me 100 francs. He was to return on Tuesday to seek the rest of the [items?] that were not back from the washerwoman. I have 11 and a pair of black chaumettes. As he has not come back I did not know what to do. You can take them when you want on finishing up and paying the landlord.]
Wilde, it seems, had given Harris money with which to settle his bill, and Harris had pocketed some of it. Did Harris also leave his own bill at l’Ecu unpaid, assuring the landlord that Wilde would pay it on his return? (It seems more likely that the ‘hotel bills’ for which Harris made Wilde ‘responsible’ – were run up at L’Isle d’Amour, where they stayed together, rather than in Paris.)
Oscar, though he might romanticise the criminal classes, and celebrate the duplicity of the young renters of the quartier, clearly drew the line at being swindled out of his meagre allowance by a fellow artist. His animus against Harris was uncharacteristic and final.
There is no indication that he and Harris met again on the boulevards. And, indeed, the opportunities for meeting were not as great as they might have been. Wilde travelled to Italy for an extended holiday in the spring of 1900. And while he was back in Paris by June, enjoying the spectacle of the Exposition Universelle, Harris claimed to be ‘disgusted’ by the many American visitors, and decamped to the countryside.32 In the Autumn of 1900 Harris was back in London where he was joined by F. Holland Day who was mounting ‘An Exhibition of Prints by the New School of American Photography’ at the Royal Photographic Society in Russell Square. The exhibition included both Day’s ‘Portrait of T.L.H. Esq’ and a picture of the American-Japanese-German critic Sadakichi Hartmann by ‘T.L. Harris’. While in London the two friends had their portraits taken by the aesthetically-inclined photographer Frederick Hollyer.
The ‘New School of American Photography’ show was set to transfer to Paris in the New Year, and Harris – together with Day – may well have been back in France by the end of November when Wilde, after several months of failing health, died in his room at the Hotel d’Alsace. If so, they did not attend his funeral.
Harris, besides inclusion in the ‘New School’ exhibition, did enjoy various small successes. Some of his illustrations were, apparently, printed in Paris magazines. But he had rather larger troubles to contend with. His debts were accumulating, and the creditors were growing ever more insistent. He had installed himself at the fashionable Hotel de France et Choiseul on the Place Vendome (where Wilde’s American agent, Elisabeth Marbury would sometimes stay) – and, as the bill reached $240, the management began to press for payment.33 He did not, however, approach his family for help.
His moods, always volatile, had begun to veer dangerously. As early as September 1900 he had written to a friend back in Kansas City saying he was ‘miserable’ and announcing, ‘I will end my sorrows to night, for I am going to take my own life. But I drink a bottle to your success.’ He did not go through with the plan, and his next letter – a week later – was ‘full of feasts and frolics’. But by Christmas the mood had darkened again – and he declared himself, once more, ‘loaded with sorrows.’34
He was last seen alive on the evening of 11 January 1901. Although his body was fished out of the Seine the following day, and taken to the morgue, it was not identified until twelve days later. (His pockets had contained only three photographs, three visiting cards, a letter, and a rosary.)35 On 24 January his family was informed. A brief press agency paragraph was relayed to the American papers, and there were fuller accounts in the Kansas City publications, lamenting the death of a local figure, and including quotes from old friends and associates. Harris’s body was brought back to America, and buried in the family plot in Rose Hill cemetery, Petersburg.
Louise Imogen Guiney writing to condole with the grief-stricken F. Holland Day, remarked with more import than she knew: ‘Oscar Wilde died, too, in Paris, since you have been there. Well may all these broken brothers of ours find Peace.’36
© 2022, Matthew Sturgis.
Matthew Sturgis is the author of the Oscar: A Life (Head of Zeus, 2018), the acclaimed biography of Oscar Wilde. He has also written biographies of Aubrey Beardsley and Walter Sickert, as well as Passionate Attitudes: The English Decadence of the 1890s. His latest book is Wildeana: A Compendium of Previously Ungathered Anecdotes, Epigrams, Asides, and Accounts.
1. Complete Letters (CL), 1170-1
2. CL, 1152
3. Kansas City Star 25 Jan 1901‘Tommie Harris’s Suicide’
4. Boston Evening Transcript 3 May 1904
5. Boston Evening Transcript 3 May 1904
6. Kansas City Star 25 Jan 1901‘Tommie Harris’s Suicide’
7. Kansas City Star 25 Jan 1901‘Tommie Harris’s Suicide’
8. Kansas City Star 24 Jan 1901, ‘A Kansas City Artist’s End’
9. Kansas City Star 25 Jan 1901‘Tommie Harris’s Suicide’
10. Kansas City Star 25 Jan 1901‘Tommie Harris’s Suicide’
11. Kansas City Star 25 Jan 1901‘Tommie Harris’s Suicide’
12. Kansas City Star 25 Jan 1901‘Tommie Harris’s Suicide’
13. Kansas City Star 25 Jan 1901‘Tommie Harris’s Suicide’
14. Kansas City Star 25 Jan 1901‘Tommie Harris’s Suicide’, says it was after ‘about a year’, but – if he did not leave Kansas City until 1898, it must have been rather shorter span. The paper also claims that Harris went first to Boston then to Montreal, but independent evidence indicates that it was the other way around.
15. ‘He Was An Impressionist’, Montreal Star, 16 March 1899
16. ‘He Was An Impressionist’, Montreal Star, 16 March 1899
17. Louise Imogen Guiney to F.Holland Day, 15 February 1901, in Patricia J. Fanning, ‘F. Holland Day and “the Beautiful Boy”: The Story of Thomas Langryl Harris and Day’s Nude Study’, History of Photography, 33:3 (2009), 249
18. Gertrude Kasebier to F.Holland Day, 29 April 1899; Abbie Copeland to F. Holland Day, 14 April 1899, both in Fanning op cit.
19. F. Holland Day to Mosher, 28 March 1899 [draft] in Fanning; FHD included a portrait by Harris of the critic Sadakichi Hartmann in his 1899 touring exhibition of ‘Prints by the New School of American Photography.’
20. Edward Steichen to F. Holland Day, 24 January 1906, in Fanning
21. Louise Imogen Guiney to FHD, 14 March 1899 in Fanning
22. Gertrude Kasebier to FHD, 12 April 1899 in Fanning
23. F. Holland Day to Mosher, 28 March 1899 [draft] in Fanning
24. Roger Clark to F. Holland Day, 27 June 1899 in Fanning
25. Kansas City Star 25 Jan 1901‘Tommie Harris’s Suicide’
26. Kansas City Star 25 Jan 1901‘Tommie Harris’s Suicide’
27. Kansas City Star 24 Jan 1901- ‘A Kansas City Artist’s End’
28. Kansas City Star 24 Jan 1901- ‘A Kansas City Artist’s End’
29. Harris appears to have been registered at birth, and was certainly buried after his death, with the name Langrell. However, he went through many variants of his name. Growing up in Kansas City he was ‘Tommy [or Tommie] Harris’. In Boston he was ‘Thomas Harris’. In London he appeared as ‘Mr T. L. Harris’. On crossing the Channel he adopted his distinctive middle name. Wilde called him ‘Langrel’ Harris; the French referred to him as ‘Langryl Harys’ – though whether the addition of the ‘y’s was their affectation or Harris’s is uncertain.
30. CL 1158-60; Rowland Strong, Where and How to Dine in Paris (1900), 109
31. Kansas City Star 25 Jan 1901‘Tommie Harris’s Suicide’
32. Kansas City Star 25 Jan 1901‘Tommie Harris’s Suicide’
33. Kansas City Star 25 Jan 1901‘Tommie Harris’s Suicide’; Kansas City Star 24 Jan 1901‘A Kansas City Artist’s End’
34. Kansas City Star 25 Jan 1901‘Tommie Harris’s Suicide’
35. Police Report, quoted in Fanning, 259
36. Louise Imogen Guiney to F. Holland Day, 15 February 1901, in Fanning, 261