Max Beerbohm’s Letters to Reggie Turner
Considering that Max Beerbohm resolutely refused to put pen to paper, either to write or draw, in the last decades of his life, the growth of his reputation during those years was quite remarkable. As with E. M. Forster, his fame waxed with every book he did not write. Round the Mediterranean coast from Rapallo, where Beerbohm lived, lies Cap Ferrat on the French Riviera, where another English writer, Somerset Maugham, as diligent as Beerbohm was indolent, lives out his last days. His reputation, he may wryly reflect, unlike Beerbohm’s dwindled as volume succeeded volume and edition edition, until, by the time Of Human Bondage touched the million mark, there was no critic so lowly of brow as to pay him homage.
I remember once at luncheon at Maugham’s Villa Mauresque (a good deal more stately, it goes without saying, than the Rapallo establishment) someone remarking that I. S. Eliot had made himself responsible for raising a small sum to buy Beerbohm a wireless-set. Our host looked fussed, and his stutter became more compulsive. There was something preposterous, as he seemed to feel, about the whole project—Eliot, a wireless-set, Beerbohm’s penury! No poet bothered his head about whether or not he, Maugham, had a wireless-set; least of all Eliot. It was Sir Max, but not Sir Somerset. Life is so very unjust. After all, Cakes and Ale is an incomparably better piece of writing than anything Beerbohm did, or could have done. Yet no ponderous Behrman arrived at Cap Ferrat to produce one of those interminably detailed New Yorker series, afterwards published as a fat volume, on life at the Villa Mauresque.
Beerbohm never was a popular writer, and remained to the end of his life in relatively straitened financial circumstances. His books had a small but steady sale in a collected edition, and, of course, the drawings in their originals were deservedly much sought after, though a project I once vaguely put up to Beerbohm’s publisher for a portfolio of reproductions was not considered feasible. His only contact with the larger public outside his relatively restricted circle of devotees was through radio. During the 1939-45 war years, when he was perforce settled in England, he gave some talks in the form of personal reminiscences. Probably no one has ever used radio in this particular genre to better effect. The voice, faltering a little, was precise and kindly, the style elegant, with an agreeably old-fashioned flavor, particularly appreciated in that time of overblown Churchillian rhetoric, boys’ paper Montgomery slang, and—one of the war’s more lamentable consequences—Forces humor. I had occasion to listen to a tape of one of the talks—on George Moore—and found it excellent. Beerbohm, I may add, resolutely refused to have anything to do with television. An American crew once actually arrived in Rapallo, and tried to lure him in front of the cameras. No persuasion, financial or other, would induce him to yield. All he had to do, he was told, was to smile and say: “Good evening, I’m happy to be with you.” “But that wouldn’t be true,” Beerbohm sweetly riposted.
It was as a person rather than as a writer or cartoonist or very occasional broadcaster that Beerbohm was famous. He remained consciously and deliberately, in his ways, attire, idiom, and attitude of mind, a figure of the Eighties, and never ostensibly put so much as a toe into the twentieth century. His conversational gifts and charm were much exaggerated by admirers who in reality were more attracted by the period flavor he conveyed than by any intrinsic excellence in his writings or pleasure in his company. The world has proved a decidedly somber place in recent years for the consciously cultivated classes. They have been forced either to make idiots of themselves by joining inherently unsympathetic leftist causes, or to isolate themselves in an unfashionable aestheticism, driveling away their lives in university lecture halls or the editorial offices of high-brow journals. In the circumstances, any occasion for indulgence in nostalgia is welcome. Beerbohm provided such an occasion, deriving, as he did, directly from the Wilde-Beardsley circle, with no intervening contamination as a Friend of the Soviet Union, or as an exponent of Eng. Lit.
The more’s the pity, then that Beerbohm’s official biographer (rather significantly, his own choice) should have been Lord David Cecil: precisely the sort of person to fix his gaze on the legendary, period Beerbohm, and to ignore the little, nervous, greatly talented and very likeable man, who, after all, did exist, however discreetly and skillfully camouflaged. Cecil’s book really tells one nothing about Beerbohm that was not known before. He just, as it were, nicely mounts and hangs the official portrait—which, I fear, is exactly what his subject wanted. His biography is skillful tired, wan, considerate, and quite unmemorable. It will stand on the shelves of every decent library unread through the years—the definitive Max.
There was a steady stream of visitors to the Rapallo shrine, carefully controlled by successive gouvernantes—first, the actress Florence Kahn, and then Elizabeth Jungmann, a German lady. As it happened, I paid visits under both regimes. The villa itself was singularly unattractive, formed by joining two semi-detached residences into one. When Beerbohm first went there, it may well have been pleasant enough, but subsequently a main road just outside the front door brought a noisy and unending stream of traffic, with accompanying petrol fumes. The din was terrible. It would have been perfectly possible to dispose of the villa reasonably advantageously, and to buy another, quieter one with the money, but Beerbohm resolutely refused to move. He said he did not mind the noise; in fact, positively liked it. On one of my visits we were left alone together for a few moments on the roof, the reigning gouvernante, Miss Kahn, having been called to the telephone. Beerbohm whispered to me confidentially that he spent a lot of time standing in the sun. To prove his point he took off the straw boater he habitually wore at a rakish angle, revealing the nut-brown dome of his head. There was something splendid about that tanned old head exposed to the Italian sun during long standing sessions. Sitting, I reflected, might have implied the possibility of addressing himself to work at a desk. In that sense, standing was an act of defiance, which I applauded.
The first time I went to see Beerbohm, not knowing the way I took one of the broken-down, fly-blown horse carriages which still ply for hire in Rapallo. It was a lamentable equipage, whose horse creaked as rustily as the springs. Beerbohm himself came to the door to let me in, and, seeing how I had arrived, murmured: “Carriage folk, I see.” It struck the right note, and greatly pleased me. Inside there was Miss Kahn, Beerbohm’s first wife, a powdery, quavery American lady, very fussy and tiresome. Such ladies combine the contralto petulance of Kensington and Park Avenue; a dread combination. If there is one thing worse than a bad actress it is a good one. Better Bardot than Bernhardt any day. By chance I once had seen Miss Kahn act in some infinitely tedious Pirandello play at a repertory theater somewhere in the north of England. As I had forgotten the name of the play and where I had seen it, I did not try to curry favor with my hostess by mentioning it. Her performance, I recall, was extravagantly praised at great length, in the Manchester Guardian, on which I was working at the time.
Beerbohm was wearing a carefully pressed linen suit, cream colored and double-breasted, a stiff collar and tie, and the already mentioned straw boater. We sat down to a delicate tea of wafer-thin cucumber sandwiches, tiny cakes, and weak china tea and lemon dispensed by Miss Kahn. Beerbohm’s eyes were red-rimmed and watery, and, I thought, very forlorn. He was such a sad little man, really. Over tea, prodded by Miss Kahn, he regaled me with anecdotes; rather automatically, as it seemed to me, as though he had told them many times before and was sick to death of them. He was like a poor old performing dog at a circus, wearing its little faded skirt, and still able to get on its hind legs—just; then looking round in the apologetic, melancholy way old animals do. “Tell him about Hilaire Belloc’s washing,” Miss Kahn rapped, and he obediently embarked on a long story about how Belloc (“dear Belloc,” he called him) left his laundry in some great house, with endless complications over recovering it.
This routine of telling anecdotes under the reigning gouvernante‘s supervision became a sort of ritual which precluded authentic conversation. When I mentioned with admiration his brilliant cartoon of Edward VII, that gross, despicable figure, he just murmured something about the dear Queen Mother. It is generally believed that the caricature in question delayed his knighthood for some twenty years. I calculate that, on the same basis, I might reasonably expect to join the Beatles as an M.B.E. in my late eighties or early nineties. Again, I spoke of Beerbohm’s harsh treatment of Kipling in the drawing he did of him. He just shook his head sadly. It was something, he said, which he regretted because Kipling had been kind to him when he first started writing. Yet again, on the subject of Punch Beerbohm was evasive. Yes, it was true that his drawings had been rejected by the then editor, Owen Seaman (a portentous ass, if ever there was one, whose portrait I looked at with increasing distaste during my five years’ editorship of the magazine), and that he and Belloc had worked for a while on a rival magazine, Judy. The venture soon fizzled out. As Judy‘s political cartoonist, Beerbohm was not a great success, being little interested in day-by-day politics, and lacking the capacity of a Partridge or a Low to reduce public issues to some simple, vivid proposition.
After Miss Kahn’s death in 1951, Frau Jungmann took up her residence in the Rapallo villa. Her regime did not differ greatly from the Kahn one, though she gave an impression of being more robust and less consciously refined than her predecessor. Before coming to Beerbohm she had looked after an ailing German writer, Gerhart Hauptmann. Obviously, she specialized in caring for elderly, frail men-of-letters, and I rather earmarked her in my mind for Eliot after Beerbohm. As things turned out, she married Beerbohm more or less on his death-bed, and then shortly afterwards died tragically in her bath in the Rapallo villa. Under Frau Jungmann, the tea, provender, and anecdotes were more or less the same. Her hand on the reins was clumsier, but perhaps kindlier; Beerbohm looked at her out of the corner of his rheumy eye with, I thought, less apprehension than in Miss Kahn’s case. It was like the difference between a torrid sirocco wind and a gusty northeaster.
The impression Beerbohm left on me was of someone in whom the instinct to run for cover had become second nature. But what was he scared of? What was he running away from? Needless to say, no light is shed on the question in Lord David Cecil’s biography. Fortunately, the Letters to Reggie Turner, Beerbohm’s closest friend at Oxford, edited by Rupert Hart-Davis, and Professor Weintraub’s excellent Life of Turner, are, at any rate by implication, more informative. Beerbohm, it seems to me to emerge, was in panic flight through most of his life from two things—his Jewishness and his homosexuality. Turner, by contrast, was an admitted, almost a stage Jew; the illegitimate offspring of a wealthy Jewish family, the Levi-Lawsons (the double-barreled name represented a half-way house on a journey from Levi to Lawson, where they came to rest until the head of the family was raised to the peerage as Viscount Burnham), who owned the Daily Telegraph. He was also a more or less open homosexual, who went in for “renters,” male prostitutes of the kind that brought about Wilde’s downfall. It was, as I see it, Turner’s courageous acceptance of these two, in Beerbohm’s eyes, appalling disabilities which induced him to be so devoted to Turner, almost to the point of hero-worship, despite his hideous appearance, his obscure birth and dubious social position, which in the ordinary way would have offended so fastidious and snobbish an observer of the English social scene.
When Hesketh Pearson was writing his biography of Beerbohm’s half-brother, the actor and impresario Beerbohm-Tree, he exchanged letters with Beerbohm. In the course of one of them, which he showed me, Beerbohm mentioned whimsically that, unfortunately, the family was not Jewish, as had often been suggested, but pure German. Cecil accepts this at its face value. Other members of the family, including Beerbohm-Tree, as I understood from Pearson, took a different view. The only interest in the matter is why Beerbohm should have been so insistent upon not being a Jew. Doubtless the explanation was his passion to merge into the English upper-class social landscape. The upper-class English are not, like their American equivalents, overtly anti-semitic, but they create a milieu in which Jews seem outlandish, and therefore feel alien and ill-at-ease. The worst thing we do to well-off Jews in England is to make them as stupid, snobbish, and philistine as the well-off natives. This is our version of Dachau. It took a Disraeli to break into the English upper-classes on his own terms, and triumph over them. Beerbohm was by no means a Disraeli, and desperately wanted to substitute Burke’s Landed Gentry for the family Talmud. The English upper classes do not persecute Jews; they ruin them. A Mailer or a Bellow over here, at any rate in Beerbohm’s time, would be sporting a guards’ tie, and, like Siegfried Sassoon, wearing himself out riding to hounds. Behind Beerbohm’s facade of a Yellow Book aesthete there lurked a frightened Rabbi.
Beerbohm’s homosexuality is obvious even in Lord David Cecil’s biography, despite a categorical denial that Beerbohm was homosexual at all. His actress passions—for Cissy Loftus, Grace Canover (Kilseen), Constance Collier; all prototypes for his Zuleika Dobson—are quite unconvincing. Like many another, the Wilde trial troubled and distressed him. By comparison, Turner was a veritable Richard Coeur de Lion. Beerbohm was the famous and successful one, and Turner only a writer of indifferent, and now hopelessly dated, novels, and the originator of that last infirmity of ignoble gossip-writers, “Londay Day by Day” in the Daily Telegraph. Yet, one feels, Turner with his indiarubber face, blue complexion, huge nose, blinking eyes and endlessly repeated reminiscences of Wilde, so well portrayed as Constable in D. H. Lawrence’s novel, Aaron’s Rod, was the more real, and in a way the nobler, character of the two of them.
Though Turner was living in Florence when Beerbohm was at Rapallo, they saw each other only very occasionally. Beerbohm’s affection for Turner remained undiminished but in the presence of grander visitors he was probably a little ashamed of him. Turner, for his part, found his visits to Beerbohm under the eye of one or other of the gouvernantes flat and tedious. There was really no point in either of them telling stories which both knew only too well, and obligatory abstemious practices like retiring to bed at ten o’clock were little to Turner’s taste. All the same, I should very much have liked to see the two of them together—the little, sad, faded dandy, and his gargoyle: the dearest Reggie of other modes and days.