by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, July 24, 2000.
Douglas Murray’s “Bosie: A Biography of Lord Alfred Douglas” (Talk Miramax Books) is the sometimes charming, sometimes chilling story of an ex-boy. The title contains two names, and the man lived two lives. Lord Alfred Douglas began his career as the loveliest male undergraduate of his day — “darling Bosie,” the “slim gilt soul” of Magdalen College, Oxford, the Hyacinthus who dangled on the arm of Oscar Wilde’s Apollo. So strong was his charisma that the dons called him a poet before they even glanced down at his poetry. Then, in 1895, Wilde went to jail, in the wake of a sexual persecution that had been set in motion by Bosie’s disaster of a father. The shock of the scandal seemed to freeze Bosie at an awkward point in his development. He did not grow up; instead, he let himself be overtaken by the underside of the adolescent mind, the one that cherishes obscure hurts. He became defined not by his passions but by his hatreds. After various false starts in the public eye, he finally won infamy in his own right, by libelling Winston Churchill as the agent of a worldwide Jewish conspiracy.
“Bosie” is one of those biographies which attempt to rehabilitate a historical loser. When you see a new book about Richard III or Mad King Ludwig or General Custer, you can be sure that the author wishes us to know that the subject was not as evil or as crazy or as stupid as we thought. Murray is plainly fond of Bosie, and seems to identify with him more than a little. He completed this biography at the age of twenty, and is still a student at Magdalen College, where Bosie sashayed about in his boater a hundred years earlier. It’s a stunningly elegant book for a twenty-year-old. It moves with confidence and avoids the pileup of minutiae that clogs so many modern biographies. But there’s something indefinably amiss. Arch, oblivious, a bit careless in places, it evokes the mind of its subject almost too well. It could have been written in 1960, or even in 1930. This is the world as Bosie saw it, and the vista is bizarre.
The Douglas clan had a history of erratic behavior. The line went back to William, “the Black Douglas,” who fought alongside Robert the Bruce. In the eighteenth century, Murray writes, a Douglas ancestor known as the “cannibalistic idiot” was found roasting a kitchen boy on a spit. Bosie’s father, the eighth Marquess of Queensberry, lived in a state of perpetual rage and found ways to alienate every stratum of London society. A militant atheist, he once threw vegetables during a performance of a Tennyson play because he found its depiction of atheism insulting. One of Queensberry’s brothers slit his throat; another died during a foolish ascent of the Matterhorn. Various members of the family died in ambiguous gun accidents. Bosie’s aunt Florrie, a famous Victorian eccentric, kept a pet jaguar, which ran amok and killed several of the Queen’s favorite deer.
Queensberry was addicted to contrarian opinions, and his son inherited the trait. Indeed, it’s possible that Bosie’s youthful homosexuality was more a calculated act than an expression of his heart. Murray, at least, seems to think the gay thing went only skin deep; he writes that public-school sex play “rubbed off” on Bosie and that “buggery almost certainly did not take place between the Winchester boys.” How certain can he be? When he quotes a cute anecdote from the school paper, in which Bosie and another boy struggle over a Try Your Strength machine, Murray seems not to realize that the story is a sniggering parable of anal sex, in which Bosie, who preferred to be on top, feels “unwonted pressure from behind.” By the time the naughty boy got to Oxford, he was celebrating the unspeakable in the pages of the periodicals that he edited. He wrote, famously, of “the Love that dare not speak its name.”
Historians still squabble over the nature and extent of Bosie’s relationship with Wilde. Most writers cast the young man as the fickle, petulant one, who manipulated Wilde in order to stage a confrontation with his father. Murray makes a plausible case that Bosie was the more faithful of the two. He did not slink away when the money ran out, as Wilde himself claimed in his last years. It was Bosie, in fact, who contributed large sums and received little gratitude in return. He really was in love, it seems, even if the relationship was sexual only for a brief time, and only up to a certain point. In a later memoir, he spelled things out as clearly as he could manage: “Of the sin which takes its name from one of the Cities of the Plain there never was the slightest question.” No, Bosie and Oscar did the Gomorrah.
After Wilde’s death, in 1900, the gears of Bosie’s brain began grinding in reverse. He cultivated a hatred of members of the Wilde circle, and, in particular, of Robert Ross, the executor of the Wilde estate. Bosie did have grounds to be unhappy with the way he was portrayed in the first Wilde biographies, but there was no call for him to become an avenging angel of Old Testament morality. The transformation was abrupt: “darling Bosie” gave way to the second coming of the Black Douglas. He married, produced a son, embraced Catholicism, and loudly condemned the very Cities of the Plain in which he had recently tarried. He spluttered against “sodomites” and “filthy buggers” just as his father had before him. His dispute with Ross, like almost all his disputes in these years, ended up in the headlines and in the courts. In 1913 and 1914, he essentially re-staged the trials of 1895, with Ross in the role of Wilde and himself in the role of his father.
It all makes a certain amount of psychological sense, even if Douglas’s behavior was repugnantly hypocritical. The campaign that followed—Douglas vs. the Jews—is harder to fathom. The need to cause a stink may have been at the root of it. Douglas smelled a trend; in the wake of the First World War, many Europeans had come to believe that the Jews were to blame for the carnage, and “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” a document purporting to be the transcript of a Jewish conspiracy to take over the world, slithered out of Russia into Germany and points west. Henry Ford publicized the “Protocols” in America, and Douglas was perhaps their most prominent advocate in England, even though the London Times soon exposed them as a hoax. Douglas went on to accuse Winston Churchill — the First Lord of the Admiralty during the First World War — of arranging the death of Lord Kitchener at the behest of Jewish financiers. Churchill sued him, and he spent six months in jail.
In this phase of Douglas’s life, Murray’s biography becomes a whitewash. It fails to describe the contents of Plain English, a periodical that Douglas founded in 1920. Murray, in a close paraphrase of prior biographers, writes that Plain English made “few specific attacks” on Jews, despite “frequent implications” of “Jewish conspiracies.” Did he bother to look at the thing? Here are some quotations found at random: “The negroes in the United States are being organized by the Jew Seligman.” “There are more Kikes—‘Kike’ being the American for Jew—in New York than there are in Warsaw.” Headline from the editor’s notes: “HUMAN SACRIFICE AMONG THE JEWS.” Social analysis from the editor: “It is strange that the Jew, with all his race-memory, forgets the lessons of the past, and heads again and again for destruction by exasperating the people among whom he dwells.” Words in support of the Ku Klux Klan. The racial musings of one Major-General Count A. Cherep-Spiridovitch. And, toward the end, a letter reporting on the legal difficulties of a like-minded German publication, the Völkischer Beobachter, and on the political party with which it was associated. The party’s leader, “Herr Hittler,” was said to be “spirited.” This was in 1921, when Hitler was unknown outside his home town of Munich.
Douglas’s anti-Semitism did have one beneficial side effect: it jazzed up his poetry, which, without the titillation of boy-boy love, had become monumentally dull. Here is a sonnet from the sequence “In Excelsis,” which the poet’s admirers cite as his masterpiece. Murray, in a fit of discretion, quotes only the first two lines and the last four, but the poem is worth reading in full:
The leprous spawn of scattered Israel
Spreads its contagion in your English blood;
Teeming corruption rises like a flood
Whose fountain swelters in the womb of hell.
Your Jew-kept politicians buy and sell
In markets redolent of Jewish mud,
And while the “Learned Elders” chew the cud
Of liquidation’s fruits, they weave their spell.
They weave the spell that binds the heart’s desire
To gold and gluttony and sweating lust:
In hidden holds they stew the mandrake mess
That kills the soul and turns the blood to fire,
They weave the spell that turns desire to dust
And postulates the abyss of nothingness.
In technical terms, this is the best of the poems that Murray quotes. It lacks the surfeit of redundant adjectives that mars most of his other work. Compare these lines addressed to his wife:
When in dim dreams I trace the tangled maze
Of the old years that held and fashioned me,
And to the sad assize of Memory
From the wan roads and misty time-trod ways,
The timid ghosts of dead forgotten days
Gather to hold their piteous colloquy,
Chiefly my soul bemoans the lack of thee
And those lost seasons empty of thy praise.
On the subject of love, Douglas throws words around in vain. On the subject of the Jews, he is in his element, expending rage in an intellectual vacuum. If you were in a charitable mood, you might compare him with the better modern rap artists, like Dr. Dre and Eminem.
In old age, Douglas softened somewhat. He ended his anti-gay tirades and went as far as to argue that homosexuality should be decriminalized. He apologized to Churchill, saying that he had done him an injustice. He did not, however, apologize to the Jews, and maintained his far-right sympathies. He sent a friendly letter to Mussolini and supported Franco in the Spanish Civil War. In 1938, during the Munich crisis, he wrote of Hitler, “I am entirely on his side.” When Hitler invaded Poland, he changed his tack, writing a last mediocre sonnet in praise of Churchill, who had been generous enough to forgive him. It is doubtful, however, whether Churchill had forgotten any detail of what happened in the early twenties. The saving grace of the episode—indeed, of Douglas’s entire career—may have been that Churchill, at the outset of his years in the wilderness, was able to get a good look at anti-Semitism in its essential crudity and stupidity.
Lord Alfred Douglas died on March 20, 1945. He was an exemplary twentieth-century celebrity, who won fame at an early age and then devised ever more gruesome ways of getting himself back in the news. He remained adolescent to the end. He would play the bully until he came up against determined opposition, at which point he would try to write everything off as a joke. He wrote his own epitaph with a parable about betrayal, and in it you can hear a pitiful echo of the imperial Wilde:
After his death Judas Iscariot, with the characteristic gall of his type, presented himself at the entrance of Heaven and was refused admission by the angel at the gate. “Why can’t I come in?” inquired Judas. “Well, you know you betrayed the Saviour for thirty pieces of silver,” replied the angel. “Good heavens!” said Judas Iscariot, “have you no sense of humour?”