Samuel Steward, Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward
“Why can’t I lead a dull and happy and carefree life? The answer, I suppose, is that I’d rot; I have to have excitement, even at the price of ruin.”
Samuel Steward, Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward
Image Credit: CLAMP
In the 20th century, one celebrated personality said to another, “No one is as masculine as you pretend to be.” Who said it? And to whom?
“The privileges of beauty are enormous. By its mysterious alchemy the truck driver becomes king, the delivery boy an emperor.”
Samuel Steward, Parisian Lives
Photo Credit: George Platt Lynes, 1907 - 1955
What Francis Rose lacked in stability, he made up for in originality. An artist and man about town, his name is most likely to arise today in the context of his friend and patron Gertrude Stein. She purchased four hundred of his canvases and promoted him as the next Pablo Picasso. Critics disagreed, and Sir Francis’s work has fallen into obscurity. To some extent, justifiably so. Yet Francis Rose’s artistic output was as erratic as his life. On occasion, there was brilliance.
One of his most successful paintings was L'Ensemble, an oil on canvas mural that was exhibited in 1939 at the Petit Palais Musée des Beaux Arts in Paris. It depicts those in his circle, a Who's Who of literary and artistic Paris, including Jean Cocteau, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Pavel Tchelitchev, Christian Bérard, Serge Lifar, and Natalie Barney. It was most recently exhibited at the England & Co. Gallery in 2014.
After Stein, Francis Rose’s most important connection was with his frenemy Cecil Beaton. Yet, it is a mistake to define him based upon those two associations. He lived extravagantly and audaciously. Both Stein and Beaton seem bourgeois by comparison. Rose threw caution (and his inherited fortune) to the wind. His life story, Saying Life, The Memoirs of Sir Francis Rose, is a remarkable albeit fanciful book. Uncommon, the only task more challenging than locating a copy is successfully fact-checking it.
What is verifiable is that Francis Rose had a unconventional childhood and one of extreme wealth and privilege. He was born at the grand English estate Moor Park, near Hertfordshire, and inherited his British baronetcy while still a child. He was also of noble Spanish descent, and Rose claims that on his behalf, his grandmother petitioned the Spanish Sovereign "for permission to revive the ancient family custom of owning dwarves.”
While in his teens, Francis met Jean Cocteau during a stay in Villefranche. Cocteau took an interest in him, encouraging not only his art but also his sexual awakening. Cocteau allegedly brought twenty-one rowdy sailors to the Hotel Wellcome to revel with Francis on his twenty-first birthday, but it was possibly only sixteen on his sixteenth birthday. Accounts vary. Either way, it involved a lot of seamen. In adulthood, Sir Francis remained in France, and one of his early lovers was the English expatriate-artist Christopher Wood.
One of the most bizarre chapters of the Saying Life is Rose’s recollection of his relationship with Ernst Röhm, the homosexual Nazi executed on Adolf Hitler’s orders in 1934 on the “Night of Long Knives.” In his memoir, Rose dubiously alleges that his relationship with Röhm was platonic and that Röhm was heterosexual. Writes Rose (without irony), "There was nothing effeminate about Röhm; he abided by the old Potsdam tradition that soldiers scented themselves, sent each other flowers for certain occasions, clicked heels, fought duels, and managed to look like carved wooden puppets with the help of steel corsets and tight uniforms."
Following the interlude with the Nazis, Sir Francis fled to the Far East, traveling on a massive yacht with his own private zoo. He spent three years happily touring Southeast Asia until world events intervened, becoming stranded in Peking as result of the Japanese invasion. In preparation for his escape, he weaned himself off opium and donated his menagerie to American and Japanese zoos. The relief from chaos proved to be short-lived. In 1938, he lost most of his fortune when the American stockbroker to whom he had given his power of attorney was convicted of engaging in a massive embezzlement scheme.
By the end of World War II, Francis Rose was nearly penniless. His final three decades were characterized by more folly, but he no longer had the necessary funds to bankroll it. Friends like Cecil Beaton helped out until finally fatigued by his constant drama. This memoir, published in 1961, was not the financial success he desperately needed. However, it is one of the strangest memoirs published in the 20th Century. It stands out not for its accuracy but for its originality.
SIR FRANCIS AND HIS CONTEMPORARIES
Even though there are factual issues with Saying Life, Sir Francis's characterizations of those in his circle are mostly accurate (and rather marvelous).
CECIL BEATON. “He is not a man who desires glamour, and he uses taste, fashion, and décor in a fascinating way, manipulating them as a stockbroker does stocks and shares.”
DAISY FELLOWES. “The beautiful Madame de Pompadour of the period was Daisy Fellowes, dangerous as an albatross; this Circe of art, fashion, and literature must be considered to be much more than just the best dressed woman in the world . . . for she is to me the Danäe of my period, being showered with gold.”
MADAME V.K. WELLINGTON KOO. “When she entered the room I realized at once that she was to be for all of my life, the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. She was a radiance; it was as though all the magic of grace and divinity were mixed in perfection. She seemed younger than I could ever be. Her tiny feet and long, small hands moved with a rhythm which only a great dancer could interpret, but which were just her ordinary gestures. Her beauty was so great that one could give her no nationality as she shone like the sun.”
CHRISTIAN DIOR. “Christian’s kindness was generally abused by his friends, and whenever there was a chore or something tedious to be done his help was called for. He was not a weak man or in any way defenceless with his tongue, and yet I have never heard him say an evil word about anyone. I think he had the real Christian love for humanity, which is a gift rarely given by God.”
THE MARCHESA CASATI. “Of all the women of the early twentieth century, Madame di Casati must have been the most fantastic. This Italian woman with huge eyes, which she hid under a veil because her eyeballs were as red as her flaming hair, was as beautiful as a black panther and just as terrible." Once, aboard an ocean liner, "the Marchesa lost her pet boa constrictor, much to the consternation of the emigrant steerage passengers, who feared that their children might be acceptable food for the large snake."
CHARLIE CHAPLIN. “Without a doubt, Charlie Chaplin is the greatest genius the cinema has produced, not only as an actor, but as an inventor and creative artist. He had the ability to turn fantasy into the most ordinary happening, a simple action into pathos and poetry. A rose in his hands could bring a completely unsentimental tear and in tying his boot-laces he could reveal strings which hold the universe together.”
NAPS ALINGTON. "At [at a fancy dress ball], Naps Alington went as the Sun King in gold body paint and not much else. By the next morning, he returned to the Hotel Ritz entirely naked, save for a fig leaf, which he presented to the Ritz as a memorial token."
ARTURO LOPEZ-WILLSHAW. “Arturo Lopez was born a man of talent and could have been a creative artist in some way or another had not enormous wealth turned him into an imaginary fairy prince. He had always desired to live in the world of Sleeping Beauty. To him, with perfect taste and refinement, the period of Louis XVI was this world, and through money he has tried to build it in the twentieth century.”
ELSA MAXWELL. "Elsa Maxwell [was] a woman I had always admired and liked because of her tough beauty and personal ugliness ..."
ISADORA DUNCAN. "I painted her in a studio that I had rented in the port of Villefranche. For this portrait she wore a large red shawl with a very long fringe that was later to be in the instrument of her death. When I showed her the finished picture, in which I was experimenting with a form of cubism, she cried out: 'But, Francis, you have cut my throat.' By a strange coincidence, it was the large fringe of the shawl that became entangled in the spokes of the wheel of the low sports car that had just been given to her, and [garroted] her outside the Henri Plage."
THE QUOTABLE FRANCIS ROSE
ON THE FOLLY OF COMMUNISM
“Whether there is Socialism, Communism, or Fascism, there will always be positions to be obtained, one above the other like rungs of a ladder.”
“It is much easier to turn brilliant progressive ideas into chaos than dull and solid ones.”
“I am not interested in people’s morals, as long as they do not become a nuisance.” [His did.]
JUST SAY, “MAYBE”
“Is opium smoking a vice? The answer is ‘yes and no’. Taken in any other form than smoking it is a very dangerous and pernicious vice. Good opium, properly smoked, can be no more harmful than smoking cigarettes, and easier to cure if properly handled by a Chinese doctor.”
ON CLASS PRIVILEGE
"Opium smoking is a habit for wealthy and leisure classes only. It demands time to prepare and the hours for smoking are as precise as any clock.”
ART INTERPRETING LIFE
“In my painter’s mind there is a spotlight which focuses on pictures in my memory; they link life with colour and with form.”
ON THE 20TH CENTURY
“Today, in 1960, the clever old-fashioned men of the nineteenth century are playing the last cards of the farce and comedy of errors that they had brought about. They were unable to bring a laugh from their audience even with Hitler as their star.”
CECIL BEATON DIARIES
“I never liked him. From the first meeting I found him revolting. He is not a nice character. He does have a certain genius and a flair for beauty in its most rare forms. But I don’t know how it is that he has become for forty years my great cross.”
Francis Rose makes frequent appearances in various volumes of Beaton’s Diaries and piteously so in The Unexpurgated Beaton: The Cecil Beaton Diaries as He Wrote Them, 1970-1980. In that book, a near-destitute Rose begs Beaton for money and shelter, threatening to kill himself. Beaton has lost all patience with his former friend by this point and is desperate for him to go away. Ultimately, Beaton survived Sir Francis by only one year.
PARISIAN LIVES BY SAMUEL M. STEWARD
Samuel Steward became acquainted with Francis Rose through their mutual patron Gertrude Stein. Using conversations and experiences with Sir Francis as well as correspondence with Alice B. Toklas for material, Steward wrote a novel recounting the erotic adventures of Sir Arthur Lily, a.k.a. Sir Francis Rose. A copy of Parisian Lives is available here.
Steward theorizes that Sir Arthur (Francis) required intense drama in his life in order to paint, so he engaged in increasingly destructive romantic entanglements. In one, Sir Arthur weakens the emotional stability of a British sailor until finally the sailor commits suicide. Then Sir Arthur becomes the victim, paying a sadistic ex-convict to beat him mercilessly. He deviously ends the relationship by arranging for the gendarmes to witness one of the beatings and arrest his lover for assault and battery.
The most shocking relationship is the last. Sir Arthur initiates a liaison with an innocent Spanish boy whom he passes off as his servant. Within weeks, the boy has been hopelessly corrupted by Sir Arthur and lands in jail. In search of his papers, Sir Arthur discovers the youth is his long lost son. It disturbs him not for moral reasons, but because he realizes that socially it is beyond the pale. A version of this event actually occurred, but whether they were blood relations as Sir Francis claimed is uncertain.
SECRET HISTORIAN: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF SAMUEL STEWARD BY JUSTIN SPRING
Sir Francis is introduced in this biography of Samuel Steward at weekend house party hosted by Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas’s in which Cecil Beaton was also in attendance. The snobbish Beaton has little to do with Steward, a rough-hewn sexual adventurer. Steward and Francis Rose strike up a friendship, however, and meet periodically when Steward visited Europe from America. The biographer confirms that much of what Steward writes about the Francis Rose character as fiction in Parisian Lives was actually fact. Conversely, however, he concludes that portions of Saying Life, Francis Rose’s memoir, are fiction.
Sir Francis Rose was typecast in Kenneth Anger’s cult film Lucifer Rising. He portrayed Chaos (of course!).