Born 150 Years Ago Today: Max Beerbohm

My copy of Beerbohm’s 600 page compendium of theatre reviews, itself nearing the century mark. The caricature on the cover is of course a self-portrait

Born 150 years ago today, British theatre critic, humorist, essayist, caricaturist, and conspicuous Edwardian dandy Sir Henry Maximilian Beerbohm (1872-1956).

A man of such patent genius as Beerbohm ought to be known best for his talent and accomplishments, but he is easiest to talk about in terms of his associations — and doing so somehow helps to convey what his work was like anyway. Beerbohm was the much younger half brother of the great English actor Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree (and thus the uncle of Carol Reed and great uncle of Oliver Reed). There is many a famous Beerbohm for you to investigate besides these, as well; to treat of them all here would be digressive.

Beerbohm’s caricature of Wilde. See “Max”, his signature, upper right.

At Oxford he fell in with Oscar Wilde and his crowd of aesthetes, becoming especially close to Aubrey Beardsley. In 1893 Lord Alfred Douglas published Beerbohm’s early essay  “The Incomparable Beauty of Modern Dress” in his magazine The Spirit Lamp. In 1895 Beerbohm toured the U.S. as a personal secretary to his famous brother. In 1898 he became George Bernard Shaw’s replacement as drama critic at Frank Harris’s Saturday Review, a post he held until 1910.

The resignation from the Review that year was due to his marriage to American stage star Florence Kahn, whom he had courted for six years in over 1,000 letters. The pair then moved to Italy, where they resided for over four decades, returning occasionally to London when Kahn had roles, such as her supporting part in Alfred Hitchcock’s Secret Agent (1936). John Gielgud, who also appeared in that picture, was naturally already a friend, as a member of the Terry Family. Other intimes included Somserset Maugham, Evelyn Waugh, a young Truman Capote, and Ezra Pound. Unlike Pound and P.G. Wodehouse, Beerbohm seems not to have been caught up in any Fascist collaboration business. Throughout his life most people assumed that he was Jewish, although it seems not have been the case. In any event, he spent the war years back in England, thus avoiding the same kind of dilemma Wodehouse did. Many have also whispered then and now that Beerbohm may have been gay, given the crowd he ran with, and the fact that his marriage was childless, though no proof of such an inclination has emerged either.

The show bizziest thing about Beerbohm was that he reviewed music hall shows and other pop culture topics on radio during World War Two. Nearly 50 books bear Beerbohm’s imprimatur as author. In addition to the 1924 tome shown above, his works include collections of his caricatures such as Rossetti and His Circle (1922); collections of humorous verse, essays, and reviews; a 1943 biography of Lytton Strachey; and his sole novel Zuleika Dobson; or, An Oxford Love Story (1911).

In 1960 (four years after his death) S.N. Behrman published the first of many biographies about him, Portrait of Max: An Intimate Memoir of Sir Max Beerbohm.