an unauthorised biography based on firsthand information \ 1ste druk
Victor Gollancz, 1931, hardcover, 408 p.
with a postscript by mr Shaw
Frank Harris' life of Bernard Shaw was his biggest-selling book when first published, but was it actually written by him? In fact no less than four authors had a hand in it, but while an examination of the text may provide some evidence of the literary skullduggery involved, most of the clues were destroyed by Shaw himself.
Living in Nice in 1930, Harris was desperately ill and in need of money. Either he himself, or his secretary Frank Scully - of whom more shortly - came up with the idea of writing a biography of Bernard Shaw. Some materials were already to hand, principally Harris' portrait of Shaw from his earlier work <cite>Contemporary Portraits, Second Series</cite>, published in 1919, together with a number of letters from Shaw that Harris had received over the years. If Shaw and others could be persuaded to provide further material, Harris and Scully would have the makings of a potentially profitable book; so on that basis numerous letters were sent to Shaw and anyone else who might help, soliciting anecdotes, recollections and opinions of the great man.
Frank Scully, to whom the book would eventually be dedicated, was an American journalist living in Nice, who at some time previously had misreported Harris as dead and thus caused his obituary to be printed in several American and English papers. Despite this rather macabre association, Scully became Harris' secretary some time around 1930. Scully later claimed in his book <cite>Rogues' Gallery</cite> to have ghost-written both the biography of Shaw and Harris' book of cowboy life <cite>On the Trail</cite>. Sheila Hodges, in her <cite>Gollancz, the Story of a Publishing House</cite> (1978) also says that Scully ghosted the Shaw biography.
Scully alleged that Harris was too ill to write the book himself, that in fact his memory was so poor he could not remember what he had written from one day to the next, so he, Scully, had to take on the job himself. He also said that he did not receive any money for his enterprise, but since according to his version of events Harris was at the time practically ga-ga, it is hard to accord Scully much sympathy: it was he who negotiated the contracts and therefore rooked himself, it would seem.
Berkman's claim is supported by the fact that the examples of Scully's prose I have seen are in a waggish, juvenile style which could hardly be passed off as that of Harris.
The success of the project was threatened by the actions of Shaw, who had at first promised that Harris could use his letters verbatim, but then withdrew his permission and insisted that they must be paraphrased. Then, while this wrangling was still going on, Harris died. Shaw, perhaps regretting his intransigence and doubtless moved by Nellie's situation, took over the final preparation of the book. He wrote to Gollancz:
Shaw corrected many factual errors and largely rewrote sections which were in an unsatisfactory state, then destroyed the galley proofs to hide the extent of his reworking, concerned to protect Harris' reputation and his own: a biography largely rewritten by its subject was unlikely to be warmly welcomed by its potential readership. George W. Bishop, a friend of Shaw's, described in his book of memoirs <cite>My Betters</cite>, what happened to the proofs:
Despite Shaw's exertions there are still traces of the book's origins. Here is part of one passage as it appeared in <cite>Contemporary Portraits</cite>, describing Shaw's appearance at the time when Harris recruited him to write for the <cite>Saturday Review</cite>:
Now, from the first chapter of <cite>Bernard Shaw</cite>:
Who, I wonder, added that last clause? Here is another extract, this time from chapter nine of <cite>Bernard Shaw</cite>:
This is clearly the same passage edited by another hand; and again, a clause of somewhat derogatory import towards Shaw has been added. There are plenty of other examples of such gratuitous abuse, the most likely source being Scully, who himself admitted that at this time he bore a grudge against Shaw.
A thorough textual analysis might reveal more, but my tentative conclusion is that Scully took Harris' meagre first draft and added a few insults to Shaw, then, finding the work too onerous, got Berkman in to finish it off. Whether Berkman had finished his efforts when Harris died is unclear, but whatever state the book was in at this point will never be known because of Shaw's final transformation of it into what we have today: an unsatisfactory, muddled work that is more interesting for what Shaw said about Harris in his postscript than for anything the unhappy team of Harris, Scully, Berkman and Shaw said, about Shaw.