On an exceedingly cold afternoon in the winter of 1954,
during one of several periods I spent in Rapallo in order to
be able to make frequent visits to Max Beerbohm's home, the
Villino Chiaro, I saw an encouraging announcement in the
lobby of the Excelsior Hotel. "La Bohème," I read, was to be
given that evening in a theatre, ordinarily devoted to
motion pictures, in the town of Santa Margherita Ligure, a
mile away. I was staying at the Excelsior, and since my room
there was extremely cold—about as cold as the Villino was
once you got outside the immediate orbit of Max's
fireplace—I assumed that it would he warmer in the theatre,
and asked Turco, the concierge, to get me a ticket. The
movie theatre turned out to be packed, and it was
warm, even stifling. The singers, according to the
announcement, had illustrious histories; they had managed to
escape, momentarily, from the confines of La Scala, and
Santa Margherita was to be congratulated on having caught
them while they were on a busman's holiday. I had never
before sympathized so acutely with the efforts of Rodolfo
and the other starving artists in their garret to keep warm.
When they fell with such avidity on the food that one of
them brought in, the effect was not quite convincing,
because the starvelings were enormously fat and looked as if
what they needed was strict dieting, but the acrobatics in
which they indulged to stave off the cold were something I
had learned to understand. They gave each other huge slaps
on the back; they hugged themselves exuberantly; they danced
about and jumped up and down to get their circulations
stirring. I left at the end of the first act; it was much
too warm. After driving back to the Excelsior, I got into
bed with a hot-water bottle and read Max's wonderful
description of George Moore's receding chin—it kept
advancing and receding—in a reprint of a B.B.C. broadcast he
had delivered in 1950 but had written, in 1913, as a sketch
to be included in his unfinished novel "The Mirror of the
The next afternoon, I arrived at the Villino at four
o'clock, and I found Max sitting in front of the fire. He
was wearing a heavy sweater I had brought him from America
as a present, plus a wool stole I had brought his secretary,
Miss Elizabeth Jungmann. I told him about my excursion of
the night before, and his shoulders shook with laughter.
"Although you have never been given a release from La Scala,"
I said, "I hear that you are something of a singer yourself,
even a radio singer—though not a crooner," and I explained
to Max about American crooners and what a vogue they had
once had. I was referring to the fact that in another B.B.C.
broadcast he made, on the music halls of his youth, he had
ventured into song.
My remark set Max off. He began to sing from the repertory
of one of the favorite music-hall comedians of his youth,
George Robey. When Max sang, he leaned far forward in his
chair, his expression immensely solemn. Assuming an air of
honest indignation and injured innocence, he sang, in full
Cockney but with unimpaired diction, a song of George
Robey's. Max's eyebrows became very active; they twitched in
Pecksniffian outrage. The burden of the song was that Robey
had been accused by malevolent spirits of playing Peeping
Tom at the bathing machines at Brighton. When Max came to
the end of the song, his voice and eyebrows cried out in
gruesomely lascivious protest:
"Did I go near the bathing machine? NAOW!"
Max had adored Robey. He smiled as he spoke of Robey's
impersonation, in a sketch, of Queen Berengaria; evidently
she was putting on the royal raiment in a bathing
machine, and her sudden startled expression, half reluctant,
half experimental, indicated that the Queen was herself
suspicious that George Robey was lurking somewhere in the
vicinity. When Robey died, Max said, he had been given a
memorial service at St. Paul's. This had afforded Max
intense amusement, and, he said, it would have afforded the
same to Robey. "Pity he couldn't have been informed!"
Max then imitated Marie Lloyd singing "Oh, Mr. Porter": "I
wanted to go to Birmingham and they're taking me to Crewe."
To Marie, Max, a few years before, had paid an obituary
tribute over the B.B.C. "It is strange," Max had said, "that
of all the women of the Victorian Era the three most
generally remembered are Queen Victoria herself, and Miss
Florence Nightingale, and—Marie."
When Max was sixteen, his half brother Julius, who was then
twice his age, had taken him to dinner at the Café Royal and
then to his first music hall, the Pavilion, to hear The
Great Macdermott—"a huge old burly fellow, with a yellow wig
and a vast expanse of crumpled shirt-front that had in the
middle of it a very large, not very real diamond
stud." It was at a moment of anti-Russian tension, because
of repressive measures taken by the Czar against the
Nihilists, and The Great Macdermott, it appeared, had had an
interview with the Prime Minister about it. This was odd—as
if Eisenhower were to consult Jimmy Durante about certain
Russian tensions now—but it was so. Macdermott, Max says,
did not regard the interview as confidential. He sang about
it the night Max first heard him:
"'What would you like to do, My Lord?' I asked Lord
Fond of tracing words to their sources, Max remembered that
the word "jingo," as a symbol of effervescent patriotism,
had been introduced in a music-hall song by this same
Macdermott. It was at a moment when Russia appeared to be
threatening Turkey, then (as now) England's ally. Max,
imitating Macdermott, became quite bellicose, unusual for
"We don't want to fight, but, by jingo, if we do,
We've got the ships, we've got the men, we've got the
We fought the Bear before, and while Britons shall be
The Russians shall not have Constantinople!"
I chided Max for being so possessive about Constantinople.
He relaxed from his belligerence and said that he didn't
want it for himself, he just didn't want the Russians to
I remembered that Miss Jungmann had told me he had once
written a song for the music-hall entertainer Albert
Chevalier, and I asked him about that.
"Oh," he said, "I wrote it, but I never offered it to
Chevalier. I did meet him, though. Macdermott was enormous,
Chevalier small and electric. He did caster songs and wore
pearlies. He had a song, which I can't sing—it would
be an injustice to him—called `You Can't Get a Roise Out o'
Oi.' But I'll try two lines from another."
"It isn't so much what 'e sez,
It's the nahsty way 'e sez it"
"Chevalier's songs," he went on, "always had a clear form.
They were well constructed. I knew them all by heart once. I
got into his mind, don't you know, and, emboldened by this,
I ventured to construct a song that, it seemed to me, he
might have written himself. It tells about an old barman
whom Chevalier had known and loved and who was dead and
whose pub was now being run by his son. The song I wrote was
called 'But 'E'll Never Be the Man 'Is Father Woz,' and the
chorus went like this." Max treated me to a private
performance of the song, which he had also sung on his
"I drops in to see young Ben
In 'is tap-room now an' then,
And I likes to see 'im gettin' on becoz
'E's got pluck and 'e's got brains,
And 'e takes no end o' pains,
But—'e'll never be the man 'is Father woz."
On the B.B.C., Max told his audience why he had never
submitted the song to Chevalier. "Nothing so irks a creative
artist as to be offered an idea, good or bad," he said. "And
I did not irk Chevalier."
But Max's special affection, in the teeming past that so
crowded his present, went out to two Lilliputians who were
giants of the old music halls—Little Tich and Dan Leno.
These two were friends of his. "Little Tich!" Max said. "He
was tiny. I felt gross beside him, and yet, you know,
I couldn't have been so much larger, because I
remember the time I was asked to appear and speak at some
charity or other organized by the Playgoers' Club. The
presiding officer was just about to call on me when some
bigwig, some Eminence or other, made his sudden appearance.
The chairman was so bowled over by this irruption that he
quite lost his head. With a wave toward me, he said, 'And
now I have the honor to announce Sir Tich?' It made it easy
for me to speak, you know. I apologized, I believe, for
having forgotten my great boots. He used to slosh
about—Little Tich—in great boots. They were as long as
himself. He had them specially made, and the walk he managed
in them was—well, incommunicably funny. It was . . ." Max's
feet did a slosh on the carpet. "No, it cannot be imitated.
He had a sad face. So did Dan Leno—the saddest face, I
believe, I have ever known. Little Tich told me this story
himself. When his son was born, he was in a state of great
anxiety, and he was sitting on the stairs, with his head
bowed in his hands and wondering how everything was going,
and presently the doctor came along and comforted him. 'It's
all right, my little man,' he said. 'You've got a baby
brother.' When the baby brother grew up, Little Tich worried
dreadfully about him. He wanted his son to take holy orders.
I met him one night in a pub near His Majesty's—my brother
Herbert's theatre—and found the dear man in a state of
particular depression. 'Oh!' he said. 'My boy! I don't know
what will become of him. He is not serious. He is not
religious. I am afraid he hasn't a vocation. Instead of
studying, he prefers to hang around your brother's theatre.
He's probably in there right this minute. If he can't get a
seat, he stands at the back of the stalls!' He was a
marvellous mime, Little Tich. He was a succès fou in
Paris—even more than in London. But Dan Leno was a great
artist, the greatest artist of them all."
Not having to worry about boots, Max was able to imitate Dan
Lena. He did it with his fingers. "The greatest thing he
ever did—at least, to my taste—was a scene in a shoeshop. He
made you see everything. He wrote his patter himself,
and it was trenchant and shattering. Well, in the shoeshop,
a mother comes in with a little boy. Dan skips over to her."
Max did the skip with his hands, in little staccato jumps.
"He asks the mother how old the little boy is. Three.
Three! Leno is lost in admiration. He can't repress his
amazement and wonder, don't you know, that a little boy of
three could be so precocious, so mature, so altogether
delectable. Then he skips up the stepladder." Max's fleet
fingers skipped up the stepladder. "And he rummages around
for the shoes. Red boots with white buttons she wanted.
While he's up there, on top of the stepladder, he keeps
looking down at the boy, as if he had never before seen such
a cynosure. But he can't find the proper shoes. He rummages
around with increasing desperation among the boxes." Now
both of Max's hands were rummaging around wildly and
helplessly among the shoeboxes. "He produces a multitude of
shoes, but the mother won't accept them. By this time, his
attitude toward the little boy has changed, don't you know.
He becomes somewhat critical of the little boy—even
homicidal. Oh, it was wonderful, but it is impossible to
describe," said Max as he finished describing it.
Max continued to talk about Dan Lena. "You know, Constance
Collier—she was a member of Herbert's company at His
Majesty's—once told me an extraordinary story about Leno.
She came home late one evening, after her performance—it was
very late; she had been out to supper, I imagine—to her
flat, in Shaftesbury Avenue. She noticed a brougham before
her door as she went in. There in her sitting room was Dan
Leno. He had been there for hours. Constance had never met
him, but, of course, she was thrilled to see him. What do
you suppose he wanted? Now, mind you, you must remember that
at this very moment Dan Leno was the idol of England; he
could do no wrong with his public, which adored him. Well,
he wanted to play Shakespeare. That is why he had waited,
and kept a brougham with a coachman on the seat
waiting—because he wanted to enlist Constance's sympathy for
his ambition to play Shakespeare. He wanted to meet my
brother. Constance arranged it. She brought Dan Leno to
Herbert. But nothing came of it. Why wouldn't Herbert employ
him He would have been wonderful—Dan—as one of Shakespeare's
downs. I didn't know about it or I should have pleaded with
Max looked at me sorrowfully. "He was a sad man, Dan Leno.
Wildly generous. Surrounded always, don't you know, by a
crowd of hangers-on and sycophants to whom he gave freely
whatever they asked." In "Around Theatres," the two volumes
of his collected drama criticisms, Max pays a more formal
tribute to Dan Leno. He writes his obituary notice, and he
is not buoyant, as he was when he performed the same office
for Henrik Ibsen. Lena died in 1904, at the age of
forty-five. Max writes:
So little and frail a lantern could not long harbour so
big a flame. Dan Leno was more a spirit than a man. It
was inevitable that he, cast into a life so urgent as is
the life of a music-hall artist, should die untimely.
Before his memory fades into legend, let us try to
evaluate his genius. For mourners there is ever a solace
in determining what, precisely, they have lost. . . .
Well, where lay the secret of that genius? How came we
to be spell-bound? . . . In every art personality is the
paramount thing, and without it artistry goes for
little. Especially is this so in the art of acting,
where the appeal of personality is so direct. . . . Dan
Leno's was not one of those personalities which dominate
us by awe, subjugating us against our will. He was of
that other, finer kind: the lovable kind. He had, in a
higher degree than any other actor that I have ever
seen, the indefinable quality of being sympathetic. I
defy anyone not to have loved Dan Leno at first sight.
The moment he capered on, with that air of wild
determination, squirming in every limb with some deep
grievance, that must be outpoured, all hearts were his.
That face puckered with cares . . . yet ever liable to
relax its mouth into a sudden wide grin and to screw up
its eyes to the vanishing point over some little triumph
wrested from Fate, the tyrant; that poor little battered
personage, so "put upon" yet so plucky with his
squeaking voice and his sweeping gestures; bent but not
broken; faint but pursuing; incarnate of the will to
live in a world not at all worth living in—surely all
hearts went always out to Dan Leno, with warm corners in
them reserved to him for ever and ever.
Max served as regular drama critic of the Saturday Review
from May of 1898 to the sixteenth of April, 1910, when he
wrote his valedictory piece to his readers, as Shaw had done
when he retired from the same post in May of 1898. "Most of
the plays when I worked for the Saturday," Max told
me, remembering them in tranquillity, "were written by
either Naomi Greckle or Mr. Tompkins"—generic names he had
invented for indistinguishable playwrights. Max had suffered
much from Naomi at Herbert's house, long before he became a
drama critic. Managers, especially actor-managers, didn't
take kindly to reading; they preferred to have plays read
aloud to them. Herbert would invite Naomis and Tompkinses to
his house and have them read their plays to him and his wife
in the drawing room when he came back from his own
performances. Often, Max was invited to listen, and shared
his sister-in-law's agonies. Max used to dread these
readings. He would watch a Naomi turn the reluctant pages of
her typescript, and he would become involved in a breathless
computation—comparing the number of pages that had
been turned to the number that were still virginal. He would
begin to "work out little sums in rule of three, with an eye
on the clock. Disheartening little sums!" He learned to
cultivate an expression, during these readings, of "animated
receptivity." He also practiced occasional murmurs and
ejaculations of a kind that had an ambiguous neutrality and
that Naomi could interpret, hopefully, as expressions of
pleasure. Now, as Max and I talked, all that he remembered
of these plays was that they had screens in them. The first
stage direction usually read, "A Drawing Room in Mayfair. At
back, right, a large Chinese screen." The nationality of the
screens might vary but not their presence. The moment you
heard that stage direction, you knew that someone,
ultimately, was going to hide behind the screen and overhear
something disastrous. Max used to wait for the moment when
someone got behind the screen, and once that had happened,
he knew he could revert to his private thoughts. Naturally,
as the younger brother of the great Herbert Beerbohm Tree,
he kept meeting Naomi Greckle and Mr. Tompkins all the time.
He also met all the leading and lesser mimes. (Max almost
invariably referred to actors as mimes.) This intensive
acquaintance in the theatrical world added to Max's
self-disqualification for the job he took in 1898. In his
introductory article as drama critic for the Saturday,
headed "Why I Ought Not to Have Become a Dramatic Critic,"
he argued it eloquently as part of his own brief for the
prosecution, though without effect:
Of the literary quality in any play, I shall perhaps be
able to say something, but I shall be hopelessly out of
my depth in criticising the play itself. The mere notion
of criticising the players simply terrifies me, not
because I know (as, indeed, I do) nothing about the art
of acting, but because I have the pleasure of personal
acquaintance with so many players. One well-known player
and manager is my near relative. Who will not smile if I
praise him? How could I possibly disparage him? Will it
not be hard for me to praise his rivals? If I do
anything but praise them, what will become of the purity
of the Press? Most of the elder actors have patted me on
the head and given me sixpence when I was "only so
high." Even if, with an air of incorruptibility, I now
return them their sixpences, they will yet expect me to
pat them on the head in the Saturday Review.
Many of the younger actors were at school with me. They
will expect me to criticise them as an old playmate
should. . . . My whole position is unfortunate. I have
the satiric temperament: when I am laughing at any one,
I am generally rather amusing, but when I am praising
any one, I am always deadly dull. Now, such is the
weakness of my character that I cannot say in print
anything against a personal acquaintance. I think I have
met all the habitual playwrights in my time. . .
He disqualifies himself even further. He disqualifies
I will not raise in my readers hopes which I cannot
realize for them. It is best to be quite frank. Frankly,
I have none of that instinctive love for the theatre
which is the first step towards good criticism of drama.
I am not fond of the theatre. Dramatic art interests and
moves me less than any of the other arts. I am happy
among pictures, and, being a constant intruder into
studios, have learnt enough to know that I know nothing
whatever about painting—knowledge which, had I taken to
what is called "art-criticism," would have set me
head-and-shoulders above the great majority of my
colleagues. Of music I have a genuine, though quite
unenlightened, love. Literature I love best of all, and
I have some knowledge of its technicalities. I can talk
intelligently about it. I have my little theories about
it. But in drama I take, unfortunately, neither
emotional nor intellectual pleasure.
Having cleared his soul in full confession, Max trots off
blithely to review "The Beauty Stone," by Arthur Wing
Pinero, Comyns Carr, and Arthur Sullivan, of which he wrote,
"I am sorry that I have not found much to praise in 'The
Beauty Stone.' I should like it to have a long run, though I
would rather not be invited to the hundredth night." He
trotted for twelve years.
In spite of the myriad disqualifications and formidable
handicaps, Max's drama criticisms, which, like his
caricatures, he signed "Max," can still be read with
delight. Because they convey his own personality and his own
attitude toward life, they have an extraordinary vivacity
and contemporaneity. As most of Naomi's product was
instantly dismissible, Max was able to devote the rest of
his articles to himself. Though the plays and the players
are gone, Max's criticisms are very much left. The animating
spirit of all Max's criticism—as, indeed, of all his
writing—is a cultivated common sense. His congenital
inability to like what he should like when it happens that
he doesn't like it is everywhere manifest. He refuses, for
example, to be knocked over by Eleonora Duse, who acted in
Italian, for the bizarre reason that he doesn't know what
she was talking about. He starts a review of her performance
as Hedda Gabler, in Italian, as follows:
. . . shall I go on?" He does go on to explain that that is
what the whole thing sounded like to him. The article is
headed "An Hypocrisy in Playgoing," and he apologizes for
his brutality, on the ground that "only by brutal means can
humbug be combated, and there seems to me no form of humbug
sillier and more annoying than the habit of attending plays
that are acted in a language whereof one cannot make head or
tail." In an earlier piece on Duse—she played Gioconda—he
has a good time envying the other drama critics. Since they
have praised Duse so immoderately—her every nuance, her
every intonation—he assumes that, of course, they all know
Italian as well as they know English, and he envies them
their bilinguality. He is disrespectful, too, about Sarah
Bernhardt, whom he saw play Hamlet: "The only compliment one
can conscientiously pay her is that her Hamlet was, from
first to last, très grande dame." That piece is called
"Hamlet, Princess of Denmark." "The Tame Eaglet" tells about
Sarah as the young Duc de Reichstadt in Rostand's "L'Aiglon."
Max finds the play an interminable bore; "the trouble" with
Sarah's performance, he says, "is that to everyone she looks
like a woman, walks like one, talks like one, is one." He
continues, "That primary fact upsets the whole effort, mars
all illusion. As the part would be tedious even if it were
played by a man, I may seem captious in grumbling that it is
played by a woman. My displeasure, however, is not that the
eaglet is played by Mme. Bernhardt, but that she plays the
eaglet." Next time he sees Sarah, she is playing a woman,
the title role in "La Sorcière;" by this time Sarah herself
is an old lady. Max is gallant; he recognizes the occasion
as a last chance and thinks of the time he saw the aged
Queen Victoria, in an old-fashioned barouche, on the way to
Paddington Station. When he saw the Sovereign driving by, he
remembered the phantoms of the past—Melbourne and the Duke,
Louis Philippe, Palmerston, Peel, Disraeli. Now he thinks of
My imagination roved back to lose itself in the golden
haze of the Second Empire. My imagination roved back to
reel at the number of plays that had been written, the
number of players whose stars had risen and set, the
number of theatres that had been demolished, since
Sarah's debut. The theatrical history of more than forty
years lay strewn in the train of that bowing and
bright-eyed lady. The applause of innumerable thousands
of men and women, now laid in their graves, was still
echoing around her. And still she was bowing,
bright-eyed, to fresh applause. . . . For all the gamut
of her experience, she is still lightly triumphant over
time. . . . Hers is the head upon which all the ends of
the world are come, and the eyelids are not at all
But the next day, at a matinée, Sarah reverted to type and
played Pelléas in Maeterlinck's "Pelléas and Mélisande."
Mrs. Campbell played Mélisande in French. Max didn't go. He
stayed away on the assumption that Mrs. Campbell spoke
French as exquisitely as she did English and that Sarah's
Pelléas was "not, like her Hamlet and her Duc de Reichstadt,
merely ladylike." But he wouldn't risk these illusions by
having a look. It is one of the most interesting reviews
ever written by a critic who hadn't seen the show.
Max was not a balletomane. Even though he was enchanted by
the French ballerina Adeline Genée, whom he described as
"light and liberal as foam," he had certain objections to
the art form as a whole. Max was a word-lover, and he didn't
see why ballet shouldn't, like opera, employ words, to give
him a hint as to what was going on. "When a ballerina lays
the palms of her hands against her left check, and then,
snatching them away, regards them with an air of mild
astonishment, and then, swaying slightly backwards, touches
her forehead with her fingertips, and then suddenly extends
both arms above her head," he wrote in one article, "I ought
of course to be privy to her innermost meaning!' But he
isn't. He doesn't know what the palms of her hands are
saying. He doesn't know whether she is happy or unhappy. He
begins to suspect that she isn't thinking anything, that
"such power of thought as she may once have had was long
since absorbed into her toes."
Reviewing "Andromache," by the revered Gilbert Murray, Max
admits that the Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford can
translate but he wishes that he could also write. For Max,
Gorki's "The Lower Depths" "is no 'slice' of life. It is
chunks, hunks, shreds, and gobbets, clawed off anyhow,
chucked at us anyhow. . . . Mere gall is no better than mere
sugar. It is worse." Max didn't think that writers become
artists merely by choosing depressing subjects. In
forgiveness of the lapses of Dan Leno, he writes, "Only
mediocrity can be trusted to be always at its best." Of
William Gillette in "Clarke," by William Gillette: "Mimes
ought never to write plays." Mr. W. S. Gilbert "for all his
metrical skill is as unpoetical as any man who ever lived."
On soliloquies in drama: "Talking to oneself has this
obvious advantage over any other form of oratory or gossip;
one is assured of a sympathetic audience. But it has also
this peculiar drawback; it is supposed to be one of the
early symptoms of insanity." On "Peter Pan": "To remain,
like Mr. Kipling, a boy, is not at all uncommon. But I know
not anyone who remains, like Mr. Barrie, a child." On honor
among drama critics: "We dramatic critics are, like the
Metropolitan Police Force, a very fine body of men." He is
sent two volumes by Clement Scott, "The Drama of Yesterday
and Today," to review. The mere sight of them makes his
heart sink: "If I'm not very careful, I shall soon have that
deadliest of all assets, a theatrical library." His review
of Henry James's "The High Bid" is a masterpiece of devoted
evasion. He concentrates on six words of the dialogue:
"'What are you exactly?' asks Captain Yule of the aged and
shabby butler who is in charge of the house; 'I mean, to
whom do you beautifully belong?' There, in those six
last words, is the quintessence of Mr. James; and the sound
of them sent innumerable little vibrations through the heart
of every good Jacobite in the audience." Max turns the rest
of his review into a tribute to James as a literary artist.
At the very end, he remembers that he is reviewing his play,
which he has so far scarcely mentioned, and apologizes: "My
excuse must be that of all that I love in Mr. James' mind so
very little can be translated into the sphere of drama."
One day that winter, at the Villino, Miss Jungmann amused
Max and me by recalling the time she saw Oscar Wilde's "The
Importance of Being Earnest" in Genoa, played there under
the title "L'Importanza di Essere Serioso." It led Max into
a discussion of the play. He thought it a masterpiece. "The
scene in the last act—Miss Prism and the luggage left in the
cloakroom at Victoria Station, and the intrusion of that
innocuous drink—surely that is one of the funniest scenes
ever written." When Max reviewed a revival of the play in
1902, he wrote:
Last week, at the St. James', was revived "The
Importance of Being Earnest," after an abeyance of
exactly seven years—those seven years which, according
to scientists, change every molecule in the human body,
leaving nothing of what was there before. And yet to me
the play came out fresh and exquisite as ever, and over
the whole house almost every line was sending ripples of
laughter—cumulative ripples that became waves, and
receded only for fear of drowning the next line. In kind
the play always was unlike any other, and in its kind it
still seems perfect. I do not wonder that now the
critics boldly call it a classic, and predict
immortality. And (timorous though I am apt to be in
prophecy) I join gladly in their chorus.
I reminded Max that Shaw had panned the play when it was
first presented, seven years earlier; he had seen nothing
funny in it. Max, who admired Shaw's drama criticism more
than almost anything else of his, was impressed by Shaw's
ability to resist it. "Perhaps while the play was going on,"
he said, 'he was improving his theory of rent." Max then
went on to talk about the ideas in Shaw's plays. "Shaw's
judgments were often scatterbrained," he said, "but at least
he had brains to scatter." When Max was a drama critic, he
devoted an immense amount of ambivalent attention to Shaw.
As he himself said in a dedicatory letter to Gordon Craig,
written as a preface for "Around Theatres":
One thing I never could, from first to last, make up my
mind about; and that thing was the most salient
phenomenon "around theatres" in my day: "GBS." Did I
love his genius or hate it? You, of course, survey it
from the firm rock of your ideals. I wish I had had a
rock of some sort. I went wavering hither and thither in
the strangest fashion, now frankly indignant, now full
of enthusiasm, now piling reservation on reservation,
and then again frankly indignant. My vicissitudes in the
matter of GBS were lamentable.
Even before he took over Shaw's post, he had written
articles about Shaw in the Saturday. A series of two
articles were called "Mr. Shaw's Profession," and were
inspired by Mrs. Warren's. Shaw's great gift, Max said in
one of them, lay in his wild and irresponsible Irish humor.
Max loved the comic plays "Arms and the Man" and "You Never
Can Tell;" the serious plays, like "Mrs. Warren's
Profession" and "Widowers' Houses," he questioned. He
reproached William Archer for taking Shaw's serious plays
seriously. "Archer," he said, "would rather see a man trying
to be serious than succeeding in being funny." As for Shaw's
"philosophy," he said that it rested, "like Plato's
Republic, on a profound ignorance of human nature." In
Shaw's serious plays, he wrote, "the men are all disputative
machines, ingeniously constructed, and the women, who almost
without exception belong to the strange cult of the
fountain-pen, are, if anything, rather more self-conscious
than the men." He went on:
Mr. Shaw's penetrating eye is of great use to him in
satire or in criticism. He is one of those gifted
observers who can always see through a brick wall. But
the very fact that a man can see through a brick wall
means that he cannot see the brick wall. It is because
flesh and blood make no impression on the X-rays that
Herr Röntgen is able to show us our bones and any
latchkeys that may have entered into our hands. Flesh
and blood are quite invisible to Mr. Shaw. He thinks
that because he cannot see them they do not exist, and
that he is to be accepted as a realist. I need hardly
point out to my readers that he is mistaken.
In 1900, reviewing Shaw's "You Never Can Tell," Max
commented on "[this] author’s peculiar temperament and
attitude, of which the manifold contradictions are so
infinitely more delightful, even when they make us very
angry, than the smooth, intelligible consistency of you or
me." In 1901, he wrote, "Assuming that Mr. Shaw will live to
the age of ninety (and such is world's delight in him that
even then his death will seem premature), I find that he has
already fulfilled half his life span . . . but as a
personality he is immortal." In 1902, again discussing "Mrs.
Warren's Profession," he wrote, ". . . having seen it acted,
I am confirmed in my heresy that it is, as a work of art, a
failure. But the failure of such a man as 'G.B.S.' is of
more value than a score of ordinary men's neat and cheap
successes. . . . 'Mrs. Warren' is a powerful and
stimulating, even an ennobling, piece of work—a great
failure, if you like, but also a failure with elements of
greatness in it." In 1904, he was saying, "Of all our
playwrights Mr. Shaw is by far the most richly gifted with
this [dramatic] humour."
Max was all on the side of the New Movement in the theatre
of his time, particularly in the repertory experiment at the
Court Theatre, where Shaw's first plays were produced, by
Harley Granville-Barker. The business manager was J. E.
Vedrenne. Max thought that a performance of "The Devil's
Disciple," in which Barker played General Burgoyne, was so
bad that in his review he insists that Vedrenne not only
cast and stage-managed the production but played Burgoyne as
well. He heads the review "Mr. Vedrenne," and begs the
latter not to imitate so sedulously Barker's stage
mannerisms. In other Shaw reviews he heaps scorn on the West
End managers, who will not give Shaw a chance in the
commercial theatre, on the theory that the public goes to
the theatre just to be amused. Writing about Shaw's "John
Bull's Other Island," Max repeats their stale phrase: "'just
to be amused.' There is much besides amusement to be got out
of this play (a fact which would, I suppose, form the
manager's silly excuse for not producing it)."
It was not the esprit de corps which sometimes makes
drama critics tolerant when one of them writes a play that
made Max do battle for the plays of his predecessor on the
Saturday. He knew at once that they were something
new, removed by light-years from the works of Naomi Greckle—"brewed,"
as he said "of skimmed milk and stale water"—to which he was
subjected in the commercial theatre. Moreover, he knew that
Shaw's plays would be, once they got their proper hearing
and the slow public got used to them, what the commercial
managers claimed they could never be—commercial. When "You
Never Can Tell" was put on for six matinees, Max protested.
Six matinees! Why are the commercial speculators
who control theatres so obtuse as not to run Mr. Bernard
Shaw for all he is worth? I assure them that he would be
worth a very great deal to them. In the course of the
next decade or two, they will begin to have some
glimmerings of this fact. Meanwhile, they shake their
heads and purse their lips at the sound of his name.
"Very clever, no doubt," they pronounce him; "much too
clever; over the heads of the public." Of course his
head is over the heads of the public; but I protest that
he is no mere cherub, that his feet are set solidly on
the ground, and that his body is in touch with the
crowd. Even had I not already witnessed Kennington's
enthusiasm for "The Devil's Disciple," my visit to the
Strand Theatre would have convinced me that Mr. Shaw, as
he stands, is a man who might save many managers the
trouble of going bankrupt over the kind of plays in
which they see "money." I have never fallen into the
error of overrating the public, but I take this
opportunity of insinuating to purveyors of farce and
melodrama that the public's stupidity has its limits.
Several farces and melodramas have been withdrawn lately
after the shortest runs, for the simple reason that they
were not good enough for the public. To provide
something beneath the public is quite as disastrous as
to provide something above it. In the latter case,
moreover, disaster is no ignominy. Might it not,
sometimes, be courted? Even had it not already been
proved that some of Mr. Shaw's plays have qualities
which delight the public, it would still be surprising
that no manager hastens to give them a fair chance.
But nothing that Max could do toward selling his
predecessor's plays could alter the fact that the reigning
playwright of his years on the Saturday was not Shaw
but the author of "The Second Mrs. Tanqueray," Arthur Wing
Pinero. Not only was he the reigning playwright but he was
considered to be the master of a polished literary style.
Max took care of that. He polished off Pinero's
style—analyzed it, parodied it, revealed it for what it was.
Pinero had had the misfortune to write a successful play
called "Lefty." Max generously allows Pinero to speak for
A visitor to Mr. Letchmere's flat complains of the heat.
"My man," says the host, "has been neglecting to lower
the blinds." What a ghastly equivalent for "my man
hasn't pulled down the blinds"! He complains to the
valet: "This room is as hot as Hell." "Not quite so hot
as that, I think, Sir." "We will not discuss that now.
You will have ample opportunity for testing the truth of
that simile at some future date." Mr. Letchmere, sending
the valet to bed: "I shall require nothing further."
Invited to join a supper-party: "Let no one be
incommoded." Reassuring a lady who overhears a quarrel:
"These little differences are invariably settled
amicably." Very angry: "The result, now that I view it
closely, is none the more palatable." . . . I wish to be
quite just to Mr. Pinero. But I think I have quoted
enough to show that no tempering with mercy, however
gently rain-like and thrice blest, could prevent justice
from condemning him to perpetual banishment among the
penny-a-liners from whom his style is borrowed. Nay,
these penny-a-liners have an excuse that cannot he
pleaded by him. They are paid by the line. They live by
the length and the number of their words, whose quality
matters not at all. Mr. Pinero just receives a "royalty"
for every performance of his play. His style is,
therefore, penny-a-lining for penny-a-lining's sake.
Later, in Rapallo, Max told me he thought that perhaps he
had not been just to Pinero. "After all," Max said,
"he could write a last act." "Pinero's appearance was
extraordinary," St. John Ervine has written. "Except for
very heavy black eyebrows, he was almost hairless." His
appearance is even more extraordinary in one of Max's
caricatures: the eyebrows look like horizontal railings set
to delimit the prairie of baldness; you feel that Pinero, if
he needed exercise, could chin himself on them. Of these
eyebrows, Max once made the mild observation that they were
like "the skins of some small mammal, don't you know—just
not large enough to be used as mats."
On the Saturday, Max took up a surprising cause. He
constantly implored playwrights to write a play about
servants. Henry Arthur Jones almost wrote one in "The
Lackey's Carnival." Max welcomed it, because it was partly
about servants, but he wasn't entirely satisfied, because it
wasn't all about servants. The servant problem was always on
his mind, and in 1918 he wrote a profound and prophetic
essay about it. But even in 1900, while reviewing Jones's
play, he wrote:
In all times, of course, domestic service has been a
demoralizing state of existence. To belong to one class
and to live in close contact with another, to "live
hardly" in contemplation of more or less luxury and
idleness, to dissimulate all your natural feelings
because you are forbidden to have them, and to simulate
other feelings because they are expected of you—this has
always been an unnatural life, breeding always the same
bad qualities. . . . We, during the last thirty years,
have been smiling over the blessings of universal
education, and we are just beginning to realize, with
horror, that we ought to have postponed that system
until all menial duties could be performed by machinery.
In 1902, when Charles Frohman produced Barrie's "The
Admirable Crichton," Max was delighted: "Keen, then, is my
gladness that Mr. Barrie has broken triumphantly, in the
eyes of all men, the very ground whose infinite
possibilities I have in these columns boomed so long and
wistfully." He praised Barrie for having the courage to show
"that servility is merely a matter of environment, and that
the most servile of slaves may become, in a place where
there is free competition, the most masterly of masters, and
vice versa. This may not strike you as in itself a startling
new idea. But it is startlingly new for the theatre."
In his 1918 essay, Max comes to grips with the whole
problem. He takes the trouble to go to the British Museum
and look up the Webbs' "History of Trade Unionism," to find
out whether servants have ever been unionized. He finds out
that they haven't. And yet the conditions of domestic
service have been ameliorated. The servants have
accomplished this by themselves, just by quitting for other
jobs, without benefit of unionization:
I should like to think this melioration came through our
sense of justice, but I cannot claim that it did.
Somehow, our sense of justice never turns in its sleep
till long after the sense of injustice in others has
been thoroughly aroused; nor is it ever up and doing
till those others have begun to make themselves
thoroughly disagreeable, and not even then will it be up
and doing more than is urgently required of it by our
convenience at the moment. For the improvement in their
lot, servants must, I am afraid, be allowed to thank
themselves rather than their employers. . . . When I was
a king in Babylon and you were a Christian slave, I
promptly freed you.
Anarchistic? Yes; and I have no defence to offer, except
the rather lame one that I am a Tory Anarchist. I should
like everyone to go about doing just as he pleased—short
of altering any of the things to which I have grown
accustomed. Domestic service is not one of those things,
and I should be glad were there no more of it.
Sometimes, in the course of his reviewing, little extra
pleasures came Max's way—the earned increment of dispraise.
In 1903, he was barred by a prominent
actor-playwright-manager-husband, Arthur Bourchier, from his
theatre, the Garrick. Mr. Bourchier was married to a famous
actress, Miss Violet Vanbrugh, and had written a comedy for
her that Max did not admire. When husbands write plays for
their wives, Max calls it "hymeneal dramaturgy." He says:
The public has a kindness for domesticity in theatrical
art, or, indeed, in any kind of public work. Political
economy is not a showily engaging science, and the books
written about it do not fatten their publishers. But
there is, I am told, an exception. The books written by
Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Webb sell really well. . . . The
"and Mrs." opens all hearts, and through that breach
dash the battalions of dry facts and deductions to the
storming of all brains. Even more potent is domesticity
in the theatre than in the study.
But he is glad, on the whole, that Shakespeare was not half
of a husband-and-wife team. He feels that Anne Hathaway
would have run him into sad courses, for she is said to have
been a woman of commanding, even shrewish, temperament. He
would have had to write "The Taming of the Shrew" for her
without Katharina's conversion to docility, a mood that
would have been outside Anne's acting range. "Hamlet" would
have fared even worse; Ophelia's would naturally have been
the leading part. Max imagines the effect of this
uxoriousness on Cleopatra and Rosalind; since Anne Hathaway
did not indulge in sentimental nonsense, Cordelia would have
been merciless to her stricken father, and Juliet, on the
balcony, would have fumed and raged—all because a dutiful
husband-playwright writing for his wife must give her the
opportunity to do in public what she is habituated to doing
For his temerity in criticizing Miss Vanbrugh, Arthur
Bourchier shut the doors of his theatre on Max. Max took it
without dolor. "Yet, cast thus into outer darkness, I
uttered no cry of anguish," he wrote. "In the language of
our police force, I 'went quiet.'" Mr. Bourchier kept up his
proscription for a long time. It was still in operation four
years later, and it yielded Max a new experience. For the
first time in his life, he saw a show from the pit. He had
borne his exclusion with equanimity except when there was a
play at Mr. Bourchier's theatre that he particularly wanted
to see. The playwright Alfred Sutro was a great friend of
Max's, and there was a play of his running at the Garrick.
Max insinuated himself into the Garrick, by the surprising
device of going to the box office and buying himself a
ticket, but, "suffering under the disability common to lads
who are going to carve out a future in this great
metropolis," he found that he didn't have enough to pay for
a stall. Max met the crisis as courageously as he had met
Bourchier's expulsion. Infinitely resourceful, he bought an
admission to the pit:
I had no misgivings. Though I had never happened to see
a play from the pit, and my heart was leaping with the
sense of adventure, I knew no fear. How often, passing
this or that theatre, hours before the performance, had
I seen a serried row of men and women doggedly waiting
outside the door that led to the pit! Was it likely that
they would spend their valuable time thus if there were
not a great treat in store for them? The Pit! There was
a certain traditional magic in the sound. There was some
secret of joy that I had often wished to elucidate. . .
. It was with a glad heart that I bounded down the stone
The glad heart was saddened, the adventurer deflated. Still,
like other men with warm and kindly natures who have
suffered disenchantment, Max emerged from the experience not
embittered but with an expanded tolerance. He could neither
see the actors nor hear them. Across the intergalactic
distance Max saw an infinitesimal miniature: a lady who
crossed the stage and laid her hand on another miniature,
also female, whereupon from the first puppet emanated the
sound "Want—pew." Max had read the daily notices of the
play, and now, feverishly piecing together other bits of
circumstantial evidence that abounded in his well-informed
brain, he deduced that the first puppet was Miss Vanbrugh
and that she had just said to the second, "I want to help
you." Max felt that he was beginning to learn from his
experience in the pit. Here he was, accustomed to sitting in
a comfortable stall, and, moreover, to being paid for it,
while surrounded by people who were sitting as he was
sitting now and who, moreover, did it voluntarily and were
not being paid for it. And there was no outcry, no
rebellion. It was phenomenal. From where he now sat, the
actors looked like performing fleas. As performing fleas,
they were remarkable. And here he had been, all these years
on the Saturday, sitting in the stalls, from which
the actors looked like men and women and were instantly
recognizable as such, and unreasonably expecting
recognizable human conduct from them. His presumption
overcame him. The majority of the audience—perhaps
three-fourths—were watching fleas. A great light burst upon
If I went to criticise a troupe of performing fleas, I
should not write and attack their trainer because the
performance had not closely tallied with my experience
of human beings. 1 should not go to be instructed. I
should go to be amused. It is in this spirit,
necessarily, that the majority of people go to the play.
They know that they cannot see anything that will remind
them of actual life. What matter, then, how great be the
degree of remoteness from reality? The marvel to me,
since my visit to the pit of the Garrick, is not that
the public cares so little for dramatic truth, but that
it can sometimes tolerate a play which is not either the
wildest melodrama or the wildest farce. Where low tones
and fine shades are practically invisible, one would
expect an exclusive insistence on splodges of garish
colour. . . . I shall in future be less hard on the
public than has been my wont.
Even though in the first article Max wrote as drama critic
he had said that "in drama I take, unfortunately, neither
emotional nor intellectual pleasure," this could no longer
have been entirely true when he went, in February of 1908,
to a tiny, unfashionable theatre, Terry's, to see Ibsen's "Rosmersholm."
Shortly before, he had met an American actress, Florence
Kahn, who had brought a letter to him from a friend at home
who thought it might be useful to Miss Kahn to meet the
important critic of the important Saturday. Florence
Kahn came from Memphis, Tennessee. In 1900, at the age of
twenty-four, she had become a star overnight, at the
Carnegie Lyceum in New York. In 1901, she was Richard
Mansfield's leading woman. Mansfield, it has been reported,
found the audience reaction to Miss Kahn somewhat
irritating; he considered it uncritically enthusiastic. He
managed to break his contract with her, on the soothing
ground that she was capable of heading her own company. He
did not wish, evidently, for Miss Kahn to head his own. By
1904, she was playing Rebecca West in "Rosmersholm" with the
Century Players at the Princess Theatre. She became known as
an Ibsen specialist, and it was this that accounted for her
trip to England to play in "Rosmersholm" at Terry's. Max
must have gone to Terry's that night, in the line of duty,
with some emotional expectancy.
Max gave Miss Kahn a rave notice. His piece is headed "A
Memorable Performance," and he describes the performance at
It is difficult to write about Miss Florence Kahn's
impersonation of Rebecca; for it is never easy to
analyze the merits of great acting. . . . The part is a
very subtle one and a difficult one, a convoluted one,
needing an intellect to grasp it, and extreme skill to
express it. Such skill would not, however, suffice.
Forthright emotion on the stage can often be expressed
merely by artificial means. But secret emotion can be
suggested only through a genuine emotion that is in the
player. In the rare moments when Rebecca breaks through
her reserve, Miss Kahn betrays the fact that she has a
voice of great power and resonance, and a face that will
eloquently express the soul. . . . In its appeal to the
emotions, Miss Kahn's acting is not more remarkable than
in its appeal to the sense of beauty. Throughout the
play, not a tone is inharmonious, not a movement without
An actress cannot easily refuse a man who writes about her
like that, and Miss Kahn did not refuse Max. After a
two-year courtship, they were married at the Register
Office, Paddington, on May 4, 1910. Max took his bride to
Italy for a honeymoon. A friend of both of them has
described Mrs. Beerbohm's drawling, Southern voice as having
the quality of "cream-colored tussore." One admirer said her
voice had a "stained-glass quality." She was lithe, thin,
frail, with an aureole of auburn hair—two aureoles,
according to Arnold Bennett. Reginald Pound, in his
biography of Bennett, quotes Bennett's description of the
She was of course preceded by the legend of extreme
youth and beauty. Reddish hair, divided into two mops of
unequal size, hanging loosely down in a shock on either
side. Over this a black hat with a feather sticking out
backwards from the left side. Very fair. Very thin. Very
unassumingly dressed in black, Gloves ditto. Refined and
rather worn features. About 35. Refined voice. Seriously
interested in, and proud of, Max. Wondered whether his
recent parodies of me and others not too good for a
creative artist to do. On the whole, a shade too
serious, and fairly precious. Deferential. Constantly
stopping, with a grave air, when we began a sentence
simultaneously, and making way for me—and then going on.
But agreeable, intelligent (perhaps too!) and with a
fundamental decency. She thought London the most
beautiful city in the world, etc. But she preferred to
live among Italian peasants.
To William Rothenstein, Miss Kahn was the reincarnation of
Elizabeth Siddal. He describes his first meeting with her:
Then I met a girlish figure with red hair, looking, I
thought, like Miss Siddal, but so shy and with a beauty
so elusive that I wondered how she could dominate a
stage. But my doubt was shortlived, for when I saw her
as Rebecca West in "Rosmersholm," there was no shyness;
the elusiveness remained, but her voice and her presence
filled the stage, and so human, yet so spiritual was her
acting, and so lovely her presence, that I thought it
was indeed Miss Siddal come to life again, to act
instead of to paint.
Perhaps Max saw Florence as Miss Siddal also, and perhaps
that is why he was always drawing Miss Siddal.
While Max and Florence were honeymooning, they found, in
Rapallo, the house in which they were to spend the rest of
their lives. In Portofino, close by, were his friends the
'William Nicholsons and Elizabeth Russell, of "Elizabeth and
Her German Garden," whose novels Max greatly enjoyed. Once,
Sir Carol Reed, the film director, asked Max, in Rapallo,
how he could have borne to leave the city he loved, full of
people who adored him, at a moment so vibrant with
possibilities. Max turned on Sir Carol his innocent look.
"How many people were there in London? Eight million? Nine
million?" he said. "Well—I knew them all!" When I
asked him the same question, he said, quite simply, "I
wanted to be alone with Florence."
To be the wife of a great talker when you are yourself
something of a talker is not easy. If you express yourself,
you may get the reputation of interrupting the great talker
and, even, of blanketing him. If you say nothing at all, it
might be assumed that you are unresponsive or even bored at
the discovery that you have married a great talker. On this
point, judgments of Florence, among Max's friends who knew
them both, varied widely. Some said that Florence, having
given up her stage career to marry Max, tried incessantly to
keep it alive by talking about it. These say that she was a
blanketer. Others, less severe, say that she was an
interrupter. Still a third group say that she was an adroit
stage manager, with a developed technique for inciting Max
to tell his best stories. In any case, Max and Florence
were, it appears, idyllically happy. They were able to live
in Rapallo very inexpensively, and, removed from the
distractions of life in London, Max was able to devote
himself to his writing, to his drawing, and to Florence. Max
was happy—though he watched minutely for a warning sign—that
never at any time could he detect in Florence any trace
whatever of Anne Hathaway, his model, evidently, of
everything a literary man's wife ought not to be. They made
trips—he took her to Venice and Florence, neither of which
she had ever seen: He applied to her a medley of nicknames:
the Pittsburgh Virago (though she was born in Memphis); the
Houri- Housewife; the Gazy-Bo Girl; Graminivorous Gertie.
Once, after a tremor of dispute between them, he did a
drawing—Florence in a vaporous huff, himself penitently
imploring and promising, although he did not know what he
had done, not to do it again.
I had fallen into the habit of teasing Max, pretending that
I knew more about his life than he did, in the months since
I had read a book on him, "Sir Max Beerbohm, Man and
Writer," by the Dutch scholar J. G. Riewald, which was
published in The Hague in 1953. Max himself said of Riewald,
"He knows much more about me than I do myself!" Dr. Riewald
had embarked on this venture without any help from Max; Max
had tried to discourage him, as he had tried to discourage
Bohun Lynch thirty years before. But you can't discourage a
biographer. The bibliography in the Riewald book is a
phenomenon; it runs to a hundred and thirty pages. Max
himself was astonished; in a short letter he wrote to Dr.
Riewald after the book was finished, he said, "I marvel at
your multiscience. You know very much more about my writings
than I could ever have remembered." To bibliograph the
conscientiously random writings and drawings produced by Max
throughout his long lifetime was surely something of a job,
but Professor Riewald seems to have accomplished it. That
the little niche Max set out to find for himself, and found,
should have inspired such exhaustive archeology astonished
him. When he was asked anything by curious visitors about
his writings or his caricatures or his migrations, he would
say, "You will find it in Riewald." It left him free to talk
to his visitors about other things.
Dr. Riewald was the second bibliographer to devote himself
to Max. The first was John Lane, of the Bodley Head, who
brought out, when Max was twenty-three, his first published
volume, "The 'Works of Max Beerbohm." In his mock-pompous
"Preface to the Bibliography"—printed at the end of the
little book, right after "Diminuendo," the essay in which
Max says that he is already outmoded and belongs to the
Beardsley period—Lane writes about the retired author with
nostalgic veneration, as if he were an august Grand Old Man
of Literature being trundled off to the Poets' Corner in
Westminster Abbey. Max went to Oxford, Lane says, to apply
himself "to the task he had set before him, namely, a
gallery of portraits of the Dons," and to America with the
more modest aim of establishing a monarchy there. In the
traditional vein of biographers, Lane searches for momentous
events contemporary with the birth of his subject, Henry
Maximilian Beerbohm, on August 24, 1872:
There was only one worth recording. On the day upon
which Mr. Beerbohm was born, there appeared, in the
first column of the Times, this announcement:
On (Wednesday) the 21st August, at Brighton, the wife of
V.P. Beardsley, Esq., of a son.
He notes the coincidence with breathless wonder:
That the same week should have seen the advent in this
world of two such notable reformers as Aubrey Beardsley
and Max Beerbohm is a coincidence to which no antiquary
has previously drawn attention. Is it possible to
overestimate the influence of these two men in the art
and literature of the century!
In some of his essays, Max took up, autobiographically,
where Lane left off, In "The Boat Race," an essay written
when he was twenty-four, he says that the earliest
recollection of his life was of toddling beside his nurse
along the Thames on the day of the Oxford-Cambridge boat
race. They encountered another nurse, escorting another
toddler. "What are you?" inquired Max's nurse. The second
nurse said, "I am Cambridge." "Oh," rejoined Max's nurse,
with a fine show of forehanded loyalty, "I am Oxford."
Max told me that when he was a child he was half asleep, but
there were certainly, as "The Boat Race" reveals, some
clearly defined images in the somnolence. He was, he goes on
to write, drawing and redrawing at eight, just as he was, I
found, at eighty. He used to watch "with emotion" the
sentries pacing outside Kensington Palace, and his first
ambition was one day to be one of them. "Meanwhile I made
many feeble little drawings of them, which I coloured
strongly," he continues. "But somehow, mysteriously, when I
was eight years old or so, the soldiery was eclipsed for me
by the constabulary." He quit drawing Guards and drew
The dark lantern was the truly great, the irresistible
thing about them. More than once, from the window of my
night-nursery, I had seen that lantern flashed at
opposite front-doors and through area-railings. My
paintings of policemen were mostly nocturnes—a dim,
helmeted figure with a long white ray of light. Although
I possessed, of course, a dark lantern of my own, and
used it much, I preferred my occasional glimpses of the
genuine article, and looked forward impatiently to being
a member of the Force. But the young are faithless. By
the time I was eleven years old I despised the Force. I
was interested only in politicians—in Statesmen, as they
were called at that time.
When Max was twelve, he had a great thrill. He actually saw,
in the flesh, Eardley Childers. Mr. Childers was Chancellor
of the Exchequer. In later years, Max was not enthralled by
practitioners of economics, or what he called "the bleak
science," but when he was twelve the sight of Mr. Childers
ravished him. He ran home and drew and redrew him. The
sartorial eccentricities of the Statesmen, and the immense
variety of their beards and mustaches, endlessly fascinated
him, and he recorded them with pen and pencil and colored
chalks. The boy haunted No. 10 Downing Street (hoping for a
glimpse of Gladstone) and the House of Commons. At Rapallo,
Max told me how he recalled being present in the House when
Coningsby Disraeli, Dizzy's nephew, made his maiden speech.
Max recalled the tremor that was audible in the House when
the Speaker announced that a Disraeli was about to speak.
The nephew made a pretty good maiden speech, Max said, and
much was expected of him, but the expectations were not
fulfilled. Max's own disappointment was discernible as he
told me this, for Dizzy was a pet of his. A mountebank who
persisted in his mountebankery right up to the end was a
diverting spectacle for Max. He adored Dizzy because, he
said, you couldn't respect him, you could only enjoy him.
When the drowsy Max was nine years old, he was awakened by
his parents and sent to Mr. Wilkinson's School, in Orme
Square. When he heard, nearly forty years later, that Sir
William Rothenstein was sending his youngest boy there, he
was delighted. He wrote to Rothenstein:
I am thrilled when you say that the last named is going to a
school in Orme Square—Mr. Wilkinson's. As if I didn't know
that school! I was there, as a new boy, just 39 years ago! I
was there from '81 to '85, and I am greatly glad that Billie
is going to follow in those obliterated old footsteps of
mine. I wonder if the school has quite all the charm it had
in my time. There were only 15 or 20 boys in my time. 16 or
21, counting Mr. Wilkinson, who was just one of us. . . . He
is by far the best teacher I ever had; wonderfully
understanding and "enthusing." He did—and I am sure still
does—so sympathise with the mind of a small boy. It was he
that first taught me Latin, and gave me a love of Latin, and
thereby enabled me to write English well. . . . Mrs.
Wilkinson, in those days, used to teach drawing to the boys.
Hers were the only lessons I ever had. . . . And what a
trial I must have been to Mrs. Wilkinson! But perhaps in
those days my work showed more promise than it seems to show
From Mr. 'Wilkinson's, Max went on to Charterhouse. Addison
and Steele and Thackeray had preceded him there. "I was," he
says in his essay "Old Carthusian Memories," "a queer child.
I didn't care a brass farthing for games. What I liked was
Latin prose, Latin verse, and drawing caricatures." Mr. and
Mrs. Wilkinson and the beards and mustaches of the Statesmen
had done their dread work. Max is not sentimental about
Charterhouse; he is not of the "straitest sect," which
"simply can't bear the thought of having left Charterhouse,"
and for which "afterlife . . . is one long anticlimax." He
adds, "My delight in having been at Charterhouse was far
greater than my delight in being there." At Charterhouse,
Max became what would nowadays he called "a controversial
figure." Addressing Max, in Rapallo, in a tribute broadcast
from London over B.B.C. on his eightieth birthday, Robert
Graves, who went to Charterhouse in 1909, was perfectly
frank about it. He said to Max: "You were a name about which
there was a great deal of pro and con in the school. The
older and stuffier members of the staff frowned when it came
up; but the youngest and brightest . . . lent me all the
books you had hitherto published and soon you were one of my
While the other boys were playing games, Max set himself to
doing a complete set of irreverent caricatures of the
masters and his schoolfellows. Between 1888 and 1890, the
Greyfriar, a school periodical, published some of these
drawings, under various heads: "Humours of School Life,"
"The Exeat Sketches," and "Charterhouse Types." The
influence of Mr. Wilkinson remained strong also. Max wrote
Latin verses, but in one instance, at least—his most
ambitious effort—he infused into them an element that he
hadn't got from Mr. Wilkinson. This was the Latin poem
CUM PROLEGOMENIS ET
Beccerius Naso Pianonicus, whom Max invented, was his first
sketch of his later imaginary men of letters—Enoch Soames,
Maltby and Braxton, Savonarola Brown. Max's notes on the
songs of Beccerius Naso Pianonicus are helpful to
non-Latinists who might have difficulty reading them in the
original. A few random ones follow:
A poem of singular power and beauty, and of the utmost
historical value. Its authorship has been and still is
disputed; so, in order to set all doubts at rest, I may
at once state that I attribute it to the pen of
Lucretius. I say this mainly because my old and valued
friend Professor Mayor is convinced that it was written
1. Beccerius. Of Beccerius Naso Pianonicus little
is known; save from the famous hexameter of Ennius: "Ingenui
voltus et spectaculatus ocellos."
2. Concertum, late, very late, Latin. Our word
"concert" is said to be derived from the same root, and
indeed the etymology seems not unlikely. See also my old
friend and schoolfellow Professor Madvig's most learned
note on "Entertainments."
Fine word; note too the desponding use of the imperfect.
A less skillful poet would have "dedit," but not so
6. Innumeras k.t.a. Needless difficulties have
been made over this line. Some suggest to take it thus:
"he scatters up and down his unnumbered hands." But
seeing that this theory depends upon the absurd
supposition that Beccerius possesses more hands than
other people, I dismiss it instantly. By far the
simplest and most straightforward way of rendering it is
"he shakes on every side innumerable hands" i.e. he
shakes hands all round. Cf. the custom among pugilists
of shaking hands before an encounter.
By the sudden and unusual transition of sense at the end
of the pentameter the poet evidently suggests something
or other; what, we are not quite sure, but the idea is
none the less skillfully suggested.
At Oxford, Max continued the tradition, established at
Charterhouse, of plunging boldly into scholarly controversy,
no matter how formidable his opponent. Having said his say
to the great Juvenal authority Professor John Eyton
Bickersteth Mayor, he took on, in Oxford, the great
Shakespearean authority Professor Frederick James Furnivall.
There had been some discussion in a learned journal about
the meaning of certain difficult phrases in Shakespeare:
Professor Furnivall had offered his interpretations, but
without dogmatism; other authorities had opposed theirs; the
debate went on unresolved. Max, who loved order, stepped in
to resolve it. He wrote a letter to the Saturday Review
in which he stated bluntly that the meaning of the phrases
could be understood only by recourse to sixteenth-century
heraldry. He was specific; he divulged a very rare heraldic
term, and declared that a close analysis of this, which, he
modestly admitted, he was not himself equipped to make,
would shaft the revealing light on the obscure phrases. Hot
on the scent of a new clue, Professor Furnivall repaired to
the British Museum and began tracing down heraldic devices.
Had it not been for the intervention of a traitor, who told
him that the heraldic device he was looking for had been
invented by Max, Professor Furnivall might have sat in the
British Museum as long as Karl Marx.
It was inevitable that the boy who could pull off stunts
like these in his adolescence would one day bring about one
of the most fascinating controversial correspondences in
literary history. In a review of P. H. Newby's "The Princess
at Sakkara" in the Listener for April 28, 1955,
Hilary Corke wrote, "It was, oddly enough, a President of
the United States who invented the world's best book review:
'Those who like this sort of thing will find this the sort
of thing they like.' Lincoln's formula . . ." In a letter to
the Listener the next week, Rose Macaulay wrote, "Was
Abraham Lincoln really, as Mr. Hilary Corke says, the first
to make the incontrovertible statement that if one likes
that kind of thing, that is the kind of thing one likes? It
seems more familiar in Greek [she here gives the phrase in
Greek] whoever finds pleasure in this kind of thing, this is
the kind of thing he finds pleasure in—but can any
well-informed classic supply the author of this? If I ever
knew, I have forgotten. And did Lincoln know this tag?" Miss
Macaulay had consulted Gilbert Murray, who "remembered
nothing of this kind in any Greek writer." So Miss Macaulay
concluded that "President Lincoln must be credited with this
admirably incontrovertible remark, the hard core of
reviewing." The fact is that Lincoln was innocent. It was
Max who was guilty. He invented it, both in Greek and in
translation; it came off the point of his pen in the blue
study when he was finishing "Zuleika Dobson." He wrote a
confessional letter to Miss Macaulay, cutting short all
fascinating speculation. I bitterly reprimanded Max for his
vandalism. Had he allowed this correspondence to go on, I
explained, the attribution of the source of "the world's
best book review" might have been distributed among all the
American Presidents, with the possible exception of Calvin
Coolidge, who seldom expressed himself in Greek, or even in
On still another day that winter, when Max and I were
settled down traditionally in front of the fireplace in his
tiny living room, I said, "Max, what were you doing on the
afternoon of February 19, 1923?"
"Look it up in Riewald," said Max.
"This," I said with quiet menace, "is not in Riewald."
Max played along with me. He passed his hand over his
forehead in anxiety. "Oh dear!" he said. "I do hope that I
killed no one on that day. If I did, I have no recollection
"No, Max," I said. "You didn't kill anyone, but you did take
a married woman to lunch under the misapprehension that her
husband was busy. You were even so shameless that you wrote
a poem about it!"
Max's tension relaxed. "Oh, yes," he said. "Of course. I do
remember. Oh dear—I was terrified! Mrs. Harley
Granville-Barker. Helen Huntington she was. Harley had only
recently married her. But how ever did you come upon that
"I have my sources," I said.
"But Harley did come to lunch," he said, in pitiful
"I know," I said severely, "but you didn't know that
he was corning."
"But," said Max evenly, finally refusing to be bullied,
"what evidently you don't know is that my wife Florence was
with us! But where did you get that poem? I have no idea
where it is or how you could have come upon it."
I explained everything. I had copied out the poem, which I
had found, in Max's own handwriting, in the Gallatin
Collection, in the Houghton Library, at Harvard. I gave my
cop to Max, and he read it aloud to me:
"Triolets—composed on a day when I thought (from what he
had said on a previous day) that Harley wouldn't turn up
for luncheon. Feb. 23. MAX
"Harley's doing Cymbeline;
Helen rakes a car.
Behind yon castellated screen
Harley's doing Cymbeline.
Beetle-browed, athletic, lean,
Aloof, alone, afar.
Harley's doing Cymbeline. . .
Helen takes a car.
"Helen eats and drinks with us;
Harley plies his quill.
Gracious, fair, diaphanous
Helen eats and drinks with us. . .
Of Stratford's clever Will
Helen eats and drinks with us;
Harley plies his quill.
"Helen's way is right;
Harley's way is wrong.
As 'twere a swallow's flight,
Helen's way is right,—
To flit, to swoop, to alight
And gladden us with song!
Helen's way is right.
Harley's way is wrong.
"(Supplementary triplet composed at luncheon)
"Oh, bother and damn!
These verses won't do!
How unlucky I am!
Oh bother and damn!
Harley, that sham,
Has alighted here too!
Oh bother and damn!
These verses won't do!
"P S. Feb. 27
"Still, here they are,
With my love to you both.
From perfect they're far,—
Still, here they are.
They're away below par,
And to write them I'm loth.
Still, here they are,
With my love to you both."
Max settled down, with great animation, to talk about
Barker. He asked me to find Miss Jungmann and ask her to
bring him the illustrations he had done for Barker's book
"The Exemplary Theatre." That was a job after Max's own
heart—five drawings, and two copies of each in existence.
One set he had sent to Barker and the other was in his lap
now. Barker had had a scintillating career in the London
theatre. At the Court Theatre, under the management of
Vedrenne, he had produced not only Shaw's first plays but
his own. I had seen two of his productions when I was an
undergraduate, "Androcles and the Lion" and "The Man Who
Married a Dumb Wife." He was considered a genius and one of
the leading dramatists of the era. Shaw looked upon him as a
son. Barker was married to Lillah McCarthy, a leading lady
of great beauty. On one of his American visits, he met Mrs.
Archer Huntington—the wife of the son of Collis P.
Huntington, one of the Big Four of American railway finance.
After obtaining divorces, Barker and Mrs. Huntington got
married. Helen Huntington was a versifier and occasional
novelist. She couldn't abide Shaw, and Barker gave up Shaw.
Mrs. Huntington didn't like actors, either, and wouldn't
allow them in the various establishments she set up for
Barker. She tolerated another close friend of Barker's,
Gilbert Murray, because of his academic connection (Regius
Professor of Greek at Oxford), but only just. With a great
stretch of tolerance, she barely admitted J. M. Barrie. The
fact seems to have been that Helen Huntington simply didn't
like show business. Barker, who had already been
disappointed in the theatre, gave it up and turned to
scholarship. He wrote several volumes of "Prefaces to
Shakespeare," and "The Exemplary Theatre," privately
illustrated by Max.
Max took a very poor view of Barker's abdication from the
theatre, and of books like "The Exemplary Theatre." The
illustrations he showed me represent the kind of characters
he imagined an exemplary theatre would produce. These people
are exemplary, all right, but etiolated by earnest endeavor;
you feel that their red corpuscles are white with
aspiration. The first illustration bears the legend "The
Managing Director addressing the cast on the prime
importance of civic conscience." He wears three pairs of
glasses—two on his nose, and a spare on his forehead. He, as
well as the characters called "The Front of the House" and
"The Call-Boy," look undernourished and dehydrated. So do
the actors. In one drawing, Orlando, played by "Ex-Seminarist
Smith," and Rosalind, played by "Ex-Seminarist Robinson,"
are on the verge of holding hands, but you get the feeling
that that's just where they will stay. The last drawing,
called "The Public," presents Max's notion of the audience
that the Exemplary Theatre would attract. The drawing is a
gray, and utter, blank.
Barker ended his days with a sense of failure. In a way, he
was, like the characters in Max's drawings, enervated by
aspiration. In his aloofness from the rough-and-tumble of
the theatrical world, he resembled Gordon Craig. Of Craig,
Max said to me, "In a gregarious profession he wouldn't
gregar." Max had once brought Craig to C. B. Cochran, who
was eager to enlist Craig's genius. But Craig's demands were
impossible. "Craig had no notion of expense, don't you
know," Max told me. "His productions might cost anything,
and his flats went way up into the heavens—he used no sky
cloths. The actors were apt to be dwarfed." On another
occasion, Max, joining forces with his sister Constance, who
adored Craig, prevailed upon their brother Herbert to engage
Craig to do a production of "Macbeth" at His Majesty's. They
were both overjoyed, feeling that, at last, Craig would be
able to demonstrate his full genius in the English theatre.
Craig's drawings turned out to be beautiful. Everything
looked rosy, and Max and Constance congratulated each other.
But there was a hitch; Sir Herbert, since it was his theatre
as well as His Majesty's, kept dropping in to see how things
were going. Craig suggested to Sir Herbert that he leave
London. The suggestion came at a moment when Sir Herbert
didn't feel at all like leaving London; London had never
seemed more cozy to him. The result was that it was Craig
who left London; he went to Moscow to produce "Hamlet."
Max said that in his day the two most influential drama
critics were probably A. B. Walkley and William Archer. Of
Barker's play "The Voysey Inheritance," Walkley wrote, "Triple
extrait de Shaw." Walkley may have been influential, but
he couldn't have been very discerning. Barker was a
Fabian—at one time he was a member of the Society's
executive—and "The Voysey Inheritance" is a Fabian tract,
but a dreary one, without a trace of Shaw's invention and
exuberance and incandescence. Except in theory, it is as far
away from Shaw as possible. "'The Voysey Inheritance,' " Max
said, "is Barker at his worst. The characters aren't in the
least interested in each other—only in their ideas. I went
to see a revival of it with Lady de Grey. When the final
curtain fell, she said, 'Everything will be all right if we
all go on the London County Council.'"
In a vain effort to dissuade Barker from quitting the
sickroom of the Fabulous Invalid, Max wrote a poem "To H.G.B.":
The Theatre's in a parlous state,
I readily admit;
It almost is exanimate—
But then, when wasn't it?
It always was, will always be;
God has decreed it so.
Canst thou rescind His grim decree?
O, my dear Harley, No!
In Shakespeare's and in Marlowe's day,
In Congreve's, in Racine's
The wretched Theatre murmured "I'm
One of the Might-Have-Beens!"
"O May-Be-Yet!" the critics cried.
'We'll teach you how to grow!"
And were their fond hopes gratified?
O, my dear Harley, No!
The Theatre is Exemplary,
Now as in other ages,
Of all a Theatre shouldn't be—
Of all that most enrages
Right-thinking men like you and me
And plunges us in woe . . .
Mightn't perhaps the L.C.C. —
O, my dear Harley, No!
Small cubits come by taking thought,
And Drama gain her soul
By learning what she doubtless ought
From dear old Mr. Poel?
Shall syllabi and seminars
And blackboards all in a row
Somehow uplift us to the stars?
O, my dear Harley, No!
After he had written this, Max discovered that he had been
guilty of a lapsed rhyme in the second stanza. He did his
best to make amends:
I'd meant to write in my MS
"Time," and wrote "day," it seems.
This error fills me with distress
And haunts me in my dreams.
A lover I'm of chime of rhyme
And to vers libre a foe—
Shall such a man rhyme "day" with "I'm"?
O, my dear Harley, No!
Max said that he and his mother and sisters, when he was
living on the top floor of his mother's house in London, had
a game that became a lifetime habit with them. It was
imagining and predicting what people would say, especially
if you hadn't been seeing them frequently. Max taught this
game to Florence. The Barkers once invited Max and Florence
to spend a weekend with them at their country house. It had
been some time since the two couples had met, and on the way
down, Max played the game. "Helen will say, 'As Max and
Florence are here, we'll have to have champagne tonight!'"
he predicted. "This," he went on, "will also apprise us that
we won't get it every night." Mrs. Barker said it, and they
didn't, after the first evening, get it. For a time, the
Barkers settled in Italy, not far from Rapallo, and Max
described for me a joint expedition to San Fruttuoso. Barker
decided to walk and tried to persuade Max to join him—an
effort that failed, because Max didn't believe in walking.
Max described the wonderful equipment Barker had for his
walk. "He wore knickerbockers and the most wonderful high
laced boots. He must have been most painfully fitted for
them in one of those little streets off Jermyn Street, and
they were in the best and most intricate tradition of
British cobblership. Why did he insist on making that
painful walk? I suppose he felt he had to live up to those
knickerbockers and those boots. Anyway, while Florence and
Helen and I arrived fresh and rested by motorboat—the sea
was like a carpet—Barker arrived absolutely done in, pale
and exhausted. He had to lie down; he couldn't join us for
lunch. While he lay prostrate, the padrone stood
staring at him. His lips murmured sympathy but his eyes were
riveted to those boots; he had manifestly never seen such
boots, and his eyes were famished with envy, with despair,
because he knew that no fortune could befall him so fabulous
that he could ever own a pair of boots like that. Other
times, Harley would wear a sombrero and an Inverness cape. I
never knew why."
Max sighed. "Poor Harley," he said. And then his light
manner changed. "When he left Lillah McCarthy," Max said,
"he wrote her a long letter telling her that he no longer
cared to live with her, that he had fallen in love with Mrs.
Huntington, though he hazarded the doubt that he didn't know
how long that would last, either. The letter was in
the best tradition of the Fabians, and of both Shaw and
Marx. They would both have written like that." Max, I could
see, was appalled; he sat back in his chair thinking about
it, as if he had just read Barker's letter, as if the
enormity had just happened. "It isn't only the
insensitiveness," he went on. "It is the anemia,
don't you know. Isn't it of the essence of being in love—and
we must charitably assume that Harley was in love
with Helen—isn't it of the essence of being in love that
when it happens, while the rapture is upon you, you cannot
imagine its ever ceasing? But Granville-Barker could, and he
wrote such a letter as would have pleased his master Shaw
and would have been understandable to the Fabians, and would
even have got an approving nod from Marx himself."
Max, whose life at Rapallo was a long evocation, in memory,
of the people he had known, of their foibles and mistakes
and of their enchantment when they were at their best, found
less understandable than anything else about Shaw his remark
when he was asked whether he missed any of his
contemporaries who had died. "No," said Shaw. "I miss only
the man I was." Max's comment on this was, "When I think of
the gay and delightful people he knew . . ." He shook his
head in bewilderment. Prophets with idiosyncrasies like
Shaw's couldn't, for Max, prophesy anything good.
Several years before, I had met Bernard Berenson in Venice,
and he had asked me, if I ever found myself in Italy again,
to let him know and he would invite me to visit him at his
home—I Tatti, outside Florence. During this stay in Rapallo,
I had written to him, and now came a letter from Miss
Elizabetta (Nicky) Mariano—the chatelaine of I Tatti, as
Miss Jungmann was of the Villino Chiaro—inviting me to come
for the weekend. I wrote her, accepting, and having done so,
I felt a certain trepidation. Suddenly, the idea of the trip
to Florence loomed as formidable, like an excursion from a
secluded island into a seething world. Some years later,
Christopher Sykes told me the following story. Sykes had
been staying with Harold Acton in Florence and had been
taken by him to call on Berenson at I Tatti. On the way back
to London, he stopped off in Rapallo to call on Max. He said
to Max that he had just seen Berenson, and described his
Max said, "And now, I suppose, you are going to Cap Ferrat
to see Maugham."
"No," said Sykes, "I am not. As a matter of fact, I don't
Max was puzzled. "But you must be going to see
Sykes asked why this was inevitable.
"Because" said Max, with the air of a savant rigidly
expounding the second law of thermodynamics, "people come to
see me either on the way from Maugham to Berenson or
on the way to Maugham from Berenson. I am a wayside
Sykes assured him that for himself Max was a terminal.
"Do you mean to say," Max said, "that you have come here
just to see me?" He turned to Florence, manifestly
delighted by Sykes's eccentricity. "Imagine, Mr. Sykes has
journeyed here," he said, "just to see me!"
Had I known this story on the day I told Max and Miss
Jungmann, at tea in the living room, about my impending
weekend, I might have pointed out that I was even more
eccentric than Sykes, since Max was my point of departure.
But the best I could do that day was make the unembellished
"Well, you can get warm at Berenson's," Max said. "Desmond
MacCarthy used to tell me how warm it was there even in the
Miss Jungmann was full of curiosity about Miss Mariano. I
told her that I had seen Miss Mariano, too, in Venice, and
that she was one of the most enchanting people I had ever
met. Miss Jungmann said she so wished she could meet her.
"Come along," I said. "You and Max both come. I am sure B.B.
would he overjoyed to have you. I have never been there, and
it would make it easier for me."
For a minute or so, we revelled in the delicious
contemplation of an impossible journey. Miss Jungmann
insisted on knowing more about Miss Mariano; she evidently
looked on Miss Mariano as, in a sense, her opposite number,
for she was inquisitive about the minutiae of her devotion
"They say," said Miss Jungmann, "that she warms his
wristwatch for him!"
I said that I had never seen Miss Mariano do this but that I
would be on the lookout.
"Max hasn't got a wristwatch," said Miss Jungmann. It was
clear that if he had, it would have undergone conditioning.
Max did not exactly change the subject, but he deflected it.
"My brother Herbert never knew what time it was," he said.
"He was always late, therefore, for appointments. He was
vague. Oh, he had a watch and he often looked at it, but he
never seemed to draw any deductions from it."
I asked Max whether he knew B.B.
"Oh, it is many years since I have seen him," Max said. "The
last time was with Sibyl Colefax. Sibyl was in a nursing
home, and I went to see her, and Mr. Berenson was there."
"Tell him Florence's story," said Miss Jungmann.
Max turned to her, inquiring. "Which story?"
"You remember, Max. About the Berensons' visit to the
Max remembered. "Oh, yes," he said. "It was curious. I have
never understood it. The Berensons were passing through
Rapallo, and Mary Berenson telephoned. I was in London at
the time, on some business or other—I don't remember
what—and Florence told Mrs. Berenson this and asked them if
they wouldn't come to lunch anyway, and they did. They had
lunch here, in this room, and after lunch Florence took him
into that room." Max pointed to the little library
adjoining the living room. "As they walked in, Mary said,
'Oh, Florence, how wonderful it must be for you to live with
Miss Jungmann giggled.
Max was anxious for me not to be under a misapprehension.
"But you know, Elizabeth, Florence also said—she made it
clear—that Mary Berenson's remark was not meant invidiously.
Not at all. She meant it. The Villa I Tatti is a very
grand place, and she was weary of running it. Desmond
MacCarthy used to tell me how grand it is. Oh, no, Mary
really envied Florence, I believe."
"I'm sure she did!" said Miss Jungmann.
Max turned to me. "But the curious thing was this," he said.
"I have never understood it, but I have been told this by so
many people that it must be true. You know, Berenson didn't
believe I was in London. He believed that I was in the house
the whole time and that I didn't wish to see him, or was
afraid to see him—I don't know what. He is convinced I was
here—hiding under a bed, I imagine! Do give him my
affectionate and admiring greetings, and if it should come
up, please assure him that, had I been here, I should have
been most happy to see him."
I promised to do this. I asked permission to take with me
Max's illustrations for Granville-Barker's book; I thought
they might amuse B.B. Max gladly gave them to me.
"And my greetings to Miss Mariano," said Miss Jungmann.
In Florence, I was met at the station by Berenson's Welsh
chauffeur, who had been with him for about forty years. He
drove me to the great house, where Miss Mariano greeted me.
The suite into which I was shown was one that not long
before had been occupied by the King of Sweden, who was one
of Berenson's annual visitors. Its chandeliered, damasked
drawing room was hung with Old Masters. On the mantelshelf
was a large leather folder; within, under cellophane, was
printed—one side in Italian, the other in English—the names
of the pictures that hung in the room and of the artists,
with their dates. I walked around the room with this guide
in my hand, checking to see if the pictures were all there
(they were), and put the card back on the mantelshelf for
The four days I spent at I Tatti were a joy. Miss Mariano
said that there were three performances a day—lunch, tea,
and dinner. These consisted mainly of the prolonged chamber
music of conversation, with B.B. playing first violin, and
visiting virtuosos playing their appropriate instruments and
changing at each meal: Harold Acton, Peter Viereck, Mrs.
Ralph Pulitzer, Richard Offner. Walter Lippmann had just
left; Judge Learned Hand was coming.
I had recently read an interview with Berenson in which he
singled out Max as perhaps the most exquisite writer of his
time, and also expressed immense admiration for his
caricatures. In one of my talks with Berenson, I referred to
this interview. "I have been propagandizing for Max for
fifty years," he said.
Another guest repeated to Berenson a remark that had been
made to him by a very famous and very successful and very
old friend of Max's, to the effect that it was no wonder he
was poor, since he had done no work for thirty years.
"That is a piggish remark," Berenson said quickly. "Whatever
Max has done is exquisite; he has done enough, he has done
more than enough. We are all his debtors."
I showed Berenson the illustrations for the Barker book. He
was enchanted. He handed them round to other guests.
"They're as good as Goya," he said, with the authority of
one who can say things like that. "Max is the English Goya."
Berenson wanted to hear as much news as possible about Max.
As he did not bring up the history of the lunch he and his
wife had had at the Villino, I brought it up. The result was
"Max told me that you think he was there the whole time," I
"He was there," said Berenson quietly.
"But why shouldn't he have greeted you if he were there?" I
said. "What reason would he have had for avoiding you?"
"That is what I don't know," said Berenson. "That is what
mystifies me. Because Max hasn't a warmer admirer in the
world than I am."
I gave Berenson Max's message, but I soon saw that nothing
in the world would persuade Berenson that Max had not been
in the house that day.
On the day I left, I did something I had never done before.
I stole. I stole the picture guide from my suite, because I
thought it might amuse Max.
On the train back to Rapallo, as I thought over the
pleasures of my visit, a riddle obtruded—bafflement over the
story of B.B.'s visit to the Villino Chiaro. I knew that Max
was telling the truth; I knew him well enough to know that
he would have been incapable of avoiding Berenson by
stooping to a ruse. I knew also that Berenson was convinced
that he was telling the truth, too. I wondered. Why should
Berenson have somehow, obscurely, wished to be the victim of
a snub from Max? It led me into psychological speculations
that I had no confidence in. But this much I did see: that
Max's relations with other people were simpler, often, than
theirs with him. He had many friends—Desmond MacCarthy, for
example—who took him as he was, with sheer delight in his
mere existence. But there were others in whom the delight
was mottled with some nagging resentment of Max's
non-competitiveness, of his indifference to the glories of
careerism. Year after year, he sat in the Merton chair in
his little living room, summoning up and reanimating the
past, or in his blue study off the terrace, polishing his
small output of prose, drawing caricatures, devoting himself
to exiguous tasks in order to amuse one friend—a year to
re-do Archibald Henderson's "George Bernard Shaw" to amuse
William Archer, weeks to turn out several exemplary Goyas to
amuse Granville-Barker. As far as he was concerned, there
was, in his relations with everybody, no sparring for
position. He liked the one he had, he did not wish to alter
it; it fitted him. He was, as the cartoonist David Low once
wrote of him, "free of envy." When a great royal honor was
conferred on a writing friend and contemporary, Max was
clearly happy about it. He wished only that it had been
conferred earlier, so that his friend might have enjoyed it
longer. When this honor was announced in the papers and we
sat in the study discussing it, Miss Jungmann, out of
loyalty, couldn't resist saying, "Max gets nothing!" But Max
didn't want anything beyond what he had, and somehow this
absence of ambition, which rendered him immune from envy,
sent ripples of unease through the consciousnesses of some
of his unswervingly successful friends, who might have
enjoyed, just here and there, just occasionally, being
On my return, Miss Jungmann and Max were agog to hear about
my visit. I told them everything. I was happy to be able to
report that I had not seen Miss Mariano warm Berenson's
wristwatch "If she did it," I said, "she must have done it
behind my back." Max listened to my account as if he were
listening to the story of a novel; he kept laughing at this
and that. I told him about my succeeding to the suite of the
King of Sweden, and he was amused when I repeated to him a
story told me by an intimate friend of Berenson's who had
been invited to tea on one of the King of Sweden's visits.
The house, he said, was surrounded by police on motorcycles
and by security officers. The tea party was very pleasant,
and the King very personable. At one point, though, he
ventured an opinion on some aesthetic matter which Berenson
thought was a bit out of line. Berenson at once staunched
the budding generalization. He waved an admonitory
forefinger at the King: "Now, look here, my boy . . ." The
King humbly resumed his proper place in line.
Max and Miss Jungmann—especially Miss Jungmann—were greatly
interested when I told them that Berenson, who was eight
years Max's senior, walked every day; that, in fact, he wore
me out walking. I also told them that Berenson was even then
planning a journey to Tripoli to see some excavations. "I
should think," said Max, "that, at our age, an excavation
would be the last thing one would care to see—too
suggestive, don't you know."
Miss Jungmann took courage from my account of Berenson's
feats, and was sure that if Max willed it he could partially
"Not to Tripoli," said Max. "No, I don't think I can
undertake Tripoli. But I will essay the terrace,"
I told Miss Jungmann that we would both have to treat Max
with more veneration henceforth, because B.B. had said that
he was the English Goya.
"l shall wear Spanish costume," said Max. But he was pleased
at Berenson's praise of his drawings, and he made no effort
to conceal it. "I have, you know, a picture hanging in a
museum in Florence," he said. "Did you know that?"
"In the Uffizi?" I asked.
Max laughed. "In the Museo Horne. Herbert Horne was the
biographer of Botticelli, you know, and gave his art
collection to Florence." Max became very impressive. "I hang
there," he said, puffing his cheeks out a bit to give the
effect of pomposity. "I am hung!" His voice rose.
"Who knows? Who knows? The art historians of the future may
call me the English Botticelli." Suddenly he collapsed the
pumped-up pose of inflation, "I don't think so, though, do
you? I haven't the air of Primavera about me—not quite—do
you think so?"
I whipped out the stolen catalogue.
"I stole for you, Max," I said. "This was in my room. This
was how I lived. Those pictures were all in my salon!"
Miss Jungmann and Max stared at the card.
"Why," said Max, in rapture, "it's a menu!" He
pronounced it in French, with the accent on the "u."
(This is the fifth of a series of seven articles.)