Harris, Frank (1856–1931), writer, was born James Thomas Harris on 14 February 1856 in Galway city, fourth among five children of Thomas Vernon Harris, customs shipmaster, and his wife, Anne Thomas, both Welsh nonconformists. Their father being appointed to various ships, the family moved around Ireland and were in Cahirciveen, Co. Kerry, from 1856 to 1860, when their mother died. In Kingstown (Dún Laoghaire), Co. Dublin, the young Harris attended a girls’ boarding school run by Mrs Frost, but in 1863 he was sent to Galway to live with his student brother Vernon, and there allegedly ran wild. On Vernon's being appointed bank clerk in Armagh, the younger brother was sent to the Royal School of Armagh, where he proved an able pupil. However, his father discovered that his son had Fenian sympathies and so dispatched him at the beginning of 1869 to Ruabon Grammar School, Denbighshire (Clwyd), north Wales. Harris never lived in Ireland again, but maintained warm affection for it; in later life he was frequently taken for an American or as Jewish but referred to himself always as Irish, Welsh, or Irish-American. He hated his English school, where he was called ‘Pat’ because of his Irish connection, and ran away to America in about April 1871. He moved around the States, working as a bootblack, a labourer, and possibly a cowboy before joining his brother William in Kansas (1872). He attended the state university and was admitted to the bar there in 1875, in which year he shed his baptismal name and adopted ‘Frank’ because he intended to be outspoken and truthful. The name was only partly apposite; he did indeed become notorious for his tactlessness, but equally so for his fantasising.
Returning from America in 1875, he spent time studying in France, Germany, and England, where he married (1878) Florence Ruth Adams. Her death the following year left him £500, which he used to go to Moscow and for a return visit to Ireland. On his settling in London in 1882, he was penniless but had forced himself on the attention of J. A. Froude (qv), who described him as a remarkable man, and got him review work for the Spectator and the Fortnightly Review. The editor of the latter recommended Harris to the editorship of the Evening News in 1883, and thus began his meteoric rise. He allegedly increased tenfold the circulation of this paper by unabashed sensationalism, indulging his obsessions with sex and sport. He was nevertheless sacked in 1886 after an indictment for obscene libel, but responded by becoming editor of the Fortnightly Review and marrying (1887) a wealthy older widow, Emily Mary Clayton. With his wife's money, Harris planned a political career. Despite his socialist principles, he was adopted as tory candidate for Hackney South (1889). However, his political career foundered with his defence of C. S. Parnell (qv). A perennial adulterer himself, he identified closely with Parnell in an early instance of a tendency, conspicuous in his books on Oscar Wilde (qv) and Shakespeare, to perceive himself in the image of great men. His dismissal by Hackney South conservative club was a minor setback in his enormous success. He was a small, stocky figure of swaggering virility and swarthy complexion, furnished with a formidable moustache and piercing eyes; his rich bass voice reminded Arthur Symons of a beaten Eastern gong; his conversation was said by George Moore (qv) to be the best he ever heard; by George Bernard Shaw (qv) to be the most unsuitable; and by Oscar Wilde to be the most combative. His vanity was inordinate; his humourlessness legendary.
In 1894 he left his wife and was asked to leave the Fortnightly Review after printing a sympathetic article on French anarchists who had killed eight people. He immediately purchased for £560 the weekly Saturday Review and proceeded to turn it into one of the best papers in Britain. He employed much new talent, including H. G. Wells and Bernard Shaw as drama critics. It was the highlight of Harris's career, but he sold the paper in 1898 in order to earn more money and write more fiction. His first story was published in 1891 and his Elder Conklin and other stories (1895) was generally well received, but he lacked the discipline and self-knowledge to write lasting fiction. His career went irrevocably downhill: his various money-making schemes, including running hotels in the south of France, were unsuccessful; his play ‘Mr and Mrs Daventry’ (1900), adapted from Wilde's writings, did well, but Wilde quarrelled over royalties. He was forced to take on the editorship of journals of ever decreasing quality, including Candid Friend (1901), Motorist and Traveller (1905–6), Vanity Fair (1907), Hearth and Home (1911), and Modern Society (1911), which landed him in prison for contempt of court after his comments on a divorce case. From 1914 to 1922 he lived in America, became a naturalised citizen, and edited Pearson's magazine; after which he tired of the ‘Benighted States’ and returned to the south of France to live in Nice, where he brought out in instalments his salacious and mendacious autobiography My life and loves (1922–34).
He had more financial success with his biographies of contemporaries, the most significant being his Oscar Wilde (1916) and Bernard Shaw (1931). They were unscholarly, erratic, but lively works, containing original material, mostly by courtesy of Shaw, who allowed Harris to plunder and publish his letters. As Harris died in Nice on 26 August 1931 with his Shaw biography unpublished, the latter was left to edit and correct his own life. He agreed to do so in order to assist financially Harris's widow, Nellie O'Hara (the probably illegitimate daughter of an Irishman, Patrick O'Hara), with whom Harris had lived since about 1898 and whom he married in 1927.
Harris's failing reputation was conclusively demolished by Hugh Kingsmill's 1932 biography. Kingsmill met Harris in 1910 after reading with admiration The man Shakespeare (1909), which anticipated Freudian criticism and is often regarded as Harris's best work. The two subsequently worked together on Hearth and Home, and Kingsmill, like a reverse Boswell, drew on this to expose Harris's charlatanism with devastating irony. A carefully researched 1975 biography proved Harris's generosity towards Wilde and his genuine iconoclasm, but failed to compete with the imaginative power of Kingsmill. However, Shaw (who, unlike Kingsmill, knew Harris in his prime) defended him as a discerning editor and as a victim of the class system.