Brian Howard the real tragical-hysterical failure-hero ... that inspired Waugh for the 'outrageous' Anthony Blanche Character in Brideshead
Brian Christian de Claiborne Howard (13 March 1905 – 15 January 1958) was an English poet, whose work belied a spectacularly precocious start in life; in the end he became more of a journalist, writing for the New Statesman.
He was born to American parents in Hascombe, Surrey, and brought up in London; his father Francis Gassaway Howard was an associate of James Whistler. He was educated at Eton College, where he was one of the Eton Arts Society group including Harold Acton, Oliver Messel, Anthony Powell and Henry Yorke. He entered Christ Church, Oxford in 1923, not without difficulty. He was prominent in the group later known as the Oxford Wits. He was one of the Hypocrites group that included Harold Acton, Lord David Cecil, L. P. Hartley and Evelyn Waugh. It has been suggested that Howard was Waugh's model for Anthony Blanche in Brideshead Revisited.
At this time he had already been published as a poet, in A. R. Orage's The New Age, and the final Sitwell Wheels anthology. He used the pseudonyms Jasper Proude and Charles Orange. His verse also was in Oxford Poetry 1924.
Subsequently he led a very active social life, tried to come to terms with his homosexuality, and published only one substantial poetry collection God Save the King (1930, Hours Press). He was active as a poet during the Spanish Civil War, but did not ultimately invest in his work with seriousness. He drank heavily and used drugs.
During World War II he was part of the little ships armada to Dunkirk and later worked for MI5 and had a low-level post in the Royal Air Force.
He suffered from bad health in the 1950s, and committed suicide after the accidental death of a lover.
Anthony Blanche in Brideshead revisited ...
Howard, Brian (1905-1958)
As a flamboyant schoolboy aesthete, Brian Howard seemed destined to make his mark, if perhaps a dubious one, in the cultural world of Modernist Britain. But while Howard was most adept at creating personal facades, he failed to produce any lasting work, drifted aimlessly through life, and ended tragically.
As a result, he is notable for being a most extraordinary failure, remembered mostly as an interesting secondary figure among the "Brideshead Generation," the mostly homosexual "Bright Young Things" of Oxford in the 1920s.
Brian Christian de Claibourne Howard was born in Surrey, England, to American émigré parents. Although the truth is uncertain, Howard maintained that his father, Francis Gassaway Howard, was of Jewish origins, and thus Howard was himself frequently assumed to be Jewish, however mistakenly.
What is certain is that his father, an entrepreneur from Washington, D.C., was more absent than present in his son's life, and the boy was raised by his indulgent and socially pretentious mother, a "Southern belle" who had inherited a modest fortune.
The cherubic-looking Howard was sent to Eton, where he soon became known to his classmates as an artistic (if affected) innovator, and as a self-absorbed and precocious rebel to his schoolmasters. While there, he befriended a classmate, Harold Acton, a boy of similar disposition who would later eclipse him in artistic and literary endeavors.
The two founded the Eton Society of Arts, a group whose members included such future literary figures as Cyril Connolly, Anthony Powell, and Henry Greene. Howard also edited a literary magazine, the Eton Candle (1922), which included contributions from many of his contemporaries.
At this point in his life, Howard seemed destined for a brilliant career in the arts, and he planned to carry on his Eton activities on a grander scale with Acton at Oxford. Acton easily passed his entrance examinations, but Howard, an undisciplined student, did not. Although he passed (by cheating) the following year, by the time he arrived at Oxford's Christ Church in 1923, he had been overshadowed by his former protégé.
At Oxford, Howard was mostly known for his socializing and for flaunting his homosexuality. He was, for a time, a friend of Evelyn Waugh, who later based a number of his less attractive homosexual (and Jewish) characters on his erstwhile companion.
Howard left Oxford in 1927, after two attempts to pass his final examinations, and subsequently drifted from one London party to another for a few years. For most of the 1930s, he lived on his mother's money and traveled aimlessly through Europe with a German boyfriend identified only as "Toni" (as did Sebastian Flyte in Waugh's Brideshead Revisited), and he was on the fringes of the Christopher Isherwood-W. H. Auden circle in Berlin.
While his former classmates embarked on notable literary careers, Howard remained unpublished and unproductive. When Toni was detained as a hostile alien in France at the beginning of World War II, Howard returned to England where, amazingly, he was commissioned as an officer in MI5, the British counterintelligence agency. In 1943, he was dismissed from MI5 for numerous indiscretions, and he spent the rest of the war as a low-ranking aircraftsman in the Royal Air Force, frequently in trouble for such infractions as losing his uniform in a public lavatory.
At forty, Howard was a failed artist. Alcoholic, financially dependent on his mother, and in poor health, he had produced no poetry or fiction since his undergraduate years. After the war, he resumed his life of drifting, this time in the company of a muscular young Irishman.
In January 1958, his lover died of asphyxiation from a faulty gas heater. Howard, blaming himself for this accident, committed suicide with an overdose of the sedatives to which he had become addicted, thus bringing a life of unfulfilled promise to an end.
Howard has lived on, however ironically, as the inspiration for any number of grotesque minor characters ("aesthetic buggers," as Waugh put it) in works of the schoolmates who had once admired him.
Patricia Juliana Smith
An Oxford spy in THE MORNING STAR
JOHN BRANSTON discovers that the man who inspired Evelyn Waugh's Anthony Blanche was an anti-nazi propagandist.
This month marks the centenary of the birth of Brian Howard, the brightest of the "bright young things," incontestably the most brilliant wit of his generation.
He was an Etonian aesthete and "new symbolist" poet, who was also a colossal snob who toadied up to peers of the realm, as well as a drunkard and cocaine addict.
So, you may ask, how was such an indiscreet individual recruited into Britain's secret intelligence service?
After all, Howard, the notorious, louche, dandified teenage protege of Edith Sitwell and disciple of Gertrude Stein, is remembered more today for providing the model for Anthony Blanche, the social butterfly in Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, than for his far more sombre role as a spy in MI5 during World War II.
Yet, in Howard's dedicated social climbing at Oxford, his exclusive pursuit of the university's younger peerage, lies the secret of his value as a spy in the highest echelons of the British Establishment.
"Put your trust in the Lords" was the ironic motto on a banner in his Oxford undergraduate rooms.
So why did Howard later spy on his own crowd of aristocratic swells?
Well, judged by his spymasters, within his glittering smart set, a number of crypto-nazis and collaborationists had yet to be "outed."
As the writer Maurice Richardson remarked, "Howard saw, long before most of his contemporaries, the dangers of fascism and was one of the first to denounce Hitler's nazism as organised barbarism of the vilest kind. In the early 1930s, he showed great personal courage."
In 1931, in Germany, Howard had become influenced by novelist Thomas Mann's loathing for Hitler and he filed anti-Hitler articles to the British press.
Specifically, as a Jew - he was bullied at Eton for his Jewishness - and due to his wider confraternity with Germany's persecuted Jews, Howard was granted deeper insights into the nazis' national ideology than many journalists of his time.
Howard's shrewd understanding of the German psyche sprang, ironically, from a long period of psychoanalysis in Germany in the late 1920s, at the behest of his powerful mother who hoped to "cure" her son's "homosexualism."
In Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, when Anthony Blanche is "debagged" by Oxford athletic "hearties," he quips: "If you knew anything of sexual psychology, you would know that nothing would give me keener pleasure than to be manhandled by you meaty boys."
Despite such flippancy parodied here, Howard's acute political prescience is revealed in his journalism of the 1930s.
His first scoop was an interview in 1932 with Hitler's press chief Dr Hanfstaengl.
Howard: "Why this hatred of Jews?"
"Jews! Jews! Because they made the English and American theatres into sewers. Ours, too. Look at Reinhardt. Shit," came the reply, referring to Max Reinhardt, the Austrian theatrical entrepreneur who was of Jewish descent.
Later, in 1939, Howard assisted the release of a number of anti-nazi Germans imprisoned in France.
In 1940, Howard was recruited into MI5 as an undercover "outside contact" to report on pro-nazi personalities.
His political acumen must have been respected by MI5 because, in the early years of the war, Howard's dark apprehensions from the 1930s were reflected in a series of astonishingly sophisticated anti-nazi propaganda scripts that he wrote for BBC radio.
These scripts were some of the earliest to broadcast the facts of the genocidal "eugenics programme" of the Third Reich.
During this time, he renewed his acquaintance with the spy Guy Burgess, a fellow Old Etonian and also a BBC correspondent.
Burgess, one of the Soviet Union's "Cambridge Five" spy ring, had studied at Trinity College, Cambridge, and he and Oxonian Howard knew each other in 1937 in Germany.
It's highly likely that Burgess was feeding additional classified material to Howard when this improbable dramatist and MI5 snoop was commissioned to write scripts for the Black Gallery BBC propaganda broadcasts.
What is odd is the stark contrast between the maturity of Howard's calculated vilification of nazi ideologues in his early broadcasts and the flipside of his shrill campery which echoed that of the "Homintern," so called by Cyril Connolly for an international network of influential homosexuals whose bias he defined as "homo-communism."
There is satire which seems to verge on self-excoriation when Howard parodies nazi anti-semitic propaganda in his radio scripts.
His Goebbels-like rabble-rouser declaims: "Conscience is a Jewish invention. Like circumcision, it mutilates man."
Howard's propagandising was cleverly conceived as character assassination calculated to defame. Such a BBC script was entitled "Baldur von Schirach," broadcast in 1942.
In 1933, von Schirach was appointed leader of the Hitler Youth movement, destined to number eight million members.
In 1940, Hitler appointed him governor of Vienna. During his rule, 185,000 Jews were deported to Polish ghettos, a deed described by von Schirach as a "contribution to European culture."
Thus, we can apprehend Howard's deep abiding compassion and the full force of his fury, when, in his radio documentary, he has the anguished voice of one of von Schirach's victims, a small child, cry out: "I am dead. A state doctor killed me in a little shed. It was called the Hitler room. I don't think he can know about it. Do you, Herr State Youth Leader?"
The radio narrator continues his attack on von Schirach.
"You got back into favour with Hitler. You set the Hitler Youth to burning the synagogues and knocking down Jews in the street."
Howard also exposes Hitler's state programme of enforced sterilisation, expressed through the poignant words of a young German mother.
"I am one of the young women who was sterilised by the state. My child died before it was even conceived. For Hitler."
This BBC broadcast also includes references to the de-Christianising of Germany.
Von Schirach wrote national prayers in praise of Hitler, so we can understand the intent of other radio voices in an exchange between a German schoolmistress and her indoctrinated pupils.
"Who, children, is it that most reminds us of Jesus?" Answer: "The Fuehrer!" Question: "And who most reminds us of the disciples?" Answer: "General Goering, Doctor Goebbels and Captain Roehm!"
This catechism of the Trinity reflects the statement by the Reich Minister for Church Affairs Hanns Kerrl, delivered in 1937.
"There has now risen a new authority as to what Christ and Christianity is. This new authority is Adolph Hitler."
Howard's broadcast contained highly precise data - addresses of von Schirach's private residences and details of his close relationship to Hitler.
In Howard's scripts, we recognise a most bizarre conjunction of two ex-Etonians who, for a brief span, were bound together in a common cause.
In this unusual alliance, further ironies abound.
When Burgess escaped to the Soviet Union, a newspaper manhunt was launched and, by the strangest of coincidences which made world headlines, it was the Oxford spy Howard, while staying in Asolo in Italy, who was mistaken for the missing Cambridge spy.
Perhaps our last thought of this odd couple of espionage should be the memory of these two alcoholic counter-propagandists propping up the basement bar below the Ritz in wartime.
We can imagine them listening to the nasal drawl of their opposition, the fascistic propagandist Lord Haw-Haw, broadcasting from Germany.
The sandbagged Ritz bar was one of Haw-Haw's favourite targets for attack, sneering that only plutocrats could enjoy such luxuries.
Two extraordinarily flamboyant ex-Etonians, a revolutionary and an anti-fascist, each wearing a private smile and each raising a glass in secret salute to his next devious scheme and to his own infinite guile.
John Branston's father served in the British army throughout WWII and was an interpreter during the interrogation of nazi war criminals at the Nuremberg Trials. He was a colleague of Max Reinhardt, mentioned in this article.
Mad, bad and dangerous to know’ is how Evelyn Waugh once described Brian Howard, but he was more complicated than that. He was incontestably the wittiest man of his generation. He could be cruel and compassionate by turn. He bulged with talent, but achieved very little. A paradox at every turn: he was an American at Eton, where he produced The Eton Candle and met Edith Sitwell, who encouraged him as a poet. At Oxford he was the leading light of the most extravagant social set and an aesthete who hunted. In the twenties he was the impresario of the wildest parties and pulled off the craziest practical jokes. Nevertheless, he became a passionate anti- Nazi in the thirties, after having been sent to Germany to be analysed, and later an inspired literary critic. In the Second World War he joined up and must have been the oddest aircraftman since T. E. Shaw.
After the War he became increasingly drunk, quarrelsome and dependent, and finally, after the death of his last lover, Sam, killed himself.
Throughout his life he was surrounded by the most brilliant men and women of the age, who envied his talents, who adored him and who were exasperated by him. Their names alone constitute an anthology of the most exciting people on the English scene between the two wars.
This biography is both an unusual document of that period and a study of its most brilliant failure.