Thursday, 20 March 2014

Who was the true Harry Selfridge ?

At the height of his fortune, from 1916 Selfridge leased as his family home Highcliffe Castle in Hampshire (now Dorset), from Major General Edward James Montagu-Stuart-Wortley. In addition, he purchased Hengistbury Head, a mile-long promontory on England's southern coast, where he planned to build a magnificent castle; these plans never got off the drawing board, however, and in 1930 the Head was put up for sale. Although only a tenant at Highcliffe, he set about fitting modern bathrooms, installing steam central heating and building and equipping a modern kitchen.During World War I, Rose opened a tented retreat called the Mrs Gordon Selfridge Convalescent Camp for American Soldiers in the castle grounds. Selfridge gave up the lease in 1922
Selfridge in around 1880
Harry Gordon Selfridge circa 1910

The man who knew what women wanted: As BBC and ITV go to war over shopping dramas, the extraordinary story behind the real Mr Selfridge - a philanderer, visionary and wedding list inventor - is revealed

BBC1’s The Paradise will soon face a rival period drama in the schedules set around a great department store: Mr Selfridge on ITV1.
Telling the colourful, turbulent life of the American retailing genius who founded his store in 1909, it’s based on the book Shopping, Seduction & Mr Selfridge by Lindy Woodhead.
Here she tells the story of the extraordinary man who created the retail experience we know today.

Harry Selfridge was unique. With his waxed moustache and fastidious dress sense he was the epitome of tradition yet empowered women by offering them a whole new shopping experience. A loving husband who adored his wife, he cheated on her with a succession of stars, including dancers Isadora Duncan and Anna Pavlova.
A true visionary, he enjoyed fabulous wealth but died virtually destitute. He was once mistaken for a tramp as he stood on Oxford Street gazing at the vast emporium that had been his life.
It was a long journey from humble beginnings in Ripon, Wisconsin, a remote hamlet, where he was born in 1858. Three years later, his shopkeeper father Robert went to fight in the Civil War. He survived the war but never returned, leaving his wife Lois and three sons behind. She struggled on her teacher’s wage, and when her sons Charles and Robert died she focused all her love on Harry.
She drilled into him the importance of beautiful manners and taking care of his appearance. Mother and son lived together until she died, in 1924. Thanks to her, he understood women’s needs in a way few men could.
Harry left school at 14 to work for a bank and aged 18 got a job as a sock boy at a Chicago department store, Marshall Field & Coe. Within four years, he was assisting the general manager. Three years later, he had taken his job.
Field’s was Chicago’s most prestigious store but too formal for Harry. He was dubbed ‘Mile-A-Minute-Harry’ as he swept through making changes. Huge advances in dazzling technology helped. He installed dozens of phones; increased the lighting and even lit the beautiful window displays at night – a first for a Chicago store.
Thanks to Harry, Field’s offered flower-arranging classes, gave home-décor advice and introduced the idea of the wedding gift list, and set up a parcel and coat depositary for customers to leave their belongings before shopping.
He also created what was possibly the first US in-store restaurant. Opened in 1890, Field’s Tea Room served ‘light luncheon’ dishes at tables bedecked with crisp linen, with a fresh rose in a crystal vase. Just 60 diners ate there the first day. Within a year, it had more than 1,500 covers daily.
In 1904 he set up a rival store in Chicago and sold it two years later for a quick profit. His wife, Rosalie, the daughter of a wealthy property investor, gave him her blessing to move to London to plan his dream store. She stayed in America with their four children.
He chose a site on Oxford Street and turned to Chicago’s supreme architect Daniel Burnham to design something extraordinary. Fifteen hundred workmen toiled all winter to build the immense steel-framed structure: a neo-classical façade fronted a modern masterwork that included seven miles of pressurised copper tubing in the fire-alarm system alone.
It was a marvel: nine Otis lifts; a state-of-the-art sprinkler system; thick concrete floors spanning an acre per level. Not eight storeys as Harry had wanted (planning restrictions didn’t allow it to be taller than St Paul’s) but still a hugely impressive five floors, plus three basement levels and a roof terrace with a garden.
Selfridge & Co opened in 1909, on a wet March day: but inside all was warm and bright. More than 100 departments sold everything  from swimsuits to sable coats, all exquisitely arranged in spacious surroundings.
In no small way, Harry helped to liberate women. He gave them the freedom to shop un-chaperoned, the pleasure of lunch with a girlfriend in the safe haven of a store, and rare sensual delights and comforts, with music playing and the scent of perfume in the air. Aside from elegant restaurants, Selfridge & Co had a library, reading and writing rooms, a first-aid room, a silence room with soft furnishings, a hairdressers and a manicure service.

Harry liked to say: ‘I helped emancipate women. I came along when they wanted to step out on their own. They came to the store and realised some of their dreams.’
Men or women, customer comfort was a priority. Believing shopping should be both a visual and tactile experience – not one needing a sales clerk to open a cabinet – he put merchandise on low counter tops so people could feel and touch it.
The spirit of the age was on Harry’s side. He sold telephones, refrigerators, ice-making machines – even aeroplanes. He pioneered the celebrity appearance: world champion Freda Whittaker skated on the roof-top rink, while Wimbledon champion Suzanne Lenglen demonstrated her service on the roof-top court.
Television was demonstrated to the public for the first time at Selfridges in 1925 when Logie Baird brought in his odd-looking equipment that would so change our lives in years to come.
Harry’s instinctive skills in enticing tourists meant that before long he could boast: ‘We are the third biggest tourist attraction in London after Buckingham Palace and the Tower.’
But Harry’s life outside the store was very different. A friend said: ‘He was a genius from 9am until 5pm but a fool at the weekends.’ Although his wife eventually followed him to London, Harry enjoyed the company of some of the most renowned beauties of the day. A lover of celebrity, he courted the dancer Isadora Duncan, ballerina Anna Pavlova, author Elinor Glyn, Syrie Wellcome – the wife of pharmaceutical millionaire Henry Wellcome – and Lady Victoria Sackville.
From 1912, his grand amour – seemingly tolerated by the patient Rose – was the glittering chanteuse Gaby Deslys. He arranged a house for her in London and filled it with rugs, linen, silver, china and crystal from Selfridges.
 Thanks to the commercial success of his store, he was able to make palatial residences his home: he leased Highcliffe Castle in Christchurch, Hampshire, as his country home and sprawling Lansdowne House as his town house.
Despite his philandering, Harry was devastated when Rose died in the post-war influenza pandemic. Several years later his mother died too. Without these two women in his life Harry’s womanising and love of gambling spiralled out of control. In 1921, when £500 was a very good annual salary, he lost £5,000 at casinos.
Now he turned to a new generation of willing showgirls including the Dolly Sisters, Jenny and Rose, a toxic pair who were also gambling addicts. The three would make frequent visits to the casinos in Nice. It’s thought the girls spent £5 million of his fortune.
As the world entered the Great Depression, he was woefully unprepared for the slump, over-extended and isolated by his own vanity. In 1939, at the age of 81, 30 years after building Selfridges, revolutionising London retailing and creating what would be known as the greatest shopping street in the world, Harry Selfridge was ousted from the store he had always thought of his own.
The man they used to call ‘the Earl of Oxford Street’, who had adored living in lavish houses that befitted a true merchant prince, was reduced to penury, living in a small rented flat in Putney with one of his daughters.
In his final years, he would stand at his local bus stop on Putney High Street, searching for a 22 bus.  Virtually deaf, his mind rambling, he hardly spoke. Still wearing curiously old-fashioned, formal clothes, his patent leather boots cracked and down-at-heel, he moved stiffly, aided by a Malacca cane.
On the bus, he would carefully count out the pennies for his fare, buying a ticket to Hyde Park Corner, where he got off to wait for a 137, quietly telling the conductor: ‘Selfridges please.’
Seemingly lost in memories of past glories, unrecognised by anybody, the old man would shuffle the length of the building, looking up to the roof as though searching for something. It was on one such occasion the police arrested him, suspecting he was a vagrant.
Harry died peacefully in his sleep on May 8, 1947. He was 89 years old. He was buried in a humble grave near his late wife and mother in a churchyard in Highcliffe. His family couldn’t afford a headstone.
But his legacy remains. Harry  said: ‘When I die, I want it said of me that I dignified and ennobled commerce.’ ITV’s new drama will remind us how he did just that.
Advertisement for the opening of the London store in 1909.

Rosalie Selfridge, circa 1900
During the years of the Great Depression, Selfridge watched his fortune rapidly decline and then disappear—a situation not helped by his continuous free-spending ways. In 1941, he left Selfridges and moved from his lavish home and travelled around London by bus. In 1947, he died in straitened circumstances, at Putney, in south-west London. Selfridge was buried in St Mark's Churchyard at Highcliffe, Dorset, next to his wife and his mother

The forgotten grave of Mr Selfridge: Tombstone to mark burial place of famous shop owner left in a dilapidated and sorry state
Retail pioneer Harry Selfridge is laid to rest in a simple grave in rural Dorset
In 1909 he opened Selfridges, changing shopping forever
A church committee member called the state of his grave 'a disgrace'

The sleepy Dorset village of Highcliffe is a million miles away from the hustle and bustle of London's Oxford Street, but here lies one of its most famous traders.
The simple grave of Harry Gordon Selfridge at St Mark's Churchyard contains no clues about the lavish lifestyle the man who revolutionised shopping once led.
Selfridge was the American entrepreneur behind Selfridge's, London’s famous department store, a self-made millionaire who turned retail on its head because he understood what women wanted and gave it to them in style.

The grave is covered in leaves and lies at the base of an ivy hedgerow, inscribed with only the few simple words 'IN LOVING MEMORY HARRY GORDON SELFRIDGE 1857 - 1947'.
Selfridge is laid to rest, separated by two unmarked graves, next to his wife Rosalie 'Rose' Buckingham.
During the years of the Great Depression, Selfridge watched his fortune rapidly decline and then disappear - a situation not helped by his continuing free-spending ways.
In 1941, he left Selfridges and moved from his lavish home. In 1947 he died, aged 91, in straitened circumstances at Putney, in south-west London.

At the height of his fortune, Selfridge leased as his family home Highcliffe Castle in Hampshire (now Dorset)
A member of the church committee who would not be named, said: 'It's a total shame and a disgrace that the grave of an enormously great man, be left without the due care and attention it so rightly deserves.'
Harry Selfridge’s incredible story — from the backwoods of Wisconsin to becoming the ‘Earl of Oxford Street’ — is now being told in an ITV1 drama, Mr Selfridge.
Based on Lindy Woodhead’s biography Shopping, Seduction & Mr Selfridge, it stars Jeremy Piven as Selfridge, and Zoe Tapper as a cocaine-snorting showgirl who becomes his mistress.
Harry Selfridge had a tough start in life. Born in 1856, his father deserted the family when he was just five, and his two older brothers later died, leaving Harry and his mother alone.
After getting a job as a lowly sock boy in a Chicago department store, Harry swiftly rose to the top and eventually opened his own store.
At first leaving his wife, Rose, and their four children in the U.S., he bought the now famous site on Oxford Street and set about creating a palatial, five-storey store. It opened in 1909 and was a sensation.
Selfridge was an inspired retailer. He invented the phrase ‘the customer is always right’, understood that shopping was about sex appeal and made Selfridge’s a London landmark.

1 comment:

Pat said...

If true, it qualifies as one of the few monumental events that shows America had as enormous an influence upon British Society, as the British have influenced American Society, however the history is chosen to be deprocating, as this article seems to do.