Brian Howard - Muses & The Beau Monde
Brian Christian de Claiborne Howard, born the 13 March 1905 was an English poet and later a writer for the New Statesman.
Howard was born to American parents in Hascombe, Surrey, England, of Protestant descent, a descendant of Benjamin Franklin. He was brought up in London; his father Francis Gassaway Howard - son of the writer Frank Gassaway, known as 'Derrick Dodd' - who was an associate of James Whistler.
He was educated at Eton College, where he was one of the Eton Arts Society group including Robert Byron, Harold Acton, Oliver Messel, Anthony Powell and Henry Yorke. His notoriously ostentatious behaviour, that would later make him a source of inspiration for others in the bright young people's circle, started to reveal itself very early on and while at Eton, Howard played girls’ parts in a number of theatre presentations.
He entered Christ Church, Oxford in 1923, not without difficulty. He was prominent in the group later known as the Oxford Wits.
He was also part of the Hypocrites' Club that included Harold Acton, Lord David Cecil, L. P. Hartley and Evelyn Waugh. Some of the members of the club, like Brian Howard were gay, but most were not. But in any case there was a notice on the wall saying "Gentlemen may prance but not dance." At the time undergraduate students were forbidden to drink in pubs and homosexuality was illegal, therefore clubs like the Hypocrites' were places to do both in a safe environment. Waugh would remember that the club became "notorious not only for drunkenness but for flamboyance of dress and manner which was in some cases patently homosexual".
At Oxford, Brian Howard and his friends were known as Hearts, mostly sons of noblemen and aspiring writers. The Isis Magazine wrote:
"They are rather alarming. They have succeeded in picking up a whole series of intellectual catch-phrases with which they proceed to dazzle their friends and frighten their acquaintances: and they are the only people I have ever met who have reduced rudeness to a fine art."
Sir John Betjeman tells the story of a Balliol aesthete called Michael Dugdale who used to walk into Brasenose College, dominated by the Hearts, with a stick and limping, in the hope that the Hearts would be too sporting to attack him.
At Oxford Howard was part of the Railway Club, which included: Henry Yorke, Roy Harrod, Henry Thynne, David Plunket Greene, Edward Henry Charles James Fox-Strangways, Brian Howard, Michael Parsons, John Sutro, Hugh Lygon, Harold Acton, Bryan Guinness, Patrick Balfour, Mark Ogilvie-Grant, John Drury-Lowe.
In 1922, his exhibitionism hit new heights when he attended a party in a country manor dressed as “Prince Mohammed Chebbah”, an Algerian who had “learnt English in Strasbourg”. He evidently pulled off the ruse, and there was a complementary event the following year when, in a café in Tunis, Howard claimed to be “a famous English dancer” and took over from the dancing girls to “a roar of Arabian applause”.
It has been suggested that Howard was Waugh's model for Anthony Blanche in Brideshead Revisited. But Waugh wrote, to Lord Baldwin, "There is an aesthetic bugger who sometimes turns up in my novels under various names—that was 2/3 Brian [Howard] and 1/3 Harold Acton. People think it was all Harold, who is a much sweeter and saner man than Howard."
"..at once magnetic and repellent, renowned as one of the wittiest men of his generation while being eminently slappable."
- James J. Conway, Strange Flowers
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. His poetry was admired and promoted by Edith Sitwell in the late 1920s.
Apart from Waugh, Howard knew all of The Bright Young Things, including Nancy Mitford, Henry Yorke, Harold Acton, and especially Allanah Harper and Nancy Cunard. He maintained contact with both throughout his life.
In 1929 he was famously involved in the "Bruno Hat" hoax when the fashionable Hon Mr. & Mrs. Bryan Guinness promoted a spoof London art exhibition by an apparently unknown German painter Bruno Hat (impersonated by the German-speaking Tom Mitford, brother of Nancy and Diana Mitford). Bruno Hat's paintings were the work of Brian Howard.
Howard is credited with coining the phrase:
“Anybody over the age of 30 seen in a bus has been a failure in life,”
The phrase was often wrongly attributed to Margaret Thatcher. According to Daily Telegraph correspondent and historian, Hugo Vickers , the author was Brian Howard. The phrase came into wider use when used by Loelia, Duchess of Westminster, in her memoir Grace and Favour (1961).
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 had a long affair with Sandy Baird, whom he knew from Eton. Baird was killed in action in 1943 at 33 years old.
During World War II Howard took part in the Dunkirk evacuation and later worked for MI5 but was dismissed from the War Office in June 1942, after which he was conscripted to the Royal Air Force. Transferred to another posting, where he referred to his commanding officer as "Colonel Cutie" (an appellation Evelyn Waugh gave his rebellious rogue Basil Seal in the novel Put Out More Flags), Howard was dismissed in December 1944, by which time he had formed a longstanding open relationship with Sam Langford, an Irishman serving in the Air Sea Rescue.
After the war, Howard drifted around Europe with Sam, continuing to write occasional articles and reviews for the New Statesman, the BBC and others, fitfully working on an uncompleted biography of the gay English writer Norman Douglas (author of the novel South Wind) and doing no substantial work. Indiscreetly promiscuous, drinking heavily, taking drugs and behaving outrageously, they were expelled in turn from Monaco, France, Italy and Spain, the French authorities noting their "moralité douteuse" (dubious morality).
In the 1950s Sam Langford died suddenly but naturally in Howard's bath and in 1958, overcome with grief, he committed suicide with an overdose of sedatives. They were buried alongside each other at the Russian Orthodox Cemetery, Nice.
"I used to know Brian Howard well—a dazzling young man to my innocent eyes.... He was consumptive but the immediate cause of his death was a broken heart."
- Evelyn Waugh
Reading Recommendations & Content Considerations
Marie-Jaqueline Lancaster wrote a biography of Howard. His long time friend Allanah Harper contributed useful anecdotes, but she objected to his being called a "failure" and to the emphasis on his homosexuality.
In my mind, if you chose to write about someones life, you must appreciate them in some sense and why you would decide to be so completely disrespectful as to call them a failure, I really have no clue. The value of his life should not be based on how much work he published, he lived his life for himself and that's all that matters.
Marie-Jaqueline Lancaster D. J. Taylor