How mile-a-minute Harry lost £60 million on gambling, fast women and bad business deals
by Jeremy Miles
Devotees of the ongoing ITV drama series Mr Selfridge will know that things are fast spiralling out of control for the American retail entrepreneur. As the final episode of season three hits our screens tonight, they might be interested to know the real Harry Gordon Selfridge was even more reckless than the TV version portrayed by Jeremy Piven.
He came to London in the early 20th century and revolutionised the retail experience with his eponymously named store. It was a huge success and he made millions but he also managed to lose most of it through bad business deals, pipe-dreams, gambling and his taste for high-maintenance women. Below is a magazine feature I wrote last year about his extravagant spending and his little known life, away from London, on the Dorset/Hampshire coast.
By Jeremy Miles
Millions of viewers have been tuning in to Mr Selfridge, the glossy ITV1 drama about the flamboyant self-made American retail giant who taught the British how to love shopping in the early 20th century. But how many of them know that Harry Gordon Selfridge – the man who founded the Selfridges department store and coined the phrase “The customer is always right” – lived for years right here on the Dorset coast?
Between 1916 and 1922 he rented the imposing cliff-top Highcliffe Castle near Christchurch. It was the start of a new era in the life of this extraordinary self-made man who had clawed his way up from being a 14-year-old stockroom boy in Chicago to become an inspirational retail entrepreneur. It would also mark the point when his reckless spending, womanising and gambling began to spiral out of control.
Selfridge had made millions and established a world-beating department store that had finally made shopping sexy. It had turned him into a multi-millionaire superstar. But the boy they had called Mile-a-Minute Harry back in Chicago was never able to simply sit back and enjoy his wealth and fame. He was a hopeless adrenalin junkie, a risk-taker who always wanted more.
While his devoted wife Rose and their children enjoyed the genteel country life in Highcliffe, Harry would race to town to entertain the glamorous young French singer and dancer Gaby Deslys. Gaby – one of a series of lovers – was extremely high-maintenance. Harry leased her a big Georgian townhouse in Kensington sending a Selfridges van each day bearing flowers and gifts. Meanwhile the singer had the run of the Oxford Street store, helping herself to whatever took her fancy. Jewellery, furs, fine-silks… they all went on Harry’s personal account.
Highcliffe historian Ian Stevenson says: “Everybody says Selfridge came to Highcliffe because he was worried about his family being in London with the First World War Zeppelin raids but the other half of the story is that he was having this affair.”
Stevenson, a former Fleet Street journalist, is an expert on Highcliffe, it’s castle and Selfridge’s time there. He helped author Lindy Woodhead research her best-selling book Shopping, Seduction & Mr Selfridge which inspired the TV show and he reckons the real-life Harry Gordon Selfridge was even more remarkable than the character portrayed in the TV show by actor Jeremy Piven.
Stevenson isn’t particularly impressed with the TV version, saying “Frankly it plays fast and loose with the facts. They’ve made Selfridge so much younger than he really was. He was 53 when he opened Selfridges. There’s nothing in the programme to indicate that.” However he does concede that everyone else – Lindy Woodhead and Highcliffe Castle management included – seem delighted with the series. Not surprising perhaps. Visitor numbers and book sales have soared since Mr Selfridge hit the TV screens. The second series opened in 1914 and it is hoped that a third series will take the show into the Highcliffe years. “We’re keeping our fingers crossed,” says castle manager David Hopkinson. ( Note to readers: This did not happen, Series three has steadfastly ignored the Highcliffe connection).
Despite this Ian Stevenson is finding people ever-more eager for stories of the charismatic Mr Selfridge and his time at Highcliffe Castle. It was a period of change for Harry during which both Gaby Deslys and his wife Rose would meet premature deaths. The Family made a big impact on Highcliffe during the First World War, flying the Stars and Stripes from the castle roof and establishing a Convalescence Camp for wounded servicemen on the nearby recreation ground. After Rose’s death from pneumonia in 1918 Harry devoted even more time to playing the the grand showman. His Whitsun fete at the Castle in 1920 attracted 5,000 people with special trains from Bournemouth and Southampton ferrying the crowds to and from nearby Hinton Admiral station.
At Highcliffe Selfridge was set on a path of outrageous displays of wealth and grandeur. He would play high-stakes poker with society friends like the tea magnate and keen yachtsman Sir Thomas Lipton and Royal financial advisor Sir Edward Cassel who had a holiday home at Branksome. Later Harry himself would keep a huge steam yacht, Conqueror, moored at Southampton. Like most of his interests it cost a fortune. But gradually the money was running out. The Wall Street Crash combined with a reckless relationship with gambling-addicted showgirls, The Dolly Sisters – he would buy diamond necklaces to cheer them up when they lost his money on the tables in Monte Carlo – proved financially fatal. By the late 1930s his £60 million fortune was gone. He owed the taxman tens of thousands and Selfridges could no longer afford to pick up the tab. In a boardroom showdown Harry was forced out of the business he loved.
Harry Gordon Selfridge would die, aged 90, in relative poverty. A tragic down-at-heel figure in his final years, he would often catch the bus to Oxford Street just to stand and look at the great store that continued to thrive without him. Shabby and ill-dressed, he was once even arrested as a suspected vagrant. His simple gravestone now stands alongside those of his wife and mother in St Mark’s Churchyard in Highcliffe just a few hundred yards from his grand former home. Just a mile or two away is the beauty spot Hengistbury Head, the site of one of his more bizarre plans, to build a massive castle of his own.
Selfridge could stand at the bottom the Highcliffe grounds and see the ancient headland. When he eventually managed to buy it from Bournemouth landowner Sir George Meyrick, he announced with customary gusto that he was going to build “the biggest castle in the world”. Plans were drawn up for a massive 250-room Neo-Classical palace, a Gothic fortress with four miles of ramparts, its own theatre, a huge ballroom and a Versailles-style Hall of Mirrors. At one point he even planned to include a 300 foot tower. It was never too be. Eventually he had no option but to sell Hengistbury to Bournemouth Council for £25,000.
Ian Stevenson, like many other locals, is hugely relieved that this nature reserve and centre for environmental research was spared the worst excesses of Selfridge’s imagination: “It’s a blessed relief that he frittered his money away. Nobody would have been able to afford to keep that building up and ‘The Head’ would now be littered with the ruins of his castle.”
One final tale from Ian Stevenson perhaps speaks volumes about how Harry Gordon Selfridge, despite fabulous wealth, could never compete with the elite of British Society. The 1921 wedding of his daughter Violette to French Viscount Jacques de Sibour was a huge social event but a request for Violette’s good friends Daphne and Viola Bankes from Kingston Lacy to be bridesmaids earned a sharp rebuttal from their snooty mother Henrietta. “She was too snobbish to allow them to take a role in the wedding of a commoner’s daughter,” says Stevenson.
For more about Highcliffe Castle go to www.highcliffecastle.co.uk