1908-08-18

SIR FRANCIS ROSE, British artist, born (d: 1979); The English artist was the last, and probably the most infamous, though least known, of Gertrude Stein’s many protégés. Several of Francis Rose’s drunken escapades are wonderfully recollected in Samuel M. Steward’s Dear Sammy. One story, peculiarly or not-so-peculiarly omitted from the artist’s autobiography, Saving Life. (1961), is about Luis, his valet de chambre.

In 1952 Alice B. Toklas wrote Sam Steward to tell him that Francis Rose “was in a good deal of trouble with Luis his valet de chambre boyfriend.” A casual encounter between the artist and a Spanish gypsy boy in front of a bistro in Paris had resulted in not only an evening pickup, but in the young man being hired for the entire summer, as both valet and bed mate. As Sam Steward tells I, “It was only after Luis got into some trouble with the gendarmérie over a stolen bicycle that Francis — called to help him out of his difficulty — examined his papers and discovered that the boy was his illegitimate son.

This episode titillated both France and England for some time. It certainly titillated Alice B. “Francis,” she wrote, “is saying that he is going to recognize Luis so he will inherit his title! As yet this tale has not been confided to any English friends — who would put him straight about bastards inheriting titles…”

Francis Rose had a unconventional childhood and one of extreme wealth and privilege. He was born at the grand English estate Moor Park, near Hertfordshire, and inherited his British baronetcy while still a child. He was also of noble Spanish descent, and Rose claims that on his behalf, his grandmother petitioned the Spanish Sovereign “for permission to revive the ancient family custom of owning dwarves.” 

While in his teens, Francis met Jean Cocteau during a stay in Villefranche. Cocteau took an interest in him, encouraging not only his art but also his sexual awakening. Cocteau allegedly brought twenty-one rowdy sailors to the Hotel Wellcome to revel with Francis on his twenty-first birthday, but it was possibly only sixteen on his sixteenth. Accounts vary. Either way, it involved a lot of seamen. In adulthood, Sir Francis remained in France, and one of his early lovers was the English expatriate-artist Christopher Wood. 

One of the most bizarre chapters of the Saying Life is Rose’s recollection of his relationship with Ernst Röhm, the homosexual Nazi executed on Adolf Hitler’s orders in 1934 on the “Night of Long Knives.” In his memoir, Rose dubiously alleges that his relationship with Röhm was platonic and swears that Röhm was heterosexual (despite all evidence to the contrary.) Writes Rose (without irony), “There was nothing effeminate about Röhm; he abided by the old Potsdam tradition that soldiers scented themselves, sent each other flowers for certain occasions, clicked heels, fought duels, and managed to look like carved wooden puppets with the help of steel corsets and tight uniforms.” 

Following the interlude with the Nazis, Sir Francis fled to the Far East, traveling on a massive yacht with his own private zoo. He spent three years happily touring Southeast Asia until world events again intervened, becoming stranded in Peking as result of the Japanese invasion. In preparation for his escape, he weaned himself off opium and donated his menagerie to American and Japanese zoos. The relief from chaos proved to be short-lived. In 1938, he lost most of his fortune when the American stockbroker to whom he had given his power of attorney was convicted of engaging in a massive embezzlement scheme.

By the end of World War II, Francis Rose was nearly penniless. His final three decades were characterized by more folly, but he no longer had the necessary funds to bankroll it.

Friends like Cecil Beaton helped out until finally fatigued by his constant drama. His memoir, published in 1961, was not the financial success he desperately needed. However, it is one of the strangest memoirs published in the 20th Century.  It stands out not for its accuracy but for its originality.