“Mr. Selfridge”

Two weeks ago, it was time to say goodbyemr.selfridge to this TV-series. And as usual, I sat wondering “How much of it was true? What happened next?”. According to the internet, they are filming a second series now in April, but it will be forever until that is shown here, and I wanted to know NOW, what to expect. So I was happy when I found this book in the local bookshop and of course turned to Great Britain, to get a cheaper copy of it.

I’ve finished it today and let’s say, while the TV-series was very, very nice, beautiful clothes, beautiful looking people, catchy plot-line, little of it is TRUE facts. Yes, all the events hosted in the shop Selfridges, really was part of Harry Selfridge’s sales tactics. Yes, he had energy for three people up till his 80s. Yes, he gambled heavily and yes, he was unfaithful and really loved having affairs with show girls. But as for his mistresses, they made one person of several, and gave her a new name. And they pressed almost ten years of his life and the shop’s life, in to one year, on TV, I guess because they did not know if there would be another series or not? They altered the ages of his children, made his daughter come out in London instead of in the US, made his wife an artist and having a love interest, that there is no evidence of…

But the TV-series is much more than just about Mr. Selfridge and the shop. It’s also very much about the people who worked there and of course that is all pure fantasy. How could anything really be known about them? They have obviously not left any record of themselves, so all that, is just to draw us back to the screen each week. It was plausible stories though, I must admit that. Sad that they made the window display designer, French though, since his was one of the three most important jobs in the store and those jobs were always given to Americans. He was well-known, so it is strange that TV chose to pretend that he was French…

Needless to say, the book is nothing at all like the TV-series. In some parts it is very dry and boring. Especially in the beginning when it only talks of Mr. Field in Chicago, that started up a big famous store there, with his colleague Levi Leiter. The description over pages and pages, how they expanded, tore down buildings and so forth, was like Valium. BUT since Levi Leiter holds an interest to me, I continued ploughing through the heavy parts. Levi Leiter, became a very rich man when he pulled out of the business Fields. So rich that he could marry his daughter Mary off to Lord Curzon in Britain. He also sent his other two daughters over there to marry aristocrats. This was the age of the “Buccaneers”. Why is this interesting? Since Lord Curzon’s middle daughter married Sir Oswald Moseley and he had love affairs with the other two daughters. I read a very interesting book about Lord Curzon and his daughters, a year ago, so it was fun to return to the story again, but from another angle. Elinor Glyn, that was Lord Curzon’s mistress, eventually was thrown over by him and she moved on to Harry Selfridge. Harry paid her debts to Lord Curzon, which is funny, since Harry once had worked for Levi Leiter, Lord Curzon’s father-in-law. The world really is a small place.

The book’s strong points? Well, I enjoyed reading about how many of Harry’s ideas, are still part of today’s shopping experience. Thanks to him, we have to suffer people running up to us and spraying perfume on us, when we enter a department store. All of them have perfume at ground level. Mid-season sales, bargain tables, it’s all Harry Selfridge’s doing. It was also exciting to read about all the service that he provided for people, so that they would stay in the store. And service for his staff to make it a terrific place to work in. He really went all out, to introduce new inventions, to make things spectacular when there was a coronation or election and so on. It’s all described in the book.

The weak points in the book, really has to do with his private life and there are few records of this. To understand the man, which is what I wanted to do, you need records that tell what he was really like and why, what went on in his head behind the energetic facade. The book states that noone really knew him since he would not let anyone really come close. He was a mystery to everyone. His thoughts were secret. There are no letters, no diaries from the family. So the book leaves a lot of question marks. It’s said that his family meant everything to him. But when it describes his life in the 1920s, it states that he was never close to his children. So we never understand why he cheated blatantly on his wife. Moved her to the country so he could go everywhere with his mistress. Let her choose whatever she wanted out of the store, costing him a fortune. Nor do we understand why his three daughters married men, that had no intention of ever earning a penny. He was assumed to support them all, and when his money was gone, two of his daughter’s husbands filed for divorces. And his only son, lived like a bachelor on his dad’s money, while he had a wife and four children in the suburbs. Why did Harry Selfridge never accept the marriage until WWII? True, the woman had worked in the his toy department, but still. I think between the lines, one can read that while his wife and mother lived, they kept some restrain on him. But since his wife Rose died in 1918 and his mother, only a few years later, all restraint was gone. From then on, it was just party, party, party for Harry. And this is where one really lack the WHY? How could he spend his enormous fortune on show girls? In some ways, “prostitutes” since they went from being mistresses of one man to the next. The book just says that he loved women that treated him mean and from the beginning of his career in London, those were the women that spent his fortune. To read about all the gambling, all the purchases of jewelry, flats, furs, you name it, became nauseating in the end. I guess in a way, one could reason, he made the fortune so he had the right to squander it away. But it killed him. For some reason, this bright man, so full of ideas, never understood that the store did not belong to him in the end and that he was answerable to shareholders and a board. He got kicked out of Selfridge’s and from then on, he went about humiliating himself at first, still showing up at the store, till he was barred, and then his mind went, since he did not have anything of value to do, more than wait for death. I would have liked to have understood how his thoughts ran, when he spent all that money on his mistresses. How a man can get so besotted with a cheap woman, that he fails to see that he is being grossly abused. Deeply shocking and very, very tragic!

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