Robert Ross ROSS, ROBERT BALDWIN (1869-1918)

As one of Wilde's closest friends, Ross was instrumental not only in assisting his friend's Estate in paying off remaining debts but also in editing the 14-volume edition of Wilde's Collected Edition (1908). Born of Canadian parents (his father a lawyer and politician, Speaker of the Senate, 1869; his mother the daughter of Robert Baldwin, a prominent politician who was Premier of Upper Canada, 1842-43), Ross was educated in England as his father had wished. He was placed in a school in Surrey until 1882, then entrusted to a tutor, who took the young boy on cultural visits to European cities.

The precise date when "Robbie" first met Wilde is unknown. The often-repeated notion that Ross was "the first boy" to corrupt Wilde is doubtful, for Borland writes that there is "certainly no direct evidence" to support such a view: "...the mere fact that a proposition is frequently repeated does not substantiate its credibility". In 1887, when his mother was travelling abroad, Ross became a paying guest at the Wildes' Tite Street home. Other than that brief stay of three months, their relationship involved only intermittent contact for the next ten years (indeed, Wilde did not introduce Ross to Lord Alfred Douglas until 1893).

In October 1888, he arrived at King's College, Cambridge, to begin his formal university studies, but after an unhappy year there and after quarrelling with his mother and sister over his homosexuality (the disclosure of which resulted in his not being welcome at home), Ross left for Edinburgh to work for W. E. Henley on the Scots Observer. He soon returned to London and accepted the post of assistant editor of the Society of Authors' magazine titled Author, probably on the recommendation of his elder brother, Alex, a critic, who had been Honorary Secretary of the society from 1885 to 1889. Thenceforth, he associated with such figures at the Society as Arthur Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling, and John Addington Symonds.

In July 1893, Ross apparently became sexually involved with a sixteen-year-old son of a "military gentleman," an incident that involved Alfred Douglas and another boy, whose charge that Ross had seduced him three times was, said Ross, "an absolute fabrication" (Borland 35). Ross's close friend, More Adey, managed to have any possible criminal charges dropped. After a brief stay with his brother in Davos, Switzerland, and a trip to Canada, Ross was back in London as the disaster involving Wilde and Douglas's father, the Marquess of Queensberry, was about to take centre stage. When Queensberry left the infamous calling card at Wilde's club, Wilde's first impulse was to write to Ross, asking for his wise counsel:

"My whole life seems ruined by this man.... I don't know what to do.... I mar your life by trespassing ever on your love and kindness". As Borland remarks: "...when Wilde's and Douglas's Love-affair ended in the fires of hell it was inevitable that Ross would rise like a phoenix from the ashes".

Douglas believed that his father must be sued for criminal libel, but Ross urged Wilde to ignore Queensberry's insult that he was "posing" as a sodomite and withdraw from the struggle between Douglas and his father. Characteristically, Douglas persuaded Wilde to go with him to Monte Carlo, much to Ross's distress over their apparent indifference to the crisis. When the case against Queensberry collapsed, Ross urged Wilde to flee the country to France, which had no extradition treaty with England, but he was determined to remain. With Wilde's arrest on 5 April 1895, Ross, with his usual foresight, went to Wilde's Tite Street home (Mrs. Wilde and the children had left to stay with relatives), broke into his study, and carried off an unspecified number of manuscripts. On the advice of his family, Ross left for Calais to avoid possible implication in the Wilde debacle, a most difficult decision, Borland states, for "it went against everything he believed in to desert a friend in need". In a memoir written around 1913, Ross wrote:

My relatives were naturally distressed at my connection with a very disgraceful scandal. My name had appeared in the papers as being with Wilde when he was arrested. In consequence I was obliged to leave some of my clubs. My mother promised that if I would go abroad for a few weeks she would contribute to the expenses of Wilde's defence, which she did; and that she would assist Lady Wilde... which she did until Lady Wilde's death....

Coincidentally, Wilde's conviction on 25 May occurred on Ross's twenty-sixth birthday: their lives would be further linked in other ways in the years to come.

When Queensberry petitioned to institute bankruptcy proceedings against Wilde, Ross was present at one of the public hearings when Wilde was brought from prison between two policeman, as described in De Profundis: "...Robbie waited in the long dreary corridor, that before the whole crowd, whom an action so sweet and simple hushed into silence, he might gravely raise his hat to me, as handcuffed and with bowed head I passed him by. Men have gone to heaven for smaller things than that". In December 1895, when Ross joined Douglas in Italy, the relationship between the two was undergoing a radical change because of Wilde's increasing confidence in Ross's judgement and because of Ross's visits to comfort Wilde in prison.

In April 1897, just weeks before his release from prison, Wilde authorised Ross to act on his behalf as his literary executor, a burden that he carried and discharged with distinction. On 20 May, after leaving prison, Wilde arrived in Dieppe, where he was greeted by Ross and Reginald Turner. Wilde gave Ross his prison letter addressed to Douglas (later titled De Profundis) with instructions to have two copies made, the original to be given to Douglas. Ross, however, sent Douglas one of the copies. (Though Douglas denied that he had ever received it, he later admitted in the Arthur Ransome libel trial that he had destroyed the copy without reading it.) Eventually, Wilde and Douglas achieved reconciliation despite all that Ross did to discourage it. With Wilde's death in 1900, Ross wrote to Adela Schuster, a mutual friend: "Among his many fine qualities he showed in his later years was that he never blamed anyone but himself for his own disasters".

On his return to London in 1901, Ross acquired the Carfax Gallery in Bury Street, St. James's, which became an important site for exhibitions, particularly of the work of Max Beerbohm and Aubrey Beardsley (in 1909, he published an illustrated monograph on Beardsley). Douglas, his anger increasing over the years towards Ross, referred to the gallery as "Robbie's unsuccessful little picture shop". However, the "little picture shop" contributed to Ross's growing reputation as an art dealer and critic. In 1905, Ross published De Profundis in a drastically expurgated edition with all references to Douglas omitted. Douglas reviewed it unsympathetically in the Motorist & Traveller (1 March 1905), an indication of his alienation from his former lover. The publication of De Profundis had the effect of further dividing Ross and Douglas, the consequences of which later resulted in bitter legal struggles.

By 1906, the Oscar Wilde Estate, legally bankrupt, was finally free of debt, and by 1908, Ross, with copyright control over most of Wilde's writings, edited the Collected Edition. A dinner in Ross's honour was held on I December at the Ritz Hotel to celebrate not only his editing of the collected works but also his assistance to the Oscar Wilde Estate in helping to pay off lingering debts by pursuing publishers who had not paid copyright fees. More than 200 guests attended, including Cyril and Vyvyan Holland, Wilde's two sons whom Ross had finally met for the first time since they were small children. Douglas declined to attend, principally, he told Ross, because there were at least 20 people at the dinner with whom Wilde was not on speaking terms at the time of his death.

In 1912, while writing art reviews for the Morning Post, Ross was appointed Assessor of Pictures and Drawings for the Board of the Inland Revenue, requiring visits to great estates to estimate the value of art for the purpose of death duties. In the following year, Ross found himself at the centre of a libel suit brought by Douglas against Arthur Ransome, who, Douglas charged, had made some offensive remarks about him in his Oscar Wilde: A Critical Study (though Douglas's name is never mentioned). Because Ross had shown Ransome the unpublished sections of De Profundis, he was required to provide Ransome's counsel with a copy to be read aloud in court to support the Plea of Justification. The jury subsequently found no basis in Ransome's book to support Douglas's charge.

The publication of Douglas's Oscar Wilde and Myself (1914), which was, in fact, written by Thomas Crosland, his former erratic assistant editor of the Academy and a hater of Wilde, convinced Ross that he had grounds for a writ of libel. Equally determined to undermine Ross's status in society, Crosland had recently sent Ross a letter demanding that he resign as Wilde's literary executor and issue a public statement that he had erred in restoring Wilde's reputation. The conspiracy of Douglas and Crosland to disgrace Ross involved their hiring of a private investigator to have Ross's letters stolen to reveal incriminating evidence of his sexual affairs and to link Ross with a convicted male prostitute known to Christopher Millard ("Stuart Mason," Wilde's bibliographer).

When, in March 1914, Ross filed a charge of criminal libel against Douglas and issued writs against both him and Crosland for conspiracy and perjury, the two were in France: the arrogant Crosland, however, returned in April to face arrest on the charges. Douglas and Crosland's attempt to impugn Ross emerged during the magistrate's hearing prior to the trial at the Old Bailey: When, for example, the male prostitute was released from prison, he was urged to sign a statement that he had had sexual relations with Ross, but he refused, insisting that the statement was untrue. In June, the trial began, the jury hearing Crosland's condemnation of Wilde's works as "most dangerous." Undoubtedly, the association of Wilde's name with Ross and Millard had a significant effect on the jury's perception of Ross's presumed innocence. The jury found Crosland not guilty.

During the war, Ross gave Frank Harris assistance in the writing of his Wilde biography, which paid tribute to Wilde's "devoted friend" in Chapter 26: "It became the purpose of his life to pay his friend's debts, annul his bankruptcy and publish his books in a suitable manner, in fine to clear Oscar's memory from obloquy while leaving to his loveable spirit the shining raiment of immortality. " In 1917, Ross accepted the offer of Trustee of the Tate Gallery, a position he had particularly desired. These final years were not without renewed attempts by Douglas to vilify his name, but on 5 October 1918, Ross died, apparently in his sleep, of heart failure. His will stipulated that his ashes be placed in Wilde's monument in Père Lachaise cemetery, in which, at Ross's request, a special chamber had been designed by Jacob Epstein. Fearful of Douglas's fury, Ross's relatives delayed fulfilling his request until 30 November 1950, on the fiftieth anniversary of Wilde's death and safely after Douglas's.

Reference: H. Montgomery Hyde, Lord Alfred Douglas: A Biography (1984).