Dealing with death is always a hard thing. Dealing with the death of someone you have written about is harder still — especially when what you have written about the deceased is not all that nice.
Frequent readers of Dandyism.net will be well within their rights to expect us to slam Sebastian Horsley even in death. But they will be disappointed. For one thing, it does not fall within the purview of a gentleman to speak ill of the dead. What follows is, rather, a grudging appreciation.
First, the facts: According to news reports, the body of Sebastian Horsley, 47 —artist, writer entrepreneur and showman — was found at about 11:00 A.M. GMT on Thursday, June 17, in his small apartment in Soho, London, by one of his lady friends. He had apparently died of an overdose of heroin.
A few evenings before, Horsley had seen the play about his recalcitrant life, based on his memoir, “Dandy in the Underworld.” The play was written by Tim Fountain. It was to be made into a film, produced by his friend, the actor, writer and director Stephen Fry of “Wilde” and “Jeeves” fame.
Upon seeing the play for the first time, Horsley is reported by the The Independent to have said, “They say seeing your doppelganger is an omen of death, so I got quite excited about that and thought, best get my coat on.”
Horsley had a long affair with, well, “horse,” as herion has been known in the drug-taking community. It is hard to believe that, given that lengthy association, he did not know exactly what he was doing when stuck the needle into his veins for the last time. If you read “Dandy in the Underworld,” you will find that Horsley often talked about his own death, and his right to take himself out of this world in the method and at the time of his own choosing.
And, he once said on video: “It’s only death; it’s not the end of the world, is it?”
Why he would do such a thing on the cusp of so much notoriety — the notoriety he so often very publicly craved — is a mystery. Perhaps it was the final act in a life punctuated by showmanship and self-created drama. He was sometimes tiresome and repetitious in his quips, but he was rarely boring.
After the publication of “Dandy in the Underworld,” he was famously banned from entering the United States on a promotional tour, on the grounds that he might somehow pass on his moral turpitude to others. (As if we Americans don’t have enough moral turpitude of our own). It’s too bad. I had planned to meet him, and had looked forward to it. I can only imagine what our conversation would have been like.
Horsley was born with the benefit of cash. His father was a millionaire several times over, and this carried him well through his thirties. When the money began to run dry — spent on his trademark lavish and outrageous bespoke suits, Mad Hatter-style toppers, wildly collared Turnbull & Asser shirts, drugs and Class A hookers — he put his remaining capital into the stock market as a day trader. And he made bank.
He made no bones about his own upper-middle-class vulgarity. When asked by The Chap “What is your idea of complete sophistication?” he said, “Complete vulgarity. The vulgar man is always the most sophisticated, for the very desire to be sophisticated is vulgar. And without an element of vulgarity no man can become a work of art.”
Horsley hated Beau Brummell, saying the dandy icon had made men’s clothing “boring,” and called Oscar Wilde a fake, and not even a real fake. There is some truth to both statements.
Was Horsley a dandy? Maybe not, at least not in the strict sense of the term. His clothes were too showy and tasteless, his attitude needlessly outré. On the other hand, if he had not been so outré we should never had known of him, or taken pleasure — and often disgust — in his antics.
But, like Quentin Crisp, I believe Horsley had a kind of native dandyism that is hard to deny. It’s the kind of dandyism — perhaps aestheticism would be more accurate — that makes one’s life into work of Wildean art. In Horsley’s case, that work of art was entirely contemporary in the sense that contemporary art is often not pretty. His death was the final stroke on his own corrupt canvas.
Goodbye, Sebastian, you magnificent bastard.