Have you been enjoying Mr Selfridge?
For the benefit of non-UK readers, Mr Selfridge is an ITV docu-drama on the life of Mr Harry Gordon Selfridge, the American founder of the fabbylous department store of the same name. He revolutionized the way we shop, putting perfumes on display, and making off the peg designs available. Since it opened in 1909, an entire glamour camp of shops have opened all around the store, making it the shopping mecca that Oxford Street is today.
Whenever I watch something like this, I always wonder how true it is, so off I go a-digging for facts, and I was surprised at what I found out!
Harry Gordon Selfridge was born in Wisconsin in 1856. He joined the retail scene early on, but it wasn’t until he married Rose Buckingham, from a wealthy family in Chicago. Rose’s family owned a prominent store in the city, and by the age of 30, Harry was a partner.
It was here that he started to pioneer changes in the retail experience, introducing strap lines that are still in use today, such as ‘the customer is always right’ and ‘only x shopping days until Christmas!’ (that one actually irritates me a little!)
Mr Selfridge and his wife visited London in 1906, and he later returned to bring a little of the American way to our shops.
Selfridge was built with a loan of £400,000. The building that houses Selfridge & Co was the first building in London to have a steel frame. Practically all large buildings are constructed in this way today – so not only leading the way in shopping, but leading the way in architecture, too.
Although Lady Mae’s character is fictional, Harry did indeed offer support to the suffrage movement. During a riot incident in Oxford Street, Selfridges was the only store to not have its windows smashed.
Harry was indeed a known philanderer. Not long after the store opened, he met a French show girl called Gaby Deslys. Any woman he fell for was showered with gifts from the store – he was reckless with money.
Selfridge installed her in a flat in Kensington and the dalliance continued for several years, but he had tired of her by 1917. Miss Deslys had many admirers though – she was the star of a couple of films – so one can imagine that she wasn’t too fussed. She died from complications following an operation in 1920. I think that Gaby is the inspiration behind Lady Mae and Ellen Love – what do you think?
Later in life, Harry became obsessed with the Hungarian dance act the Dolly Sisters.
The Dolly Sisters were subject to a film of the same name starring Betty Grable and June Haver in 1945. It isn’t clear whether he had an affair with one or both of them, but as they were identical, I don’t suppose he was too bothered. Unfortunately they liked to live fast, and from 1918, when Harry met them, they dragged him along for the bumpy ride.
In the twenties Harry was also involved with Syrie Maugham, a celebrated interior decorator, married to Somerset of the same name. Yes, the writer! His homosexuality probably prompted her numerous affairs. Syrie herself was quite a character – Mr S was clearly attracted to strong career minded women!
Selfridges was the first store to allow customers to touch items prior to purchase – try before you buy - and to put cosmetics and perfumes on display in the front hall – something they still do today. The smell is divine. Their window displays are also legendary, although the Christmas displays of recent years have been a little disappointing.
Anna Pavlova really did visit the store, and really was lavished with gifts – apparently her favourite was the fur department. Amelia Earhart capitalised on her celebrity by bringing out her own clothing line, which was stocked by Selfridges. And Louis Bleriot’s plane really was on display for four days, after he became the first person to fly over water. Apparently it drew crowds of 150,000…I cannot imagine how exciting it must have been to see in 1909! And in 1925, Selfridges had a demonstration of the television set. Mr S had a talent for spotting the next big thing, that is for sure!
Yet to be mentioned in the series, Selfridges also had a roof garden. It was destroyed in the Blitz in 1940, and did not re-open until 2009, presumably for the centenary of the store.
Today, you can go for a boat ride, and have a cocktail! I simply must take a trip to London to do this.
I have no idea how far the series will go in terms of Mr S’ life, so I dare not say too much for fear of spoiling it. Let me just say that Mr Selfridge’s real life is just as dramatic as any fictional programme could make it!
I believe Mr Selfridge will be airing in the US from the end of March. The series is based on the book ‘Shopping, Seduction and Mr Selfridge’ by Lindy Woodhead. You can read more about Mr Selfridge on the Selfridge website.