Most people will recognise the name Harry Gordon Selfridge as the founder of the successful London department store, but few know anything of the life story of the man behind the shop.
In fact the American retailer led a rather colourful life during his time in the UK and his personal life is the subject of ITV’s successful period drama, Mr Selfridge, which has just been commissioned for a second series. The next series of this dramatization of Selfridge’s personal life is set in 1914 at the beginning of the First World War.
Harry Gordon Selfridge had humble beginnings, losing his two brothers at an early age, as well as his father, who essentially abandoned the family to fight in the American Civil War. His father never returned, despite surviving the war and being promoted to major, and the young Harry lived alone with his mother with whom he enjoyed a close relationship.
After a successful career in American retail, Selfridge first arrived in the UK in 1906, while on holiday with his wife, Rosalie. He noticed that British shops were lagging behind the glitzy department stores of the USA and invested £400,000 into what would later become Selfridges. The department store was like nothing ever seen before in the UK, designed to promote shopping as a leisure activity, rather than just a necessity.
Selfridges opened in 1909 and was hugely successful. Selfridge quickly became a very wealthy man, buying plots of land and enjoying a lavish lifestyle in his family home of Highcliffe Castle in Hampshire.
As well as living the good life in terms of material possessions, Selfridge had a reputation of being somewhat of a ladies man and entertained several other women during his wife’s trips back to the States. In particular, he had a long-standing fling with French actress Gaby Deslys, who he showered with gifts including a leased house in London.
When Rosalie died during the 1918 influenza pandemic, his spending became even more lavish. He indulged in only the finest food, champagne and cigars and decorated his London home and country retreat with the most expensive furnishings from his own department store.
Selfridge’s womanizing increased even further after Gaby died at the age of 38 and he spent thousands on gambling and showgirls. He quickly frittered away the millions he had made from his shopping empire, making frequent trips to French casinos with the showgirl Dolly sisters as his companions.
By 1940, Selfridge’s fortune had dwindled away to nothing and he owed thousands of pounds to the bank and in taxes. He was forced out of Selfridges and moved into a small flat in Putney, from which he would often take a bus to visit his former department store and remember his glory days.
Harry Gordon Selfridge died in 1947, aged 89 and was buried in a simple grave in a churchyard in Highcliffe, next to his wife and mother. A small brass plaque laid in the floor of the main entrance to Selfridges is the only memorial to its creator.