Harry Gordon Selfridge: West End Lothario or mother's boy?

A new TV drama portrays Selfridges' founder as a womaniser and gambler. An old memoir tells a different story

A lavish TV drama starting tonight promises to expose one of the most powerful men in British retail history – Harry Gordon Selfridge – as a womanising gambler who lived life in the fast lane.

According to one of his long-time employees, however, the legendary retailer behind the Oxford Street department store was actually a teetotal workaholic who barely gave women a second glance for the greater part of his life.

In the 10-part ITV1 series Mr Selfridge, the American-born entrepreneur is portrayed as a flamboyant showman who squanders his wealth on gambling, yachts and mistresses, ending his days penniless in a tiny rented flat.

The story is based on Lindy Woodhead's biography Shopping, Seduction and Mr Selfridge, and has been adapted for television by the veteran scriptwriter Andrew Davies. It stars Jeremy Piven in the lead role.

But a friend of Selfridge's late publicist, Alfred Harry Williams, has come forward to reveal that an early portrayal of the businessman's life tells a somewhat different story.

John Sugden, 79, tells how Williams – who has since died, but was a close friend of his family – wrote a book on Selfridge after working for him for more than two decades as an advertising guru and board director.

The memoir, published 20 years after the author had retired from his job in 1956, was entitled No Name on the Door, referring to the fact that Selfridge's name appeared only on small metal plates discreetly placed at the corners of the store's doors after it opened in 1909.

The Williams memoir states that, far from being a playboy, his boss was a good husband and was devoted to his company and his mother. He had little interest in women, apart from them as part of a growing market of consumers for his store.

Selfridge certainly had a deep love of theatre and indulged in a fling with a French actress, according to Williams, but it was not until the mid-1920s, when Selfridge was in his seventies, that he developed a taste for gambling and showgirls.

And the major driving factor behind this late discovery of female charms was apparently the millions of pounds he banked from selling the shares in his shopping empire.

"Before 1926, he lacked the money to play sugar-daddy to the many women scandal connected his name with," according to Williams.

"Outside the business, women seemed to have few attractions for him, although he was friends with some of the loveliest and wealthiest debutantes in the country.

"He was in every way a very good catch. A handsome man, of unblemished private life, a non-drinker, a non-smoker, a regular churchgoer and a devoted son."

For many years, the only object of his affection was his mother who, Williams reveals, Selfridge revered so much he only ever referred to her in public as "Madame" and rarely decided anything or went anywhere without her. He even took her along on his honeymoon.

The book says that his decision to open the first American-style department store on London's Oxford Street was made after a conversation with his mother.

"While we were on the ship coming to Europe, my mother said casually, 'I suppose you'll open that store in London now'," said Selfridge, in an anecdote included in Williams's book. "It was as if I was speaking to myself, for she was always able to follow my thoughts, So I answered, 'Yes', and I suppose that really settled the matter."

Mr Sugden, from Surrey, said Williams was well placed to write about his famous employer because, as well as working for him from the age of 25, he was a confidant of Selfridge's.

"He was a friend of my family, a friend of my father's, really," Mr Sugden said. "He was a director of the company and a publicist. He was brought on board to get [Selfridge] into the upper echelons of society. So he did everything he could to spread the Selfridge name about."

Big-store rivals

Harrods Charles Henry Harrod established his first shop in Knightsbridge in 1849 – mainly groceries and tea. Turnover of just £20 a week.

John Lewis John Lewis started as a draper's apprentice. He opened his own store in 1864 in Oxford Street.

Debenhams William Debenham invested in William Clark's small London draper's shop in 1813. Starting as Clark and Debenhams.

Liberty Arthur Lasenby Liberty opened his own business, selling exotic fabrics, with a lease on half a shop in Regent Street in 1875.

Fortnum & Mason William Fortnum used his position as footman to Queen Anne to kick-start his career. His landlord, Hugh Mason, joined him and their Piccadily store opened in 1707.

Harvey Nichols Benjamin Harvey opened a linen shop in 1831. His daughter, in partnership with Colonel Nichols, later sold oriental goods.

House of Fraser In 1949, Hugh Fraser and James Arthur started a small drapery shop on Argyle Street, Glasgow. Partnership dissolved in 1865, but Fraser continued. Rebranded as House of Fraser in 1900s.

Marks & Spencer Michael Marks began selling wares from a bag. In 1894, Thomas Spencer joined him. Today, it operates 700 stores.

Charlotte Austen-Hardy

Arts and Entertainment
The Rolling Stones at the Roundhouse in London in 1971: from the left, Keys, Charlie Watts, Mick Taylor and Mick Jagger

Music ...featuring Eric Clapton no less
Arts and Entertainment
In the dock: Dot Branning (June Brown); Union boss claims EastEnders writers are paid less than minimum wage

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Roger Christian wrote and directed the 1980 Black Angel original, which was lost until 2011

film
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Green (Hand out press photograph provided by Camilla Gould)

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones reviewWarning: Spoilers aplenty
Arts and Entertainment
Matthew Healy of The 1975 performing on the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival, at Worthy Farm in Somerset

music
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe Withnail and I creator, has a new theory about killer's identity
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvDick Clement and Ian La Frenais are back for the first time in a decade
Arts and Entertainment
The Clangers: 1969-1974
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Rocky road: Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino play an estranged husband and wife in 'San Andreas'
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Nicole Kidman plays Grace Kelly in the film, which was criticised by Monaco’s royal family

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emilia Clarke could have been Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey but passed it up because of the nude scenes

film
Arts and Entertainment
A$AP Rocky and Rita Ora pictured together in 2012

music
Arts and Entertainment
A case for Mulder and Scully? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in ‘The X-Files’

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syria civil war: Meet the military commander who says his soldiers will not rest until every inch of their war torn country is free of Islamist 'terrorists'

    ‘We won’t stop until Syria is back to normal’

    Near the front lines with Islamist-controlled towns where Assad’s troops were besieged just last month, Robert Fisk meets a commander confidently preparing his soldiers for battle
    Fifa corruption: Strip Qatar of the World Cup? Not likely

    Strip Qatar of the World Cup? Not likely

    But if a real smoking gun is found, that might change things, says Tom Peck
    Twenty two years later Jurassic Park series faces questions over accuracy of the fictional dinosaurs in it

    Tyrannosaurus wrecked?

    Twenty two years on, Jurassic Park faces questions over accuracy
    The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation may undermine Hillary's chances

    The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation...

    ... and how it may undermine Hillary's chances in 2016
    Genes greatly influence when and how many babies a woman will have, study finds

    Mother’s genes play key role in decision to start a family

    Study's findings suggest that human fertility is still evolving
    12 best olive oils

    Extra-virgin, cold-press, early-harvest, ultra-premium: 12 best olive oils

    Choosing an olive oil is a surprising minefield. Save yourself the hassle with our handy guide
    Rafa Benitez Real Madrid unveiling: New manager full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

    Benitez full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

    There were tears in the former Liverpool manager’s eyes as he was unveiled as Real Madrid coach. But the Spaniard knows he must make tough decisions if he is to succeed
    England can win the Ashes – and Elvis Presley will present the urn

    England can win the Ashes – and Elvis will present the urn

    In their last five Test, they have lost two and drawn two and defeated an India side last summer who thought that turning up was competing, says Stephen Brenkley
    Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

    Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

    Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
    Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
    Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

    The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

    Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
    The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

    The future of songwriting

    How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
    William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

    Recognition at long last

    Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
    Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

    Beating obesity

    The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
    9 best women's festival waterproofs

    Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

    These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)