Monday, 20 November 2017

Charles Manson Dies at 83

Charles Manson obituary
Cult leader and convicted killer responsible for the Sharon Tate murders in 1969

Christopher Reed
Monday 20 November 2017 06.20 GMT Last modified on Monday 20 November 2017 07.09 GMT

The American criminal Charles Manson, who has died aged 83, was responsible for one of the most infamous mass murders of the 20th century, yet the head of the notorious “Family” cult was never convicted of killing anyone personally.

It was partly this, and the bloody nature of the slaughter in Los Angeles on successive nights in the summer of 1969, that led to his name achieving a wider standing – though he had a following of only a dozen pseudo-hippies at the time of the murders. Nearly fifty years after the horrific events, he retains a morbid fascination for many.

Prisoner No B-33920 was originally sentenced to death for the murders of the actor Sharon Tate, the wife of the film director Roman Polanski and eight months pregnant at the time; the coffee heiress Abigail Folger; Polanski’s friend Wojciech Frykowski; Jay Sebring, a Hollywood hairdresser; and Steven Parent, who had the misfortune to pass through the grounds of the Polanski mansion in Benedict Canyon, Los Angeles, on 9 August 1969.

The night after what became known as “the Tate murders”, the deaths of a wealthy couple, Rosemary and Leno LaBianca, were added to the Family’s toll. A month before, the body of an LA drug dealer and musician, Gary Hinman, had been discovered. LA panicked.

The killings, and the wall scrawlings in blood of “Death to pigs”, and the misspelled “Healter Skealter” – Manson’s song title borrowed from the Beatles in which he described the apocalyptic racial war he wanted to create – produced lurid headlines. Guns sold out in Beverly Hills and security firms trebled their business.

The Manson murders occurred in a late 1960s atmosphere of social upheaval, and stirred up moral panic. Neil Armstrong may have landed on the moon, but on Earth the then US president, Richard Nixon, saw the period as one in which “drugs, crime, campus revolution, racial discord and draft resistance” challenged the very basis of “civilisation’s continuity”.

Although at the time of Manson’s trial hippy culture and its attendant drugs were blamed, it was Manson’s failed musical career that seemed to be one key to the killings. In California in the early 60s he had befriended the Beach Boys’ drummer, Dennis Wilson, and the group had retitled a song by Manson, Cease to Exist, as Never Learn Not to Love on their 20/20 album. But Manson, who had been living on Wilson’s ranch until the musician threw him out, had received no recognition for the song.

He had also been rejected in 1968 by a record producer who had originally occupied the Benedict Canyon house. Manson either did not know or did not care who lived there by August the following year.

Three months after the killings Manson was arrested with his cult: five middle-class young women and two men. Although it was these followers who had committed the brutalities, it was Manson who had ordered the killings, and, at the LaBianca home, had tied up the couple before leaving his followers to their butchery.

The ensuing long trial was equally bizarre. Manson and the women carved Xs on their foreheads and, sitting with their backs to the bench, insulted the judge. Once Manson, who converted his sign to a swastika, lunged at the bench. One of the defending lawyers, Ronald Hughes, disappeared mid-trial during a 10-day court recess and his body was found on the day the women were due to be sentenced. The prosecutor, Vincent Bugliosi, made a fortune with his bestselling book on the case, Helter Skelter (1974). Newspaper articles continued for decades.

In a further trial, Family members were also found guilty of the murders of Hinman and Donald Shea, a stuntman and hired hand at the Family ranch who was killed at the end of August 1969, but whose body was not recovered for another eight years.

Manson and the group were sentenced to death, but this was commuted to life imprisonment when California’s supreme court abolished the death penalty in 1972. Three years later one of Manson’s followers, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, was given a life sentence following an assassination attempt on the then president, Gerald Ford. She was released in 2009.

In the 90s the rock group Guns N’ Roses recorded a Manson song, Look at Your Game, Girl. It seemed Manson might become rich from the royalties, but Frykowski’s son, Bartek, sued successfully for the payments as reparation for the death of his father, who was stabbed 51 times.

Although some found Manson charismatic, others saw little to impress. His rambling conversation, bizarre references and non sequiturs revealed his inauspicious beginnings. Born to Kathleen Maddox when she was 16 in Cincinnati, Ohio, he was initially called “no name Maddox”, but after a few weeks was named Charles Milles.

Kathleen married William Manson, a labourer, and Charles took his surname. His biological father was Colonel Walker Scott, against whom Kathleen won a paternity suit in 1937, but Charles never knew him. Brought up by foster parents and institutions, Charles was soon involved in crime – as a conman, pimp, forger and thief. At 13 years old he was convicted of armed robbery, and at 17 of raping a fellow inmate. By the time he was 32, he had spent 17 years behind bars and would later say: “Policemen raised me, convicts raised me, administrators raised me.”

In 1967 he travelled to the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, then in its early days as a hippy haven. There he smoked cannabis, ingested LSD and began to seek a female following, particularly among middle-class young women seeking rebellion against their “bourgeois” backgrounds. He also gathered a succession of minor film actors, Texan drifters and outlaw bikers and moved his “Family” to an abandoned holding north of Los Angeles, where they would collect and sort supermarket rubbish, then to a dusty ranch on the edge of Death Valley. The scene was set for the slaughters in LA.

After almost a lifetime in prisons, including 11 years in solitary, Manson had only a tenuous grip on reality, and spent his time plucking his guitar at his final institution, Corcoran state prison, 170 miles north of Los Angeles. In 2009 he reportedly attempted to contact the music producer Phil Spector, who is incarcerated at a facility in the same city, in order to make music with him, according to Spector’s wife, Rachelle – an assertion later disputed by California’s department of corrections. “It was creepy,” Rachelle said at the time. “Phillip didn’t respond.”

But the producer and Black Flag frontman Henry Rollins did, admitting in 2010 that Manson had contacted him in the 80s asking for help mixing an album of acoustic pop songs. Rollins agreed, finishing a never-released record called Completion.

In 2012 Manson’s final request for parole was denied. Manson did not appear at the hearing but was quoted as having said to one of his prison psychologists: “I’m special. I’m not like the average inmate. I have spent my life in prison. I have put five people in the grave. I am a very dangerous man.”

His son by his first wife, Rosalie (nee Willis), Charles Manson Jr, killed himself in 1993. Manson’s brief second marriage, to Leona “Candy” Stevens, produced a son, Charles Luther, and he had another son, Valentine, by Mary Brunner, the first member of the Family. In November 2015 Manson applied for a licence to marry Afton Elaine Burton, a 26-year-old follower, but the marriage did not take place.

• Charles Milles Manson, cult leader and convicted murderer, born 12 November 1934; died 19 November 2017

Charles Manson Dies at 83
By Dave McNary  @Variety_DMcNary Dave McNary
Dave McNary
Charles Manson Dies at 83

Charles Manson, the notorious leader of the Manson Family cult that murdered actress Sharon Tate and six others in 1969, died Sunday in a Bakersfield, Calif., hospital. He was 83.

The California Department of Corrections released a statement reading, “Inmate Charles Manson, 83, died of natural causes at 8:13 p.m. on Sunday, November 19, 2017, at a Kern County hospital.”

Manson returned to the hospital in mid-November after being hospitalized in January. He was transferred out of Corcoran State Prison, where he had been serving nine life sentences. He had been denied parole 12 times.

The shocking murders brought the carefree hippie era of the late 1960s to a dark end, with Manson and his followers becoming infamous cultural figures. Though he didn’t commit the Tate and LaBianca murders himself, the Corrections Department said “On December 13, 1971, Manson received a first-degree murder conviction from Los Angeles County for the July 25, 1969, death of Gary Hinman and another first-degree murder conviction for the August 1969 death of Donald Shea.”

Though the murders took place nearly 50 years ago, they continued to have a hold over the popular imagination. Quentin Tarantino agreed with Sony Pictures on Nov. 17 to develop his 1969-based movie project that has the events surrounding Manson as a background. The current season of “American Horror Story” portrayed the Manson family in the “Charles (Manson) in Charge” episode.

A career criminal from an impoverished and abusive background, Manson was first incarcerated in 1951 and by age 32 had spent half of his life behind bars.

An aspiring musician who first learned to play guitar in prison, Manson began gathering followers in San Francisco during the Summer of Love in 1967. In the short time between his 1967 prison release and his imprisonment in 1969, Manson skirted the fringes of show business, even briefly finding himself working with one of the top rock and roll bands in America, the Beach Boys.

He became intertwined with Hollywood in 1968, when he and more than a dozen of his followers lived at the Sunset Boulevard home of Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys. Manson crossed paths with several entertainment business figures, including actors and film producers intrigued by his charismatic hold on his followers and his counterculture beliefs.

Manson recorded several songs and was introduced by Wilson to other show business acquaintances, including music producer Terry Melcher, the only son of Doris Day. One of Manson’s songs, “Cease to Exist,” was reworked by the Beach Boys as “Never Learn Not To Love,” and eventually released by the band with the writing credit attributed to Dennis Wilson.

The band’s changes to his song reportedly angered Manson, who allegedly threatened Dennis Wilson with murder.

In 1968, Manson and his followers were evicted from Dennis Wilson’s home and Manson relocated his group to Spahn Movie Ranch, near Chatsworth, Calif. The locale was rich with film and TV history, and films such as King Vidor’s “Duel in the Sun” and popular TV shows such as “Bonanza” and “Zorro” had filmed there.

From their Spahn Movie Ranch base, Manson launched a killing spree in 1969 with the goal of a sparking a race war he called “Helter Skelter,” based on his interpretation of a song from the Beatles’ “White Album.”

On Aug. 9, 1969, he directed his followers to kill the 26-year-old Tate — who was pregnant and married to director Roman Polanski — and four others at the home she was renting in the Benedict Canyon area of Los Angeles.

Polanski was out of the country at the time of the Cielo Drive killings. The other victims were celebrity hair stylist Jay Sebring, 35; Voytek Frykowski, 32; coffee heiress Abigail Folger, 25; and Steven Parent, 18, a friend of Tate’s caretaker. The word “Pig” was written on the front door in blood.

On the following night, Manson and his followers killed Leno LaBianca and his wife, Rosemary, at their home in the Los Feliz district of Los Angeles. “Death to Pigs” and “Healter Skelter” were scrawled in blood at the crime scene.

Manson and more than 20 of his followers were arrested at ranches in the California desert in the following months. He and three followers — Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten — were found guilty in a trial and sentenced to death in 1971. The death sentences were commuted to life in prison in 1972 when the death penalty was abolished in California. Van Houten was granted parole in September but her release must still be approved by Governor Jerry Brown.

Manson has been the subject of dozens of books and articles. Some, like musician-writer Ed Sanders’ 1971 tome “The Family,” have been investigative and rich in details of the cultural moment of the murders, but many have been simply cut and paste jobs published to satiate the public’s curiosity about the notorious killer.

The story of the trial was re-told in the 1976 TV film, “Helter Skelter,” based on the 1974 book by prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry. Steve Railsback portrayed Manson. The book was adapted for a second TV movie in 2004, directed by John Gray and starring Jeremy Davies as Manson.

The events surrounding the murders were explored in numerous other movies and TV shows including NBC series “Aquarius,” indie film “Manson Family Vacation” and on “South Park.”

In 2013, James Franco announced he would play hairdresser Sebring in “Beautiful People,” though the film was never put into production.

Over the decades, pop culture references to Manson and his murderous clan have abounded, from the name of goth rocker Marilyn Manson to the alt-rock band Kasabian, named after one of his followers, Linda Kasabian.

Manson’s impact was also seen with numerous Manson Family mentions in acclaimed novelist Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 bestseller set in ‘70s Los Angeles, “Inherent Vice,” while Joan Didion’s “White Album” includes an examination of the impact of Manson as well as an interview with Kasabian.

Manson again made headlines in 2015 when his fiancee at the time, Afton Elaine Burton, AKA “Star,” 53 years his junior, was reported to be planning their nuptials in order to secure a claim to his corpse, which she hoped to exploit as a commercial public display piece.

Since the murder convictions, Manson has been imprisoned at San Quentin; the California Medical Facility in Vacaville, Folsom, and at Corcoran.

Steve Gaydos contributed to this report.

Friday, 17 November 2017

The Vanity Fair Diaries: 1983-1992 - Tina Brown

Tina Brown kept delicious daily diaries throughout her eight spectacular years as editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair. Today they provide an incendiary portrait of the flash and dash and power brokering of the Excessive Eighties in New York and Hollywood.

The Vanity Fair Diaries is the story of an Englishwoman barely out of her twenties who arrives in New York City with a dream. Summoned from London in hopes that she can save Condé Nast's troubled new flagship Vanity Fair, Tina Brown is immediately plunged into the maelstrom of the competitive New York media world and the backstabbing rivalries at the court of the planet's slickest, most glamour-focused magazine company. She survives the politics, the intrigue, and the attempts to derail her by a simple stratagem: succeeding. In the face of rampant skepticism, she triumphantly reinvents a failing magazine.

Here are the inside stories of Vanity Fair scoops and covers that sold millions―the Reagan kiss, the meltdown of Princess Diana's marriage to Prince Charles, the sensational Annie Leibovitz cover of a gloriously pregnant, naked Demi Moore. In the diary's cinematic pages, the drama, the comedy, and the struggle of running an "it" magazine come to life. Brown's Vanity Fair Diaries is also a woman's journey, of making a home in a new country and of the deep bonds with her husband, their prematurely born son, and their daughter.

Astute, open-hearted, often riotously funny, Tina Brown's The Vanity Fair Diaries is a compulsively fascinating and intimate chronicle of a woman's life in a glittering era.

The Vanity Fair Diaries 1983-1992 by Tina Brown review – ‘the heart of the zeitgeist, people!’
These reflections by the celebrated editor aren’t really about a magazine but about her, and the name-dropping and hard-glamour sell are relentless
 ‘I hope I never lose my barometer for good and evil’ … Tina Brown in 1990.

Hadley Freeman
Tuesday 14 November 2017 14.15 GMT Last modified on Saturday 18 November 2017 00.11 GMT

Almost 20 years ago I bought a book in a charity shop purely because of the author: it was Life As a Party, by Tina Brown, published in 1983. I was starting to consider journalism as a career and, of all the high-profile female journalists out there to see as a role model, Brown struck me as a pretty good option. Whereas the similarly impressive Anna Wintour, long-term editor-in-chief of American Vogue, made success look utterly joyless, Brown seemed to have such fun, whizzing back and forth across the Atlantic, dropping names like a chainsmoker discarding cigarette butts. Who wouldn’t want to hang out at Tina Brown’s party?

Except, it turned out, the operative word in “Life As a Party” was the second one: Brown’s world wasn’t an actual party, but a simulation of one. That book was her collected journalism from her time as the editor of Tatler, which she took over in 1979 when she was just 25. There, she wrote enthusiastically about people with names such as Baron Enrico di Portanova, and she championed their milieu gamely. I still have the book, even though it is almost entirely incomprehensible, because it taught me an important lesson: when you work in glossy magazines, there is no such thing as detachment, because you are selling your subject to the reader, even one as banal as the lifestyles of Tory toffs. Brown is, unquestionably, a thrillingly dynamic editor, but the primary reason she has been so successful is she is very good at selling.

The media world was so swimming in wealth that Brown could pay her contributors – in 1986! – $10,000 an article
Brown’s fun and often funny latest book is a sort-of (and far superior) follow-up to Life As a Party. It reveals What Tina Did Next, which was to move to New York, rescue the barely breathing magazine Vanity Fair and become the mega media celebrity she remains today. From Warren Beatty propositioning her over a drink (“Look, any time you want to waste some time … ”) to a then student Boris Johnson (“an epic shit”) apparently passing on stories about her to the Sunday Telegraph, Brown knows how to give her readers what they want, which is gossip about the celebrities and politicians she covered. She builds up a picture of her 1980s that consisted, on the one hand, of a media world so swimming in wealth that Brown could pay her contributors – in 1986! – $10,000 an article (that sound you hear is every 21st-century freelance journalist screaming into their pillow), and, on the other, regularly attending funerals of friends who died from Aids.

As in Vanity Fair itself, the serious stuff seems a little like the token broccoli so you feel less bad about gorging on the biscuits. Brown sells the glamour hard, in her hilariously imitable writing style. She describes her ex-boyfriend, Martin Amis, as “a literary lothario” and her youthful affair with the then-married Harold Evans as “a scandale”, which might win the prize for the most pointless use of French in 2017. Her Oxford college, we are reassured, “was the most intellectually exciting of the women’s colleges” while a trip to the cinema makes Brown crow: “This was the heart of the zeitgeist, people!” Perhaps the most absurd example of her glamour-glossing is when she writes about her contributor Dominick Dunne, whose daughter, Dominique, was murdered by her ex-boyfriend in 1982: Brown feels the need to add that the killer was “a chef at LA’s fashionable Ma Maison restaurant”, a writing tic reminiscent of the Daily Mail’s frequent inclusion of how much a victim or perpetrator of a terrible crime once paid for their house.

Brown forewarns the reader in the introduction: “These were years spent amid the moneyed elite of Manhattan and LA and the Hamptons … Please don’t expect ruminations on the sociological fallout of trickle-down economics.” In other words, the book is merely a reflection of the magazine she was editing. But given that in this same introduction, which she wrote more than 25 years after leaving Vanity Fair, Brown name-drops not just the guests who attended her 1981 wedding (“Nora Ephron, Ben Bradlee, Anthony Holden … ”) but also the caterers (“Loaves & Fishes in Sagaponack”), the question of whether the book reflects Vanity Fair’s viewpoint or Brown’s is, to say the least, debatable.

“Everything in New York,” she writes at one point, “is about personal marketing.” This certainly seems to be true of Brown, because this book isn’t really about a magazine, it’s about her, and my God, the selling is relentless. Her brilliance as an editor and her popularity with the A-list are recounted often. She writes sweetly about the happiness of her marriage to Evans as well as the struggles of being a working mother of a child with special needs (her son has Asperger syndrome). But glimpses of something a little less saintly can be occasionally be spotted between the lines, such as when she breezily mentions that she made her child’s nanny cry in the bathroom for two hours. “I think I need someone less invasive,” is Brown’s not wildly reflective takeaway. She makes frequent mention of how she was treated differently – by the media, colleagues and bosses – because she was a woman. But cries of sexism are a little difficult to take seriously from a woman who delights in entertaining male friends with “whining” imitations of “a north London feminist”. It is also notable that her arrival at Vanity Fair seems to have coincided with the sacking of an awful lot of women and hiring of an awful lot of men.

From her resurrection of Tatler at the beginning of the Thatcher era to founding the Daily Beast at the start of the internet news one, Brown has been skilled at being, as she would say, “at the heart of the zeitgeist”. So it is with uncharacteristically bad timing that her book is coming out as the scandal surrounding Harvey Weinstein grows. The diaries end with her becoming the editor of the New Yorker, which she discusses in her epilogue, entitled “What Happened Later”. What also happened later, which she doesn’t mention, is that she then left the New Yorker in 1998 to found the short-lived Talk magazine with Weinstein. Brown has been hard at work when promoting the book to distance herself from what I guess she would call the “scandale”, saying that working with Weinstein gave her post-traumatic stress disorder and insisting she knew nothing about his alleged sexual assaults. Some have suggested Brown isn’t quite as blameless as she says. Former New Yorker writer Mimi Kramer has delivered a scathing blogpost about what she calls Brown’s “enabling” of Weinstein. She points out that, for her first issue of Talk, Brown put Gwyneth Paltrow, who has said Weinstein harassed her, on the cover, “dressed in S&M garb, crawling painfully toward the camera on her stomach like a submissive – literally grovelling – and so generically made up so as to render her unrecognisable as an individual. What the hell did [Brown] think she was saying?”

It feels a little unfair to blame Brown for Weinstein, who, like Talk, does not feature in The Vanity Fair Diaries. But it is striking how kind she is to other men in it who have since been accused of harassment or worse. US journalist Leon Wieseltier, who last month apologised for his past chronic harassment, is sacked by Brown after he writes a savage column about Ephron, but remains a friend, despite making creepy comments about women’s sex lives. Donald Trump – who stomps through this book as he must about any book set in 1980s Manhattan – has “a crassness I like”, Brown writes. Perhaps this is merely a reflection of how common sexual assault and harassment are, given how often Brown comes up against men later accused of them. But when journalism becomes about selling stuff, you can be too focused on the sale to look properly at the product. “I hope I never lose my barometer for good and evil,” Brown writes. Maybe time to mend the barometer, Tina

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Remembering "UNDRESSED" A brief history of underwear at Victoria & Albert

Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear is on at V&A from 16 April 2016-12 March 2017
This exhibition told the story of underwear design from the 18th century to the present day. It explored the intimate relationship between underwear and fashion and its role in moulding the body to a fashionable ideal. Underwear is sometimes controversial, sparking debates about health and hygiene, body image and stereotyping. Its cut, fit, fabric and decoration reflect changing attitudes to gender, sex and morality; shifting notions of public and private; and innovations in fabric technology and design.
Underclothes have also influenced outer wear. Nightwear has morphed into lounge wear and garments such as corsets, crinolines and slips have been recast by fashion designers to challenge convention and explore the dynamic relationship between body and clothing.
This fascinating and thought provoking story was told through over 200 objects. Garments designed for men and women were displayed alongside advertising material, fashion plates, photographs and films to bring new insights into the most personal garments in our wardrobe.

The Story of Underwear
Male and Female
By: Shaun Cole, Muriel Barbier, Shazia Boucher
Mirroring the evolution of society’s values, the history of underwear highlights the continuous, dancing exchange that exists between women's styles and men’s fashion. Undergarments are concealed, flaunted, stretched or shortened, establishing a game between yesterday’s illicit and today’s chic and thereby denouncing the sense of disgrace that these simple pieces of clothing used to betray.

Featuring two separate works on male and female underwear, this study is full of surprises and powerful reflections on man’s relationship with his body, and woman’s with hers. From the ordinary, discreet underwear of ancient times to the boxer-briefs and seductive push-up bras of the 21st century, this work demonstrates how much the radical dictates of fashion reflect the evolution of both the male and female archetypes, as well as the overall values of an era.

About the Author

Shaun Cole is an independent exhibition commissioner, writer and lecturer primarily based at the University of London. As a curator for the Victoria and Albert Museum, he oversaw several exhibitions, most notably Graphic Responses to AIDS (1996), Fashion on Paper (1997), Dressing the Male (1999), Black British Style (2004), and the innovative series Day of Record, which makes the connection between decorative arts and personal identity. Shaun Cole has also written and lectured on the subject of menswear and homosexual fashion. His publications include ‘Don We Now Our Gay Apparel’: Gay Men’s Dress in the Twentieth Century (2000) and Dialogue: Relationships in Graphic Design (2005).

Muriel Barbier is a graduate of the École du Louvre, where she now teaches decorative arts from the Middle Ages to the 19th century. She is also a lecturer for the UCAD museums, including the Fashion and Textile Museum.

Shazia Boucher is a curator for the Museum of Lace in Calais, and often contributes to exhibitions involving fashion, lingerie and lace.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

JOURNEY TO THE ABYSS The Diaries of Count Harry Kessler, 1880-1918 Edited and translated by Laird M. Easton

Harry Kessler’s Fin de Siècle Diaries

Count Harry Kessler (1868-1937), whose diaries provide an unusual guided tour of belle époque and early-20th-century artistic and high life in Berlin, Paris and London, was born in Paris to great wealth. A lifetime of extravagant spending and the Depression took their toll. After a long and painful disease, he died impoverished and solitary in Pontanevaux, a village in the Beaujolais region of France.

His father, Adolf von Kessler, was the son of a protestant clergyman who had married into a distinguished Hamburg banking family. Adolf joined the family business, ran the bank’s branch in Paris and became hugely rich. In 1867, he married an Anglo-Irish beauty, Alice Blosse-Lynch, the daughter of a baronet serving the Raj in India. The Kessler couple’s second child, Wilhelmina, was born in 1877. No less a personage than the German kaiser, Wilhelm I, was her godfather, a remarkable proof of his friendship or infatuation with the lovely Alice. Further evidence of the kaiser’s favor came in 1879, when he elevated Adolf to the ranks of the nobility.

Young Count Harry received an international education, first in Paris, then at an English boarding school, a renowned gymnasium in Hamburg and universities in Bonn and Leipzig, where he studied law. Upon graduation, he joined an elegant uhlan regiment of the Imperial Guard, but with his father’s fortune filling his sails, he soon embarked on a career of social butterfly, aesthete, collector, cultural impresario and diplomat. Called back to his regiment at the outbreak of World War I, he initially served in Belgium, where he saw German atrocities firsthand, then in the Carpathian campaign, where he received the Iron Cross, and then again on the Western Front.

Released from duty in mid-1916, perhaps because of a nervous breakdown, he was dispatched to Bern and charged with cultural propaganda. He was to promote Germany’s cultural tradition and attainments to the Swiss public and thus erase the image of his country as a brutal aggressor. He was also given the job of approaching politicians in France who might be willing to make peace on terms satisfactory to Germany. Those included Germany’s retaining possession of Alsace and Lorraine, a position that had Kessler’s full-throated endorsement. His efforts yielded nothing. Indeed, his diaries leave one with the unpleasant impression that the superannuated officer and would-be diplomat was, despite his wealth and social connections, a fifth wheel — and one that squeaked as he bombarded friends and acquaintances in high places with advice on the conduct of war and foreign policy.

Apart from his diaries, Kessler’s lasting achievements are the exquisite books published by Cranach Press, which he founded in 1913 and supported financially as long as he was able. The editions of Virgil’s “Eclogues,” illustrated by Aristide Maillol, and of “Hamlet,” translated into German by Gerhart Hauptmann and illustrated by Edward Gordon Craig, are especially fine examples. His more ambitious projects, which included the construction of a monument and a stadium in memory of Nietzsche and the attempt to become the cultural czar of Weimar, ended in ­disappointment.

Assessment of the value of the diaries presents difficult problems, not the least of which is their extraordinary bulk. Kessler was a compulsive diarist: the first entry was written on June 16, 1880, when he was 12, and the last on Sept. 30, 1937. He died two months later, on Nov. 30. According to Laird M. Easton, the editor and translator, the 877 pages of diaries included in “Journey to the Abyss” make up only about one-quarter of the diaries for the period 1880-1918. The material from these decades was believed to have been lost until 1983, when a safe on Mallorca that held it was opened upon the expiration of a 50-year lease. This partial publication is its first in English. Diaries for the period November 1918 to November 1937 had already been published in English in London in 1971; they were republished in the United States under the title “Berlin in Lights” in 2000.

The most rewarding passages in the present volume are those written while Kessler was on his trip around the world in 1892, especially his descriptions of 1890s New York. He observed street life as sharply as he did balls organized by Ward McAllister and the Astors. His account of an extended and intelligently planned stay in Japan is even more remarkable. It records with great sensitivity and occasional flashes of humor his impressions of villages, ryokans, hot baths, the emperor and the empress passing through the Hama Gardens in Tokyo and an entertainment offered by a great court noble upon coming to maturity.

A reader avid for gossip about the great figures in fin-de-siècle and early-20th-­century art, literature, politics and high society in Germany, France and England will have a feast. Rilke, Shaw, Richard Strauss, Maillol, Rodin, Munch, Diaghilev, Nijinsky, Duse, to drop just a few names, pullulate in the diaries — he knew them all, was their frequent guest and entertained the crème de la crème with a passionate assiduity.

But this volume of the diaries is marred by Kessler’s conceit and strange lack of self-awareness (for example, he regularly took others to task for being parvenus, Hugo von Hofmannsthal among them, without reflecting that he owed his own position to his father’s recently acquired title and millions); his appalling political judgments (among them his enthusiastic backing of the Tirpitz project to expand the German High Seas Fleet, which was a major contributing cause of World War I); a nasty streak of anti-Semitism that runs through them (the remark that Galicia’s economy “had maintained itself, despite the Jews, who sit in every village as numerous as lice” is but one picturesque instance); and his hero worship of Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg and Hindenburg’s duumvir in the waning days of the Second Reich, General Erich ­Ludendorff.

Men change, occasionally for the better. In March 1918 we find Kessler saying, apropos those who fear German world domination, that “if they saw the asses who sit in Berlin and guide the world empire . . . they would be less anxious.” A shrewder and more humane count is revealed in “Berlin in Lights.” For a brief month and a half in 1918 he held the post of German envoy to Poland, and acted decisively and to good effect. Back in Berlin after Poland had broken off diplomatic relations with Germany, he visited the imperial palace, recently sacked by mutineering soldiers and sailors, and, as he contemplated the remains of the kaiser’s and the empress’s objets d’art and mementos, all of them insipid, tasteless and philistine — emblematic of false values — he realized that “I feel no sympathy, only aversion and complicity when I reflect that this world was not done away with long ago, but on the contrary still continues to exist.”

He left Germany, never to return, in early March 1933. The boycott of Jewish businesses and professionals began on April 1. Kessler marked the event, writing: The “abominable Jewish boycott has begun. This criminal piece of lunacy has destroyed everything that during the past 14 years had been achieved to restore faith in, and respect for, Germany.” He had come a long way.

The Diaries of Count Harry Kessler, 1880-1918
Edited and translated by Laird M. Easton

Diary of an Aesthete
Count Harry Kessler met everyone and saw everything.

By Alex Ross

W. H. Auden called Kessler, a friend and patron of dozens of artists, “one of the most cosmopolitan men who ever lived.

In 1983, a bank employee on the island of Mallorca opened a safe that had been sealed under a fifty-year lease and found three bulky diaries, each bound in morocco leather. They belonged to Count Harry Kessler, the impossibly sophisticated German diplomat and connoisseur, who lived from 1868 to 1937 and passed hardly an inelegant day in between. Portions of Kessler’s later journals had been published in the nineteen-sixties; W. H. Auden, in a review of the English-language edition, called their author “one of the most cosmopolitan men who ever lived.” But many of the earlier diaries were thought to have been lost in the inferno of Hitler’s Europe. Having sought refuge on Mallorca when the Nazis took power, Kessler, an outspoken pacifist who in the twenties earned the nickname the Red Count, resettled in France after the onset of the Spanish Civil War. He neglected to tell anyone that he had left behind crucial diaries covering the pre-1914 era, and they languished in storage, like the sled in “Citizen Kane.” Since the Mallorca discovery and other finds, scholars at the German Literature Archive, in Marbach am Neckar, have been transcribing Kessler’s collected work—there are some twelve thousand names—and a nine-volume German edition is nearly complete. Laird Easton, the author of a 2002 Kessler biography, has assembled and translated a hefty selection in English, entitled “Journey to the Abyss: The Diaries of Count Harry Kessler, 1880-1918” (Knopf).
The poet Richard Dehmel once said to Kessler, “You will write the memoirs of our time.” The Count attempted to fulfill that mission late in life, but his diaries are remarkable enough. “Journey to the Abyss,” which fluidly if not flawlessly translates Kessler’s prose, is a document of novelistic breadth and depth, showing the spiritual development of a lavishly cultured man who grapples with the violent energies of the twentieth century. It is also a staggering feat of reportage. “The age embraces Byzantium and Chicago, Hagia Sophia and the turbine hall,” Kessler wrote, in 1907. “You cannot understand it if you only see the one side.” Kessler saw everything.
A highlight reel: Kessler listens to the elderly Bismarck explain that the German people are too “pigheaded” for social democracy. He calls on Verlaine, who sketches a portrait of Rimbaud in Kessler’s copy of “Les Illuminations.” He drops by Monet’s studio in Giverny and asks the Master if he ever considered painting the Thames by night. (“Yes, but one is too tired when one has painted all day,” Monet tells him. “And then it would be difficult without imitating Whistler.”) He dines with Degas, who forgets Oscar Wilde’s name. (“It’s like that Englishman who went to die in a hotel, rue de Beaux-Arts, what was his name again?”) He has an audience with the aging Sarah Bernhardt, who floats toward him in a white silk negligee. He loans money to Rilke, although not before making sure of his investment: “I asked him if he believed he could write in Duino.” He discusses airplane design with Wilbur Wright and aerial bombardment with Count Zeppelin. He gives Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Richard Strauss the idea for “Der Rosenkavalier.” He witnesses the première of “The Rite of Spring,” and afterward goes on a wild cab ride with Diaghilev, Cocteau, Léon Bakst, and Nijinsky, the last “in tails and a top hat, silently and happily smiling to himself.” Travelling from England to France a week before the outbreak of the First World War, he shares a boat with Rodin, who, on parting, delivers the cinematic line “Until next Wednesday, chez la Comtesse.”
In the event that some jaded reader thinks he has heard all this before, Kessler holds a trump card, in the form of Nietzsche. In the eighteen-nineties, Kessler befriended Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, the philosopher’s reactionary sister, and visited her at home in Weimar, where she was taking care of her now demented brother. In a journal passage from 1897, we find ourselves gazing into Nietzsche’s face. “There is nothing mad about his look,” Kessler writes. “I would prefer to describe the look as loyal and, at the same time, of not quite understanding, of a fruitless intellectual searching, such as you often see in a large, noble dog, a St. Bernard.” One night, Kessler was awakened by noises from Nietzsche’s room—“long, raw sounds, as if groaning.” When Nietzsche died, in 1900, Kessler helped Förster-Nietzsche prepare for the funeral. After the memorial service, he removed a sheet covering Nietzsche in his coffin. “The deeply sunken eyes had opened again,” Kessler notes, in a line that made me shiver. Many people dined with Diaghilev; rather fewer consorted with both Cosima Wagner and Josephine Baker; only one man closed Nietzsche’s eyes for the last time.
Kessler was born in Paris, the son of a wealthy Hamburg banker and an artistically inclined Anglo-Irish salonnière. The diaries begin in 1880, when the boy is twelve. An early entry, in English: “This morning the emperor comes on the promenade and speaks to mamma.” Soon after, Kessler was sent to St. George’s School, in Ascot; he later attended the Johanneum, an élite school in Hamburg. His school days and early adulthood occasionally recall the darker fiction of the period, such as Robert Musil’s “Young Törless.” A classmate is evidently driven to suicide by an abusive schoolmaster; a friend shoots his female lover. Here is a macabre entry from 1896:
Musical evening at the countess Königsmarck’s. Nelly Hohenlohe sang and Bohlen played. As I was on my way, a young fellow shot himself dead in the grounds of the Reichstag right next to me. I called for a policeman, but he could no longer be helped. But the music afforded me little pleasure afterward.
On Kessler’s stage, even seemingly tangential figures have a way of moving into the spotlight; the Bohlen mentioned here later married into the Krupp family and, as Gustav Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach, ran the Krupp armament works for several infamous decades.
In 1891, Kessler embarked on a six-month trip around the world. His reports can be callow and detached—“The way in which Negroes are occasionally lynched is cruel”—but just as often they display a notable lack of chauvinism. The Japanese strike him as more civilized than the Europeans, and in India he perceives “endless psychological differentiation,” in comparison with the homogenizing tendencies of Western civilization. In all, Kessler develops a coolly receptive, post-Romantic sensibility that will serve him well in the salons of the avant-garde. Of the Hachiman shrine in Kamakura, Japan, he says, “The temple does not stand in a beautiful landscape, but the temple and the landscape are one. The temple is only the symbol, so to speak, through which the feelings evoked by the landscape are expressed.”
After a year of military service, Kessler settled in Berlin, studying law in desultory fashion and immersing himself in art. His taste rapidly progressed through the movements of the day: Impressionism, Symbolism, Art Nouveau, and early modernism. A new generation of artists began benefitting from his generosity, especially after he came into his inheritance, in 1895. Visiting the studio of Edvard Munch, in Berlin, Kessler described the young Norwegian as “hungry in both the physical and psychological sense,” and paid sixty marks for two engravings. Munch was, in fact, nearly starving; nine years later, he demonstrated his gratitude by making a full-length portrait of the Count, his lanky body posed amid a yellow-orange haze.

Kessler’s chief ambition was to join the foreign service, but cosmopolitanism was no guarantee of advancement in Kaiser Wilhelm II’s realm, and Kessler failed to win a coveted spot at the German Embassy in London. Instead, in 1902, he became an arts professional, joining the Art Nouveau architect Henry van de Velde in a mission to modernize the old culture capital of Weimar. Their project stirred controversy at the court of the Grand Duke of Weimar; unchaste drawings by Rodin caused particular trouble. A local functionary named Aimé von Palézieux agitated against Kessler, accusing him of besmirching the Grand Duke’s name. Although Kessler had no choice but to resign, he retaliated against Palézieux, persuading the venom-quilled journalist Maximilian Harden to spread stories about his enemy’s financial misdemeanors. Soon afterward, in 1907, Palézieux dropped dead, allegedly of pneumonia; suicide was suspected. Kessler wrote to Hofmannsthal, “What is ugly about life is that it so often only provides uneasy half solutions that are so seldom pure and tragic ones.” The hint of bloodthirstiness in these pages seems, like that suicide at the Reichstag, a bad omen.
There were many tensions behind the calm exterior of the globe-trotting connoisseur. Kessler was attracted to men, and made little attempt to conceal that attraction behind alliances with women. He responded in erotic terms to boxing matches in London’s East End; chatted up a teen-age Belgian sailor; and, by 1907, was in a relationship with a svelte young racing cyclist named Gaston Colin, who achieved immortality when he was sculpted by Kessler’s good friend Aristide Maillol (“Le Cycliste,” Musée d’Orsay). Adopting a freewheeling attitude toward sexuality, Kessler foresaw that German mores would undergo a revolution in the nineteen-twenties. Yet certain of his friends were less enlightened. Harden, having disposed of Palézieux, set about destroying Philipp Eulenburg, a member of the Kaiser’s circle, by exposing his homosexual relationships. When Kessler defended the accused, Harden responded with lethal irony: “It’s really too bad that you and I had to bring down such great fellows as Palézieux and Phili Eulenburg. But there was no other way.” Kessler had no answer to that.
After losing his position in Weimar—in time, van de Velde’s arts-and-crafts school would evolve into the Bauhaus—Kessler entered his high European phase, spending many weeks each year in Paris and London. The most successful of his endeavors was a boutique publishing company, the Cranach Press, whose edition of “Hamlet,” with stark woodcuts by Gordon Craig, is considered one of the most beautiful books ever made. Less inspired was a campaign to build a monument and athletic stadium in honor of Nietzsche: the concept was a rare lapse of taste on Kessler’s part, more Wilhelmine bombast than Dionysian frenzy. When Nietzsche howled in the middle of the night, he may have been experiencing premonitions of it. Blessedly, the scheme went unrealized.
From 1908 until the outbreak of the war, so many illustrious personalities crowd the pages of Kessler’s chronicle that at times you may think, Oh, God, not another dinner with Rodin. Yet there is a context for each name dropped. Kessler has a flair for sketching people with a flurry of adjectives: Gabriele d’Annunzio, the Italian author-demagogue, is “alternately vain, clever, boastful, sensual, raw, impolite, coquettish, womanly, irascible, cold, bold, free-spirited, superstitious, perverse, but always after an interlude his love for every kind of sensual beauty returns.” And Kessler has a journalistic eye for the scene-setting detail, observing that Rilke’s house smelled of fruit, that Rodin liked to listen to Gregorian chant on his gramophone at dusk, that Gordon Craig had “very ugly hands, the hands of a sex murderer.” At Nietzsche’s funeral, he watches a “large spider spinning her web over the grave from branch to branch in a sunbeam.”
No mere onlooker, Kessler regularly intervened in the careers of his favorite artists, often to constructive effect. In the case of “Der Rosenkavalier,” he supplied not only the outline of Hofmannsthal’s libretto—episodes of aristocratic libertinage adapted from a French operetta—but many crucial details of the scenario. Hofmannsthal’s lyric gift found a complement in Kessler’s command of dramatic structure. Unfortunately, by the time of the première, in 1911, Hofmannsthal proved unable to admit publicly the extent of the collaboration, and the friendship suffered. Hofmannsthal’s subsequent librettos for Strauss, refined to a fault, might have benefitted from Kessler’s advice.
Sometimes, Kessler’s urge to induce collaborations among his diverse genius friends became overzealous. He set up an awkward meeting between Hofmannsthal and the dancer Ruth St. Denis, who was taken aback when the poet asked her, “Are you reliable?” Later, in the twenties, Kessler had the very weird idea of a Josephine Baker ballet with music by Strauss. (Kessler supplied the scenario for Strauss’s 1914 ballet “Josephslegende.”) As improbable as such notions are, they epitomize Kessler’s belief in the primacy of mercurial human relationships. Monumental abstractions had too much weight in German culture, he thought; like his hero Nietzsche, he wanted to unite severity and sensuality, North and South. Most of all, he wished to be, in the famous phrase from “Beyond Good and Evil,” a “good European.”
Barbara Tuchman found the title of “The Proud Tower,” her history of the prewar years, in Edgar Allan Poe: “From a proud tower in the town / Death looks gigantically down.” Kessler’s diaries are haunted by the same spectre. “Reinhold believes that to get out of the inner swamp a war today would not be so terrible,” he writes in 1908, in Berlin. “I note that because I am surprised to hear this view more and more frequently here.” He hears the same casual belligerence in Paris and London. Still, unlike his friend Walther Rathenau, the unorthodox German-Jewish industrialist, Kessler stopped short of denouncing the armaments race, and sometimes sounded cavalier about the prospect of war. On July 26, 1914, in Paris, he comments, “The storm is coming,” as if it were a matter of buying a sturdy umbrella.
The war fever infected Kessler as it did many distinguished Europeans. By mid-August, he was commanding a German-artillery munitions unit in Belgium, and the diary attempts to explain away the atrocities that the Kaiser’s troops were committing around him. Even so, Kessler does not hide the grimness of the scene, which marks the beginning of the new art of total war: “The bare, burned-out walls stand there, street after street, except where there are household objects, family pictures, broken mirrors, upset tables and chairs, half-burned carpets as witness to the conditions before yesterday. Pets, pigs, cows, and dogs run without masters between the ruins. . . . Five or six men were being led away by soldiers, hatless, stumbling, white as corpses. One held aloft, cramped, his right hand to show that he had no weapon. They were probably going to be shot.” For the reader, it is a shock to be deposited in such hellish landscapes several pages after watching the antics of Diaghilev and company; few books capture so acutely the world-historical whiplash of the summer of 1914.
That winter, Kessler joined the Austro-Hungarians’ Carpathian Campaign, a would-be masterstroke that resulted in the deaths of two million men. At first, he feels pure elation: “We are on one of the most adventuresome journeys in world history.” The sight of high villages blanketed by snow puts him in mind of Chinese drawings; a scene of soldiers bathing in a river gives him an earthier pleasure. He is smitten with a handsome German major, and shares with him a cozy cabin, perusing foreign-language newspapers and sampling preserves that relatives have dispatched from enemy lands. Amid the luxury, he falls prey to anti-Semitism, which festered in the German officer corps during the war. As the scale of the slaughter sinks in, though, Kessler takes a more detached view of the conflict, seeing it through a wide-angle, Tolstoyan lens:
Little black figures—whether German or Russian you cannot tell—run forward, then backward, then forward again. Shrapnel bursts over them, shells explode sending up great swirling clouds of dust. The figures throw themselves down, disappearing as if sucked up by the earth, stand up again, and run either backward or forward. The general and the entire staff are clueless about the meaning of their indecipherable movements. Are they Germans who are advancing and have been repulsed, or Russians who attack? No one knows. You are confronted by a spectacle whose meaning cannot be understood.
And then he meets a man named Klewitz, a petty-dictator chief of staff who irritates him into a new awareness. Klewitz, he writes, is “very persuaded of his own importance, and yet a plebeian at the same time. . . . He does not impose himself on people but rather clobbers them with his position.” Kessler calls him a _Schwarzalbe—_a black elf, like Wagner’s Alberich. “God save us from being ruled by such people after the war.” As Kessler catalogues various manifestations of thuggishness and brutality on the front, he is studying Fascism before it has a name.
Kessler remained patriotically committed to the war, but his fervor was gone. By early 1918, when Krupp’s giant gun was shelling Paris and General Ludendorff’s climactic offensive came within forty miles of the city, the diarist seems almost fearful of victory. “The energy and imagination of Germany, its superiority grows into something demonic,” he writes. His vision of Germany in peacetime, conspicuously different from that of Ludendorff and the Fatherland Party, imagines a constructive engagement with the East, a “mutually enriching and autarchic German-Slavic-Byzantine world,” even the building of a great new Jewish nation.
During the final two years of the war, Kessler was posted in Switzerland, directing cultural propaganda at the German Embassy and engaging in tentative negotiations for a separate peace with France. By degrees, he reverted to his prewar, art-fomenting self. When the High Command asked for anti-American material, he commissioned three young avant-gardists—George Grosz, Wieland Herzfelde, and John Heartfield—to make a cartoon entitled “Sammy in Europe,” in which the Prussians evidently came off as badly as the Americans. (Alas, it subsequently vanished.) Kessler also sponsored Swiss performances of Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony, revelling in its “revolutionary, apocalyptic mood.” Attending a post-concert reception at the apartment of Paul Cassirer, he lets his mind wander from the van Goghs and Cézannes hanging on the walls to images of Trotsky and the Bolsheviks. The Red Count is coming to life.
“Until we have created a romance of peace that would equal that of war, violence will not disappear from people’s lives,” Kessler told friends at war’s end. His new world view, set forward vigorously in speeches and articles, steered clear of Communism but incorporated pacifism, internationalism, and, in line with the philosophy of Rathenau, a kind of guild socialism. In early 1922, Rathenau was appointed foreign minister, and Kessler became one of his confidants. When, a few months later, Rathenau was assassinated by right-wing militants, Kessler’s admiration only deepened, and in 1928 he published an alternately studious and rhapsodic biography of the late minister—a melancholy memento of German progressivism.
Amid myriad public appearances and occasional diplomatic assignments, Kessler kept to his accustomed cultural rounds. In the later diaries, now available under the title “Berlin in Lights,” you find him taking tea with Virginia Woolf, persuading Josephine Baker to dance in his library, and attending the première of “The Threepenny Opera.” But the post-1918 entries lack the exuberance of those which came before. The American Century was under way, and Kessler had little taste for its blatant mixture of moralism and materialism; in his estimation, democracy in the Anglo-American mode perpetuated the usual oligarchic forces behind a pseudo-populist façade. He sensed that his artistic paradise had no future. “Nowhere is there any great interest that needs art, I mean great art, as the church in the Middle Ages or even the politics of splendor of the popes and the Bourbons,” he once wrote. “Art has become a luxury.”
Throughout the diaries, Kessler dwells on the irreconcilability of aesthetic and political realities. Viewing an exhibition of Expressionist pictures by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner in March, 1918, he writes, “A huge gap yawns between this order and the political-military one. I stand on both sides of the abyss, into which one gazes vertiginously.” His hope was somehow to bridge that gap. It may seem ironic that so art-obsessed a soul became entangled in foreign policy, sitting through conferences and delivering stylishly wonky lectures, but in the end his public service was aimed at shaping a world in which the life of the mind could flourish. As Easton says in his biography, for Kessler “the whole mighty apparatus of the state is only there to permit the flowering of a nation’s culture.”
A fanatical aesthete to the end, Kessler never diverged from the young Nietzsche’s belief that art justifies life. The Russian composer Nicolas Nabokov recalled that Kessler viewed works of art as “living creatures belonging to the same species as himself.” The creation animated him even more than the creator, and this is what lifts his diaries far above the level of gossip. He writes wonderfully of the importance of revisiting the deepest works at different stages of one’s life, for they will change appearance, “like medieval cathedrals at different times of the day.” Make haste when you are young, he advises, or “it is too late, and you have missed the morning light of the masterpieces.” Such light floods the journals of Kessler’s youth, when he believed that one painting or poem could change the world.
In 1935, toward the end of his Mallorcan idyll, Kessler completed the first of a projected four volumes of memoirs. Titled “Peoples and Fatherlands,” after Nietzsche, the book covers Kessler’s childhood and youth, with passages adapted from the diaries. It was banned in Germany, but a copy fell into the hands of Thomas Mann, then living near Zurich. In early 1937, Kessler paid him a visit. There is something uncanny about the encounter between the two men, for they had many qualities in common: mixed parentage (Mann’s mother was half-Brazilian), gay desire, a postwar swing from eccentric nationalism to eccentric socialism. The life of Count Harry Kessler might be read as a semi-autobiographical novel that Mann never ventured to write. In conversation with Kessler, Mann praised and quoted from the memoir. Kessler must have felt encouraged to press on with his task.
It was not to be: Kessler’s health was failing. When he died, at a French boarding house run by his sister, in November, 1937, the obituaries were few. Perhaps Kessler felt that he would leave no lasting trace of his astounding life; if so, he was mistaken. Scattered in libraries and hiding places across Europe was, in essence, the book that Richard Dehmel had prophesied decades before: the supreme memoir of the grand European fin de siècle.

Alex Ross has been contributing to The New Yorker since 1993, and he became the magazine’s music critic in 1996.

Harry Clemens Ulrich Graf Kessler (23 May 1868 – 30 November 1937) was an Anglo-German count, diplomat, writer, and patron of modern art. English translations of his diaries "Journey to the Abyss" (2011) and "Berlin in Lights" (1971) reveal anecdotes and details of artistic, theatrical, and political life in Europe, mostly in Germany, from the late 19th century through the collapse of Germany at the end of World War I until his death in Lyon in 1937.

Harry Kessler's parents were the Hamburg banker Adolf Wilhelm Graf Kessler (24 November 1838–22 January 1895) and Alice Harriet Blosse-Lynch (born 17 July 1844 in Bombay; died 19 September 1919 in Normandy), the daughter of Anglo-Irish Henry Blosse Lynch, C.B., of Partry House, County Mayo. Kessler's parents married in Paris on 10 August 1867; Kessler was born, also in Paris, in 1868. Kessler's younger sister was born in 1877, and was named Wilhelmina after Kaiser Wilhelm I, who became the child's godfather. After marriage, her name would become Wilma de Brion.

There were many rumours about a supposed affair between Kaiser Wilhelm I and Countess Kessler. The swift rise of the Kessler family led to a legend that either Harry or his sister were the illegitimate offspring of the emperor and Alice Kessler, but Harry was born two years before his mother met the emperor, and the emperor was eighty years old when his sister Wilhelmina was born. Curiously, Alice Blosse-Lynch is recorded as having died unmarried in 1919 in Burke's Irish Family Records (1976).

Adolf Wilhelm Kessler was ennobled in 1879 and again in 1881, Harry inheriting the titles on his father's death.

Kessler grew up in France, England and Germany. Kessler was educated first in Paris and then, from 1880, in St. George's School, Ascot, an English boarding school. Following his father's wishes he enrolled in 1882 at the Gelehrtenschule des Johanneums in Hamburg, where he completed his Abitur (high-school education). Afterwards he joined the 3rd Garde-Ulanen regiment in Potsdam and earned the rank of an army officer. He studied law and art history in Bonn and Leipzig respectively. Kessler was familiar with many cultures, travelled widely, was active as a German diplomat, and came to be known as a man of the world and patron of the arts. He considered himself part of European society. His homosexuality, which inevitably made him a psychological outsider, undoubtedly influenced his insight and critique of Wilhelmian culture.

After moving to Berlin in 1893, he worked on the Art Nouveau journal PAN, which published literary work by, among others, Richard Dehmel, Theodor Fontane, Friedrich Nietzsche, Detlev von Liliencron, Julius Hart, Novalis, Paul Verlaine and Alfred Lichtwark. The short-lived journal also published graphic works by numerous artists including Henry van de Velde, Max Liebermann, Otto Eckmann and Ludwig von Hofmann.

On 24 March 1903 Kessler assumed control of the "Museum für Kunst und Kunstgewerbe" in Weimar. There he worked with new exhibition concepts and the establishment of a permanent arts and crafts exhibit.

In 1904, during his work in Weimar, Kessler began to publish a group of bibliophilic books containing artistic compositions of typography and illustrations. In the beginning he cooperated with the German Insel Verlag. In 1913 he founded his own company, the Cranach Press, of which he became the director.

Around 1909, Kessler developed a concept for a comic opera together with Hugo von Hofmannsthal and together they wrote the scenario. Richard Strauss provided the music, and in 1911 Der Rosenkavalier premiered in Dresden under the baton of Ernst von Schuch.

Around 1913 Kessler commissioned Edward Gordon Craig, an English theatrical designer and theoretician, to make woodcut illustrations for a sumptuous edition of Shakespeare's Hamlet for the Cranach Press. A German translation by Gerhart Hauptmann, with illustrations by Craig, was finally published in Weimar in 1928. The English version, edited by J. Dover Wilson, came out in 1930. This book, printed on fine paper, using different type-faces, with marginal notes with source quotations, and featuring Craig's woodcuts, is regarded by many as one of the finest examples of the printer's art to have been published in the 20th century. It is still sought by collectors worldwide.

Kessler's ideas of reforming culture went beyond the visual arts. He developed a reformation concept for the theatre which was supported by Edward Gordon Craig, Max Reinhardt and Karl Vollmöller. Kessler asserted that a so-called "Mustertheater" should be established. The Belgian architect Henry van de Velde sought to design the corresponding building. On the initiative of Kessler many prominent writers were invited to introduce a literary modernity to Weimar, but the hegemonic opinions were considered too conservative and nationalistic, and the plans for the Mustertheater failed.

During his Weimar period Kessler became close friends with Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche (1846–1935), the sister of late Friedrich Nietzsche. At the suggestion of Kessler, she chose Weimar as domicile for the Nietzsche-Archiv.

In 1903 Kessler launched the Deutscher Künstlerbund and became its vice-president. The consortium supported less acknowledged artists including Edvard Munch, Johannes R. Becher, Detlev von Liliencron and the painters of Die Brücke. In 1906, an exhibition commotion gave reason to depose Kessler from his office. An exhibition of drawings at the Grand Ducal Museum by Rodin and dedicated, in error, to the Grand Duke of Sax Thuringia, was considered as a risk to the wives and daughters of Weimar. This was followed by a smear campaign that Kessler considered to be an intrigue by Aimé Charles Vincent von Palezieux, retired Prussian General and court Marshall in Weimar, but which led to Kessler's resignation. Palezieux died less than a year later on 10 February 1907 just before receipt of a challenge to a duel from Kessler.

Kessler saw active service on the Western Front during World War I. In 1918 he returned to his estate in Weimar, recording that although the house seemed unchanged from 1913 and his old servants and pets greeted him with affection, his collections of paintings, statues, books and mementos reflected a European intellectual and cultural community which was now "dead, missing, scattered .. or become enemies".

During World War I Kessler and Karl Gustav Vollmoeller worked together at the German Embassy in Bern for the cultural department of the Foreign Office. They developed activities aimed at peace plans with France and England. In November 1918, Kessler was German Ambassador to Warsaw in the newly independent Poland (Second Polish Republic). In 1919 he wrote a "plan for a League of Nations on the basis of an organization of organizations (World Organisation)", which contains the constitution of such an international confederation of states. The purpose of this covenant was above all to prevent new wars, securing human rights and the regulation of world trade. Main body of this covenant would be the "World Council", which also elected an executive committee. Under his plan a Weltjustizhof, a World Court of Arbitration and administrative authorities would be built. This ordered by paragraphs plan had the form of a state constitution. Another plan for a supranational organization he developed in 1920 as "Guidelines for a true League of Nations" in the form of a resolution. In 1922 he served for a short time as the President of the German Peace Society, of which he was a member from 1919 to 1929.

In the 1920s, Kessler tried to influence as a journalist on the political debates of the Weimar Republic. He wrote essays on different social and foreign policy issues, such as socialism, or the League of Nations. He belonged to the left-liberal German Democratic Party (DDP) and wrote a biography of his 1922 murdered friend Walther Rathenau (then Foreign minister). In 1924, he was a DDP candidate for the Reichstag. When this attempt failed, he withdrew from politics. In the twenties, Kessler was frequently a guest at the Berlin SeSiSo Club. In 1932/33, material co-edited by him appeared in the magazine Das Freie Wort (The Free Word). After the Nazis' seizure of power in 1933 Kessler resigned and emigrated to Paris, then to Mallorca and finally to the southern French provinces. He died in 1937 in Lyon.

It was presumed that Kessler's earlier diaries had been lost but they were found in 1983 in a safe in Mallorca. In 2004, the first definitive nine volume edition was published in Germany and the first English edition of the 1880–1918 years was published in 2011.