Dernière Chanson: Harry Fragson Et La Belle Époque

The toast of Edwardian London and Paris, as 1913 drew to a close, Harry Fragson looked forward to his continuing reign as the leading man of European music hall, his thrilling stage performances, wax cylinder song recordings and even a starring role in the 1912 film, Entente Cordiale having won him a legion of admirers on both sides of the Channel, including King Edward VII. But like the peace Europe had enjoyed for nearly half a century, Fragson’s life was foreshadowed by impending catastrophe.

Léon Philippe Pott was born in Soho, London, on 2nd July 1869, to a Belgian yeast merchant, Victor Pott, and his French wife, Leontine. Dashing his father’s hopes that he would follow him into the yeast business, from an early age Léon displayed an extraordinary ability for writing and performing songs, learning to play the piano in London before studying music in Antwerp. Coupled with brilliant comic timing and, as one friend described, ‘a mobile face’ and ‘a spiritual eye,’ the era’s immensely popular music halls beckoned as the most obvious outlet for Léon’s outstanding talent.

Yet Léon struggled to find fame and consequently changed his name to the more English sounding, Harry ‘Fragson,’ a play on the words ‘frog’s son,’ and a humorous nod to his continental roots. After performing at Le Chat Noir in Paris, Fragson’s career gained the boost it deserved after he met the revered café chantant entertainer, Paulus, who took the aspiring star under his wing. Discovering a particular gift for mimicry, Fragson learnt to imitate Paulus and other respected chanteurs, which brought him to the attention of French audiences. Adapting his act accordingly, whilst in England, Fragson  portrayed himself as the archetypal music hall comedian and became associated with pantomime, through his appearances in a 1905 performance of Cinderella in Drury Lane, Sinbad the following year, and Babes in the Wood in 1907. In France, however, he was known as a singer of sophisticated and romantic songs, with titles such as Amours Fragiles, Tendresses d’ Amant and Dernière Chanson. Written by Fragson in 1911, the Spanish artist, Pablo Picasso was so captivated by Dernière Chanson’s refrain, the he called one of his own works, Ma Jolie, in homage to it.

Above: A recording of Harry Fragson singing Dernière Chanson (1911)

Fragson’s own ‘Ma Jolie,’ was the French actress and singer, Alice Delysia, who had been a chorus girl at The Moulin Rouge before a brief stint on Broadway. The couple lived together for several years before the relationship ended in 1912. Soon afterwards, Fragson met Paulette Franck, a young Tango dancer. Increasingly preoccupied by his new romance and his show at The Alhambra in Paris, Fragson’s 83 year-old father, who had lived with his son since Leontine’s death in 1907, was left feeling neglected. After accepting work in London which also demanded a three month stay there, Fragson proposed that his father might be better off staying in a nursing home in his absence, a suggestion the elderly man refused to countenance.

On 30th December, 1913, after dining out with Paulette, Fragson returned to 56 Rue La Fayette, the home he shared with his father. He had forgotten his key and though he knocked on the door, was left waiting in the cold for some time. When his father answered, Fragson reproached him for the delay and a heated exchange ensued. Victor Pott pulled a revolver out of his pocket and, as his son was walking away, aimed it at the back of his head and fired. The bullet hit Fragson behind his right ear and he fell to the floor, bleeding profusely. A maid who had heard the gunshot rushed to see if everything was alright and found Fragson unconscious but still alive, while Pott, who was stood clutching the revolver, simply said,‘I have shot him because he is a criminal. You had better tell the police.’

By the time the police arrived, the frail old man, who stood only five feet tall, was sobbing uncontrollably and shaking with violent tremors. It was thought that he was suffering from senile dementia, and he was taken to hospital, along with his son, who was still clinging to life. Managing to compose himself, Pott made the following confession:

‘My son lived with me in the Rue La Fayette for many years. Six months ago he fell in love with a pretty young artist and brought her home. I objected, but it was useless to talk to Harry, who would have his own way. My life became such a misery that I often thought of putting an end to myself. Tonight my son came in about 8:30 and blamed me for having bolted the door, which made me, though slow in answering, say: “I am tired of the dog’s life I am leading.” I took a pistol from my pocket meaning to blow out my brains. At that moment Harry passed before me and in a wild, mad rush I lifted the weapon and fired. I cannot explain why I did so.’

Shortly after he was admitted to hospital, Harry Fragson died. One of the first people to be informed was the manager of The Alhambra, who took to the stage, to break the sad news.  Believing it to be part of a sketch and expecting Fragson to walk out at any moment, the crowd erupted with laughter.

The press in both France and England gave the story much coverage, with the Parisian newspapers in particular, speculating that Fragson’s murder may have been premeditated. Sensationalist gossip was fuelled by comments from the concierge of the apartment building where Fragson and his father lived, who claimed that on Christmas Day, Pott had complained that his son had not properly ‘wished him the compliments of the season,’ and after she had replied that he surely would on New Year’s Day, the old man had retorted, ‘It will be too late by then.’ Similarly, a maid recalled how, hearing Paulette singing, Pott had sinisterly remarked, ‘She will not sing long!’  Paulette herself provided the most damning accusations, claiming that Pott had once tried to suffocate the entire household by leaving the gas on, and expressing fears that he might have tried to poison Fragson’s food; she even went as far as to say, ‘I am equally certain that the old man intended to kill me too, and it is only by chance that I did not accompany my lover to meet with the same fate. Do not tell me that Mr. Pott is mad. He is, on the contrary, a very intelligent man, and his great age is his only excuse.’ She also revealed that the murder weapon had been bought with the 100 francs Fragson had given his father as a Christmas present.

Harry Fragson’s funeral was held on 8th January 1914 and it is estimated that up to 50,000 spectators lined up to watch the hearse take his body to the Cimetière du Père Lachaise, where he was buried next to his mother. Pott was the sole beneficiary of his son’s estate, which amounted to £80,000 in property and a life insurance policy worth £12,000. During the First World War, Fragson’s popularity endured, and his song Hello, Hello, Who’s Your Lady Friend? recorded just before his death, became a firm favourite with British soldiers.

Above: A recording of Harry Fragson singing Hello, Hello, Who’s Your Lady Friend? (1913)

While awaiting trial at Centre Pénitentiaire de Fresnes, Victor Pott died on 17th February 1914, due to complications from diabetes. In custody, Pott had remained distraught, agonising over the loss of his son who, as an official at The Alhambra remembered, had ‘worshipped his father,’ and wanting to share his success, had always celebrated a triumphant opening night by taking his father in his arms, so he could ‘dance around with him.’

Selected Sources:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alice_Delysia

http://archive.org/stream/variety33-1914-01/variety33-1914-01_djvu.txt

http://www.appl-lachaise.net/appl/article.php3?id_article=662

http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/7248456

http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/5401259

http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/5402356