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September 20, 1999
Charles Burgess Fry was an extraordinary Englishman. He could not exist today. In fact, his is a story so amazing that it is hard enough to believe he existed at all; you would think twice before having the effrontery to put him into a novel. He possessed an array of talents that have never been equalled, he had sporting achievements that left a whole generation idolatrous and awestruck. He played for England at two sports and was world class in another.
He was academically outstanding, an accomplished writer, one of the most handsome men in England. And, if all that sounds improbable, he was also invited to become king of Albania.
But, as a new biography points out, Fry paid a price for his brilliance. Although he looked like a Greek god and often performed like one, he was a man brought low by his weaknesses. He made a catastrophic marriage, he was prone to nervous breakdowns and had judgement so flawed that he became a devoted admirer of Adolf Hitler.
It was 100 years ago that he made his debut as an England cricketer, opening against Australia with WG Grace. It was the beginning of a great career which made him a player of historic stature, one of those whose name every cricket buff knows. As records go, scoring six first-class centuries in successive innings is not only breathtaking but unique.
He also played football for England and in an FA Cup Final for Southampton. But his talent at athletics was probably more remarkable still. He equalled the world record in the long jump. He was a brilliant sprinter and he would almost certainly have won a gold medal or two at the 1896 Olympic games had he known they were taking place (they were in Athens, the fist games for 2,000 years or so, and very badly publicised). Many thought he would have played for England at rugby as well had it not clashed with soccer commitments.
But Fry was no flannelled fool. He achieved first-class marks in Latin and Greek at Oxford and was a gifted writer who became a fine journalist. He was a social star among the brightest of his generation - his closest friends became Cabinet ministers. But he had problems; he was constantly short of money (even resorting to nude modelling to make ends meet). It gradually emerged that he did not have the strength to carry the burden of his genius: before he left Oxford, he had already suffered a nervous breakdown.
In 1898, at the age of 26, he married Beatrice Sumner, a cruel and domineering woman and he lived in fear of her for the duration of their marriage. For a man who should have been highly eligible, she was not the obvious choice: not only was she 10 years older than him, she had the scandalous sort of past which in those days closed many doors. Fry had many gifts but emotional strength was not one of them - and nor was wealth. His marriage to Beatrice Sumner may not have been unconnected with the fact that her lover Charles Hoare, with whom she'd been involved since she was 15 and who was the father of her illegitimate children, was rich enough to finance all three of them.
Two black sheep, Hoare and Beatrice had started a naval training school at Hamble in Hampshire. Nowadays, it would have fallen foul of the education inspectors, not to mention the NSPCC. Hoare was keen on sport but, as a social pariah, he was not welcome at Lord's and such places so he invited famous sportsmen to the school, including CB. Beatrice entered 10 fateful words in her diary that day: "Charles Fry came to play cricket today. I like Fry".
Fry and she were married for 48 years before she died but it seems clear that her banker lover, not CB, was the love of her life. For his part, CB adjusted to her death in 1946 with great equanimity. Her children showed all the freedom of the newly liberated.
Had CB Fry died early, he would have been remembered not only as the most brilliantly golden of youths but more particularly as half of Fry and Ranjitsinjhi, one of the most memorable of partnerships both for Sussex and England, who together changed the game of cricket significantly: nobody late-cut like the silk-shirted magician Indian prince, nobody on-drove like Fry. Ranji, well off and generous, was to be Fry's friend and supporter through many years of trouble.
It was after the First World War, in which he had taken no part due to running the Hamble naval college, that Fry, who often battled like a king, almost became one - Charles III of Albania. It came about via Prince Ranjitsinjhi who had become one of India's three representatives at the League of Nations and had taken Fry with him as a speech writer. Albania's royal family were of German extraction and had gone off back to Germany, leaving them with no representative in Geneva. They approached Fry. "Do not accept the crown of Albania", advised his old Oxford friend, the poet Hilaire Belloc, "be content with a cellar of wine and the society of those who love you". As the Albanians were looking for a man with an income of 10,000 pound a year, which Fry did not have and even Ranji would not provide, the kingdom was never his.In the Twenties, his mental health, which had held up well for nearly three decades, started to deteriorate. He was anxious and excitable playing cricket. His wife made him thoroughly miserable and he tried to stay away from her as much as possible. His daughter-in-law said: "I should think anyone would have a breakdown married to her". Maybe it was fear or maybe he was debilitated by the realization that the genius of his youth had not truly been brought to fruition. His Oxford friends had gone on to positions of power. Fry himself had failed to become a Liberal MP. He had neither money nor position.
In India in the late Twenties with Ranji, he had a major breakdown and became thoroughly paranoid. For the rest of his life, he dressed in bizarrely unconventional clothes and had frighteningly eccentric interludes. He developed a horror of Indians which included Ranji, his true friend who had supported and looked after him through years of illness. He was never entirely well again.
In 1934, Fry met Hitler. He went well briefed but was quite overcome by the size and spirit of a meeting where the Fuhrer was opening an autobahn. He was very impressed with the calibre of young men and women who, he thought, compared very well with young people in Britain. Fry tried to persuade Von Ribbentrop that Nazi Germany should take up cricket to Test level. He said that cricket was essentially a pure Nordic game and they would probably produce a blond WG Grace. The Germans were not convinced. At his hour-long meeting with Hitler, he was very impressed and seems totally to have accepted Hitler's assertion that the Jews were in cahoots with the Bolshevists and had a stranglehold on the country. Some Hitler Youth boys were made welcome at the Mercury training ship and Fry was still expressing enthusiasm for them in 1938.
His autobiography Life Worth Living, written in 1939, is by common consent a wonderful read. It is also full of inaccuracy and exaggeration, all in Fry's favour. And he made no reference to his own mental difficulty while being horribly unsympathetic about somebody else's. He died in 1956, a "grand old man of sport"; for years he had written for newspapers originally and well, not least for The Express where he more or less invented the role of the sports star/journalist.
The obituaries were fulsome. But looked at from the golden days of his youth, what a disappointing life it must have been. In 1984, his son said: "My mother ruined my father's life". That may have been too easy a verdict. - Dawn Express Service
* CB Fry: An English Hero by lain Wilton, Richard Cohen Books, pound 25. To order a copy at the special price of pound 22 plus 99p UK p&p, send a cheque for pound 22.99 to The Express Bookshop, 250 Western Ave, London W3 6EE or call 0870 901 9101.
© ESPN EMEA Ltd.
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