My Secret Life, by “Walter”, is the memoir of a Victorian gentleman’s sexual development and experiences. Between approximately 1883 and 1895, someone, presumably an Englishman of means, had printed on the Continent an eleven-volume sexual autobiography limited, so he thought, to just six copies. Who the printer or publisher was has not been established with certainty but the most likely possibility is Auguste Brancart, a prolific publisher of erotica who began his career in the early 1880’s in Bruxelles and toward the end of the decade moved to Amsterdam. Interestingly, the original title page of My Secret Life has ‘Amsterdam. Not for Publication’ on it but in the sub rosa world of erotica publishing such indications are to be taken with a pinch of salt.
The scarcity of the first edition of My Secret Life has been overstated; it certainly is a rare book. More than six copies, as ordered, were undoubtedly run off. From the number that have reliably been reported to exist, the number appears to have been in the region of twenty to twenty-five sets. Aleister Crowley was supposed to have had one, as well as the silent film comedian Harold Lloyd and Joseph von Sternberg, Marlene Dietrich’s director and one-time lover. Charles Reginald Dawes, the last great English collector of erotica, had two sets, one of which was destroyed the the British Customs and the other going eventually to the British Library in 1964. Lord Louis Mountbatten’s brother, the 2nd marquess of Milford Haven, certainly possessed a copy for it exists currently in a fine London collection and contains his bookplate. There is a copy in Geneva, another in Hamburg and at least two in New York.
Two attempts to publish a reprint in the United States in the 1930’s failed due to police action. The first, which began about 1932, followed the original edition as to title and imprint and got as far as volume three before the project was shut down. A copy with 100 original water colors by Clara Tice was auctioned by Parke-Bernet at New York in 1971. A second attempt took place about two years later, with a single volume called Marital Frolics (London [New York or Philadelphia]: For Distribution by Subscription Only [c. 1934]). This constituted an abridgment of volume 5, and was illustrated with ten plates by ‘Malay.’ A copy was likewise auctioned by Parke-Bernet in the same sale.
The Grove Press reprint of 1966 is the first complete edition to be openly available. It was prepared from an eleven-volume typescript made directly from the copy in Hamburg referred to above. All subsequent reprints stem, legally or otherwise, from this. Gershon Legman’s Introduction to the Grove Press reprint is a mine of fascinating information, and includes a closely argued case for My Secret Life having been written by Henry Spencer Ashbee, the famous Victorian bibliographer and collector of erotica. The present compiler is unable to share this view, but thinks it likely that Ashbee was involved in seeing it through the press on behalf of somebody else. This book is often wrongly attributed to Frank Harris, through confusion with My Life and Loves, which is a similar (although not as explicit) account of his life.
A number of reprints followed the Grove Press edition, including one published by Brandon House of North Hollywood and Pendulum Books of Atlanta, Georgia and a complete French translation.