On June 3, 1997, at exactly 2:10, a mysterious stranger suddenly appeared in the Round Reading Room of the British Museum. He was dressed in strange, Victorian clothing and was clearly searching for something. About a dozen people had come to the museum from all around the world to see if this predicted visitor would materialize. But they dared not speak to him. At 2:31, the time traveler, frustrated by his search, walked around a corner and disappeared. It was like a scene out of a science fiction story.
Which is because it was a scene from a short story, but one that had been written 100 years previously.
According to his Penguin Random House biography Max Beerbohm was an “essayist, caricaturist, critic, and short story writer” and “one of Edwardian England’s leading satirists.”
Born in London in 1872, his father was a Lithuanian-born grain merchant Julius Ewald Edward Beerbohm, and his mother, Eliza Draper Beerbohm, was the sister of his father’s late first wife. He was the youngest of nine children, and from a young age, he was known by his teachers and school mates simply as Max.
In the 1960s, several years after Beerbohm’s death in 1956, the satirist Malcolm Muggeridge (who disliked him) insisted that Beerbohm was both Jewish and homosexual, and in denial about both. According to a biographer, Beerbohm said of the claims he was Jewish:
I should be delighted to know that we Beerbohms have that very admirable and engaging thing, Jewish blood. But there seems to be no reason for supposing that we have. Our family records go back as far as 1668, and there is nothing in them compatible with Judaism.
According to the New Yorker, that answer was, “exactly what a Jewish family that didn’t want to admit to it would have said in the period.” Ezra Pound, the American poet and antisemite, was Beerbohm’s neighbor for a time in Italy, and referred to him as Jewish. It may not be coincidental that both of Beerbohm’s wives were Jewish.
George Bernard Shaw once asked Beerbohm if he was Jewish. He replied, “That my talent is rather like Jewish talent I admit readily… But, being in fact a Gentile, I am, in a small way, rather remarkable, and wish to remain so.”
Beerbohm attended Oxford, and said of his time there, “I was a modest, good-humored boy. It was Oxford that has made me insufferable.” He left without earning a degree, but having already been published in the Oxford journal, “The Spirit Lamp” and in several London newspapers and magazines. He had befriended Oscar Wilde and was a bit of a rising star in literary circles. Wilde said of him, “The gods have bestowed on Max the gift of perpetual old age.”
In 1898, Beerbohm replaced Shaw as the drama critic for the Saturday Review. Shaw wrote of him, “The younger generation is knocking at the door; and as I open it, there steps spritely in the incomparable Max.”
In 1910, Beerbohm and his wife Florence Kahn, moved to Rapallo, Italy, where they remained, apart from during the war years, for the rest of their lives. As well as Pound, such luminaries as Somerset Maugham, John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier and Truman Capote were regular visitors at their home.
Beerbohm was knighted by King George VI in 1939, despite mocking the king’s parents in a 1911 satiric verse entitled, “”Ballade Tragique a Double Refrain.”
Kahn died in 1951. Beerbohm lived another five years, dying on May 20, 1956. On his deathbed he married Elisabeth Jungmann, who had been his interpreter, secretary and literary executor, so that she would inherit his possessions. His ashes are buried in St Paul’s Cathedral.
Beerbohm wrote only one novel, Zuleika Dobson, in 1911, that was a parody of Oxford life. But he wrote several volumes of short stories, including “The Works of Max Beerbohm,” “More,” “Yet Again,” and “Even Now.” One of his collections, entitled “Seven Men” contained a short story called “Enoch Soames.”
The story has a young Beerbohm meeting an older, obscure poet named Enoch Soames. “How can I write about Enoch Soames without making him ridiculous?” Beerbohm asks, “Or, rather, how am I to hush up the horrid fact that he WAS ridiculous?” Soames has written three volumes of poetry, but remains, in the words of one literary critic, “non-existent.”
In fact, the only notable thing about Soames is his attire – a soft black hat of clerical kind, but of Bohemian intention, and a gray waterproof cape which, perhaps because it was waterproof, failed to be romantic.”
One afternoon in the first week of June 1897, the author narrates, he met up with Soames at Restaurant du Vingtieme Siecle. Soames is complaining about his failure as a writer, when the guest at the next table stands up and introduces himself as the devil.
He offers Soames a diabolical deal. He will transport him 100 years into the future, to the British Museum Reading Room. He will give him from 2:10 until the museum’s 7pm closing time, to see his impact on readers of the next century. In exchange, Soames would give his soul to the devil. Soames agreed, and in an instant he had disappeared.
Soames returned a few hours later to the same restaurant, looking very despondent. He described his trip to the future.
They stared at ME, I can tell you. I attracted a great deal of attention… I think I rather scared them. They moved away whenever I came near. They followed me about, at a distance, wherever I went. The men at the round desk in the middle seemed to have a sort of panic whenever I went to make inquiries.
He had gone straight to the catalogue, but initially failed to find any mention of himself. Eventually, he found his name in a book by T. K. Nupton, in which he was described as an imaginary character in a story by Max Beerbohm. Shortly afterwards, the devil arrived to take Soames away. And in the story, he was immediately forgotten. “Soames’s disappearance made no stir at all. He was utterly forgotten before anyone, so far as I am aware, noticed that he was no longer hanging around.”
Beerbohm ends the short story with his hope for the future:
I like to think that sometime between 1992 and 1997 somebody will have looked up this memoir and will have forced on the world his inevitable and startling conclusions. And I have reason for believing that this will be so. You realize that the reading-room into which Soames was projected by the devil was in all respects precisely as it will be on the afternoon of June 3, 1997. You realize, therefore, that on that afternoon, when it comes round, there the selfsame crowd will be, and there Soames will be, punctually, he and they doing precisely what they did before. Recall now Soames’s account of the sensation he made. You may say that the mere difference of his costume was enough to make him sensational in that uniformed crowd.
The Reading Room in the British Museum opened in 1857. Users had to apply in writing and were issued a reader’s ticket by the Principal Librarian. Access was usually restricted to registered researchers, though many famous people visited the room throughout the decades, including Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, Bram Stoker and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
There were plans to close the reading room and move the books to the new British National Library. But construction of the library was delayed, and the room was still open in June 1997 (it closed a few months later). And there were a handful of people there on June 3 to see if Enoch Soames would appear, as he had in Beerbohm’s story. They were hopeful and expectant, but surely none of them really believed that a fictional character would appear in real life.
But appear he did. There is only one known photo of the strange character, wearing “a soft black hat of clerical kind and a gray waterproof cape.” You can see the image of Soames here.
Actually, that is not quite true. There was one observer, sitting at desk M-1, who probably was expecting Soames to show up. That man was named Teller, one half of the magical duo Penn and Teller.
In a November 1997 article he wrote for The Atlantic, Teller speaks of his English teacher and drama coach, D. G. Rosenbaum, a striking character who, “Wore trim black suits, blood-red vests, and pince-nez. He smoked black cigarettes with gold tips, and made them vanish by sleight of hand when the principal was nearby.”
One day, Rosenbaum, or “Rosey” as his students called him, read his class the story of Enoch Soames. And he concluded by asking, “I wonder how many Enoch Soameses will show up.”
Teller writes, “At the time, I thought he was merely musing. Later I understood. He was giving me a homework assignment.”
Many years later, in a 2012 interview with Esquire, Teller alluded to what he may have done:
He didn’t tell anyone that he might have visited Angels & Bermans, where he had found just the right soft black hat and gone through countless gray waterproof capes. He didn’t tell anyone that he might have had an inside friend who helped him stash the actor and his costume behind a hidden door in the stacks. Even when Teller later wrote about that magical afternoon for The Atlantic, he didn’t confess his role. He never has.
‘Taking credit for it that day would be a terrible thing — a terrible, terrible thing,’ Teller says. ‘That’s answering the question that you must not answer.’
The master magician had pulled off one of the greatest tricks of his career, but there were only a dozen people around to witness it. And he couldn’t tell anyone what he had done. With just a couple of items of clothing and an actor, he had brought a fictional time traveler to life and completed the homework assignment his teacher had given him thirty-four and a half years earlier.
It is strange to think how clothing can fool us so easily. A hat and a cape can turn an actor into Enoch Soames. A suit and tie can create a busy executive. A clipboard and a hard hat will get you into almost anywhere.
This week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh, describes the garments of the regular priests and of the High Priest. By the time of the Second Temple period, the clothes were all that distinguished the High Priest from anyone else.
The Mishna and Talmud distinguish between a High Priest who was anointed with oil, as in the times of the First Temple, and a High Priest notable only for wearing four more garments than a regular priest. The Mishna (Megillah 1:9) says that the only difference between them is a sacrifice brought for a mistaken legal ruling.
But there was a world of difference between the people inside those clothes. The High Priests of the First Temple were the holiest among their brother priests. The Talmud (Yoma 9a) says that during the 410 years the Temple stood, there were only 18 High Priests.
Initially in the Second Temple period the High Priest was also a holy person. Simeon the Just was one of the last members of the Great Assembly. He served as High Priest for 40 years. Throughout his lifetime, the crimson thread on Yom Kippur would turn white, as a sign that the nation’s sins had been forgiven. Yohanan served for 80 years and Yishmael ben Pavi served for 10 years.
After that, there were more than 300 High Priests, each serving for a year or less. Josephus lists 31 High Priests that served only in the 40 years before the Temple’s destruction. High Priests were no longer holy or leaders. They were only in the job for the money and the power. The only thing that set them apart from the rest of the nation was the clothes they wore.
The Talmud (Megillah 12a) says that even King Ahasuerus put on the garments of the High Priest, to try and show his greatness. The same word “splendor” appears both in Esther 1:4 and Exodus 28:2 to signify his misuse of the clothes.
We often judge people by the clothes they wear. Some people dress for success. Others let their actions speak for them and ignore the way they look.
The danger is when we show respect for the clothes rather than to the people who deserve it. Many people look the part and act as if they are important. They sometimes even attract followers and funders.
But we should not be misled by the garments. If a hat and a cloak can create a time-traveling failed poet, similar garments can create rabbis or advisors, therapists or mentors. We should judge people on how they behave, on what they say and do, not on the clothes that they wear.
I learned about Teller’s amazing trick from Dan Schreiber’s wonderful new book, “The Theory of Everything Else.”
My next class on WebYeshiva will be on March 13th and is entitled “The Seder 2023: Urchatz.” You can sign up on WebYeshiva. I’ve also started sharing more of my Torah thoughts on Facebook. Follow my page, Rabbi Sedley.