Gaston Leroux

Active - 1920 - 2011  |   Born - May 6, 1868   |   Died - Apr 15, 1927   |   Genres - Horror, Drama, Crime, Mystery

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Biography by Bruce Eder

Gaston Leroux is remembered today for the novel The Phantom of the Opera and not much else. In his own time, however, he was a celebrated journalist and an international adventurer, and one of the most popular authors of mysteries and dark, occult-related thrillers in the entire world, as well as a flamboyant gambler. It was a life that might easily have come out of a novel, had it not all been true. Born on May 6, 1868, Gaston Louis Alfred Leroux grew up in a life of relative comfort, developing a love of sailing and swimming, and discovering a serious interest in literature during his childhood. He wrote poetry for his own enjoyment, and was a top student who was seemingly headed for a career as a lawyer. Even as he began studying for that profession, however, Leroux had started writing short fiction and poems for publication. By the time Leroux earned his law degree and was beginning his practice, he was looking toward a career as a writer. During this period, he inherited a substantial sum of money from his father at age 21, and managed to squander most of it before he was 23 on fine wine and cuisine, as well as on gambling. Leroux never overcame his passion for those indulgences, or the socializing that went with them. By that time, he'd recognized the legal profession for the personal dead-end that it represented, personally and financially, and turned to writing as a means of sustaining his lavish lifestyle. Leroux became a drama critic for L'Echo de Paris, which had previously published his poetry, and soon turned to covering criminal trials, where his training as an attorney made him uniquely qualified as a reporter. His work soon moved him to more prominent newspapers and into the field of serious investigative journalism; his own exploits, which included sneaking into jails in disguise to interview prisoners, soon rivaled the attraction of his stories. Writing for the Paris newspaper Le Matin, Leroux was among the earliest modern celebrity journalists, his name on a story guaranteeing the sales of an issue. Soon, he had his own international beat, crossing Europe, Asia, and Africa, often anonymously or in outright disguise, reporting on wars around the world and such events as the Turkish slaughter of Armenians, strife in the Middle East, and the Ruso-Japanese War. He also took a hand in the exposure of the scandal surrounding Captain Alfred Dreyfuss. Even when he failed to achieve his desired goal, as when Leroux sneaked in to interview the British statesman Joseph Chamberlain during the Boer War, only to be ejected, he wrote a full-length piece entitled, "How I Failed to See Chamberlain." The latter was considered one of the more effective humorous and self-effacing serious newspaper articles of its time, and a model for the genre. Leroux began writing fiction professionally with the start of the 20th century. His first novel, The Seeking of the Morning Treasures, based on the life and supposed legacy of the bandit Cartouche, appeared in 1903 as a serialized work in Le Matin, and created a major public sensation in Paris. Leroux's first major critical success came in 1907 when he published The Mystery of the Yellow Room, which introduced the character of reporter/sleuth Joseph Rouletabille. In its time, this novel was considered the best -- if not necessarily the first -- example of a logical detective story in which the murder is committed in a sealed room, a mystery subgenre that was later the purview of such celebrated authors as John Dickson Carr. It was followed a year later by The Perfume of the Lady in Black and six more subsequent sequels. He was able to give up journalism after The Mystery of the Yellow Room, though he retained a certain topicality in his books, most notably in The Haunted Chair, in which he satirized the Academie Francais and its intellectual pretensions. Leroux's personal life was nearly as colorful as his fiction. He remained married to his first wife until soon after the turn of the century, and from 1902 onward, he was openly living with a woman whom he didn't marry until 1917. By that time, he had long since left Paris for the more favorable climate and alluring gambling activities of Nice. By all accounts, he loved to live dangerously with his assets, confident that a new book (which he always seemed to have in him) would replenish his bank account if necessary. Coupled with that love of gambling was a friendly, outgoing manner through which he'd been able to win over the subjects of his articles as a reporter. But Leroux also had a darker side, a fixation on the grimmer sides of life and death, and on horror and fantasy, as well as aspects of the macabre. In 1911, he published The Phantom of the Opera, which seemed to draw out his darker side in its most flamboyant manifestation. The inspiration for the book was supposed to have come from the author's visit to the Paris Opera and tour of its cellars. A dazzling work of dark romantic fantasy shrouded in mystery, it sold well, as had all of his thrillers up to that time, but it wasn't especially better received than his best-known previous novels. It sold more steadily over time than some, but not so much as to make it stand out. It was the movies that made the difference. Leroux's books first started coming to the screen in 1913, when his novel Balaoo became the basis for a movie of that title. It was to be six years before his next screen adaptation, Mystery of the Yellow Room, would appear. Leroux had written a screenplay in 1916, and had become partner in a film company in 1919 that had lasted for three years, but his involvement in film was limited. Fate intervened in the guise of Universal Pictures, whose success with The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1923, a tale of horror, thrills, and mystery done on a grand and vastly expensive scale, had sent the studio in search other properties that lent themselves to such treatment. The Phantom of the Opera seemed a logical choice, and it became one of the most enduring classics of the silent era, produced on an immense scale on outsized sets built specifically for the film (some of which were still standing into the new millennium), with images that have remained familiar to the present day. Leroux died in 1927, at age 59, from complications following surgery, two years after The Phantom of the Opera's release. In a bizarre episode in 1929, Universal announced plans for a sequel, "The Return of the Phantom," ostensibly written by Leroux; it was claimed, by no less than Carl Laemmle Jr., son of the studio's founder, that the author had been so impressed with the studio's adaptation, that he'd written a sequel before he died. This was totally untrue, but it does illustrate the author's prominence at the time, that his imprimatur would be invoked falsely. Other adaptations of Leroux's work followed, from the 1920s into the 1940s, principally filmed in France, but none of them had remotely the impact of Universal's 1925 release. The studio's 1943 remake, though flawed with a key plot change and an emphasis on music over horror, failed to register nearly as well, but the images of the 1925 movie remained engrained in the public consciousness for decades to come. In the 1980s, following a handful of subsequent film adaptations of the novel, Leroux's story came to the London and Broadway stages, where the multi-year runs of the musical version led to the republication of the novel and multiple efforts at restoring the 1925 movie. Despite this 60-year chain of successes, and novels that continued to appear posthumously until 1930, memory of Leroux -- especially outside of France -- faded rapidly. Since the 1940s, his writing has become relatively obscure, apart from the various incarnations of his most famous novel.

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