The man who created the Phantom
By Peter Haining, September 1986
Gaston Leroux, the versatile French author who created The Phantom of the Opera, was a man with an abiding passion for the theatre and it seems appropriate that after years of struggle, writing newspaper reviews and a number of unsuccessful plays, he should have left his mark on literature with a novel about an extraordinary episode in the history of France’s greatest opera house.
Admittedly, it has taken the magic of the cinema, and the art of the dramatist to familiarize the public with The Phantom of the Opera, but Leroux also managed to capture in his pages the atmosphere of the times he was writing about – the latter part of the nineteenth century when France was rampant with belief in the supernatural and the spirit world.
Born in Paris in 1868, Gaston Leroux is himself as interesting as his story. Photographs reveal him to have been a big, rather plump man with slicked back dark hair and a moustache, who dressed fashionably and sported a gold pince-nez. He was evidently a flamboyant character and once claimed that his family were directly descended from William the Conqueror.
Although his literary inclinations put him at the top of his class, when his father decided that he was to become a lawyer, Gaston changed from an energetic pupil to an idle student. The theatre was obviously gripping his imagination and, it is not surprising that after he finally completed his legal study and was called to the bar as a probationer, he continued to write in his spare time.
However, the course of his life was changed when his father died suddenly and left him heir to a fortune of almost one million francs. At once, Gaston abandoned the law and flung himself into a round of gambling, (poker was his particular vice) and pleasure in the colorful society of Paris. In less than a year he had squandered his inheritance.
Not downhearted, Leroux begged a job on L’Echo de Paris in 1890 and was asked to combine his knowledge of the law and love of the theater as court reporter and drama critic! It was as an investigative reporter that Leroux found the greatest satisfaction at this period of his life. His paper allowed him to probe suspected malpractice in the local police force and public administration and his hard-hitting reports not only exposed several corrupt officials but also made his name as a journalist.
This passport to adventure took him from Finland, south to the Caspian Sea, through Italy, Egypt and Morocco, frequently disguising himself in order to be able to witness events at first hand.
The strain on his health and a natural enough desire to settle down with his family made him give up the footloose life of a roving correspondent and become a novelist. His first books were unashamed pot-boilers, full of blood and thunder. Then, in 1907, he used his admiration for Edgar Allan Poe and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to develop a young detective, Joseph Rouletabille, who solved a seemingly impossible crime committed in a locked room. The book was called The Mystery of the Yellow Room.
In 1911 he published Le Fantôme de l’Opéra, introducing it to his readers by explaining how he carried out his own enquiries into the strange events that had occurred in the famous Opera House in the 1880s. He tells of how he visited the huge underground lake where the Phantom hid and even stumbled upon the skeletons of “some poor wretches who had been massacred under the Commune in the cellars of the Opera.”
However, sales of the book were only moderate and the reviews – such as they were – were disappointing. The only kind of public interest seems to have been generated by the serialization of the story in French, English and American newspapers with suitably graphic illustrations of the Phantom stalking the dimly lit caverns of the Opera House. It was to be the reading of this serial by a researcher for Universal Pictures which set in motion the chain of events which were to bring the The Phantom of the Opera to the screen for the first time in 1925 and make a star of Lon Chaney Snr.
Tragically, Leroux did not live to see the full triumph of his Opera story, though it is believed he did visit the cinema in Paris to see the Universal film in 1926. He was by then in failing health and died of uraemia on 15 April 1927. He was 59 years old and had written over sixty novels, none of which had made him rich. Today, copies of most are difficult to find aside from The Phantom of the Opera and The Mystery of the Yellow Room.
In the three quarters of a century of his existence, the Phantom had undeniably over-shadowed his creator and, at the same time, become a familiar term in everyday use. What a wry smile that would surely have given the former journalist and theatre lover after all these years!