Born in Ireland, he emigrated to America early in life, working in a variety of unskilled jobs before attending the University of Kansas to read (study) law. After graduation, he quickly tired of his legal career and returned to Europe in 1882. He traveled on continental Europe before settling in London to pursue a career in journalism. In 1921, in his sixties, he became a US citizen. Though he attracted much attention during his life for his irascible, aggressive personality, editorship of famous periodicals, and friendship with the talented and famous, he is remembered mainly for his multiple-volume memoir My Life and Loves, which was banned in countries around the world for its sexual explicitness.
Harris was born James Thomas Harris in 1855, in Galway, Ireland, to Welsh parents. His father, Thomas Vernon Harris, was a naval officer from Fishguard, Pembrokeshire, Wales. While living with his older brother he was, for a year or more, a pupil at The Royal School, Armagh. At the age of 12 he was sent to Wales to continue his education as a boarder at the Ruabon Grammar School in Denbighshire, a time he was to remember later in My Life and Loves. Harris was unhappy at the school and ran away within a year.
Harris ran away to the United States in late 1869, arriving in New York City virtually penniless. The 13-year-old took a series of odd jobs to support himself, working first as a boot black, a porter, a general laborer, and a construction worker on the erection of the Brooklyn Bridge. Harris would later turn these early occupational experiences into art, incorporating tales from them into his book The Bomb.
From New York Harris moved to the American Midwest, settling in the country's second largest city, Chicago, where he took a job as a hotel clerk and eventually a manager. Owing to Chicago's central place in the meat packing industry, Harris made the acquaintance of various cattlemen, who inspired him to leave the big city to take up work as a cowboy. Harris eventually grew tired of life in the cattle industry and enrolled at the University of Kansas, where he studied law and earned a degree, gaining admission to the Kansas state bar association.
In 1878, he married Florence Ruth Adams, who died the following year.
Harris was not cut out to be a lawyer and soon decided to turn his attention to literature. He returned to England in 1882, later traveling to various cities in Germany, Austria, France, and Greece on his literary quest. He worked briefly as an American newspaper correspondent before settling down in England to seriously pursue the vocation of journalism.
Harris first came to general notice as the editor of a series of London papers including the Evening News, the Fortnightly Review and the Saturday Review, the last-named being the high point of his journalistic career, with H. G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw as regular contributors.
From 1908 to 1914 Harris concentrated on working as a novelist, authoring a series of popular books such as The Bomb, The Man Shakespeare, and The Yellow Ticket and Other Stories. With the advent of World War I in the summer of 1914, Harris decided to return to the United States.
From 1916-22 he edited the U.S. edition of Pearson's Magazine, a popular monthly which combined short story fiction with socialist-tinted features on contemporary news topics. One issue of the publication was banned from the mails by Postmaster General Albert S. Burleson during the period of American participation in the Great War. Despite this Harris managed to navigate the delicate situation which faced the left wing press and to keep the Pearson's functioning and solvent during the war years.
Harris became an American citizen in April, 1921. In 1922 he travelled to Berlin to publish his best-known work, his autobiography My Life and Loves (published in four volumes, 1922–1927). It is notorious for its graphic descriptions of Harris' purported sexual encounters and for its exaggeration of the scope of his adventures and his role in history. Years later, Time magazine reflected in its March 21, 1960 issue "Had he not been a thundering liar, Frank Harris would have been a great autobiographer ... he had the crippling disqualification that he told the truth, as Max Beerbohm remarked, only 'when his invention flagged'." A fifth volume, supposedly taken from his notes but of doubtful provenance, was published in 1954, long after his death.
Harris also wrote short stories and novels, two books on Shakespeare, a series of biographical sketches in five volumes under the title Contemporary Portraits and biographies of his friends Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw. His attempts at playwriting were less successful: only Mr. and Mrs. Daventry (1900) (which was based on an idea by Oscar Wilde) was produced on the stage.
Married three times, Harris died in Nice aged 75 on 26 August 1931, of a heart attack. He was subsequently buried at Cimetière Sainte-Marguerite, adjacent to the Cimetière Caucade, in the same city.
In 1920, French writer and diplomat Paul Morand met an aged Frank Harris in Nice and borrowed much of his personality to create the character of O'Patah, a larger than life writer, publisher and Irish patriot, "the last of the Irish bards" in his short story La nuit de Portofino kulm (part of the famed collection of short stories Fermé la nuit) published in 1923 by Gallimard.
In 1922, Whittaker Chambers published a "blasphemous" and "sacrilegious" playlet called "A Play for Puppets" in The Morningside, a Columbia University student magazine, based on Frank Harris' 1919 play Miracle of the Stigmata, for which Chambers quit school to avoid expulsion. ("The greater part of it is so plainly sacrilegious that it cannot be reproduced.")
In 1936, Harris appeared as a character in the play Oscar Wilde, by Leslie & Sewell Stokes, first produced at London's Gate Theatre Studio (1936) and later at the Fulton Theatre, New York, in 1938, in both cases starring Robert Morley in the title role.
In 1960, he is seen as a minor character in The Trials of Oscar Wilde played by Paul Rogers. Harris had specifically warned Wilde against prosecuting Queensberry for criminal libel, which led to his downfall.
In a 1972 episode of The Edwardians, he was played by John Bennett.
A volume by Frank Harris held up the couch in "Six Big Boobies" (1985) episode of 'Allo 'Allo.
On television, Harris was played by Leonard Rossiter in a 1978 BBC Play of the Week: Fearless Frank, or, Tidbits From The Life Of An Adventurer.
He appears in the first episode of the 2001 miniseries The Infinite Worlds of H. G. Wells, rejecting a story from Wells for being too long and too preposterous.