Officer and friend of Louis Couperus
‘A sturdy, robust, martial-looking personality, but internally inclined to deep melancholy and mysticism‘, is how a contemporary described the squire Johan Hendrik Ram from Utrecht. The writer Louis Couperus, who met him in 1890, found this combination of a tough, masculine appearance and a sensitive mind very attractive.
Johan Hendrik was born on December 7, 1861 at Nieuwegracht A 895 (now no. 34) in Utrecht as the second child of squire Karel Jacob Adriaan Ram (1829-1911), landowner and rentier, and Paulien Madeleine Rose (1838-1909), daughter of a Utrecht merchant. After Johan, there were seven more children, of whom no fewer than five were stillborn or did not live longer than five months.
Friendship with Louis Couperus
As a 16-year-old, Johan attended the Royal Military Academy. After being stationed in Delft for several years, he was promoted to first lieutenant in the grenadiers (infantry select corps) in The Hague in June 1888. He seemed to feel at home in the army, this in contrast to social gatherings where he didn’t feel delighted by the flirtations of many girls who felt attracted to him. We do not know if he was actively on the hunt for his preferred sex: men.
In The Hague he became a member of an amateur theatre company called Utile et Laetum (‘Useful and Cheerful’), founded by the writer Marcellus Emants. There he met Louis Couperus, then 26, in the spring of 1890 – when he was 28 years old.
About the friendship that developed between them, Emants wrote:
In R. Couperus seemed to find something of the complete human being, in which great masculine strength and courage are combined with extreme sensitivity and susceptibility for the most sophisticated spiritual elevation.
According to Couperus biographers Frédéric Bastet (1987) and Rémon van Gemeren (2016), there was more to it. Bastet: ‘the appearance of a man like Ram must have upset Couperus enormously.’ He and Van Gemeren are convinced that meeting Ram made Couperus realize his sexual feelings for other men. Ram became one of the few intimate friends of Louis Couperus and he would remain so, intermittently, for about fifteen years.
Couperus and Ram were, according to Henri van Booven who knew them both and wrote the first Couperus-biography, connected by an ‘spiritual congeniality’. They experienced this, for example, during evening walks through the Scheveningse Bosjes (park in The Hague). About one of those trips, Couperus wrote to his niece Marie Vlielander Hein on August 17, 1890:
It was pitch dark and we almost couldn’t see anything at times. We didn’t meet anyone, it was like walking in ink! That great star, that flame of heaven, shone with full power and then suddenly went out again…could that mean something…an omen?
Influence on Couperus’ novels
The walk is echoed in Couperus’ novel Extaze (A Book of Happiness) from 1892, whose male protagonist Taco Quaerts is modeled on Johan Ram. Quaerts is
a rough guy, inhabited by two souls: his own, sensitive, better self; and something mean, something brutally primitive’. In the ‘ink-dark’ nocturnal Scheveningse Bosjes, he and his mistress Cecile van Even experience a moment of ecstasy, while ‘the night dawned with Light, which shone everywhere (…) like a single sun star.
A physically and mentally well-developed man, handsome, strong and sensitive, is a common novel character in Couperus’ work. He is often the one pole in a male friendship in which a delicate, somewhat feminine man is the opposite.
The influence of Johan Ram on Couperus work was considerable. Ram was one of the few people who was asked by Couperus to give his opinion on new books (his own and others) and to advise him in his writing about ‘military matters’.
On May 2, 1891, Ram left for Aceh on Sumatra. He signed five years to fight in the war the Netherlands had started against the sultan. The Acehnese refused to submit to colonial power. Ram’s departure was, according to a statement he made to Marcellus Emants, much like an escape from Dutch reality:
Then I want to get the Willemsorde [the most important Dutch military decoration] because that is so part of it. I don’t care about those things. Actually, I’m only going to get myself shot.
Ram took part in several military expeditions, but he was not shot. After returning to the Netherlands (April 1896) he renewed contact with Couperus. In September Couperus came to stay with him for a week in the large house of Ram’s parents on Zusterplein (Sister square) in Zeist, close to Utrecht. During that period, Couperus was working on his autobiographical novel Metamorphoze (1897). In it, the writer Hugo Aylva gives his main character Arnold – ‘shy of women’ – the features of Johan Ram. After long searching Aylva gets involved in a platonic friendship with a young prince:
He found a friend. He found the pleasure of his soul. His soul, which had never loved a woman, loved a soul which also never loved a woman as the most supreme being.
Ram rose further in the military hierarchy. He attended the Higher Military School, took his exams in May 1897 and was promoted to captain in November 1899. A few weeks later the government sent him to monitor and report on the progress of the Boer War in South Africa. However, on the outward journey he became seriously ill and only after several months of nursing in Pretoria could he start his actual work.
Lieutenant Lodewijk Thomson accompanied him to South Africa. They met at the Military School, became friends and from 1902 were co-editors of the magazine De Militaire Gids (The Military Guide). In it they advocated a national army, a more humane military discipline and a shorter stay in the barracks. More conservative officers strongly opposed against such innovations.
Journalism and aviation
When his views on a different organization of the army didn’t get much support, Ram took early retirement on August 1, 1904. He continued to write on military subjects and spent three months as a war correspondent on the Bulgarian-Turkish front during the Balkan War at the end of 1912. He did not manage to get close to the battle, but his experiences did inspire him to write 25 ‘Letters from the war zone’, which appeared in the Nieuwe Rotterdamsche Courant (Rotterdam newpaper) from October to December.
Squire Ram also played an important role in the development of Dutch aviation. He was secretary of the Dutch Aviation Association, founded in 1907. He was also involved in various aviation committees and from 1910 he repeatedly took part as a passenger on flights that were then still considered a risky adventure. During that period he also met another nobleman: Jacob Anton Schorer, one of the founders of the Dutch Scientific Humanitarian Committee, which fought against the criminalization of homosexual contacts. It was Schorer who wrote about Ram in a letter to his friend Jaap van Leeuwen in 1932:
He was one of us.
Contact with Couperus gradually became less. In 1903, Ram, Couperus and his wife Elisabeth Baud spent a few weeks in Rome and at least until 1906 they exchanged letters to inform each other about the ups and downs of life..
Only a few fragments of their correspondence over fifteen years have survived. They are quoted in the first Couperus biography by Henri van Booven. The letters that he was allowed to view after Couperus’ death and from which he was allowed to quote sparingly were later destroyed – almost certainly by Couperus’ widow Elisabeth Baud. They suffered the fate that has befallen the paper legacy of many gay men and lesbian women: their families preferred to erase the shame of an immoral existence and threw photos and personal documents in the fireplace or the garbage bin.
Johan Ram suffered from depressive feelings all his life and he does not seem to have hidden this from those around him. It is never really clear whether this had anything to do with his homosexuality.
In the early morning of Monday, September 29, 1913, he shot himself in the head in his home at Willemstraat 85 in The Hague. Almost all Dutch newspapers reported his ‘sudden death’, while the newspapers in the Dutch East Indies also mentioned the cause: suicide, according to the Sumatra Post ‘out of fear of insanity’.
The funeral four days later, at cemetery Oud Eik en Duinen in The Hague, attracted many mourners. The speakers at the grave ‘dread the sad suffering that squire Ram always managed to hide from those around him behind a friendly smile’. In the In Memoriam that his friend Thomson wrote, we read:
Interaction with a mind as fine as his, a thinker, a keen observer, must have always been a real pleasure for all who came into closer contact with him (…) Ram was every inch a gentleman. Without self-interest, never self-seeking, always completely sincere, completely honest. He suffered bitterly – he would have deserved it so differently.
Louis Couperus’ reaction to the death of his friend has not been handed down. Ten years later, the urn with his ashes was also buried at Oud Eik en Duinen, not far from the grave of Johan Ram.
Maurice van Lieshout
Frédéric Bastet, Louis Couperus. Een biografie (Amsterdam 1987).
Henri van Booven, Leven en werken van Louis Couperus (Velsen 1933).
Louis Couperus, De correspondentie. Bezorgd door H.T.M. van Vliet. 2 delen (Amsterdam 2013).
Rémon van Gemeren, Couperus, een leven (Amsterdam 2016).
Mary Kemperink, Beeldschoon. Mannen en mannelijkheid bij Louis Couperus (Den Haag 2021).
Paul Snijders, ‘Een talent voor vriendschap. Johan Ram en Louis Couperus’, De Parelduiker 1 (1996) 1, 26-35.
Johan Hendrik Ram as captain ca 1900, Photo in Buiten (October 18, 1913)
Louis Couperus ca 1892
Mustafa Pasha, Bulgarian front, November 1912. From left to right: Jhr. Ram, Major von Gagern (German military attaché), Jan Fabius (seated; war correspondent for De Haagsche Courant) and an unknown Swiss correspondent, Photo in Met Bulgaren en Montenegrijnen (Utrecht 1913) – courtesy of Gerda Mulder and Richard van den Brink.
Johan Hendrik Ram as lieutenant ca 1897, Photo in Van Week tot Week (October 11, 1913)