The Fall of Oscar Wilde

800px-wilde_douglas_british_library_b20147-85
Oscar Wilde and Alfred Douglas

…and now the thrilling conclusion

With his literary success following 1891’s publication of The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde returned to writing for the theater. He penned the tragedy Salomé, but quickly turned to comedies. Lady Windermere’s Fan debuted at the St. James Theatre on February 20, 1892 and proceeded to tour England — despite the outrage of more conservative critics.  He followed this work up with the 1893 comedy A Woman of No Importance. He was then commissioned for two more comedies. By now Wilde was earning approximately 100 pounds each week — by today’s standards that’s about 12,211 pounds or 15,756 US dollars a week. No longer tied to John Gray, Wilde’s relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas turned romantic, and Wilde used that ample income to spoil his new beau.

In many ways, Douglas quickly became the center of Wilde’s entire world. Douglas and several of his friends founded a magazine called The Chameleon, which was as pro-gay as any publication could be at the time without being shut down by law enforcement. Wilde was a regular contributor. Douglas also led Wilde into the seedy underground of London’s gay prostitution circles. Every time he rendezvoused with a prostitute, it followed the same pattern — Wilde was introduced to a young man by a fellow named Alfred Taylor, Wilde would take the young man to dinner, and then to a hotel room. Sometimes, Douglas would meet them there too.

Douglas’ father was John Douglas, the 9th Marquess of Queensberry (more commonly known just as Queensberry). He’s mostly known in history for being cruel to his family and for creating the Queensberry Rules which, apparently, are what modern boxing rules are based around. Oh, and all of the stuff we’re going to talk about. He’s known for that too. (Spoiler alert: it’s not good.) Now, Queensberry and his son fought like all of the time even before Wilde entered the picture — and even though Queensberry was initially charmed by Wilde, it didn’t take him long to piece together what was actually going on with the two. He was not having any of it. He cornered Oscar in the Wilde family’s London house and threatened him — the initial description of this encounter ended with Wilde giving a clever retort (“I don’t know what the Queensberry rules are, but the Oscar Wilde rule is to shoot on sight”) but later accounts by both Wilde and Queensberry make Wilde sound much less assured and much more afraid — and with good reason.

On February 14 of 1895, Wilde’s greatest script premiered in London at the St. James Theatre — The Importance of Being Earnest. The cast was led by popular actor Allan Aynesworth, who later stated that the first night of that show was his greatest triumph on stage. The show itself was hailed as a massive success, even by most critics. Queensberry had planned to attend the premier and publicly humiliate Wilde by throwing a bouquet of rotting vegetables onto the stage — but Wilde had made sure to ban him from the theater — which didn’t actually help calm things down at all.

somdomiteFour days later, Queensberry left a calling card for Wilde at a club he was known to frequent. The card read: “For Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite.” (Perhaps history’s most infamous spelling error.) Wilde’s friends, including Robbie Ross, begged him to let it go, but Douglas urged him to sue Queensberry for criminal libel. The problem with that was, in order to avoid going to prison, Queensberry would have to publicly prove that Wilde was a sodomite. (Or a somdomite, I guess.) Wilde had been sleeping with men for years and basically wrote about it in a very popular novel (Dorian Gray), so like not really a bright idea to challenge this. But Douglas hated his father, and was also all too happy to disagree with Robbie Ross — who he often butted heads with. Wilde was all too eager to give Douglas anything he wanted, and so he sued for libel.

Queensberry went for Wilde’s jugular almost immediately. He hired Wilde’s former college friend Edward Carson to represent him in court, and hired a number of private detectives to investigate. They amassed a veritable mountain of evidence. Wilde’s lawyer opened the trial on April 3 by preemptively asking about letters Wilde had written to Douglas (letters which Carson had procured) — Wilde claimed the letters were innocent, “prose sonnets”. Carson, meanwhile, opened by stating that he’d located several male prostitutes who were willing to testify against Wilde. Carson’s cross examination was even more brutal — and although Wilde gave sassy answers that got a lot of laughs, they didn’t help the outcome of the trial.

In the end, Carson discredited Wilde by proving he had lied about his age under oath. He also, using text from The Picture of Dorian Gray, managed to successfully paint a picture of Wilde seducing Douglas (which was almost the opposite of what had actually happened.) Moving on from this, Carson started asking about facts — inquiring about his friendships with lower-class men that he had been seen with at dinner. Wilde insisted they were merely friends and that he did not believe in social barriers.

Then, Carson directly asked Wilde if he had ever kissed a certain man — Wilde proclaimed in no uncertain terms that he had not because “he was a particularly plain boy – unfortunately ugly – I pitied him for it.” Carson demanded to know why that was relevant, and for the first time Wilde didn’t really have any answer. Wilde dropped the charges, and Queensberry was found not guilty. This was disastrous for two reasons: the first being that Wilde was responsible for all of Queensberry’s astronomical legal fees, which was more than he could afford — and the second being that the courts issued a warrant for his arrest on the charges of sodomy and gross indecency almost as soon as Wilde had left the building.

Robbie Ross and another friend named Reginald Turner tried to get Wilde to flee the country, and arranged for a train and a boat to take him to France. Meanwhile, Wilde’s mother wanted him to fight. He was basically paralyzed — either with fear or indecision — until all he could say was “The train has gone. It’s too late.” He was arrested on April 6. Ross and Wilde’s butler, under strict instructions, went into the Wilde family house and packed up all of his letters, manuscripts, and some personal items.  While Wilde awaited trial in prison, Alfred Douglas visited him every day — which was nice since this was actually pretty much all Douglas’ fault, and he hadn’t done anything to help out during the criminal libel trial.

When the new trial opened on April 26, Wilde plead “not guilty”. Douglas left for Paris at the urging of Wilde. Several of Wilde’s other “somdomite” friends also left the country for their own safety — including Ross. This trial had captured the attention of the public around the world, even as far as the United States. While being cross examined, Oscar was asked to explain “the love that dare not speak its name” — a phrase originating in a poem written by Douglas. (And that’s the most Douglas participated in this trial, I’m just saying.) Oscar responded with this speech that literally brings a tear to my eye every time, so I’m going to share it here verbatim even though it’s kind of long:

“‘The love that dare not speak its name’ in this century is such a great affection of an elder for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Michelangelo and Shakespeare. It is that deep spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect. It dictates and pervades great works of art, like those of Shakespeare and Michelangelo, and those two letters of mine, such as they are. It is in this century misunderstood, so much misunderstood that it may be described as “the love that dare not speak its name,” and on that account of it I am placed where I am now. It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it. It is intellectual, and it repeatedly exists between an older and a younger man, when the older man has intellect, and the younger man has all the joy, hope and glamour of life before him. That it should be so, the world does not understand. The world mocks at it, and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it.”

While this was, in my opinion, a beautiful speech….it really didn’t help out with the whole “not guilty” thing. Nevertheless, the jury failed to reach a verdict. Wilde’s friends were able to post bail, and Wilde was free. Sort of. He was shunned by nearly everyone; his wife wouldn’t let him back into the house. He was forced to stay with two of his few remaining friends, Ernest and Ada Leverson. At this point, even Carson attempted to intervene on Wilde’s behalf — asking the Solicitor General Frank Lockwood if they could “let up” on Wilde. Lockwood replied he would have liked to, but that the trial had been so publicized and so politicized that it was not going to be possible.

A third trial followed, taking place on May 25. This trial was against both Wilde and Alfred Taylor, who had also been arrested for procuring prostitutes for Wilde but who refused to turn state’s evidence against the writer. Sir Alfred Wills presided, and gave the harshest punishment the law allowed: two years of hard labor. He was also very clear that he would have given a harsher punishment if he’d been able to, claiming the sentence was “totally inadequate” for what he considered “the worst case [he had] ever tried.” After the sentence came down, Wilde asked, “And I? May I say nothing, my Lord?” But his question was completely drowned out by the very large crowd that had come to see this beloved celebrity’s downfall.

Wilde was immediately sent off to Newgate Prison for processing, and then was sent to Pentonville Prison. His “hard labour” there was walking on a treadmill and separating rope fibers — so, y’know, really productive for society and all. He was later transferred to Wandsworth Prison. While there, he collapsed from hunger and ruptured his right ear drum.

On November 23 1895, Oscar was transferred to Reading Gaol by train. While he was waiting on the platform for the train to arrive, a crowd gathered to spit on him and ridicule him. At Reading Gaol, he was eventually allowed a pen and paper, he wrote a 50,000 word letter to Alfred Douglas (which he was not allowed to send until he was released and which, later, Douglas would deny ever receiving.) Over the course of the self-reflective letter, Wilde does forgive Douglas for his involvement in getting Wilde into this position. The letter was partially published in 1905 under the title De Profundis.

Throughout the trials and his imprisonment, all eyes — even internationally — were on Oscar Wilde. LGBTQ+ people across the Western world, but especially in Europe, in particular were watching with a sort of horrified fascination.  Just before the end of Wilde’s sentence, inspired in large part by the writer’s legal troubles, Magnus Hirschfeld founded the Wissenschaftlich-humanitäres Komitee in Germany — the first organization to work towards securing legal rights for queer people.

After his release on May 18, 1897, he immediately went to France and never went back to Britain or Ireland. He took the name Sebastian Melmoth, and began to advocate — through letters to English publications — for prison reform. He also wrote The Ballad of Reading Gaol about a man who was hanged while Wilde was imprisoned there. Also, at this point, Wilde’s wife had gotten him to relinquish parental rights to their kids and had changed their last names to “Holland” (and, yet, poor Vyvyan was still named Vyvyan.) They never divorced but were completely estranged.

In August, he reunited with Douglas, but the two were only together for a few months. There’s differing explanations as to why they didn’t stay together — the truth is probably a combination of both. Some say that, after everything that had transpired in their lives, they weren’t able to get their relationship back to what it had been before the trials. Others say that Douglas’ family threatened to cut him off financially. Personally, I can’t imagine that their relationship wasn’t full of resentment, probably on both sides — and if you’re struggling with a relationship that seems like it’s failing and then your family says to break it off or spend the rest of your life completely broke? Yeah, it makes perfect sense to break it off.

Wilde was impoverished for the remainder of his life, and had only a small collection of friends left to him. With nothing left to lose, he was very much open about his sexuality for the years he had left. By the fall of 1900, Wilde was fighting with illness which physicians later stated was from an infection of his right ear drum — the illness left him weak and depressed and frequently unable to leave the bedroom of the hotel he was living in. He famously quipped, “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One of us has got to go.” On October 12, he sent a telegram to Robbie Ross saying “Terribly weak. Please come.”

By November 25, 1900, Wilde’s illness had developed into meningitis (the same illness that struck down his little sister so many years earlier). Robbie Ross arrived on November 29, and immediately sent for a Catholic priest. The priest performed a conditional baptism, and Wilde died the next day. His friends Reginald Turner and Robbie Ross were with him when he died. Wilde’s tomb, which is in Paris, was commissioned by Ross, who also requested a compartment be built for his own ashes — which were dutifully placed there in 1950.

In the years since his death, Oscar Wilde has become arguably one of the world’s most celebrated queer figures. In 1967, Craig Rodwell named his LGBTQ bookstore the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop in order to make sure it was recognized as a safe place by others in the community. In 2014, Wilde was one of the first honorees of the Rainbow Honor Walk in San Francisco. He was also one of 50,000 men posthumously pardoned in 2017 under the Policing and Crime Act, also known as the Alan Turing Law.

Dorothy Wilde

dorothywildeHistory usually remembers ambitious people, who applied themselves to a chosen profession or cause and excelled. That is not exactly the case with Dorothy Ierne Wilde — better known as “Dolly” Wilde.

Dolly was born in London on July 11, 1895 — three months after her uncle Oscar Wilde was arrested for committing homosexual acts. She never met her uncle, but they had a a lot in common. (Not just the whole homosexuality thing, actually. But, you know, that too.) She was the daughter of Willie Wilde and Sophie Lily Lees and had no siblings. Willie died only in March of 1899 — leaving the three year old Dolly to be raised by her mother and her mother’s new husband, the journalist and translator Alexander Teixeira de Mattos.

There’s not much else available about her childhood (except that she liked to eat sugar cubes dipped in her mother’s perfume — ew), but in 1914 she made her way to France in order to drive ambulances for the war effort. While living in Paris during the war, Dolly met Standard Oil heiress Marion “Joe” Carstairs and the two began a hot and heavy relationship. The relationship didn’t last particularly long, but Dolly seemed to have found her calling: having rich friends.

dolly-wilde-by-cecil-beaton
Photograph by Cecil Beaton

After World War I ended, Dolly became, basically, a full-time socialite. She wasn’t wealthy by any means, although her stepfather left her some money when he died in 1921, and mostly survived off the generosity of her friends. She lived in their guest bedrooms, or in hotel rooms, and even sometimes in apartments that she borrowed. She did all she could to live a wild, glamorous life. She had a great talent for telling stories (apparently a hereditary trait), which made her popular at parties and salons, though she never used this talent to actually pursue a career. during these years she went through a string of lovers including with the silent film actress Alla Nazimova (who starred in the 1922 movie Salomé which was based on Oscar Wilde’s book). She referred to these no-strings-attached daliances as “emergency seductions.” She also caught the ire of F. Scott Fitzgerald by flirting with Zelda Fitzgerald. Although only interested in women, Dolly enjoyed the attention she received from men as well — several men over the years proposed marriage to her, but she refused them all. Other than her promiscuity, Dolly was also an alcoholic, and developed an addiction to heroin.

dolly-wilde
Photograph by Cecil Beaton

If any of this sounds like Dolly had tons in common with Oscar Wilde, I’m just going to point out that her nickname was “Oscaria” and she was quoted as saying “I am more like Oscar than Oscar himself.” Which is a seriously bold claim to make about someone you’ve never met. So it’s little surprise that when Oscar Wilde-super fan Natalie Clifford Barney saw her picture, and saw the family resemblance, she invited Dolly to her renowned Friday night literary salons. Dolly fell in love with Natalie, and the two were together from 1927 until Dolly’s death. The two attended numerous parties together, raising Dolly’s profile significantly — particularly in 1930 when they attended a masquerade ball and Dolly, dressed as her uncle Oscar, was described as “looking important and earnest” in The New Yorker‘s “Letter from Paris” column, written by Janet Flanner.

Dolly attempted to get clean of heroin addiction on multiple occasions — to no avail. During one stay in a nursing facility, she developed a new addiction to paraldehyde — a sleeping pill that was, at the time, available without a prescription. In 1939, Dolly was diagnosed with breast cancer. She decided to explore alternative treatments, stubbornly refusing surgery. With hostile German forces approaching Paris in 1940, she fled back to England — where she was still living when she passed away on April 10, 1941. A coroner could not determine the cause of death, she may have died from cancer or she may have died from a drug overdose.

She left very little behind — 200 of letters to friends and lovers, a passage written in Ladies Almanack, and the testimonies of those who knew her published in Natalie Clifford Barney’s In Memory of Dorothy Ierne Wilde: Oscaria ten years after Dolly passed away.

Julie d’Aubigny – “La Maupin”

Born in France in 1673, Julie d’Aubigny — better known as La Maupin — would grow up to become an accomplished opera singer and swordsman, and her sexual exploits made her what may well have been the first bisexual celebrity in history. Her father trained the court pages, so she learned many of the skills, including fencing, that pages needed to know early in her life.

At the age of fourteen, she became the mistress to her dad’s boss. But he soon found her to be a little too much to handle, and she was married off to a mild-mannered man named Sieur de Maupin. Shortly after the wedding, he was given an administrative position in the southern part of France. Julie opted to remain in Paris.

Circa 1687, she became involved with a fencing instructor who — shortly thereafter — became a fugitive after murdering someone. Julie, apparently, decided that this was actually the absolute best time to stand by her man (even though this wasn’t actually her man because, y’know, married) and became a fugitive alongside him. She donned men’s clothing, but otherwise made no real attempts to hide her gender, and the duo made a living by singing in taverns and giving fencing exhibitions.

The duo reached Marseilles, and Julie joined an opera company — singing under her maiden name. It was about this time that she decided she was over the fencing instructor, and she began a relationship with a young woman. The woman’s parents put her in a convent in Avignon. This wasn’t enough to deter La Maupin, she entered the convent as a postulant and set about securing their escape. To that end, she put the corpse of a dead nun in her lover’s bed and set the room on fire. This proved enough of a distraction to allow them to escape.

The affair lasted three more months, but eventually the young woman returned to her family. Julie was charged, as a male (and in absentia because no one managed to catch her), with kidnapping, body snatching, arson, and failure to appear before a tribunal and was sentenced to death by fire. She took off once more, making her way back to Paris and earning a living by singing.

In Villerperdue, Julie engaged in a duel with a nobleman she would later learn was the son of the Duke of Luynes. After wounding him in the duel, she visited him and they briefly became lovers. This relationship ended when he had healed and returned to his military unit, though the two remained friends for the rest of Julie’s life. (I mention this because most of Julie’s relationships don’t end that well.)

Julie soon met another singer, named Gabriel-Vincent Thevenard. They began a relationship while they both traveled towards Paris, hoping to join the Paris Opera. While on the way, Julie contacted her father’s employer/her former lover and asked him to convince the king to pardon her for her convent-related crimes. And she was, in fact, pardoned.

Initially, Julie was denied a place with the Paris Opera, but Thevenard intervened on her behalf. She began performing regularly in the opera, initially as a soprano and then later in the contralto range. Her performances were very popular, and the Marquis de Dangeau even wrote that she had the “most beautiful voice in the world”.

But Julie also caused a stir by having outlandish episodes and habitually wearing men’s clothes — although she still never tried to pass herself off as a man. Nevertheless, some refused to believe she was a woman — one anecdote tells of a heckler who accused her of being a man in the middle of one of her performances. She responded by ripping off her shirt. La Maupin, as she was known by now, was capturing the imaginations of all of Paris.

Another famous anecdote from this period of her life — one singer in the opera was harassing the women of the troupe, so La Maupin challenged him to a duel. He refused, so instead she beat him with a cane and stole his wallet and snuffbox. The next day, she overheard him complaining that he’d been jumped by a group of men — so she threw his watch and snuffbox at him and announced that she was the only one involved in kicking his sorry chauvinistic ass.

She fell in love with another female singer of the troupe, Fanchon Moreau, who actually rejected her. This left La Maupin pretty distraught, and by some accounts she tried to commit suicide, but apparently she got over it quickly. In 1695, La Maupin kissed a woman at a royal ball, and was immediately challenged to duels by three men. She bested all of them — but laws existed against dueling within the city of Paris. By some accounts she was pardoned immediately by the king, because he thought this was entertaining and the anti-dueling laws technically only applied to men. Whether or not this happened, she left Paris for Brussels pretty immediately.

She began a relationship with the Elector of Bavaria, and performed in the opera in Brussels from 1697 to 1698 — at which point, she returned to Paris to replace a retiring performer at the Paris Opera. She continued performing there until 1705. In these final years, she had a romantic relationship with Madame la Marquise de Florensac. When Florensac died, La Maupin was inconsolable.

After 1705, accounts differ. By some accounts, she returned to her husband — because, right, they were still married. That whole time. By other accounts, she entered a convent and became a nun. Both of these accounts come out sounding more like morality tales about how not to spend your life as a heathenous, cross-dressing, bisexual celebrity so I’d take both of them with a grain of salt. She is believed to have died in 1707, at the age of 33. (Yeah, she fit all of that in between the ages of 14 and 33!)

La Maupin’s gender identity is a bit of a question, that unfortunately we’ll probably never have confirmation of, but with her frequent waffles back and forth between men and women in her romantic relationships, it’s pretty hard for even the most conservative of historians to try to paint her as a straight woman. This is pretty remarkable in its own right because a lot of historians are very good at straight-washing people.

(Adapted from this Facebook post.)