Imagine if you were (and perhaps you are) a charming, erudite man with a talent for writing. Behind you is a glittering academic record and before you lies a promising future earning a good living by means of your pen. The only impediment? Your little brother is Oscar Wilde.
Poor Willie Wilde was overshadowed by Oscar from an early age and it didn’t sit easy with him. When Oscar’s fame was at its height, Willie could be found drinking, gossiping and reciting parodies of his brother’s poems in the fashionable Lotos Club in New York: ‘You know, Oscar had a fat, potato-choked sort of voice,’ one fellow Lotos Club member recalled, ‘and to hear Willie counterfeit that voice and recite parodies of his brother’s poetry was a rare treat.’1
He certainly took to socialising with gusto. Another member of the Lotos Club remembered him as ‘the most thoroughgoing night owl that ever lived,’ and confirmed that he ‘positively hated daylight’.
In his memoir, Pitcher in Paradise, Willie’s contemporary Arthur M. Binstead described his friend as ‘the personification of good nature and irresponsibility’. To illustrate this, Binstead reproduced Willie’s amusing description of his typical working day in London, which began when he popped into his editor at noon to suggest an idea for a feature; ‘the anniversary of the penny postage stamp’ for instance. Then:
I bow myself out. I may then eat a few oysters and drink half a bottle of Chablis at Sweeting’s, or, alternatively partake of a light lunch…I then stroll towards the Park. I bow to the fashionables. I am seen along incomparable Piccadilly. It is grand. But meantime I am thinking only of that penny postage stamp.
Afterwards, Willie would repair to his club to spend two hours scribbling furiously before dispatching his leader to the Daily Telegraph offices and heading out, arm in arm with a friend, to enjoy:
…that paradise of cigar-ashes, bottles, corks, ballet, and those countless circumstances of gaiety and relaxation, known only to those who are indwellers in the magic circles of London’s literary Bohemia. 2
Inevitably, his prodigious appetite for alcohol caught up with him. On 13 March 1899, Willie Wilde, aged forty-six, succumbed to complications related to alcoholism. When Robbie Ross wrote to inform Oscar of his brother’s death, he replied:
I suppose it had been expected for some time. I am very sorry for his wife, who, I suppose, has little left to live on. Between him and me there had been, as you know, wide chasms for many years. Requiescat in Pace. 3
For far more on Willie Wilde and his relationship with his brother Oscar why not read my book Wilde’s Women.
1. ‘Wilde and Willie’ by Nancy Johnson (archivist) in News and Notes from the Lotos Club, January 2011
2. Arthur Morris Binstead, Pitcher in Paradise: Some Random Reminiscences, Sporting and Otherwise (London, Sands, 1903)
3. Letter to Robbie Ross, March 1899,Complete Letters, p.1130