In 1844, an ornate three-story Italianate-style house was erected at 122 East 17th Street in New York; it also had the designation 49 Irving Place.
Beginning in 1831, during Irving’s lifetime, politician and developer Samuel Bulkley Ruggles had laid out Union Square, Irving Place and Gramercy Park, as well as Lexington Avenue, on property he owned. In 1833, he chose the name ‘Irving Place’ in honour of the celebrated author, who never lived there.
Always a desirable address, 49 Irving Place was rented in the early 1890s by actress-turned-interior-designer Elsie de Wolfe and her partner, Elisabeth Marbury, an innovative literary and theatrical agent who represented Oscar Wilde in America. The women lived there for almost two decades and the 1905 census records Marbury as head of the household with de Wolfe as her ‘partner’.
Marbury and de Wolfe established a hugely successful salon in their lovely home and it seems likely that it was de Wolfe, always a keen self publicist, who started the rumour of a connection with Irving. The first mention of the property having been his home appeared in The New York Times in 1897, in an article describing the house and praising the ‘wonderful talents’ of Elsie de Wolfe.
This anonymous article quoted Irving, waxing lyrical about the design and layout of his ‘former home’, at great length. Although it was without any foundation, this same connection was made in dozens of books, newspapers and magazine articles over time until it became widely accepted.
In one instance The Times noted:
‘Teas at the home of Miss Marbury and Miss De Wolfe, in the old Washington Irving residence, at Seventeenth Street and Irving Place, are regular Sunday afternoon affairs of importance in the literary and dramatic world during the height of the season.’
Marbury and de Wolfe left the house in 1911. In 1927, it was acquired by the National Patriotic Builders of America, who wished to convert it to a museum and preserve it as a shrine to Irving. A subsequent fundraising effort hit controversy when descendants of Irving insisted that he had never even entered the building, let alone lived there. Nevertheless, in 1934 a plaque was erected to commemorate the false connection.
As to Oscar Wilde, Marbury first met him during his 1882 tour of America at the home of a Professor Doremus. He was holding a cup of tea at the time and endeared himself by offering it to her. Ever the publicist, she realised that his eccentric appearance was:
‘well conceived and of value in stimulating curiosity and in providing copy for the press’.
As she got to know him better, Marbury summed Wilde up perfectly, observing:
‘His wit scintillated incessantly. His joy in the phrases he compiled was always evident though never offensive’.
In My Crystal Ball, her somewhat fanciful memoir, Marbury described Wilde holding court at his Tite Street home, thinking aloud the plots of his plays:
‘I remember one terrible tragedy, brutally conceived, which revolved around a most revolting theme,’
‘It took me many days before I could prove to him that despite the dramatic value of the story that the managers and public would never tolerate the motive’.
In 1898, Marbury was charged with selling The Ballad of Reading Gaol in America. Although tears rolled down her cheeks as she read it, she admitted to Leonard Smithers:
‘Nobody here seems to feel any interest in the poem’.
Ultimately, she secured $250 from the New York World.
In her memoir, Marbury claimed to have encountered Wilde in Paris towards the end of his life. He was, she wrote, ‘unkempt, forlorn and penniless’, living in ‘a wretched room in the attic of a squalid little hotel’.
Whatever the general accuracy of My Crystal Ball, Marbury was effusive in her praise for Wilde’s talent, considering De Profundis to be his ‘masterpiece and a rich contribution to the treasure house of English literature’. As it was ‘conceived and written in the depths,’ she wrote, ‘[i]t was given to the world as Oscar’s last message to save others from the depths’.
Undoubtedly, she qualifies as one of Wilde’s Women.
For more information see:
New York Times, 13 March 1994, ‘The ‘Washington Irving’ House; Why the Legend of Irving Place Is but a Myth’
Elizabeth Marbury, My Crystal Ball (New York, Boni & Liveright, 1923)