Australian operatic soprano Dame Nellie Melba was born Helen Porter Mitchell on 19 May 1861. As a young woman she was introduced to Oscar Wilde by their mutual friend Gladys, Countess de Gray, to whom he dedicated his play A Woman of No Importance. Although they never became close friends, and Nellie admitted that Oscar made her feel uneasy, she confessed to admiring his ‘brilliant fiery-coloured chain of words’. She qualifies as one of Wilde’s Women.
Nellie and Oscar met on several occasions and her description of his insatiable desire for cigarettes – she claimed that she knew he had called by the quantity of cigarette ends in her fireplace – suggests some intimacy. On one occasion, Nellie recalled Oscar producing six cigarette cases from about his person, although he may have intended to gift them to his disciples.
Certainly, she knew something of his lifestyle. In her memoir, Melodies and Memories, she relates an anecdote about Oscar speaking to his sons ‘of little boys who were naughty and made their mothers cry’; one wondered aloud ‘what punishment could be reserved for naughty papas who did not come home till the early morning and made mothers cry far more’.
In Melodies and Memories, Nellie also writes of walking through Paris one day when Oscar lurched around a corner with a ‘hunted look in his eyes’. Her account describes how she was about to walk past when he stopped her: ‘Madame Melba – you don’t know who I am? I’m Oscar Wilde’, he said, perhaps assuming she did not recognise him, before continuing ‘I am going to do a terrible thing. I’m going to ask you for money’. Hardly able to look at him, she emptied her purse and in response, she says, he almost snatched the money, muttered his thanks and was gone.
As jdellevsen of wildetimes.net points out below, Wilde’s circumstances were desperate by then. It must have taken great courage to ask for help and he did so graciously. How unsettling it is to read this account of a great man brought so low.
Dame Nellie Melba (1861 -1931) celebrated operatic soprano and yet another fascinating example of one of Wilde’s Women.
My source for this article is: Nellie Melba. 1925. Melodies and Memories. Cambridge University Press