Tag Archives: Willie Wilde

Oscar Wilde & The Davis Sisters

The Wilde family was prominent in the Dublin social scene, and well connected with other wealthy Dublin families. One such was the Davis family. Although both Hyman Davis, a dentist, and his wife, Isabella, were Londoners, they spent many years in Dublin and several of their eight children were born there. In the late 1870s, both Willie and Oscar were friendly with Dublin-born James ‘Jimmy’ Davis who, in a chequered career, was alternately a theatre writer, racing correspondent, theatre critic and solicitor.

Jimmy’s younger sister Eliza, who made her name as fashion columnist ‘Mrs Aria’, recorded her recollections of Oscar and Willie in her memoir, My Sentimental Self  (1922).

Both Oscar Wilde and Willie Wilde became frequent visitors, and in a public garden which spread its ill-kept lumpish lawn behind our dwelling we often played tennis together: Willie in a shirt showing some desire to be divorced from the top of his trousers, and Oscar in a high hat with his frock-coat tails flying and his long hair waving in the breeze.

Their connection did not end there. Eliza made her name as a journalist, editor of fashion magazine The World of Dress, and author of books on fashion and motoring. When she became involved in a long-term affair with Henry Irving, she suggested, to no avail, that he stage Wilde’s second play, The Duchess of Padua.

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Her intervention on Oscar’s behalf may be attributable to their youthful friendship but may also have been rooted in the fact that her older sister Julia, also a participant in their tennis parties, was given her first break in journalism as a result of an attempt to parody Oscar’s work. Eliza wrote:

Julia’s attempt at a parody of a villanelle by Oscar Wilde which had appeared in The World led to an interview with Edmund Yates [editor], who found in it some excuse for encouraging her to take up writing as a career.

adding,

It is a coincidence that her first published lines should have owed their existence to Oscar Wilde.

Eliza Davis Aria gazes at a photo of her sister Julia

In 1906, six years after Oscar’s death, Julia, writing as Frank Danby, published a novel, The Sphinx’s Lawyer. In My Sentimental Self, Eliza described this book as Julia’s attempt ‘to defend the undefendable Oscar Wilde’.

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In an astonishing preface to The Sphinx’s Lawyeraddressed to her brother Jimmy, who wrote under the name Owen Hall, and who had fallen out spectacularly with Oscar, Julia declared:

‘Because you “hate and loathe” my book and its subject, I dedicate it to you’.  For, incidentally, your harsh criticism has intensified my conviction of the righteousness of the cause I plead, and revolt from your narrow judgment has strengthened me against any personal opprobrium that such pleading may bring upon me’

In the pages that follow, Oscar appears in the guise of Algernon Heseltine, a man treated unjustly by society because he ‘was not as others’ on account of his genius; ‘the applause changed to low suspicious muttering’, Julia observed. It seems certain, given the title of her novel, that Julia’s qualified defence of Oscar was also connected to her great friendship with Ada Leverson, Wilde’s ‘Wonderful Sphinx’.

Yet, although Julia lauded Oscar’s genius and characterised him as a martyr, The Sphinx’s Lawyer was no vindication since she suggested that Heseltine was mad and should ‘have been placed in safety, kept from spreading his disease, from working evil’.

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Her descriptions of Oscar, as ‘Heseltine’, facing his accusers, are worth reading:

The fire of his own genius had burnt Algernon’s youth.  The light that blazed about him obscured for him the minor rules of meaner men.  He saw more largely, amazing visions thronged, all sense of proportion became lost.  He was not as others.  He felt that, and at first the dazzled world which his personality fascinated saw it too, and applauded.  When the applause changed to low suspicious muttering, he became more flamboyant; he was supremely conscious of his gifts.

The end was not swift, yet it was upon him before he knew.  He stood before his accusers in the dock as a child might have stood, impudent, bewildered, irresponsible.  Those for whom he and his ailments held no meaning found him guilty, and sentenced him to a terrible end.  He was as a sick child, morally, mentally, physically, dazed, and failing.

For his fine hands, which had penned epic and philosophy, poem, and drama, there were bundles of tarred oakrum [sic].  When he failed over his task there was darkness, more appalling solitude, less food, stripes.  It ought to be incredible, but the whole bare truth is beyond it.  The personal degradation to which this man of genius was subjected, the outrages to his glimmering sense and dying manhood, made a martyr to him to those who knew.  (104–05)

Sources:

Mrs. Aria London, My Sentimental Self (London, Chapman & Hall, 1922)

Frank Danby, The Sphinx’s Lawyer (New York, F.A. Stokes Company, 1906)

Margaret D. Stetz, ‘To defend the undefendable’: Oscar Wilde and the Davis Family, Oscholars Special Issue: Oscar Wilde, Jews & the Fin-de-Siècle, Summer 2010.

Eleanor Fitzsimons, Wilde’s Women (London, Duckworth & Co., 2015)

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Willie Wilde & Mrs Frank Leslie: An Unhappy Alliance

On the evening of 4 October 1891, Willie Wilde, aged thirty-nine, became the fourth husband of the formidable Mrs. Frank Leslie, a newspaper magnate who was sixteen years his senior. They hardly knew each other and were married at the aptly named Church of the Strangers in New York.

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Mrs Frank Leslie

The New York Herald referred to the bride as ‘the well known publisher of this city’ and described the groom as ‘one of the editors of the London Telegraph and brother of Oscar’. Since Willie’s best man was humorist Marshall P. Wilder, Town Topics magazine took the opportunity to quip:

‘The groom was wild, the best man wilder, but the bride wildest of all.’

The quiet Sunday evening ceremony was followed by supper in Delmonico’s and a honeymoon at Niagara Falls, an apt choice in the light of Oscar’s quip:

‘Every American bride is taken there, and the sight of the stupendous waterfall must be one of the earliest, if not the keenest, disappointments in American married life’.(1)

Mrs. Frank Leslie had been born Miriam Florence Folline in New Orleans on 5 June 1836. At seventeen, and under duress, she married jewellery shop clerk David Charles Peacock. Since they vowed to live apart for the remainder of their lives, it was perhaps inevitable that their marriage was annulled within the year.

Eliza Rosanna Gilbert, better known by her stagename Lola Montez. Known for her risque "spider dance". While performing in St. Louis at The Varieties Theatre in March 1853, she got into an argument with the manager, breaking his nose with a candlestick.Photo from the S F City Guides, Bruce Seymor:

Lola Montez

Afterwards, Miriam toured with the notorious Lola Montez, making up one half of the Montez sisters. During that time, she met husband number two, archaeologist E. G. Squier. When Frank Leslie hired Squier to edit his Illustrated Newspaper, he asked Miriam to fill in as editor of his Lady’s Magazine. She made a great success of it.

When he separated from his wife, Frank Leslie moved in with the Squiers and stayed for more than a decade before easing Squier aside to become Miriam’s third husband. When he died of throat cancer in 1880, Frank left Miriam a widow at forty-three and facing seemingly insurmountable debts.

She rose to the challenge, taking on and turning around her late husband’s ailing publishing company. She stamped her authority on the enterprise by changing her name by deed poll to ‘Frank Leslie’, the name he had assumed when he had established the business (he was born Henry Carter in Ipswich, England).

Yet, her creditors were circling and the whole enterprise would have foundered were it not for the intervention of Eliza Jane Smith, a wealthy widow and former housemaid who advanced Miriam a loan of $50,000 to be repaid over five years; it was returned within five months.

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An accomplished linguist and frequent visitor to London for the season, Miriam attended Jane Wilde’s Saturday salons and attempted to emulate them with ‘Thursdays’ of her own. She was described by Jane as ‘the most important and successful journalist in the States’. In Social Studies, Jane elaborated:

‘She owns and edits many journals, and writes with bright vivacity on the social subjects of the day, yet always evinces a high and good purpose; and, with her many gifts, her brilliant powers of conversation in all the leading tongues of Europe, her splendid residence and immense income, nobly earned and nobly spent, Mrs. Frank Leslie may be considered the leader and head of the intellectual circles of New York.’

Jane and Miriam had much in common. Well schooled in literature and the classics, Miriam spoke French, Spanish, Italian, German and Latin. She, like Jane, had translated the work of Alexandre Dumas fils. In a gushing account of this transatlantic alliance, the New York Times described Jane as a ‘close and respected friend’ of Mrs. Leslie’s. The Los Angeles Herald reported that Miriam attributed her decision to marry Willie in no small measure to her ‘devotion to Lady Wilde’, while the Topeka State Journal quoted her as saying:

‘Lady Wilde is so charming that it had a great deal to do with my marrying her son, I think. I have tried to profit by her acquaintance, and hope some day to be in New York what she is in London.’

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Members of the Lotos Club by Pierre Brissaud Country Life, February 1937

 

Miriam had high hopes for Willie, but her plans to install him as a charming companion and lynchpin in her publishing empire came to nothing when it became clear that his preferred haunt was New York’s fashionable Lotos Club, frequented by Mark Twain amongst others. While his new wife worked tirelessly at the helm of her business, Willie could be found drinking, gossiping and reciting parodies of Oscar’s poems. One fellow Lotos Club member recalled:

‘You know, Oscar had a fat, potato-choked sort of voice,’ , ‘and to hear Willie counterfeit that voice and recite parodies of his brother’s poetry was a rare treat.’(2)

Another member remembered him as ‘the most thoroughgoing night owl that ever lived,’ and confirmed that he ‘positively hated daylight’.

The alliance was doomed. During a visit to London, Miriam hired a private investigator to report on Willie’s activities. Confronted with evidence of his boorish behaviour, she started divorce proceedings, charging him with drunkenness and adultery. When their marriage was dissolved on 10 June 1893, Judge C.F. Brown declared that Willie was:

‘addicted to habits of gross and vulgar intemperance, and to violent and profane abuse of and cruel conduct to the plaintiff’.(3)

Describing it as ‘a funny sort of match from the start,’ the Morning Call decided that their relationship would make a delightful social comedy and revealed that the bride had never altered her name, although ‘at times she would let “Wilde” be tacked on with a hyphen’.

Willie claimed, rather disingenuously:

‘The man who marries for money jolly well earns it’.(4)

When asked why he had married Miriam, his supposed reply was:

‘’Pon my soul. I don’t know. Do you? I really ought to have married Mrs. Langtry, I suppose’.(4)

Ironically, Miriam was said to have declared:

‘I really should have married Oscar’.(5)

Yet, after their divorce, she told a reporter from the Evening World:

‘I have only feelings of pity and sorrow for Mr. Wilde,’

adding,

‘I cherish no resentment towards him. He is a remarkably brilliant man of culture, but intemperance has demoralised him’.

She was even kinder about Jane, insisting:

‘Lady Wilde is one of the loveliest of women and extraordinarily intelligent, and there is still the best of feeling existing between us.'(6)

Wilde’s biographer and friend Robert Sherard believed that the marriage had been disastrous for Willie:

‘He went out to America a fine, brilliantly clever man, quite one of the ablest writers on the Press,’

he noted before observing that he came back to England

‘a nervous wreck, with an exhausted brain and a debilitated frame’.(7)

While she was married to Willie, Miriam felt a duty of care to her impoverished mother-in-law, and offered her an allowance of £400 a year. Jane, who was perhaps a little embarrassed at being financially dependent on another woman, would accept only £100, which she justified as the cost of maintaining a London home for the couple. Once the divorce was finalised, Miriam stopped Willie’s allowance, leaving him with no option but to join his mother in genteel poverty in her Oakley Street home. Poor Jane lived in constant fear of bailiffs arriving at her door to collect on Willie’s debts. When she cabled Miriam for help, her friend paid up grudgingly but broke with the family as a result.

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Lady Jane Wilde in old age

In January 1894, six months after his divorce was finalised, Willie Wilde married Dublin-born Sophia Lily Lees. Although she had plenty of suitors, Miriam never married again. When she died in 1914, she left the bulk of her fortune to suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt in order that it be used for the promotion of the cause of women’s suffrage. A staunch champion of women’s rights, she once declared:

‘The old order is changing and the new coming. Woman must open her eyes to it and adapt herself to it, she must free herself from her swaddling clothes and go out into the world with courage and self-reliance. Oh, what a noble woman the woman of the future may become!’ (8)

She is undoubtedly one of Wilde’s Women.

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REFERENCES & FURTHER READING:

1. Oscar Wilde and Stuart Mason (Ed), Impressions of America (Sunderland, Keystone Press, 1906), p.25

2. From ‘Wilde and Willie’ by Nancy Johnson (archivist) in News and Notes from the Lotos Club, January 2011

3. ‘Mrs Leslie is Free’, The Evening World, 10 June 1893, p.3

4. Reported in The Nineteen-Hundreds by Horace Wyndham, p.76

5. Madeleine B. Stern, Purple Passage: the life of Mrs. Frank Leslie (Norman, Okla. Univ. of Oklahoma Press 1953 ), p.162

6. ‘Mrs Leslie is Free’, The Evening World, 10 June 1893, p.3

7. Sherard, Real Oscar Wilde, p.323

8. Included in Anne Commire, Deborah Klezmer, Women in World History Volume 9 (Waterford CT., Yorkin Publications, 1999), p.413

 

 

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Oscar Wilde’s Father and the Campaign to Bring Cleopatra’s Needle to London

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William Wilde as a young man

On 12 September 1878, one of of three Ancient Egyptian obelisks, popularly known as ‘Cleopatra’s Needles’, was erected on Victoria Embankment in London. Presented to the United Kingdom in 1819 by the ruler of Egypt and Sudan Muhammad Ali, in commemoration of the victories of Lord Nelson at the Battle of the Nile and Sir Ralph Abercromby at the Battle of Alexandria in 1801, this obelisk had remained in situ in Alexandria until 1877. It was then that Sir William James Erasmus Wilson, a distinguished anatomist and dermatologist, sponsored its transportation to London at great expense.

Almost four decades earlier, in April 1839, William Wilde, a Dublin-based surgeon and keen amateur Egyptologist and archeologist, who had travelled extensively throughout Egypt and beyond, wrote an article for the Dublin University Magazine in which he urged the British Government to transport one of these obelisks to London. It was lying in the sands, utterly neglected, and would, he suggested, make a fitting tribute to ‘the immortal Nelson’.

In his book Narrative of a Voyage to Madeira, Teneriffe and Along the Shores of the Mediterranean, which can be read online, he records his first encounter with the needles. Below is his article from the Dublin University Magazine in full, containing a detailed description of the obelisks along with practical suggestions as to how to transport them. Since William died in April 1876, with his sons, Willie and Oscar, and his wife, Jane, at his bedside, he never saw his scheme come to fruition.

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Dolly Wilde: An Impossible Burden

Oscar Wilde’s niece Dorothy Ierne Wilde, known as Dolly Wilde,was born on 11 July 1895. To commemorate her birth I have published the Epilogue from Wilde’s Women here on my blog:

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EPILOGUE: A WILDE LEGACY

‘Her words flew out like soap bubbles’Bettina Bergery on her friend Dolly Wilde[i]

On 10 April 1941, when the chambermaid who serviced the block of flats located at Twenty Chesham Place in Belgravia used her pass key to gain entry to number 83, she must have been horrified to discover the lifeless body of a woman in her mid-forties slumped half in and half out of her bed. Although the occupant, recently arrived, had a history of suicide attempts, and several bottles labelled paraldehyde – an over-the-counter depressant of the central nervous system used to treat alcoholism and chronic insomnia – were discovered in her flat, there was no evidence to suggest she had overdosed deliberately. For that reason, Coroner Mr. Neville Stafford recorded an open verdict, declaring that this ‘independent spinster’, as she was described on her death certificate, ‘came to her death through causes unascertainable’.[ii]

The dead woman was Dorothy ‘Dolly’ Wilde, daughter of Willie and niece of Oscar. At the time, she was undergoing treatment for breast cancer, diagnosed two years earlier.  Although her doctors advocated it strongly, Dolly had prevaricated about surgery, preferring a combination of pharmaceutical and new age treatments that included a heroin cure and a brief pilgrimage to Lourdes. As a result, the cancer had metastacised and an autopsy revealed traces in her lungs.

Fatally self-destructive, Dolly had battled several addictions; years of prodigious drug and alcohol consumption had compromised her health. Although she tried to conceal her worst excesses, anecdotes described her slipping a syringe from her handbag and injecting herself in the thigh under the table at dinner parties, or emerging from a variety of bathrooms with telltale traces of white powder under her nose.[iii]

Dolly photographed by Cecil Beaton

Dolly Wilde was born into chaos and poverty to a father lost to alcohol and a mother whose inability to cope led her to abandon her infant daughter in a ‘country convent’.[iv] From the day of her birth, three months after the imprisonment of her Uncle Oscar, her life was governed by turmoil and impulsiveness. In adulthood, she was so outrageous that had she been fictional she would have lacked credibility. While in her teens, she ran away to war torn France, where she drove an ambulance and developed a taste for fast cars and foreign women. One early paramour was her Montparnasse flat mate, Joe Carstairs, the cross-dressing Standard Oil heiress who later seduced Marlene Dietrich. Afterwards, Dolly drifted through her twenties, living out of a suitcase in a series of hotel suites, spare bedrooms and borrowed apartments. Since she hated ‘flat reality’, the antidote she seized upon was to live hard and travel constantly, a lifestyle that took a toll on her wellbeing.[v]

An incorrigible womaniser, Dolly specialised in ‘emergency seductions’ and went through a string of lovers.[vi] She once made a pass at Zelda Fitzgerald, much to Scott’s annoyance; he captured her in an unflattering cameo in Tender is the Night as lesbian seductress Vivien Taube, but he deleted the passage from the published version.[vii] Dolly also had a passionate affair with Russian-American actress Alla Nazimova, who produced and starred in a silent film adaptation of Salomé (1923) that drew heavily on Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations for Oscar’s book. Dolly prided herself on her irresistibility to women and men but, although several men proposed marriage to her, she showed no interest in anything beyond friendship.

Dolly was always promiscuous, but the love of her life was Natalie Clifford Barney, two decades her senior and a woman with a self-professed obsession with Oscar. Natalie’s decision to install Dolly in her ‘blue bedroom’ at 20 Rue Jacob, where she hosted her celebrated Friday salon may have been influenced by her guest’s resemblance to her iconic uncle.

Natalie Clifford Barney as ‘The Happy Prince’ (artist: Carolus-Duran)

In 1882, when six-year-old Natalie was holidaying at Long Beach with her mother Alice, she was chased by a pack of taunting boys. She ran headlong into Oscar, who scooped her onto his knee and comforted her by telling her a wonderful tale.[viii] At ten, she insisted on being painted as his happy prince, dressed exotically in medieval green and gold. In her teens, she wrote a letter of sympathy to Oscar in HM Prison Reading, and she served on committees that commemorated his birth and his death. As an adult, Natalie had a fling with poet Olive Custance, Oscar’s onetime rival for the affections of poet John Grey. Through her, she befriended Lord Alfred Douglas. Her ultimate Wildean trophy was Dolly.

Although Dolly never met her famous uncle, her pale, elongated face, remarkable blue-grey eyes, shock of dark hair and affected pose, conjured him up for all who met her. She inherited too his ‘clear, low, musical voice’, insatiable appetite for cigarettes and inability to regulate her chaotic finances.[ix] Her friends nicknamed her Oscaria, and Dolly herself declared: ‘I am more like Oscar than Oscar himself’.[x] In her ‘Letter from Paris’ column in July 1930, Janet Flanner, Paris correspondent of The New Yorker, described Dolly attending a bal-masqué dressed as Oscar, ‘looking both important and earnest’.[xi] When H.G. Wells bumped into her at the Paris PEN Club, he declared himself delighted to meet at last a feminine Wilde.

Dolly as Oscar

 

Everyone who knew Dolly said she should write. Days after her birth, her grandmother Jane declared her ‘magnificent!!!’, and described her as: ‘A force of intellect and power’. Dolly, she assured her daughter-in-law Constance, would ‘most certainly write books’.[xii] When she was almost four, her mother, Lily told Oscar that little Dolly, had ‘a fair share of the family brains’.[xiii] This weight of expectation overshadowed her life. Although she left scant evidence to support it, a hyperbolic obituary written by her great friend Victor Cunard, diplomat and Times correspondent in Venice, stated that Dolly ‘carried on with undiminished wit the family tradition of conversational brilliance,’ and concluded:

‘Epigram and paradox are the weapons of the Wilde family, and none of its members has used them more humanely nor more effectively than Dorothy’.[xiv]

Yet, there is little to indicate that Dolly shared any measure of Oscar’s brilliance. Wishful thinking may simply have projected his wit onto the blank canvas she supplied. She left nothing more tangible than personal letters, and many of the testimonies collected in a posthumous tribute, In Memory of Dorothy Ierne Wilde: Oscaria, published privately by Natalie Clifford Barney ten years after Dolly’s death, suggest that what wit she possessed was ephemeral. Her friend Bettina Bergery wrote of her, ‘she scintillated with so many epigrams, all delivered at once – that no one had time to remember any…Her words flew out like soap bubbles’.[xv] Yet she had some ability to charm: Cartoonist Osbert Lancaster called her ‘irrepressible and wholly delightful’.[xvi] Her last lover, actress Gwen Farrer described her as a ‘jolly and high spirited woman, with many friends’.[xvii]

Dolly’s first cousin Vyvyan Holland discovered her existence when she was brought to his house by a mutual friend; she was twenty-two years old by then and he was thirty-one. She never met Cyril, who died in the war she had been so eager to join. Vyvyan’s relationship with Dolly was an uneasy one; she must have been infuriating at times with her posing and her insistence in finding refuge behind a narcotic fog. She could be a messy drunk: on one occasion the manager of the luxurious Hotel Montalembert on Saint Germain des Prés, Dolly’s favourite Parisian hotel, contacted Natalie Clifford Barney, who was probably paying the bill, complaining of piercing cries and heart wrenching groans that were disturbing his other guests, and asking her to please remove Dolly to a sanatorium. Undoubtedly, she knew anguish and she almost succeeded with at least one of her four recorded suicide attempts.

Ladies Almanack

Dolly left little trace of her life, just a bundle of letters and an ambiguous turn as ‘Doll Furious’ in Ladies Almanack, an obscure novel celebrating the splendid lesbian cult of Clifford Barney. It was written by her friend Djuna Barnes, whose grandmother, the irrepressible Zadel Turner Barnes used to attend Jane Wilde’s Saturdays.

 NOTES AND REFERENCES:

[i] Bettina Bergery, ‘What’s in a Name?’ In Memory of Dorothy Ierne Wilde, ed. Natalie Clifford Barney (Paris, privately printed, 1952), quoted in Joan Schenkar, Truly Wilde: The unsettling Story of Dolly Wilde, Oscar’s Unusual Niece (London, Virago, 2000), p.116

[ii] ‘Death Mystery: Open verdict on Oscar Wilde’s niece’, Gloucestershire Echo, Monday 12 May 1941, p.1

[iii] This story originated with Osbert Lancaster and is reported in Schenkar, p.130

[iv] Letter from Lily Wilde to Oscar Wilde, 7 May 1899, Clark, Finzi 2416

[v] Schenkar, p.284

[vi] Schenkar, p.314

[vii] John William Crowley, The White Logic: Alcoholism and Gender in American Modernist Fiction (Amherst, University of Massachusetts Press, 1994), p.86

[viii] Recounted in Natalie Clifford Barney, Aventures de l’esprit (Paris, Émile-Paul Frères 1929)

[ix] Schenkar, p.26

[x] Natalie Clifford Barney from In Memory of Dorothy Ierne Wilde quoted in Schenkar, p.239

[xi] Janet Flanner, ‘Letter from Paris, New Yorker, 16 July 1930

[xii] Letter from Jane Wilde to Constance Wilde, July 1895, Eccles Collection 81731

[xiii] Letter from Lily Wilde to Oscar Wilde, 7 May 1899, Clark, Finzi, 2416

[xiv] ‘Miss Dorothy Wilde’, The Times, 14 April 1941, p.6

[xv] Bettina Bergery quoted in Schenkar, p.116

[xvi] Osbert Lancaster, With an Eye to the Future (London, Murray, 1967), p.136

[xvii] Daily Mail, 12 April 1941

[xviii] Rosamond Harcourt-Smith from In Memory of Dorothy Ierne Wilde quoted in Schenkar, p.117

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The Day Willie Wilde Got Engaged to a Teenage Lesbian

One of the more unusual episodes in Wilde’s Women concerns Oscar Wilde’s brother, Willie. A handsome man endowed with considerable charm, Willie also planned to marry well, and he was always on the lookout for a suitable partner.

William Wilde

Willie Wilde

In 1876, when Ethel Smyth was eighteen, she was taken to on holiday to Ireland by family friends. While playing the newly invented game of lawn tennis at the home of Lord Fitzgerald in the seaside town of Bray county Wicklow, she met a ‘young barrister, Mr. William Wilde’. The pair got on famously and, by Ethel’s account:

‘discussed poetry, the arts, and more particularly philosophy, in remoter parts of the garden’.

What attracted Ethel to Willie more than any other quality was his musical talent; he was an accomplished and inventive pianist. She was delighted to discover that they were booked on the same crossing from Kingstown (now Dun Laoghaire) to Holyhead the very next day. In Impressions that Remain, Ethel recalled Willie introducing her to:

‘a tall figure clad in dark blue, leaning over the bulwarks and gazing seaward’.

This, she claims, was Oscar to whom she was later introduced. As the crossing progressed, Ethel and Willie’s moonlit chat on deck was cut short when she was overcome by a bout of seasickness that obliged her to retire to the ladies cabin.

They met up again on the train from Holyhead to Euston. Willie, perched on a Huntley & Palmers biscuit tin at Ethel’s feet in the small space between the women’s and men’s carriage berths, made an unexpected and impassioned declaration of love. Unfortunately, he was interrupted when the biscuit tin collapsed beneath him but, undaunted, he continued:

‘Before the train steamed into Euston,’

Ethel recalled,

‘I was engaged to a man I was no more in love with than I was with the engine-driver!’

Once they reached London, Willie took Ethel shopping for an engagement ring and they chose a traditional Irish Claddagh ring, a gold band ending in two hands clasping a heart.

Keen to keep their engagement a secret for the time being, Willie persuaded Ethel to conceal her ring by wearing gloves, something she rarely did. As soon as they parted, she realised she had:

‘accepted this young man from flattered vanity, light-heartedness, adventurousness, anything you please except love’.

Within three weeks, the engagement was off. Graciously, Willie allowed Ethel to keep the ring but she lost it:

‘while separating two dogs who were fighting in deep snow in the heather’.

That was Ethel’s first and last engagement and she never saw Willie Wilde again.

Ethel Smyth with her dog ‘Marco’

Throughout her life, Ethel Smyth had several passionate affairs, most of them with women. Of course, music was her great passion. She was an exceptionally accomplished composer and her published works include: six operas, a concert mass, a double concerto, a choral symphony, organ pieces, chamber music, and songs with piano and orchestral accompaniment.

In 1922, she was made a Dame in recognition of her work as a writer and composer. In 1934, to mark her seventy-fifth birthday, her work was celebrated with a festival, the finale of which was held at the Royal Albert Hall in the presence of the Queen. Sadly, Ethel had lost her hearing by then and was unable to appreciate her own compositions or the audience’s enthusiastic reaction to them.

Finding musical composition increasingly difficult, Ethel turned increasingly to writing. She wrote ten books in all, among them nine volumes of autobiography. Her friend Vita Sackville-West declared:

‘Her books are all unadulterated Ethel. She mixed no water with her whisky. Neat fiery spirit for her.’

Dame Ethel Smyth died in 1944, aged eighty-six.

Source:  

Dame Ethel Smyth. 1946. Impressions that Remained. New York, Alfred A. Knopf

Wilde’s Women

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Living & Dying in the Shadow of Oscar Wilde

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.

Willie 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

Willie comforts Oscar after the failure of his first play, Vera (Alfred Bryan, 1883)

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.

PBCover

Sources:

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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