Wilde about Paris

A new ex­hi­bi­tion cel­e­brates a con­tro­ver­sial au­thor

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - DESTINATION EUROPE - HARRY MOUNT

As Os­car Wilde lay dy­ing in the Ho­tel d’Al­sace in Paris’s Rue des Beaux Arts, he was still de­liv­er­ing one-lin­ers. “My wall­pa­per and I are fight­ing a duel to the death — one or the other of us has to go,” he joked.

On Novem­ber 30, 1900, the wall­pa­per won, when Wilde died, aged 46, of cere­bral menin­gi­tis, al­though more sen­sa­tion­al­ist com­men­ta­tors claim it was syphilis.

These days the wall­pa­per in his room in the re­named L’Ho­tel is rather splen­did. The walls of the bow win­dow are candy-striped. The oth­ers are lined with green and gold, art nou­veau pea­cocks, gently kiss­ing each other. It is all very fin de siecle, very Paris, be­fit­ting Wilde when he was in his own strut­ting pea­cock pomp in the 1890s; a refuge when he was beg­ging for a few sous for a cognac in his last des­per­ate days.

It doesn’t seem macabre sleep­ing in the room where Wilde died. It is dec­o­rated so rev­er­ently with de­li­cious Wilde-iana, in­clud­ing a Van­ity Fair car­toon of the writer and a framed copy of his fi­nal bill at the ho­tel, where he lived on and off for two years. There is also a copy of the let­ter from the then ho­tel man­ager, ask­ing Wilde — or Se­bas­tian Mel­moth, as he called him­self — to pay the bill. But, as he said, “I am dy­ing above my means.” The bill was paid by his friend Rob­bie Ross two years after his death.

When you stay in his last room, you never feel you are mock­ing Wilde’s ghost or be­ing haunted by it. And Wilde, who adored lux­ury and beauty, would not have dis­ap­proved of the way the place has been trans­formed from the cheap ho­tel he knew to the smart bou­tique prop­erty it is to­day, owned by Bri­tish su­per­mar­ket heiress Jes­sica Sains­bury and her hus­band, Peter Frankopan, a Croa­t­ian prince and au­thor of the 2015 best­seller, The Silk Roads.

Wilde’s Paris is a tale of two cities: the bright, glit­ter­ing city of in­tense ac­claim be­fore prison; and the melan­choly, down-at-heel city of near-univer­sal re­jec­tion af­ter­wards. A new show at Paris’s Petit Palais, Os­car Wilde — In­so­lence In­car­nate, tells both sto­ries.

Al­though Wilde vis­ited Paris with his mother as a teenager, spent his hon­ey­moon in the city and died in that Rive Gauche bed­room, there has never been a ma­jor Wilde show in France. It is co-cu­rated by Do­minique Morel and Merlin Hol­land, Wilde’s grand­son, who lives in Bur­gundy.

“The whole con­nec­tion of Os­car with Paris is very strong,” says Hol­land, “He came here on a reg­u­lar ba­sis for long pe­ri­ods of time ... He’s al­ways been quite highly revered in France. A lot of the French press, at the time of the tri­als, wrote in his de­fence, say­ing it was shame­ful to treat an artist in this way. He also spoke beau­ti­ful French, ap­par­ently, and wrote Salome in French.”

Wilde’s orig­i­nal Salome man­u­script is in the show, as is Toulouse-Lautrec’s mar­vel­lously at­mo­spheric La Danse Mau­resque, painted as part of the set at the Baraque de la Goulue cabaret.

A plump Wilde in top hat gazes at the dance, al­ready a fix­ture of belle epoque Paris. Wilde the dandy is on prom­i­nent show in the ex­hi­bi­tion which, in a world first, in­cludes 13 of the orig­i­nal photo-por­traits taken by Napoleon Sarony dur­ing Wilde’s tour of the US in 1882. They are the de­fin­i­tive pic­tures of Wilde as aes­thete with his droop­ing cur­tains of hair, eyes fixed in the mid­dle dis­tance, a vo­lu­mi­nous neck­tie and three-piece, vel­vet suit.

Be­tween 1883 and 1894, Wilde was right at the heart of the Parisian lit­er­ary scene; he stayed in the city for stretches as long as three months, of­ten at Ho­tel Voltaire on the Rive Gauche, still a charm­ing, clas­si­cal ho­tel. The Rive Gauche, around St Ger­main des Pres, was Wilde’s stomp­ing ground dur­ing the golden years, where he ex­changed glit­ter­ing con­ver­sa­tion with An­dre Gide, Stephane Mal­larme and Paul Ver­laine. He met Vic­tor Hugo, too, even if the great man of French let­ters fell asleep after a few open­ing pleas­antries with Wilde.

One of his favourite haunts, Cafe de Flore, on Boule­vard St Ger­main, is still there with a re­strained art deco in­te­rior and out­side ta­bles with handy views for ad­mir­ing the pass­ing in­tel­lec­tu­als, am­a­teur philoso­phers and stu­dents.

Wilde also crossed the Seine to the Rive Droite out­posts of cafe so­ci­ety, par­tic­u­larly to Boule­vard des Ca­pucines and Boule­vard des Ital­iens, just be­tween the Madeleine and the Opera. One of Wilde’s favourites, and still go­ing strong, was the art nou­veau Le Grand Cafe Ca­pucines, at 4 Boule­vard des Ca­pucines.

He ven­tured fur­ther north, too, to the Moulin Rouge, on Boule­vard de Clichy. To­day it is a rather cheesy place, a Dis­ney-fied ver­sion of French sex­i­ness, al­though it’s worth walk­ing past dur­ing the day to ad­mire the mag­nif­i­cently chintzy red wind­mill over the en­trance. When Wilde went there in 1891, the Moulin Rouge had only been open for two years, and was the height of fash­ion, as he was him­self. Stu­art Mer­rill, an Amer­i­can poet in Paris at the time, said of him, “The habitues took him for the prince of some fab­u­lous realm of the North.”

And then came Wilde’s dra­matic fall after his failed li­bel case against the Mar­quess of Queens­berry, his crim­i­nal con­vic­tion and im­pris­on­ment. Also in the show

The Os­car Wilde Suite, L’Ho­tel, top; Le Grand Cafe Ca­pucines, above left; Os­car Wilde, above; his tomb at Pere Lachaise Ceme­tery, left

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