Wilde about Paris
A new exhibition celebrates a controversial author
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