Take a walk on the Wilde side in Paris
Harry Mount traces the footsteps of the flawed genius as a new exhibition in the French capital pays special tribute to one of its favourite adopted sons
As Oscar Wilde lay dying in the Hôtel d’Alsace in Paris’s rue des Beaux-Arts, he was still delivering the 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 the duel when Wilde died, aged only 46, of cerebral meningitis – although more sensationalist commentators claim it was syphilis.
These days, the wallpaper in his room in the renamed L’Hôtel is rather splendid. The walls of the bow window are candy-striped. The others are lined with greenand-gold art nouveau peacocks, gently kissing each other. It is all very fin de siècle; all very Paris – a home to Oscar 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, sad, desperate days.
It didn’t seem at all macabre sleeping in the room where Wilde died. It is decorated so tastefully and reverently with such delicious Wildeiana – including a Vanity Fair cartoon of Oscar and a framed copy of his final bill at the hotel, where he had lived on and off for two years.
There is also a copy of the letter from the hotel manager asking Wilde – or Sebastian Melmoth, as he called himself then – to pay the bill. Wilde was unable to; as he said: “I am dying above my means.” The bill was only paid off 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 hotel it is today – owned by 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 literary acclaim before prison; and the melancholy, down-at-heel city of nearuniversal rejection afterwards.
A new exhibition 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 – even though the French never rejected him the way the British did after his conviction (on indecency charges).
The exhibition 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. Paris meant a huge amount to him. He has 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. He wrote it pretty fluently – he wrote Salomé in French.”
Wilde’s original Salomé manuscript is exhibited, 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 époque Paris at its ferociously drunk, prodigiously talented height.
Wilde the dandy aesthete 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 United States in 1882. They are the definitive pictures of Wilde as aesthete – his drooping curtains of hair, eyes fixed in the middle distance, a voluminous necktie and a splendidly OTT three-piece, velvet suit.
From 1883-94, Wilde was at the heart of the Parisian literary scene; he stayed in the city for stretches as long as three months, often staying in the Hôtel Voltaire on the Rive Gauche. Still a charming, classical hotel today, the Hôtel Voltaire was also where a 19-year-old Wilde, in Paris for the first time, stayed with his mother. It’s worth dropping in on the hotel for a reasonably priced drink: €3.80 (£3.28) for a glass of wine, €5.60 for a kir cocktail.
The Rive Gauche, around St-Germain-des-Prés, was Wilde’s stamping ground during the golden years, where he exchanged glittering conversation with André Gide, Stéphane Mallarmé 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, the Café de Flore, on the boulevard St-Germain, is still there today, with a restrained art deco interior and outside tables with handy views for admiring the passing intellectuals, amateur philosophers and students. It’s quite pricey – €30 for a salads niçoise, a citron pressé and a coffee – but worth it for atmosphere.
Wilde also crossed to the Rive Droite outposts of café society, particularly to the boulevard des Capucines and the boulevard des Italians, just between the Madeleine and the Opèra. One of Wilde’s favourites – still going strong – was the art nouveau Le Grand Café Capucines, at 4 boulevard des Capucines. It offers a decent twocourse lunch for €24.
He ventured further north, too, to the Moulin Rouge, on boulevard de Clichy. Today it is a rather cheesy
Café de Flore, top, was one Oscar Wilde’s favourites; the writer’s room in what is now LHôtel