Take a walk on the Wilde side in Paris

The Daily Telegraph - Travel - - FRANCE -

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

Cap­tion cap­tion

Café de Flore, top, was one Os­car Wilde’s favourites; the writer’s room in what is now LHô­tel

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