How Oscar drove women WILD
Besieged by female groupies, he f lirted so shamelessly it scandalised a nation and left husbands fearing for their wives. Who was this feared ladykiller? As a new book reveals, history’s most famous gay martyr
WHEN Mary Watson of the San Francisco Examiner turned up at Oscar Wilde’s hotel room in the city, she was hoping to write a story that would enable her readers to picture his ‘at-home manner’. By the time she reached his door at Palace Hotel, she was thinking of herself as a big-game hunter seeking her prey.
‘I saw the lion in his lair,’ Watson later said, ‘saw him stirred up, poetically speaking, and an interesting process it was.’
The playwright and poet performed a disarming routine. When Wilde dramatically threw off his cloak, his valet appeared behind him and caught it just before it hit the floor. Then, settling down on the sofa, Wilde artfully arranged himself in the languid, half-reclining pose made famous in images of him by the age’s celebrity photographer, Napoleon Sarony. His every gesture was designed to create an air of seductive ease.
And it worked. Such was the effect that Miss Watson needed a moment to compose herself. She was concerned about her horizontal interviewee ‘transgressing any social rules’, as she demurely put it. But the performance was not yet over. No sooner had she begun the interview than Wilde’s valet burst
He drove female fans half-crazy with desire
in with an album that urgently needed the aesthete’s autograph. Oscar waved away the obligation, saying with heavy innuendo: ‘I am too much engaged just now.’
His intention seemed clear – Oscar the journalist’s prey had become Oscar the hunter.
Today, Wilde’s semi-seduction of his interviewer seems as unsubtle as it is peculiar. Could this be the same man who was to become history’s most celebrated gay martyr? Why was he so set on stirring up female desire?
The answer lies in his early life when Wilde discovered the effect his seductive charms could have on women – and how he exploited it to his own advantage as he made a name for himself as a writer.
Indeed, so successful was Wilde the womaniser that he became the object of widespread obsession, driving his female fans half-crazy with desire and enraging fathers and husbands who feared the effect he was having on women’s morals.
Never was this Wilde-mania more apparent than on a year-long lecture tour of America, which saw him surrounded by the sort of celebrity hype now reserved for teenage boybands.
The year was 1882, long before the affair with Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas that was to prove his downfall. Back then, Wilde’s sexuality was still in flux, although he had already developed a reputation as something of a ladies’ man.
As a student at Oxford University, he had persuaded a young woman to sit on his lap. Her mother entered the room and caught the pair together. Later, she caught Wilde kissing her daughter in the hallway. ‘Oscar,’ the mother scolded, ‘the thing was neither right, nor manly, nor gentlemanlike in you.’ There were plenty more willing to take the girl’s place. Among them were Florence Balcombe, who would go on to marry Dracula author Bram Stoker, and Violet Hunt, an auburn-haired writer who Wilde promised: ‘We will rule the world, you and I – you with your looks and I with my wits.’
In truth, after leaving Oxford in 1878, Wilde struggled to find a niche. ‘I’ll be a poet, a writer, a dramatist. Somehow or other I’ll be famous, and if not famous, I’ll be notorious,’ he told friends.
He set about trying all these careers in turn (and a few more besides) while living on the modest sum of £200 a year after his father’s death. He curried favour among those who might be able to help him, dividing his attention between prominent figures in education and art. On one occasion, he offered his services as a personal shopper with an excellent taste in neckties.
For all his hustling, he was hardly making a living, let alone making his name. But then came his break: struck by his dandyish demeanour, Punch magazine made him the face of Aestheticism – an artistic movement concerned with poetry and beauty – and from this, Wilde’s reputation began to grow.
Soon after, he was offered a US lecture tour by impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte, whose production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera Patience – which satirised Aestheticism – was touring America. Who better to help promote it than the man who was the very personification of the movement? Wilde’s motives for accepting Carte’s offer
His unlikely Lothario act sent book sales soaring
were equally mercenary. His first play, Vera, had failed and his finances were stretched. The invitation could not have come at a better time.
And so on Christmas Eve 1881, Wilde, then aged 27, wrapped himself in a fur cloak and boarded the SS Arizona at Liverpool. LEGEND has it that on his arrival in the United States in 1882, Wilde breezed through customs by telling officials: ‘I have nothing to declare but my genius.’
There is no firm proof that he uttered those words – the anecdote was first recorded 30 years later – but what is certainly true is that Wilde and his advisers soon discovered that America adored him and that sex sells.
Wherever the young, handsome aesthete went, crowds of adoring women would follow. So great were their number in New York that policemen were forced to hold the crowds back so that Wilde could find a path through them. Despite questions over his sexuality from critics – one, with a veiled nod towards his homosexuality, branded Wilde an example of ‘unmanly manhood’ – female groupies clustered outside his hotels.
Word of Wilde’s powers of attraction quickly spread, with lecture halls packed full of women less interested in his quick wit and artistic insights than in gazing at his long raven hair, his elegantly turned legs, the tightness of his trousers and the smoothness of his cheeks.
At 6ft 4in and about 14st, he cut an imposing yet elegant figure. And Wilde revelled in the attention. Audiences gossiped about his ‘mashing’ – late 19th Century American slang for arranging himself in seductive poses and behaving as a womaniser.
A thumbnail biographical sketch sold on trains told of how fathers watched in amazement as, before their eyes, their daughters became ‘love-sick maidens’ who declared Wilde a ‘perfect raving angel’. Their righteous indignation was whipped up by newspapers, which gleefully reported the worrying effect Wilde’s lectures could have on otherwise-upstanding ladies.
At 6ft 4in, Wilde cut an imposing figure
Satirists mocked the mood of hysteria. Men swore they’d make him pay for being ‘the perverter of our wives by means of your idiotic art twaddle’, according to one US newspaper.
Naturally, Wilde had little patience for such complaints. ‘America is the only country in the world where Don Juan is not appreciated,’ he countered, while pronouncing on women’s looks as if conducting his own personal Miss America contest. ‘I am obliging beautiful young ladies,’ he said, as he signed autographs for his female admirers in front of the man from the Albany Argus newspaper. ‘I make it a point to grant my autograph to no others.’
His unlikely Lothario act sent sales of his literary works soaring. Only a year earlier, English critics had turned up their noses at Wilde’s poems. Now his American admirers were snapping them up.
Lines excised from the English edition of his poems for being too risqué were included in the US versions, adding to his notoriety. His verses turned nature into an erotic playground.
Under Wilde’s influence, a yellow iris offers its throat to a dragonfly’s kisses, trees stoop to peck a swooning nymph, and lilies air-kiss the wind. But it was what he appeared to be confessing about his own love life that fascinated Americans. ‘I am too young to live without desire,’ one poem declared.
Every line fuelled his fans’ fantasies, with composers of popular music doing their utmost to capitalise on the hype with songs dedicated to Wilde-mania.
Former journalist Monroe Rosenfeld captured the mood perfectly with a rowdy song called Oscar Dear! that soon became a hit. It was an invented story full of innuendo about a character called Oscar, his wandering hands, and the girl who loved him despite them. It cheerfully encouraged men to find their inner Oscar and to become, as the song put it, ‘just a little wild’. ‘Oscar dear, Oscar dear, How flutterly-utterly-flutter you are. Oscar dear, Oscar dear, I think you are awfully wild.’
By the time Wilde returned to London in January 1883, his celebrity was assured. An eager public snapped up every morsel of gossip about their idol and swallowed them so quickly that their truth was rarely questioned.
This, ironically, plumped up his reputation to such an extent that it gave him the financial means to marry the daughter of a leading barrister a year later.
‘I am going to be married to a beautiful young girl called Constance Lloyd,’ Oscar told actress and socialite Lillie Langtry. He was as elated as his bride-to-be.
Publicly humiliated and shamed in court
He designed her engagement ring himself, forming a heart from pearls and diamonds (his favourite gemstone). He also gave her a pet monkey to keep her company while they were apart.
But during the summer of 1891, poet Lionel Johnson dropped in on the Wildes and brought along Lord Alfred Douglas, an angelfaced 21-year-old Oxford student who went by the nickname ‘Bosie’.
Wilde was instantly infatuated. He treated him to tea and then introduced him to Constance.
The illicit love story between Oscar and Bosie began that very day – with the shattering consequences that are so well known.
When it came in 1895, Oscar’s unmaking was swift and grim. Shamed in court for ‘the love that dare not speak its name’, he was stripped of his possessions, publicly humiliated, estranged from his wife and two young sons, imprisoned and forced to carry out menial tasks and hard labour for two years.
The face of Aestheticism became prisoner C.3.3.
Such was his ignominy that after his release he took a new name and lived as Sebastian Melmoth. Oscar Wilde was no more. Long before his death in Paris in 1900, the man who had driven women wild with desire simply ceased to exist. Few dared to stage his plays. His literary reputation was in tatters.
The greatest wit of the age had disappeared because society could not accept his sexuality. Seldom has a downfall been so complete.
Making Oscar Wilde, by Michele Mendelssohn, is published by Oxford University Press on May 24, priced €28.
‘PERFECT RAVING ANGEL’: Wilde’s wife Constance with their son Cyril in 1889. Main picture: Wilde in Napoleon Sarony’s portrait taken during the writer’s tour of the US in 1882