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

The Irish Mail on Sunday - - COMMENT - By Michele Men­delssohn © Dr Michele Men­delssohn 2018

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

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