How Oscar Wilde cracked America

The story of Wilde's coming to America is also the story of modern celebrity.

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Wilde in America: Oscar Wilde and the Invention of Modern Celebrity
David M Friedman
W W Norton, 320pp, £17.99

In the early 1990s, I took a trip to Lincoln, Nebraska – a city in the “flyover” states that, ostensibly, might be said to hold little claim over the collective identity of the United States. A century earlier, Oscar Wilde had called there on his somewhat surreal 1882 tour of North America. I think the place was still recovering from the shock. One academic proudly related to me Wilde’s wonder at the city fathers who had seen fit to name Lincoln’s main thoroughfare “0 Street” – as in zero. The story summed up the contrast between the emptiness of the prairies around us and the orchidaceous cynosure of decadence who had appeared here, as if teleported from some other universe.

But it was the very meeting of those two opposing energies that laid the foundations for a new sort of fame and fed what Wilde would become. As David M Friedman’s Wilde in America demonstrates, the Irish-born, Oxford-educated aesthete – renamed by some of the less admiring members of the US press as an “Ass-thete” – not only derived much delight from enlightening his erstwhile colonial cousins on “The House Beautiful” and the deep appeal of medieval dress (as evidenced in his own furbelows, velvets and breeches), but they rather liked him in turn.

Friedman’s theme is Wilde as the inventor of modern celebrity – or, at least, his complicity in it. The US in the late 19th century was ripe for such exploitation. Its cities were already rivalling their European counterparts in sprawl, and the republic had made its mark on the global economy. America was ready for Wilde; and Wilde was ready for it.

In 1882, Wilde was not yet famous for anything in particular. He was celebrated for the way he looked and what he said as much as for what he had written – which wasn’t a lot. His literary achievements to date were to have won the Newdigate Prize for poetry at Oxford and to have self-published his verse in a deluxe white-and-gold edition. At college he had allied himself to John Ruskin’s aesthetic of truth to beauty, but he took to heart Walter Pater’s hedonistic paean: “To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.” In championing the Aesthetic Movement – as its self-proclaimed leader, with a ready group of acolytes – Wilde was best known for having paraded down Piccadilly in London bearing a single lily. Or was it a sunflower? It hardly mattered: the image was lodged in the public mind.

But new fuel was needed to keep Wilde aflame. It was supplied by the theatrical impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte, a Cameron Mackintosh of his day. Carte and his organisation were eager to promote a US tour of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience, in which Wilde was satirised as the foppish, velveteen Bunthorne. An American contact in Carte’s New York office (the informant, Friedman reveals intriguingly, would later marry Wilde’s brother, Willie) suggested that it would be an excellent idea if the putative States-wide audience had their eyes opened to the cult of beauty by its greatest proponent.

Clearly, he was being set up for the kind of ridicule that the British press was already lavishing upon him; but Wilde appreciated the publicity value of the proposition. He would use the tour to burnish his burgeoning image and reflect it back to London, imbued with a new American glamour. Like with a modern pop act, “breaking America” was the key to Oscar’s success. The descriptions of his outrageous appearance, clad in satin and fur and accessorised with lavender gloves, silver-topped cane and buttonhole, recall David Bowie’s bisexual assault on the US in the mid-1970s. And the often violent opposition that greeted Wilde’s lectures – from those who felt personally affronted by what he seemed to represent – echoes the complicit uproar that met the Sex Pistols in the later 1970s.

Vital to this process was the visual propagation of Wilde’s image. In a fascinating chapter, Friedman describes one of the most notable photo sessions ever accomplished: Wilde’s visit to Napoleon Sarony’s huge, five-floor studio complex at 37 Union Square in New York. Sarony paid celebrities such as Sarah Bernhardt to sit for him, and made his profits from cartes de visite of their image which sold in their tens of thousands. Oscar ought to have paid Sarony for the favour; as Friedman notes, the Wilde we know was born that day. As he draped himself in the costumes he had brought in a suitcase, Oscar assumed the mantle of a global superstar. (Perhaps only New York could accomplish such a transformation; Friedman might have updated his story further. A century later, Andy Warhol installed his fame-making Factory at 33 Union Square. There, a pre-Ziggy Stardust Bowie – who, long-haired, wearing a “man-dress” and draped on a sofa, had reprised Sarony’s languid portraits of Wilde for the cover of his 1970-71 album, The Man Who Sold the World – would call on Warhol and reinvent himself as a result.)

Thus disseminated and advertised, Wilde’s fame went before him, on an endlessly extended 150-date, 100-interview tour – not to mention appearances in salons, prisons and a memorable call on Walt Whitman during which kisses were exchanged. But the single most remarkable stop was Wilde’s arrival in Leadville, a Colorado outpost entirely predicated on its new silver mines. Here Oscar expounded so evocatively on the Renaissance silversmith Benvenuto Cellini that his audience of miners wanted to know why Wilde hadn’t brought the ­Italian with him.

“I explained that he had been dead for some time, which elicited the enquiry, ‘Who shot him?’”

After a night on the town – during which Oscar matched his hosts drink for drink – he was invited to a midnight supper at the bottom of one of the mines itself, a scene lovingly re-created in the opening of the 1997 biopic Wilde, starring Stephen Fry. But contrary to the image of a frock-coated Oscar descending elegantly into the depths, he was lowered in a bucket, clad in a rubber coat, and although he claimed to have shown perfect composure during his hundred-foot descent, observers said that the fearless dandy was visibly scared. Nevertheless, once below, Wilde resumed drinking and lit a huge cigar, which had the miners cheering “until the silver fell in dust . . . on our plates”.

That silver dust would be passed on, from then to now. The dynamic of glamour that began in Sarony’s studio ended in secular saintdom, and Wilde’s image came to represent far more than the sum of its parts. He became part of a non-genealogical transmission, a kind of fairy godmother. In the title sequence of Todd Haynes’s 1998 glam-rock fantasy, Velvet Goldmine, Wilde ­arrives as an alien baby on a Dublin doorstep in 1854 and is reincarnated in the persona of the Bowie-ish protagonist, “Brian Slade”. Like Bowie and Warhol, Wilde embodied an era. “I was a man who stood in symbolic relations to the art and culture of my age,” he wrote. And: “I awoke the imagination of my century so that it created myth and legend around me.”

Although Friedman does not speculate on the queerness of Wilde’s image on that 1882 tour, or what impact it might have had on gay men from New England to Nebraska, the author’s research is impeccable. He reconstructs the lecture dates, from sell-out crowds in New York and Boston to Midwestern halls where as few as 30 souls turned up. In Harvard, a platoon of prank-minded students appeared, wearing long wigs, floppy hats and breeches – only for Wilde (who had been tipped off about the stunt) to appear soberly clad in a dinner jacket, declaring, “I am impelled for the first time in my life to breathe a fervent prayer: ‘Save me from my disciples.’”

Theatre within theatre, performance on performance, Wilde was the ultimate drama queen. His last public appearance, in the witness box at the Old Bailey, would prove to be the terrible satiation of his thirst for fame. As Friedman observes, Oscar fatally mistook his celebrity for invulnerability. He died in 1900, aged just 46, having announced, “If I were to outlive the century, it would be more than the English could stand.” So potent was the poison spread around him that even in the 1930s, when my mother was a teenager, she was made aware that Wilde was a bad man, but had no idea why.

The vividness of Friedman’s account makes me wonder what effect an undisgraced Wilde might have had. Would his influence – he was, after all, one of the most successful playwrights of his time – have led to an early sexual liberation? What power might he have held over the new century, had he survived? The war that defined the opening of the 20th century was welcomed by some as a purging of the decadence that had sapped British manhood. How different would our world have been if Saint Oscar had been with us for another 40 years?

Even leaving aside dreams of a Wildean queertopia, perhaps it is time to make amends. If Alan Turing is deserving of a posthumous pardon, why not Wilde? To one we owe the computer; to the other, our ability to look up from the gutter to the stars.

Philip Hoare’s “Wilde’s Last Stand” is published by Duckworth. He will give a Proms Extra talk on “1895 and Oscar Wilde” at the Royal College of Music, London SW7, on 3 August (from 7.45pm), to be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on the same day

Philip Hoare’s books include Wilde’s Last Stand, England’s Lost Eden, and Spike IslandLeviathan or, The Whale won the Samuel Johnson Prize for 2009, and The Sea Inside was published in 2013. He is professor of creative writing at the University of Southampton, and co-curator of the Moby-Dick Big Read. His website is www.philiphoare.co.uk, and he is on Twitter @philipwhale.

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Saying the Unsayable