Arts & Entertainment
Wilde Time In Big D
By Charles Alexander
Originally printed 10/3/2013 (Issue 2140 - Between The Lines News)
"I have nothing to declare but my genius," Oscar Wilde said to the press when briskly embarking and ever so elegantly clearing customs in New York, January 1882.
Oscar, age 28, came to America to give 70 lectures on aestheticism with a capital A, the house beautiful as lived in by the Victorian English, art, poetry, the muses (with whom he let it be known he was on excellent speaking terms - as an Irishman). His lecture tour fee: $5000.
Oscar's first lecture - "The English Renaissance" - was given January 9th at New York's Chickering Hall. The audience was startled by his appearance: short breeches, long silk stockings, shoulder-length haircut, a sunflower in hand. Cartoonists had a field day. Following his appearance a vogue for lilies and Japanese parasols was taken up by fashionable ladies (and daring male dandies).
Oscar arrived in Detroit with rather subdued fanfare, February 16th. His lecture was given at the 3000-seat - long demolished - Music Hall, attended by a polite audience of mostly women (and husbands coerced into going along).
"How jolly good of you to find yourselves located so close to one of the crown jewels in our far-flung Empire," quipped Oscar. "It speaks well of your upbringing and neighborly intent." Wilde's schedule of nearby stops included Cleveland (18th) and Columbus OH (19th).
By the time Oscar hopscotched to San Francisco he had had favorable encounters with cowboys, gold prospectors (a gold mine was named after him), farmers, and Mormon plural-wives. He met Mark Twain, poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and chatted up gay icon Walt Whitman (though Wilde had as yet not come out). In San Francisco the fun - the foppery, the furor - began.
Wilde's train pulled in on March 26th. Fans - male and female - carried sunflowers. His lecture was scheduled for the following day at the Platt Hall. He stayed at the Palace Hotel, then the world's largest hotel. According to the California Historical Society Quarterly, "During the winter months [before Wilde's arrival] there were published in the Wasp and other California publications occasional jingles about Wilde and the Aesthetes.
"A popular song entitled 'Oscar Dear' was received with condescending humor in the city's gay spots; and the slang of the moment included such supposedly Wildean expressions as 'too utterly utter,' 'just too too' and 'do you yearn?'"
Homophobia is nothing new. It came from an expert: Ambrose Bierce, author of the brilliant, anarchistic, Devil's Dictionary. Bierce was rabid about Oscar. In a 1000-word Wasp diatribe, he called him, "sovereign of unsufferables, an ineffable dunce with nothing to say, a hateful impostor, a stupid blockhead, an offensively daft crank, an intellectual jellyfish, a man with no thoughts and no thinker, a gawky gowk, the littlest and looniest of a brotherhood of simpletons, an idiot who would argue with a cast-iron dog, a speaker with the eloquence of a caller on a hog-ranch, a dunghill he-hen who would fly with eagles." My word!
There's no record of what Oscar thought of Ambrose Bierce, if anything. Perhaps, a line from The Picture of Dorian Gray might suffice: "A man cannot be too careful in the choice of his enemies." (Straight -- or too, too utterly gay, for that matter.)Charles@pridesource.com