Oscar Wilde was born 160 years ago on this day. Beyond his published canon, Wilde’s colorful life as a raconteur and Victorian bon vivant took him from toast-of-the-town adoration to rock bottom, following one of the most salacious scandals of the era.
The life of Oscar Wilde reads like its own epic drama. From his youth, he honed a sharp intellect, a witty tongue, a chic sense of style, and trailblazed the fine art of celebrity self-promotion. As a writer, Wilde’s legacy of great literary works speaks for itself and includes essays, poems, plays such as Salomé and The Importance of Being Earnest and his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Following his great success, the infamous trials and subsequent imprisonment for his homosexuality exposed his double life, sent his career and social status plummeting. Like other great artists, he died young and penniless.
#1: Early Love Triangle
Oscar Wilde’s mother Lady Jane was an Irish nationalist, poet, and downright bawdy woman who was well-known for making an entrance wherever she went. She hosted popular social gatherings in the family salon where the cultural stars of the time came to party. Oscar developed an ear for storytelling by sitting quietly and listening to the lively banter around him. As he matured he mingled effortlessly with the famous guests his mother entertained. One such visitor was the beautiful socialite Florence Balcombe to whom Oscar took a fancy. Some believed the pair were destined to head to the altar when in swooped Bram Stoker, of Dracula fame. In today’s terms, one might draw parallels to the Jennifer Aniston–Angelia Jolie– Brad Pitt love triangle. When Oscar got wind of the Stoker-Balcombe engagement, he wrote a letter to his beloved Balcombe saying he was leaving Ireland forever (which he basically did.) He eventually did find love. Wilde married Constance Lloyd and the couple had two kids. And he had more romances, but more on that later…
“No man is rich enough to buy back his past.”
#2: The Debauchery Gene
Had TMZ existed in his time, the escapades of the family Wilde would have been great fodder for the paparazzi and gossip web sites. To set the scene, 1800s Ireland had all manner of drama, disasters including the devastating Great Famine, and daring characters like Daniel “The Liberator” O’Connell who pushed for an autonomous state. Oscar’s father, Sir William Wilde was a renowned eye and ear surgeon who had keen interests that extended beyond medicine to archeology, nature, Irish folklore, and booze. Before he met his match in Oscar’s mother Jane “Speranza” Wilde, he was considered quite a player. He fathered several illegitimate children (sadly all of whom died young.)
“The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.”
Like his dad, Oscar, was a witty intellectual, a promiscuous soul, and consumed his fair share of spirits (a favorite of which was the “green fairy” − absinthe). His magnetic charm seduced both women and men. He loved being a father and doted on his children. However, Oscar’s sexual proclivities in the Victorian age was ultimately his downfall. He was convicted and sentenced to prison in 1895 for “gross indecency.”
“The public have an insatiable curiosity to know everything, except what is worth knowing.” – “The Soul of Man”
#3: Victorian HGTV Star?
“The optimist sees the donut, the pessimist sees the hole.”
Besides writing, Wilde was passionate about fashion and interior decor. He traveled to the United States to lecture about his theories of design and aesthetics. Before his double-life (respected-husband-and-father-has-affair-with gentleman-hottie) was exposed and he lost his home and possessions as a result of his imprisonment, Oscar and his family lived in the center of Victorian bohemia. His home featured a drawing room where dragons were painted on a rich blue ceiling and colorful peacock feathers set in the plaster accented the walls. His former Tite Street home went on the market in 2012 for about $1.8 million.
#4: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, & Oscar Wilde
Where’s Oscar? Look closely. On the cover of their album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, peering over the shoulder of bespectacled John Lennon, you’ll find Mr. Wilde. He made the cut of notable icons featured on The Beatles‘ iconic album. Not be outdone by the fab four, The Rolling Stones referenced the writer’s libel trial in their 1967 promotional film based on their song “ We Love You.” Mick Jagger plays Oscar Wilde. Do you recognize the others?
#5: Keep Your Lips Away From The Grave… Please.
Upon his release from prison, Wilde was both physically and emotionally spent. In England, his reputation sank to its lowest depths and he spent his final years penniless in Paris, never seeing his children again. His affair with male lover “Bosie” (also at the center of his infamous trial) disintegrated.
“I am in a duel to the death with this wallpaper, one of us has got to go.”
Although his death certificate gives no official cause, and there has been speculation that the writer may have contracted syphilis, it’s commonly held that the 46-year-old Wilde died from complications of cerebral meningitis in a hotel room.
“To the world I seem, by intention on my part, a dilettante and dandy merely—it is not wise to show one’s heart to the world.”
In death, the final resting place of Wilde can be found in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, France. His literary executor commissioned artist Jacob Epstein to create the tombstone that evoked the vibe of one of Wilde’s poems. Like many Victorians of the day, Oscar Wilde was fascinated by Egypt (“The Sphinx”).
A kiss may ruin a human life…” − A Woman of No Importance
Since his death, countless fans have made the pilgrimage to Paris to visit Wilde’s grave. Over the years, the site has been the target of mass quantities of lipstick kisses. Wilde himself might have been tickled by the attention, but in 2011, through negotiations with the French and Irish governments, his family cleaned and restored the tomb and added a glass barrier to shield it from his adoring fans’ lip smacks.
For more info, visit the Oscar Wilde page at Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.