An apocryphal story from Jan. 3, 1882 –
New York customs agent to arriving ship passenger:
“Have you anything to declare?”
Oscar Wilde: (wearing a green cloth coat, lavender trousers, a white vest, and small turban hat atop his shoulder length hair)
“Nothing.” (slight pause) “Nothing but my genius!”
Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde was born in Dublin in 1854. By the late 1870s he had made a name for himself in London as one of the leading proponents of the Aesthetic Movement, a cultural philosophy which held that art should provide refinement and sensory pleasure and that “art for art’s sake” should govern the decorative arts, interior design and literature. By 1882 he’d completed an exhausting lecture tour of the United States, including an eventful stop at Rochester. By the mid-1880s he was an accomplished playwright. By 1890 he’d established himself as a novelist with the publication of “The Picture of Dorian Gray”. By 1895 he was in jail, convicted of engaging in “gross indecency”, the Victorian euphemism for homosexual acts. And by 1900 he was in Paris, dead broke, and dead. (1)
By happenstance and by calculation, and despite his best work being years in the future, by 1882 Wilde had become a popular and controversial figure among London’s cultural elites, one of the first in that long line of celebrities up to the present who became “famous for being famous”. Indeed, Wilde’s reputation as one of the leading “aesthetes” was sufficient for him to be identified in the public mind with Reginald Bunthorne, the “fleshy poet” in Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Patience”, their 1881 comic opera satirizing the Aesthetic Movement.(2)
This connection became so accepted, both in England and the United States (where aping English manners and tastes was in vogue) that the opening of the American production of “Patience” prompted Richard D’Oyly Carte, Gilbert’s and Sullivan’s producer, to capitalize on the show’s popularity by sending Wilde to America on a lecture tour.
As previously noted, Wilde arrived in America in January 1882 to begin a four month speaking tour. But so popular, or notorious, did Wilde soon become, and so commercially successful his appearances, the tour was extended until December, during which time, he lectured on such esoteric topics as “The Decorative Arts”, and “The English Renaissance”.
Instinctively sensing that the American press was a tool which could be used to build and enhance his image, Wilde assiduously catered to local newspapers. He was not adverse to feeding the public’s pre-conceived notions about a 6 ft. 4 in. tall, 200 pound, man with shoulder length hair, dressing in outrageous “aesthete” outfits of knee britches, tight fitting loudly-colored coats, overly-large cravats and silver-buckled shoes. Nor did he shy away from making outrageous and provocative comments and criticisms of America and Americans.
For example, referring to Niagara Falls, Wilde opined that, “Every American bride is taken there, and the sight of that tremendous waterfall must be one of the earliest, if not the keenest, disappointments in American married life.”
To the residents of Cincinnati; “I wonder that no criminal has ever pleaded the ugliness of your city as an excuse for his crimes.”
He described California as, “a very Italy without its art,” though later he backhandedly praised the state while damning the entire middle of the continent by proclaiming that, “nature had exhausted her resources on the West and left nothing for the prairies.”
From the very beginning, popular conceptions and misconceptions about Wilde’s actions and dress, resulted in him being portrayed more as a caricature than as a serious apostle of a popular cultural subject. Perhaps the classic example being the linkage between Wilde and the sunflower. Since the sunflower had become one of the symbols of the Aesthetic Movement, they were invariably included whenever Wilde’s figure appeared in a drawing or in an advertisement.(3)
Realizing he needed to fight back against the avalanche of cartoons and advertisements (where he received no royalties when his image was stolen to sell cigars, stoves, freckle cures and even bust-enhancing tonics), Wilde looked to photography as the means to project the image he wanted the public to see, an image described by one of his biographers as that of, “intelligence, poetic sensibility and the self-possessed attitude of a young artist coming into his own.” These photographs became so popular during Wilde’s American tour that he indirectly played a role in a landmark court case when Napoleon Sarony, one of the country’s leading photographers, sued the Burrow-Giles Lithographic Co. for pirating his photographs of Wilde. The issue ended up before the Supreme Court where a decision was handed down explicitly affirming the fact that photographs were “art” and therefore could be copyrighted.
From the beginning of his lecture tour, Wilde’s public persona was satirized and mauled. In Boston, at the end of January, a body of Harvard students bought up the front two rows in the Boston Music Hall and just before the lecture began, marched down the center aisle dressed in Wildean costumes of long haired wigs, large cravats, and knee britches, each student carrying a sunflower. However, having been tipped off that Harvard boys were notorious for their unruly behavior, Wilde seized the moral high ground and deflated the students’ high jinks by strolling onto the stage dressed in conservative evening wear with long trousers.
Casting a jaundice eye on the students, Wilde said with a smile, “I see about me certain signs of an aesthetic movement…I see certain young men who are no doubt sincere, but I can assure them that they are no more than caricatures….as Wordsworth says, ‘turn from these bold, bad men’.” The students attempted to reclaim the initiative by applauding loudly at inopportune moments, such as whenever Wilde took a drink of water, but were cowed by hisses and boos and cries of ”shame” from the more sedate Bostonians.
Having been tested by fire, Wilde stepped up the pace of his tour, giving 15 lectures during February starting the month in Connecticut and ending up in Illinois. In New Haven, two days after his Harvard lecture, Wilde was again the target of a student demonstration, this time by 200 Yalies clad in red cravats who marched into the lecture hall carrying the obligatory sunflowers. This time he simply ignored them.
After speaking in Hartford, Brooklyn, and Utica, Wilde and his manservant arrived in Rochester on the late afternoon of Feb. 7. Following a short rest at his hotel, Wilde was driven to the Grand Opera House on South St. Paul Street (now South Avenue) (4) where a “blushing reporter” from the Democrat and Chronicle interviewed him in his dressing room prior to his 8:15 lecture on the English Renaissance of Art.Though the topic didn’t come up, before the interview Wilde might have been informed that local pranksters had earlier sent a letter, ostensibly from Wilde, to the papers announcing that he intended to make an appearance at the city’s annual masquerade ball the previous night. The joke had concluded at the ball when an appropriately-dressed masked imposter danced with a number of “aesthetic maidens” at the “Too Utterly Too Too Club”.
Describing Wilde’s attire in detail; “He was dressed in knee britches, black silk stockings, marvelously fitted low patent leather pumps, regulation dress coat, low cut double-breasted white vest, shirt collar turned low with a voluminous white tie”, the reporter then got down to work peppering Wilde with questions.
Wilde was asked if he felt that the press had been treating him fairly. “I have no complaints to make,” was the reply, “They have certainly treated me outrageously, but I am not the one who is injured. It is the public. By such ridiculous attacks the people are taught to mock where they should reverence, to scoff at things to which they will not even listen….What possible difference can it make to me what the New York Herald says? You go and look at the statue of Venus de Milo, and you know that it is an exquisitely beautiful creation. Would it change your opinion in the least if all the newspapers in the land should pronounce it a wretched caricature?” (5)
Next he was asked, “How were you pleased with the demonstrations of the Harvard students?” “There was nothing offense in that”, said Wilde, “I understood well enough that it was meant as a good natured joke.” Within an hour he had good cause to reconsider that thought.
The reporter mentioned that he had read what he assumed was an apocryphal story that Wilde had been introduced to a prominent American socialite in New York who had said, “And so this is Oscar Wilde, but where is your lily?”. To which Wilde had replied, “At home madam, where you left your good manners.” “On the contrary”, said Wilde, “it is absolutely true with the exception that it happened in London, and the lady was a duchess.”
Shortly thereafter, walking onto the opera house stage, Wilde came face-to-face with sixty or more University of Rochester students (for comparison, total enrollment at that all-male institution was officially listed as 162 that year) who, not to be silenced like their Ivy League brethren, had jammed into the gallery of the opera house where newspaper accounts stated that they proceeded to interrupt the lecture by, “a running fire of hisses, groans, and hootings which compelled the lecturer to pause more than a dozen times, when the hullabaloo became so noisy that the Aesthete’s voice could not be heard.”
Wilde tried to dampen the uproar by crossing his arms in disgust and standing silently at the podium, but the students merely increased the noise level. The antics ante was upped when Peter Craig, a local janitor, done up in blackface, a shabby swallow tailed coat, and sporting a huge sunflower pinned to his lapel, walked down the aisle and took a front row seat prompting, “guffaws, cat calls, and other specimens of collegiate amusement.” By now the audience was getting involved, some walking out and some trying to shout down the students. The police were called and a patrolman began striking at the students with a thin rod, attempting to drive out the more unruly participants. (6)
Finally able to continue, Wilde set out his premise, “I will not try to give you any abstract definition of beauty – still less to communicate to you that which in its essence is incommunicable, the virtue by which a particular picture or poem affects us with a unique and special joy; but rather to point out to you the general ideas which characterize the Great English Renaissance of Art…..We spend our days, each one of us, in looking for the secret of life. Well, the secret of life is art.”
For those so inclined, the complete text of Wilde’s Rochester lecture can be found at: The English Renaissance of Art
Following the lecture, Wilde’s manager tried to laugh off the confrontation by claiming that while the students were, “a little demonstrative, there was no malicious attempt to create a disturbance,.” But a reporter from the New York Herald had already filed a somewhat embroidered report of the incident which, to the chagrin of the City Fathers and the administration of the University of Rochester, had been sent all over the country by the Associated Press.
The next day’s Union and Advertiser bemoaned “Rochester’s Deep Disgrace” and chastised the students, condescendingly claiming that their actions would be considered the “height of boorishness” even at spelling bees and other rural events.
But not all newspapers were so put off by the students’ conduct. The Daily News in Chicago, where Wilde would be appearing in a few days, was of the opinion that American audiences had a right to interrupt a speaker if they chose, “since they had paid for their admission”, and that in the case of Wilde, “there ought to be some mode of assuring this self-announced apostle of intellectual imbecility that he amounts to nothing.”
Leaving Rochester for his next lecture in Buffalo, Wilde was doubtless glad to be able to give a sedate talk with no interruptions by any college students in the audience. A non-event which led a smug reporter from the Sunday Morning News to take a sanctimonious shot at Rochester. Although he didn’t think that Buffalo was much richer for Wilde’s visit, “For one thing though, the Queen City is to be congratulated. She gave him a respectful hearing, and put to shame the neighbor city of Rochester, where culture and refinement were once supposed to dwell, and where the visitor- a gentleman and a man of ideas- was brutally insulted, and by college students at that.” Some observers thought that the quietude in Buffalo was less the result of their citizens being more civilized, and more the work of Buffalo Mayor Grover Cleveland who, having an eye on loftier political office, had ordered a visible police presence outside the lecture hall to prevent his administration receiving adverse publicity of the kind being heaped on Rochester.
Wilde had nine more months of travel and lecturing to slog through after he left Rochester. During his tour Wilde traveled over 15,000 miles, visiting cities and towns coast-to-coast, giving over 140 lectures. Although he had several colorful adventures (for instance, in Leadville, Colorado, “the roughest and most wicked town on earth”, Wilde went down into a mine with a number of “bearded ruffians” where the London dandy talked about art and joined the miners in a three course meal of whiskey, whiskey and whiskey), he seems to have avoided any further heckling by university students.
While Wilde was discovering America and Americans, he was also discovering something about himself and about how he wanted to be perceived, both by his public and by himself. Now more relaxed in front of an audience, more confident in his approach, and with a lot less affectation and perhaps less aestheticism – and gaining a certain American straight-forwardness and frankness – on returning to London, Wilde cut his hair and packed away his “stage costume of knee breeches, black silk stockings, satin smoking jacket, and Byronic peasant shirt.” Writing to a friend, Wilde announced that, “The Oscar of the first period is dead.”
(1) In August I visited the Paris hotel where Wilde died. Another probably apocryphal story has him gazing around his grimy room and announcing, “Either that wallpaper goes, or I do!”
(2) The extent to which Wilde was a model for Bunthorne, or Bunthorne a model for Wilde, is debatable. Like Wilde and his sunflower, Gilbert and Sullivan’s hero affected carrying a lily and spouted such lines as:
“If you’re anxious for to shine In the high aesthetic line As a man of culture rare You must get up all the germs Of the transcendental terms And plant them ev’rywhere You must lie upon the daisies And discourse in novel phrases Of your complicated state of mind The meaning doesn’t matter If it’s only idle chatter Of a transcendental kind”
(3) Earlier in London, Wilde had been asked if it was true that he had strolled down Piccadilly carrying a sunflower, to which he replied, “It’s not whether I did it or not that’s important, but whether people believed I did it”.
(4) The Grand Opera House was Rochester’s premier entertainment venue. It had been designed in 1870 by a local architect, coincidently named John Rochester Thomas. In 1891 fire destroyed the opera house and a hotel next door. Thomas was credited in his day as being the most prolific designer of public buildings in America (for example, over 150 churches were built using his plans). Before moving in 1877 to the wider architectural vistas offered by New York City, he designed Sibley Hall (Rochester’s first fireproof building, demolished in the 1950s) on the University of Rochester’s campus located at the time on Prince Street; as well as the Rochester Theological Seminary building on Alexander Street, today known as 300 Alexander Apartments.
(5) One wonders whether Wilde had seen the earlier edition of the D&C where he was dismissed as, “a fantastic decker out of his person in garments which good taste reproves; an attitudiniser in drawing rooms; and the self-constituted apostle of a school which, so far as can be discovered, embraces only languishing matrons and silly girls, with a few male nincompoops.” Or whether he had read the Letter to the Editor from “Sunflower” complaining that, having paid his dollar to see Wilde, “solely from curiosity”, and having heard that Wilde had discarded his aesthetic garb for simple evening dress (which he had done at Boston), he considered it a case of deception if he didn’t get to see, “the entire flapdoodle outfit”!
(6) There are differing accounts as to the severity of the disruption caused by the U of R students and Wilde’s reaction to them.