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    Oscar Wilde: Work of Genius

    rainbowguy“It’s an odd thing,” Lord Henry Wotton once remarked, “but anyone who disappears is said to be seen in San Francisco. It must be a delightful city and possess all the attractions of the next world.” He certainly knew what he was saying. Oscar Wilde, his creator and alter ego, had visited for two weeks in 1882. San Francisco “is most attractive,” he told one reporter after his stay. With “the most lovely surroundings of any city except Naples,” he said to another, it “is the city of fine men and beautiful women!” It remained his favorite American metropolis always.

    Before his visit, Wilde was famous primarily for being famous, willing to do almost anything to get people talking about him and his “fascinating, poisonous, delightful theories.” Although eventually he paid a huge price for its success, his strategy worked. His extravagance made him a celebrated icon of the British Aesthetic Movement, his manner satirized regularly in humor magazines, his eccentricities given to Reginald Bunthorne, a “Fleshly Poet,” in Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta Patience.

    oscarWilde’s flamboyance raised indelicate questions about him almost from the beginning, although no one could ask them in print directly. Even Gilbert, never known for sexual frankness, described Bunthorne as having “an attachment à la Plato/For a bashful young potato/Or a not too-French French bean” at a time when a classical education taught that Platonic love was between two men—never mind what the British thought of French masculinity.

    Americans were less familiar with Aestheticism, so Richard D’Oyly Carte, the operetta’s producer, approached Wilde to do a series of promotional appearances across North America. He agreed. (In a fascinating historical coincidence, Carte’s son Lucas soon began a romance with Alfred Douglas, who later became the great and ruinous love of Wilde’s life.) Because of advance publicity, Wilde was greeted everywhere by thunderous crowds.

    When Wilde arrived, old American archetypes of the sturdy farmer and the hardy pioneer were giving way to a more urbane “tender ideal” of manliness. Even so, Wilde and the aesthetic values he championed—a love of artistry, beauty, taste, and pleasure—challenged gender conventions and seemed to promote “dreaded effeminacy.” Once implying weakness of character or softness of purpose, the term was becoming associated with “men who do with men,” known derisively as “Miss Nancys” and “Charlotte Annes.”

    Propriety forbade reporters from discussing Wilde’s sexuality, but they used the same words everywhere to communicate that at best he was unmanly and epicene, and at worst “unnatural.” The New York Times called him a “mama’s boy” with “affected effeminacy.” The Newark Daily Advertiser described his eyebrows as “the sort coveted by women.” The Boston Evening Transcript asked, “Is he manne, or woman, or childe?/Either,/and neither!/She looks as much like a manne/As ever shee canne;/He looks more like a woman/Than any feminine human.” Readers easily grasped their meaning.

    Such clucking followed Wilde across the continent. When he arrived in San Francisco on March 26, 1882, the Daily Alta California called him an “effeminate apostle of unhealthy and morbid laziness.” The Wasp stated he was “missing everywhere his heaven-appointed functions and offices,” a clear indictment of his supposed sexual desires. The Chronicle expressed concern that people would mistake him for “Charles Warren Stoddard, who he so resembled in manner and sentiment,”—but not physical appearance—“come back in disguise to greet them with a poetic and tender embrace.” Because San Francisco’s “Boy Poet” of “lavender verse” and homoerotic travel stories was widely known as a “Miss Nancy,” the paper blatantly told its readers that Wilde was, mentioning that his “tender embrace” only reinforced this view. Regardless, his stay was a huge success.

    Wilde departed the City on April 8, never to return, with all his great and enduring works still before him in that incandescent fin de siècle decade of both his triumph and destruction: The Picture of Dorian Gray, Lady Windermere’s Fan, A Woman of No Importance, An Ideal Husband, The Importance of Being Earnest, De Profundis, The Ballad of Reading Gaol. Ridiculed from coast to coast for his clothes, his androgyny, and his ideas, Wilde, however, had the last laugh. He laughed all the way to the bank.

    San Franciscans continued to follow Wilde’s career. Local newspapers avidly shared the details of his trials for libel and “gross indecency,” although they could not print the specific allegations. His death in 1900 was front-page news. So was his shattered reputation. Eight years after he died, the Call and Post reported sharp criticism of a Berkeley church journal for publishing two of his poems; given “the personality of the author the poems should have been suppressed.” As late as 1918, the paper still characterized him as “the insolent, the buoyant, the defiler of the world.”

    In his final days, Wilde may have disagreed with Lord Henry’s comment, “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” By following his own advice, however, to “Live! Live the wonderful life that is in you! Let nothing be lost upon you,” he set an example for generations to come. Because, as he observed, “One’s real life is so often the life that one does not lead,” we are grateful that those of us “to be seen in San Francisco” can follow his lead to be “our fabulous selves.”

    Bill Lipsky, Ph.D., author of “Gay and Lesbian San Francisco” (2006), is a member of the Rainbow Honor Walk board of directors.