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SUNDAY BRUNCH | Culture Watch

On the Wilde Side

March 22, 1998|BEVERLY BEYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

At 52, Merlin Holland appears to have resolved his inner conflict: the importance of being Oscar Wilde's only grandchild.

"It's not quite a burden," he says, "but if you carry this albatross around on your shoulders, it can be heavy and it can be uncomfortable. The only way to come to terms with it is to make it part of you and sort of ease it around into a position where you don't mind carrying it."

It is not that Holland feels any sense of shame for being one of two living descendants of the brilliant and eccentrically flamboyant novelist / wit / playwright who scandalized Victorian England by flaunting his affair with Lord Alfred "Bosie" Douglas--and paid for it.

Holland's "literary albatross" is the conflict he has always felt as one who yearned to write, yet feared comparison with his famous forebear.

So, he pursued a fragmented career, in industry, as an academic publisher, as a wine columnist. Only now, with "The Wilde Album," a slender pictorial biography to be published next month by Henry Holt, is he joining the legions who have chronicled Wilde's tragic life.

"I never really set myself up as an authority on Oscar Wilde," Holland says. Indeed, even his secondhand knowledge of Wilde was what little he learned from his father, the younger of Wilde's two sons, whose own recollections were limited, as he was only 8 when he last had contact with his father.

But for about 20 years, Holland has been devouring works by and about Wilde. His mission is not to whitewash Wilde's life but, rather, to learn who he really was "because he successfully concealed it from most of his contemporaries. He has been considered for far too long as sort of a frivolous, lightweight literary figure."

He will spend May doing research at UCLA's William Andrews Clark Library on a university fellowship. The library, in the West Adams area, has the world's largest collection of Wilde photographs, manuscripts and letters. He says, "Every time I go there, I find something extraordinary and new."

Holland has two more Wilde books in the works--a new edition of letters and, due out in the fall of 1999, a work examining Wilde's influence on his friends, enemies and family through the years since his death at 46 in 1900 and "how at almost every turning he still causes controversy."

Holland wants people to know that Wilde was more than a rare wit, quick with a bon mot, someone who today might be a talk show host. His legacy also includes "The Picture of Dorian Gray," "The Importance of Being Earnest" and his cry of agony from prison, "The Ballad of Reading Gaol." Although Wilde may have been the first person famous for being famous, Holland reminds us that "he was a serious thinker, a man who was, after all, a great classical scholar."

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With the centenary of his death approaching, Wildemania is rampant. "Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde" is on the Mark Taper Forum stage through March 29. Liam Neeson is Wilde in "The Judas Kiss," opening on Broadway in April. Stephen Fry is Wilde in "Wilde," a British film to be released here in May.

On April 3 and 4 at the Alex Theatre in Glendale, the Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles will present--as part of a program devoted to Wilde--"Night Passage," a one-act operatic work portraying the impact of Wilde's conviction for "gross indecency" on gay men in Victorian England, a number of whom fled to France.

"The Wilde Album" is a compilation of photographs--some from family albums--caricatures, letters and illustrations, with a text tracing Wilde's life from his birth into an affluent Irish family through his brilliant years at Oxford to his pauper's burial outside Paris and, finally, a proper interment at Pere-Lachaise, where Holland regularly tends the grave.

What most people remember about Wilde is his affair with Douglas, carried on during Wilde's marriage to Constance, and its tragic aftermath. An oversimplification, says Holland--Wilde was a rebellious Irishman seen in Victorian England as "dangerous for morals" and, by breaking the law banning homosexuality, he finally gave society an excuse to put him away.

When Wilde went to prison in 1895, Constance took her sons, Cyril, 10, and Vyvyan, 8, abroad, changing the family surname to Holland. Neither boy would see his father again, and his letters were destroyed by their guardian. Their mother was only 40 when she died in 1898.

Relations led the boys to believe that their father was also dead. Then, in December 1900, Vyvyan was summoned by his headmaster who tells him he has "bad news." Imagine his anger, Holland says. "He adored his father" and, had he known he was alive, might have found him.

Cyril's life would also be cut short. Holland says, "He became a career soldier, as he said to my father in a letter, in order to wipe out this terrible stain on the family honor." He was killed by a German sniper in World War I.

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