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Sheila Colman, 82; Tended Wilde's Lover

November 25, 2001|From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Sheila Colman, who devoted herself to restoring the reputation of the man blamed for the scandal that led to Oscar Wilde's imprisonment and social ruin in the 1890s, has died. She was 82.

Colman died Nov. 15 at her farm in Sompting, West Sussex, England. The cause of death was not announced.

Colman and her husband, Edward, befriended Lord Alfred Douglas, Wilde's former lover, in 1943 after they were introduced to the destitute poet by a mutual friend.

In December 1944, the widowed Douglas accepted the couple's invitation to stay at their farm. The Colmans cared for Douglas at their home until he died of heart failure in March 1945 at age 74.

Douglas, son of the Marquess of Queensbury, was a key figure in the sensational libel trial that ruined Wilde's career.

Wilde, the poet, playwright and novelist, met the 21-year-old Douglas, affectionately known as "Bosie," in 1891. When Douglas' father denounced the famous writer as a sodomite, Wilde sued. He lost the case and was later convicted of "gross indecency" and imprisoned because of his homosexuality.

While in prison, Wilde wrote a bitter letter to Douglas, published as "De Profundist," blaming Douglas for his downfall. But the two men were reunited after Wilde was released from prison in 1897 after two years. When Wilde died in 1900, Douglas paid for his funeral.

Douglas was bankrupted by a failed libel suit in 1913 against Arthur Ransome, a biographer of Wilde. In 1928, Douglas was jailed for six months for libeling Winston Churchill.

Douglas, who once told a friend that the Colmans "have been angelic to me, dear people," named the couple as the main beneficiaries in his will.

The Colmans received no money, but they inherited the copyright to all of Douglas' poetry and prose. The most famous line from Douglas' poetry is, "I am the love that dare not speak its name," written when he was 22.

In 1981, the Colmans used money earned from royalties to settle Douglas' debt from his 1913 bankruptcy.

In 1999, Sheila Colman gave $36,000 to Oxford University to establish the Lord Alfred Douglas Memorial Prize for the best sonnet or other poem written in English "in strict rhyming meter" by a university student.

Last year, Colman announced that some of Douglas' previously unknown writings were to be published.

"I have poems, sonnets and lyrics which have never been seen before," she told the Evening Standard of London.

"There's a lot of prejudice against him; people think of him only as the boyfriend of Wilde and the man who brought about his downfall. But there are wonderful pieces about Oscar Wilde, dreams Bosie had of him, and other things which moved him."

Colman also had made Douglas' papers available to Douglas Murray, whose biography of Douglas, "Bosie," was published last year by Talk Miramax Books/Hyperion.

In addition to her literary efforts and her support for the Oscar Wilde Society, Colman raised prize-winning sheep on her farm. Her husband died in 1983; they had no children.

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