Oscar Wilde as he looked during his visit to California in 1882. (Handout )
California's unchallenged reputation for attracting and embracing eccentrics of all shapes and sizes was already well established when Oscar Wilde brought his one-man traveling circus to the Bear Flag State in March 1882. Not surprisingly, he killed in California.
Wilde, perhaps the first international celebrity who was famous primarily for being famous, would have been right at home in today's world of carefully manufactured stars, of "American Idol," "The Voice" and "Dancing With the Stars." Wilde stamped himself on the collective consciousness of his age — long before he wrote his first masterpiece.
"One should either be a work of art or wear a work of art," he said. At his peak, Wilde managed to accomplish both.
Wilde was three months into his yearlong visit to America when he arrived in California, and his fame — or at least his notoriety — had preceded him. Curious crowds gathered at railroad depots between Omaha and Sacramento to catch a glimpse of the visiting aesthete who had come to this country, it was said, to teach its citizens the value of a good tea service and a well-hung picture in the family foyer.
Those waiting at the depots were rewarded with a smile and a wave from a tall man wearing knee breeches at the rear of the train. It wasn't Wilde who was waving to them but a professional actor named John Howson, a member of the barnstorming Conley-Barton Opera Troupe. Wilde, wearing a more comfortable traveling ensemble of brown velvet pants, black coat and broad-brimmed white sombrero, sat dozing in the club car. He found himself, he wrote a friend back in London, "somewhere in the middle of coyotes and canyons."
In a way, the sleight of hand was fitting. Wilde himself had been playing a role ever since he disembarked at New York harbor, where he allegedly told customs officials that he had nothing to declare except his genius.
He was supposed to be embodying the "fleshly poet" Reginald Bunthorne from the Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera "Patience." Theatrical producer Richard D'Oyly Carte had sent him to America to function as a sort of walking, talking billboard for the play, which was about to make its American debut. Instead, Wilde immediately commenced playing himself. It was Oscar Wilde, not Gilbert and Sullivan, he was there to promote.
Wilde's seeming gayness — which he had yet to profess, even to himself — did not go unnoticed. Newspaper articles in various Eastern publications specifically mentioned his "effeminate" voice and the "many pallid young men with banged hair" who attended his lectures.
Henry James, himself almost certainly a closeted gay man, met Wilde in Washington and pronounced him "a fatuous fool, an unclean beast." In Philadelphia, Walt Whitman was more welcoming. He invited Wilde to tea, served him milk punch and sent him away with his blessings. "I wish well to you, Oscar," said the Good Gray Poet. "I can only say that you are young and ardent, and the field is wide, and if you want my advice, I say 'go ahead.'"
By the time he arrived at the ferry crossing in Oakland on March 27, Wilde had become a national sensation. In San Francisco, he checked into the seven-story Palace Hotel on the corner of New Montgomery and Market streets, reputed to be the most luxurious hotel in the world. There he sat for a battery of interviews. He denied reports that he was disappointed in America. "The further West one comes, the more there is to like," Wilde said. "The Western people are much more social than those of the East, and I fancy that I shall be greatly pleased with California." The entire state, he said, put him in mind of "a very Italy, without its art."
Wilde gave four separate lectures in San Francisco, speaking on home decoration and the English renaissance in art. During his down time he duly played the tourist, visiting Chinatown and looking into its various stores, restaurants, theaters, opium dens — even the ominously named Murderers' Alley. He was particularly gratified to be served a cup of tea on delicate blue-and-white china, not the heavy ceramic mugs used at the Palace Hotel, which suggested, he said, "the idea that it was intended as a weapon, to be hurled at the heads of those seated at the next table."
San Francisco readily embraced the outré young Irishman. Wilde returned the favor. "There is where I belong," he told his hosts at one reception. "This is my atmosphere. I didn't know such a place existed in the whole United States." When the time came for him to leave San Francisco on April 8, even the railroad locomotives were said to have echoed one of his catchphrases, whistling "too too!" as they left the station.
Wilde considered his stay in California far and away the most enjoyable part of his 15,000-mile American tour. "No part of America has struck me so favorably as California," he said. "I intend to return to San Francisco and the West Coast next year in the capacity of a private gentleman traveling for his own amusement and not as a public lecturer condemned to go on the platform at every place I stop."
Years later, when he was living in self-imposed exile in Paris after serving a two-year jail sentence at hard labor in England for the "gross indecency" of having had sex with another man, Wilde sometimes mused about relocating to the American West, a place, he said, "where a man can be a man today, and yesterdays don't count." Unfortunately for Wilde, by then it was too late to make the move.
Roy Morris Jr. is the editor of Civil War Quarterly and the author, most recently, of "Declaring His Genius: Oscar Wilde in North America."