A book mapping Irish literary legend Oscar Wilde’s tour through America claims this audacious unknown invented the idea of the modern celebrity. Like Kim Kardashian, Paris Hilton and Honey Boo Boo, Wilde, years before he wrote “The Importance of Being Earnest” or “The Picture of Dorian Gray”, set out to make himself famous.
If fact it was Wilde’s haters who gave him the opportunity to become a star.
In “Wilde in America: Oscar Wilde and the Invention of Modern Celebrity” David. M Friedman says Wilde’s cleverly constructed quotes were not spontaneous but rather a well laid plan to become infamous for casual repartee. His famous quotes, such as “I can resist everything except temptation,” were created according to a formula.
Friedman writes, “To ensure he kept getting [invited to parties], he perfected a verbal trick: replacing a word in a sentence with its unexpected opposite.”
More importantly, it was his mother, Lady Jane Wilde, who taught him the importance of creating one’s own self. Lady Wilde claimed to be descended from Dante and taught her son that in conversation “epigrams are always better than argument” and “paradox is the very essence of social wit.”
According to Friedman, “It was from Lady Wilde that Oscar learned that identity is a kind of fiction, and that being oneself is a form of playacting.
“It was from her that Oscar learned that the most important act of creativity is the creation of one’s own image.”
At Oxford University John Ruskin, a professor of fine art, became Wilde’s mentor. In his lectures he focused on “the power and meaning of beauty” and the aesthetic movement, which placed beauty above the pragmatic. It declared that beauty was “evidence of God’s presence on Earth.”
“He would become the self-anointed leader of Oxford’s student aesthetes, preaching to his classmates the Divine Gospel of Beauty and the superiority of decorative handmade goods to ugly manufactured ones,” Friedman wrote.
The first public display of this created persona was in 1877 at the opening of the Grosvenor Gallery. Wilde was just 22 when he made his London debut. He knew the opening would attract guests such as the Prince of Wales and that it was a perfect opportunity for “an unforgettable act of peacockery.”
He “strut[ed] about the Grosvenor in an evening jacket specially tailored, shaped, decorated and tinted so that, when viewed from the rear, it transformed its wearer into a walking, talking musical instrument: a cello. In a room lined with works of art, Wilde stole the show by wearing one,” said Friedman.
The press and ladies in society began to take notice of Wilde as did his detractors.
W.S. Gilbert, of Gilbert & Sullivan fame, thought Wilde pretentious and awful. He wrote a mocking libretto about two rival aesthetes. However, when the opera, “Patience,” premiered in 1881, the public quickly favored the character of Bunthorne, modeled on Wilde.
Wilde attended opening night and attracted as much attention as the play.
The promoter for “Patience” wanted to send the show to America but feared that the aesthetic movement might not translate. They sent Wilde to do a series of lectures on the subject while dressed in outfits like that of the character Bunthorne.
Wilde grabbed the chance.
The promoters sent on information to high society and the press giving the impression that Wilde was the founder of the aesthetic movement and was famous in England.
In truth he was barely out of college.
On his arrival he was greeted by the press and was inundated with invitations to parties, many of them in his honor. He was feted by the mayor of New York, a New York Supreme Court justice, the pastors of Grace and Trinity churches, among other society heads.
And he did not disappoint arriving in “a black velvet Prince Albert coat and billowing white shirt with a large collar, accessorized by a robin’s-egg-blue scarf.”
He attended a performance of “Patience”, along with his entourage. When Bunthorne hit the stage the audience’s eyes were on Wilde. A Tribune reporter among his entourage noted that he quipped, “This is the compliment that mediocrity pays to those who are not mediocre.”
At a party on January 8, at the home of the former US Ambassador to France Wilde managed to upstage Louisa May Alcott, the author of “Little Women.” Wilde arrived late and drew off part of the crowd.
Alcott’s friend, poet Emma Lazarus wrote that Wilde was “beneath contempt” and “for the very reason that he is not a fool, and knows what he is about, I think he is the more to be despised and shunned by all sensible people for making such a consummate ass of himself.”
People were talking about Wilde and this was even before his first lecture.
His first lecture, given at the last minute to a 1,250-seat auditorium near Union Square was sold out.
It was reported that when Wilde walked on stage “the audience gasped...staring, many with mouths open, at a 6-foot-3 man wearing a snug black velvet coat with lavender satin piping and a frill of white lace at the wrists, black satin breeches...and patent-leather pumps with lustrous silver buckles.”
The American audience expected a buffoon to appear on stage, however Wilde delivered an intelligent speech on the origins of aesthetics and its impact on the world’s great thinkers. He succeed in establishing himself as a fashion icon and intellectual. London heard of his success.
Photographs of celebrities were beginning to become popular collector’s items and Wilde took advantage immediately. He set up a shoot with Napoleon Sarony and his photos showed his outrageous outfits. They became big sellers for the next 12 months.
By the end of that year Wilde was “one of the most recognized figures in the United States.”
He became so well known that advertisers used his photos to sell products, including cigars and kitchen stoves.
Friedman writes that the popularity of his photos made Wilde “the first modern marketed celebrity in our culture.”
Wilde traveled extensively, lecturing all along the east coast, throughout the old deep south and out west in California and elsewhere. He sat for interviews, had private meeting with Walt Whitman, Confederate president Jefferson Davis (who was not a fan), and former President Ulysses S. Grant, among others.
By the end of his tour he was a household name. He was fast becoming “the most written-about Briton in the United States.”
He went on to write classic novels and a classic play. However, his self-promotion would also be his downfall.
From 1895 to 1897 he was imprisoned for “gross indecency” following an affair with the son of the Marquess of Queensberry. Wilde had sued the Marquess after he made the knowledge of his displeasure public. If he had not he might avoided his prison sentence.
Friedman wrote, “The man who had so presciently devised a winning – and lasting – formula for how to become a modern celebrity had failed to see a crucial pitfall of the new culture of self-promotion: the danger of believing the hype, especially your own.
“Wilde thought he was too famous to fail – which is precisely why he did.”
While in prison he fell and ruptured his eardrum. In 1900 he died of cerebral meningitis, aged 46.
* “Wilde in America: Oscar Wilde and the Invention of Modern Celebrity” by David Friedman is available here.
* Originally published in 2014.