Decadence and despair in Oscar Wilde’s Paris
s Oscar Wilde lay dying in the Hôtel d’Alsace in Paris’s Rue des BeauxArts, he was still delivering the one-liners. “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death – one or the other of us has to go,” he joked.
On November 30, 1900, the wallpaper won the duel, when Wilde died, aged only 46, of cerebral meningitis – although more sensationalist commentators claim it was syphilis.
These days, the wallpaper in his room in the renamed L’Hotel is rather splendid. The walls of the bow window are candy-striped. The others are lined with green and gold, art nouveau peacocks, gently kissing each other. It is all very fin de siècle; all very Paris – a home to Oscar when he was in his own strutting peacock pomp in the 1890s; a refuge when he was begging for a few sous for a cognac in his last, sad, desperate days.
It didn’t seem at all macabre sleeping in the room where Wilde died. It is decorated so tastefully and reverently with such delicious Wildeiana – including a Vanity Fair cartoon of Oscar and a framed copy of his final bill at the hotel, where he had lived on and off for two years.
There is also a copy of the letter from the hotel manager, asking Wilde – or Sebastian Melmoth, as he called himself then – to pay the bill. Wilde was unable to; as he said, “I am dying above my means.” The bill was only paid off by his friend, Robbie Ross, two years after his death.
When you stay in his last room, you never feel you are mocking Wilde’s ghost – or being haunted by it. And Wilde – who adored luxury and beauty – would not have disapproved of the way the place has been transformed from the cheap hotel he knew to the smart boutique hotel it is today – owned by supermarket heiress, Jessica Sainsbury, and her husband, Peter Frankopan, a Croatian prince and author of the 2015 bestseller, ‘The Silk Roads’.
Wilde’s Paris is a tale of two cities: the bright, glittering city of intense literary acclaim before prison; and the melancholy, down-at-heel city of near-universal rejection afterwards.
A new show at Paris’s Petit Palais – ‘Oscar Wilde – Insolence Incarnate’ – tells both stories. Although Wilde visited Paris with his mother as a teenager, spent his honeymoon in the city and died in that Rive Gauche bedroom, there has never been a major Wilde show in France – even though the French never rejected him the way the British did after his conviction.
The show is co-curated by Dominique Morel and Merlin Holland – Wilde’s grandson, who lives in Burgundy.
“The whole connection of Oscar with Paris is very strong,” says Merlin Holland, “He came here on a regular basis for long periods of time. Paris meant a huge amount to him. He’s always been quite highly revered in France. A lot of the French press, at the time of the trials, wrote in his defence, saying it was shameful to treat an artist in this way.”
“He also spoke beautiful French apparently. He wrote it pretty fluently – he wrote Salomé in French.”
Wilde’s original Salomé manuscript is in the show, as is Toulouse-Lautrec’s marvellously atmospheric, ‘La Danse mauresque’ – painted as part of the set at the Baraque de la Goulue cabaret. A plump Wilde in top hat gazes at the dance, already a fixture of Belle Époque Paris at its ferociously drunk, prodigiously talented height.
Wilde the dandy aesthete is on prominent show in the exhibition. In a world first, the show includes 13 of the original photo-portraits taken by Napoleon Sarony during Wilde’s tour of America in 1882. They are the definitive pictures of Wilde as aesthete – his drooping curtains of hair, eyes fixed in the middle distance, a voluminous necktie and a splendidly OTT, three-piece, velvet suit.
Between 1883 and 1894, Wilde was right at the heart of the Parisian literary scene; he stayed in the city for stretches as long as three months, often staying in the Hôtel Voltaire on the Rive Gauche. Still a charming, classical hotel today, the Hôtel Voltaire was also where a 19-year-old Wilde, in Paris for the first time, stayed with his mother. It’s worth dropping in on the hotel for a reasonably-priced drink: 3.80 euros for a glass of wine, 5.60 euros for a kir.
The Rive Gauche, around St Germain des Près, was Wilde’s stamping ground during the golden years, where he exchanged glittering conversation with André Gide, Stéphane Mallarmé and Paul Verlaine. He met Victor Hugo, too, even if the great man of French letters fell asleep after a few opening pleasantries with Wilde.
One of his favourite haunts, the Café de Flore, on the Boulevard St Germain, is still there today, with a restrained art deco interior and outside tables with handy views for admiring the passing intellectuals, amateur philosophers and students. It’s quite pricey – 30 euros for a salade niçoise, a citron pressé and a coffee – but worth it for atmosphere points.
Oscar also crossed the river to the Rive Droite outposts of café society, particularly to the Boulevard des Capucines and the Boulevard des Italiens, just between the Madeleine and the Opèra. One of Wilde’s favourites – still going strong – was the art nouveau Le Grand Café Capucines, at 4 Boulevard des Capucines. It offers a decent two-course lunch for 24 euros.
He ventured further north, too, to the Moulin Rouge, on Boulevard de Clichy. Today it is a rather cheesy place, a Disneyfied version of French sexiness – although it’s worth walking past it during the day to admire the magnificently chintzy red windmill over the entrance.
When Wilde went there in 1891, the Moulin Rouge had only been open for two years, and was the height of fashion – as was Oscar. Stuart Merrill, an American poet in Paris then, said of him, “The habitués took him for the prince of some fabulous realm of the North.”
And then came Wilde’s dramatic fall – after his failed libel case against the Marquess of Queensberry, his criminal conviction and imprisonment. Also in the show is the Marquess of Queensberry’s card, delivered to Wilde’s club, on which the marquess had written, “For Oscar Wilde posing somdomite [sic].” It was Wilde’s disastrous libel suit against Queensberry for libel – which he lost – that led to the criminal case against him.
On his release, Wilde went first to Dieppe and then, in 1898, to Paris, first staying in the Hôtel de Nice on the Rue des Beaux-Arts, before moving down the road to his last address, the Hôtel d’Alsace.
In his last two years, he cut a sad, shambling figure on the streets of Paris. At 11am, he would breakfast in the hotel on bread, butter and coffee. At two, he had a cutlet and two hard-boiled eggs, washed down with Courvoisier cognac.
He then stretched out the days and nights, smoking and drinking in his old haunts, borrowing money off passing old friends like André Gide. In one restaurant on Rue Jacob (now a Chinese restaurant), around the corner from the Hôtel d’Alsace, Wilde came across a mother and a little boy, who was the same age as his son, Vyvyan (Merlin Holland’s father). Since his conviction, Wilde had not been allowed to see his two sons, who had moved to the Continent with their mother, Constance.
When the boy upset a salt cellar on Wilde’s table, his mother told her son not to be so clumsy. The boy excused himself to the man they only knew as Monsieur Sebastian.
“Don’t be unkind to your little boy,” said Wilde, “You never know when you might be separated from him.”
“Do you have a little boy?” said the boy.
“I have two.”
“Why don’t you bring them here with you?”
“Because they’re too far away.”
Oscar then kissed the boy on both cheeks and said, in English, “Oh, my poor, dear boys.”
Wilde’s final destination in Paris was a sombre but beautiful one; his tomb in Père Lachaise cemetery, designed by Jacob Epstein. Immediately after his death, Wilde was buried in a leased pauper’s grave in Bagneux, outside the walls of Paris. It was only in 1909 – with Wilde’s bankruptcy paid off by the posthumous sales of his works – that his old friend, Robbie Ross, moved him to Père Lachaise.
Oscar’s tomb is the most visited in the cemetery; more popular than the graves of Maria Callas, Chopin and Jim Morrison. But the tomb has been a victim of its own success. Since the 1990s, pilgrims have peppered the stonework with kisses. The fat from the lipstick sinks into the stone, and has to be removed with solvent poultices. Over the years, Epstein’s work has been slowly decaying.
And so, in 2011, the Irish government paid to clean and de-grease the tomb, and install a kissproof, glass barrier around it. Still today, people kiss the glass and the sun projects the lipstick outline of the kisses onto Wilde’s tomb. I’m sure Oscar would have approved.
Where to stay
Harry Mount stayed at L’Hôtel, 13 Rue des Beaux-Arts. The Oscar Wilde room costs €850 a night – other rooms from £300. The hotel is offering an Oscar Wilde tea and a tour of his haunts for €70 per person.
Harry Mount travelled from London St Pancras to Paris on Eurostar (eurostar.com) which offers return tickets from £69.
Oscar Wilde – Insolence Incarnate is at the Petit Palais, Paris (petitpalais.paris.fr) until January 15 , 2017, admission €10. Open: Tuesday-Sunday, 10am-6 pm, Friday until 9 pm.