New York City. Friday. January 15, 2016.
I'd forgotten. His full name was Oscar Fingal O'Flahrtie Wills Wilde. Probably wouldn't have fit on the menu but that's what I'd have liked to order: "I'll have the Oscar Fingal O'Flahrtie Wills Wilde Burger, please."
He’s a short, compact, middle-aged guy wearing a pressed white shirt with French cuffs and cufflinks, a purple tie with a clasp, and a permanent compressed lipped smile. His graying hair is combed neatly back. Cheerful, dapper, and happy to please, and I think he thought it would please me to be lied to.
Wasn’t much of a lie, really. More of a tall tale.
I had the Oscar Wilde Burger. Burger, bleu cheese, bacon, onions.
But why, I wanted to know, is it called the Oscar Wilde burger?
They serve a Judge Roy Bean cocktail here---Avion Reposado, Grapefruit Juice, Lime, Splash of soda, 12 dollars---and that makes sense, that there’s a cocktail, not the ingredients. Judge Bean styled himself the only Law West of the Pecos and, while the tequila’s appropriate, there weren’t a lot of grapefruits or limes in his southwestern part of Texas in those days. But he was infatuated with Lillie Langtry and named his saloon the Jersey Lilly after her. (So he spelled it wrong?) Wilde and Langtry knew each other through their work in the theater, although I can’t remember if they were close friends, but why was their connection being honored with a hamburger, let alone one made with “Angus beef, Oregon crumbled bleu cheese, applewood bacon, and crispy fried onions”?
The maitre d’-’s smile widened and his eyes danced more merrily. He glanced left, then right, as if checking that no one was listening in, then said in almost a whisper, “It’s because he and Lillie were lovers and whenever he came to New York and he stayed over at her place, that’s what she would serve him for dinner. It was his favorite meal.”
“Oscar Wilde and Lillie Langtry were lovers?”
“Huh.” I said. “Interesting.” I left it at that, and the maitre d’ bustled off to go lie to other customers.
Actually, there might have been two lies in what the maitre d’ said. Wilde visited America in 1882 and it’s not certain hamburgers as we know them had been invented yet by then. Wikipedia says maybe they were around in 1884 but more probably not until 1896, even 1900. If it was that late, Wilde may never have had a hamburger anywhere, let alone a favorite one served to him in New York City by Lillie Langtry. He died that year.
The other lie, of course, is that Wilde and Langtry were lovers.
They knew each other, like I said. They even met up in New York City once. But they weren’t lovers, unless her real name was Larry. Even if it was, I don’t think Wilde’s taste ran to transvestites. He preferred rough trade and very boyish young men.
Doesn’t matter. Again, like I said. Not much of a lie. More a bit of Bunburrying. Maybe the Oscar Wilde burger is named the Oscar Wilde burger just so the staff can give the customers a fun story to go with their meals.
Whatever the reason, it was, also like I said, very good.
And if the maitre d’ did think I’d enjoy being lied to, he was right.
I did enjoy being lied to, if only for the chance to refute the lie with a blog post.
Whether or not Wilde ever had a hamburger, he did like a good sandwich. He preferred watercress sandwiches, and he was very particular about them. From Wikipedia:
Wilde himself evidently took sandwiches with due seriousness. Max Beerbohm recounted in a letter to Reggie Turner Wilde's difficulty in obtaining a satisfactory offering: "He ordered a watercress sandwich: which in due course was brought to him: not a thin, diaphanous green thing such as he had meant but a very stout satisfying article of food. This he ate with assumed disgust (but evident relish) and when he paid the waiter, he said: 'Tell the cook of this restaurant with the compliments of Mr Oscar Wilde that these are the very worst sandwiches in the whole world and that, when I ask for a watercress sandwich, I do not mean a loaf with a field in the middle of it.'"
As for Wilde's sexual preferences, here's an excellent biographical sketch by Alex Ross at the New Yorker, centered around a comparison of the original version of "The Picture of Dorian Gray" as it appeared in a magazine and the expanded version later published as a complete novel: Deceptive Picture.
And, while we're on the subject of what Wilde was up to when he was in New York, in doing my homework for this post I Googled up the news that a book came out a couple years ago I'm surprised I missed and that I'm now going to read, Wilde in America by David M. Friedman.