St Patrick's Day post. He was an Irishman, after all.
Where’s Oscar?: Oscar Wilde holds forth on art and beauty in A Private View at the Royal Academy, 1881 by William Powell Frith. See if you can spot him and his friend Lillie Langtry in this crowd of late Victorian era celebrities.
Maybe you remember how last month when the Mannion gang was having lunch at a restaurant called Lillie’s in Greenwich Village I got lied to by the maitre d’. I’d asked him why the burger I’d ordered was called the Oscar Wilde Burger and he responded with a lulu.
Lillie’s is named for the actress Lillie Langtry. She and Wilde knew each other socially and professionally, so it makes sense, sticking with the restaurant’s theme, there’d be an item on the menu named after him. But the maitre d’ apparently thought that that was too boring an explanation.
He said---confided might be the better word, considering his mischievous furtiveness as it practically whispered his information---it was because Wilde and Lillie were secret lovers and she used to serve him a burger like this whenever he stayed over at her apartment when they were both living in New York. The maitre d’ didn’t mention it, but that would have been in 1882.
The maitre d’ might have been telling two lies there. It’s not clear hamburgers as we know them had been invented during Wilde’s lifetime. But the obvious and egregious lie was that they were lovers. Wilde was gay and as far as anyone knows he had sex with only one woman during his entire life, his wife. If he had a secret affair with Langtry, they kept it really secret. But they were friends and the story of their friendship is actually more interesting than any conventional heterosexual adultery.
Before I looked into it, I assumed Wilde and Langtry were brought together by their work in the theater. It turns out that Wilde helped Langtry begin her career as an actress.
She was already a celebrity when they met, “a society beauty who owed her fame to her status as the mistress of the Prince of Wale,” according to David M. Friedman, author of Wilde in America: Oscar Wilde and the Invention of Modern Celebrity. Wilde was smitten with her but platonically and, perhaps, opportunistically. Friedman suggests his infatuation with Langtry---he had a shrine to her in his apartment---was something of a career move. Wilde, Friedman writes, “believed any poet worthy of the name needed a public passion; if it was unrequited, that only made it more poetic. Lillie Langtry would be his passion.”
So he showered her with public adoration that was impossible to ignore, not just by Langtry but by all of London society...He “always made a point of bringing me flowers,” Langtry wrote in her memoir, “but he [couldn’t] afford great posies, so...he would buy me a single gorgeous amaryllis...and stroll down Piccadilly, carefully carrying the solitary flower.” It was said that Mr Langtry [Lillie was married. The Victorians weren't as Victorian as they liked to let on.] returned home late one night after a long night of socializing (without his wife) to find Wilde asleep outside the entrance to the Langtrys; apartment, snoring as he clutched a solitary blossom to his heaving chest…
...invited her to parties in his home on Salisbury Street. He gave her advice on fashion and told her what novels to read. He took her to museums and art galleries. He urged her to become an actress and found her an acting coach. He even became her personal classics tutor. When Sir Charles Newton, the man who unearthed the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus---of the the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World---gave a lecture at King’s College, London, Wilde brought Langtry there in a carriage, from which they alighted, waving like royalty to their fellow lecture-goers. After Langtry studied the Iliad, Wilde wrote a poem about her titled “The New Helen.”
There’s enough to have earned his having a sandwich named in his honor at “her” restaurant right there. But there’s more to go with it.
In October of 1882, Langtry came to New York to star in a play by the author of Our American Cousin, the play Lincoln was watching when John Wilkes Booth shot him. Wilde was in the city, resting up before heading home to London after a nine-month lecture tour of the United States that took him to 150 cities on a circuit that covered around 15,000 miles. Wilde met her ship at the dock---”I would rather have discovered Mrs Langtry than have discovered America,” he told reporters waiting for her arrival with him.---and he spent the next few weeks showing her around and showing her off, acting as her guide to the city and introducing her into New York society. They didn’t spend as much time together as Wilde would have liked, though. For one thing she was busy with rehearsals. For another…
Rather than spending her free time with him, she was spending it with Freddie Gebhard, and American playboy and heir to a huge real estate and manufacturing fortune, who was happy to spend vast sums of money to keep her entertained and by his side.
Maybe Lillie’s should serve a Freddie Gebhard burger. Then the maitre d’ would have a story perhaps more to his liking to tell.
The painting up top, A Private View at the Royal Academy, 1881, was painted by William Powell Frith in 1883. It depicts Wilde, standing just off to the right of center in a top hat and a velvet coat with a lily in the buttonhole, holding forth to a pair of female admirers on his theories of art and beauty. The crowd around him includes a number of other people who were well-known in their day, several of whom whose fame has lasted: Anthony Trollope, Robert Browning, Thomas Huxley, John Tenniel, Prime Minister William Gladstone (Gladstone’s rival Benjamin Disraeli appears by proxy in the form of two portraits of him on the gallery walls), and the actors Henry Irving and Ellen Terry. Lillie Langtry is there, wearing a white dress and standing just off to Wilde’s right (our left). She doesn’t appear to be paying attention to him.
Wilde in America: Oscar Wilde and the Invention of Modern Celebrity by David M. Friedman is available in hardcover and for kindle at Amazon.