Oscar Wilde

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Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in two historic cases concerning the rights of gay Americans.  In United States. v. Windsor, the Court was asked to examine the  Defense of Marriage Act and decide whether the federal government must provide government benefits to same-sex couples in states where their marriages are recognized.  In Hollingsworth v. Perry, the Court faced the bigger question of whether the U.S. Constitution guarantees a right to same-sex marriage.

We shall see what the Court rules, but the extensive news coverage got me to thinking about Oscar Wilde.  He was a victim of incredible intolerance and bigotry during the Victorian era and I just wish he could be here today.  I think he would be pleased to learn that more than a majority of Americans support the right to same-sex marriage (and the 1100 federal benefits that come along with marriage).

I initially began thinking about Wilde when wandering around Dublin a few summers ago, I happened on the coolest statue of him in Merrion Square.

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Image from Wikipedia
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 In 1997 Dublin honored Wilde (who was born there in 1854) with this statue sculpted of semi-precious stones reclining on a boulder of Irish quartz. Surrounding him are some of his most famous epigrams, like this one:

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“There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about”

The only word for sculpted  Oscar’s pose is “insouciant” and yet, poor Oscar Wilde was hardly blithely unconcerned at least during the latter part of his life.

You probably know that Oscar Wilde was a famous writer and you may have read and/or seen “The Importance of Being Earnest” or the “The Picture of Dorian Grey”, his most famous works.

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The Picture of Dorian Gray painted by Ivan Albright at the Chicago Art Institute
Image from Wikipedia click for source

But Oscar Wilde was also infamous in his time on account of his legal troubles.  Last January, on the coldest day of the winter, we took an Oscar Wilde walking tour of London with Alan,  a wonderful guide who told us the  sad story of Oscar Wilde’s discriminatory and brutal treatment by the English legal system.

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Alan in J.J. Fox, the tobaconist where Wilde bought the 200 cigarettes he smoked each day.

Wilde moved to England from Ireland to study at Oxford in the 1870’s.  The poetry he wrote there was a hit and he began to make money from his writing (and from speaking engagements on a tour of the U.S.).  Wilde married in 1881 and had two sons with the wonderful names of Cyril and Vyvyan.

Wilde liked men all along, but a decade after his marriage, he met the privileged and handsome Lord Alfred Douglas (nicknamed  “Bosie”) and then his troubles began.

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Wilde and Douglas
Image from Wikipedia
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They began a torrid affair although homosexuality was a crime in England at the time.  Oscar was totally smitten with Bosie and neither of them acted cautiously despite the “criminality” of their behavior.  Bosie introduced Wilde to the  demimond of young gay working-class prostitutes.  Our guide, Alan,  told us that Wilde described his adventures with the rent-boys as “feasting with panthers”.

Bosie’s father was a total asshole, the Marquess of Queensberry.

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Marquess of Queensberry
Image from Wikipedia
Click for source

The Marquess (who is famous for formalizing the rules of boxing) was peeved that his son was having an affair with Oscar Wilde.  He confronted Wilde about it several times and then left his calling card at Wilde’s hotel.  He wrote ” For Oscar Wilde, posing Somdomite”  (ha! –  he spelled it wrong!).

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Image from Wikipedia,
Click for source

Disastrously, Oscar brought a “private prosecution” against the Marquess for criminal libel.  The Marquess was arrested and there was a trial of O.J-like intensity.  The Marquess threatened to call several prostitutes to testify that Wilde indeed engaged in homosexual acts so Oscar ultimately dropped the prosecution.  To make matters worse,  the Marquess had counterclaimed and Oscar was bankrupted because he had to pay the Marquess’ legal fees.

Even then, the Marquess couldn’t let it go and he sent his evidence against Oscar to Scotland Yard.  Wilde was arrested and prosecuted for sodomy and gross indecency.  He was convicted and sentenced to two years hard labor. Oscar suffered in prison (no smokes and brutal conditions). He fled England as soon as he was released from prison.  He moved to France where he lived in poverty until he died of meningitis three years later at age 46.  Wilde is buried in Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris where today people come to put on lipstick and kiss the base of his headstone.

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Click for source

Oscar Wilde’s writings live on – his plays are still performed all over the world and his witty epigrams still pop up everywhere, including on this season’s H&M tee shirts!

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Cousin Susie, H&M, Norfolk, VA, 12/31/12

Fingers crossed, a majority of the Supreme Court will vote for fairness and equality.  Oscar Wilde, I hope you will be pleased.

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