The intrigue that followed a chance meeting with Oscar Wilde in 1882
A young girl who Oscar Wilde met on vacation in 1882 became the lover of Wilde’s future niece and also had an affair with Wilde’s own lover’s future wife.
Confused? Then read on.
It all began when Sam Ward, the author, gourmand, and political lobbyist who had taken Wilde under his wing in America, invited him to Long Beach, the seaside resort on Long Island, New York.
After the holiday, on July 31, 1882, Ward wrote to his niece Maud Howe :
“Oscar was here with me and I have taken him and Mr Hurlbert  to dinner at Long Beach, where we had moonlight on the ocean, and the setting sun, and the loveliest sea breeze to fan us.” 
A week or so later a full-page illustration by a staff artist appeared in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper (above colorized) with the title “A Scene at Long Beach.” It showed a group at the beach, and although the people were not identified, the image was used to illustrate a society article about Wilde and Sam Ward. There seems little doubt, as Maud Howe Elliott also implied in a caption to the same illustration in her 1938 memoir Uncle Sam Ward and his Circle, that the men depicted were intended to be Sam and Oscar.
So much seems apparent. But it is also possible to identify the young lady in the picture who is admiring Wilde, as well as the little girl nearby, her daughter.
In her memoir Aventures de L’esprit (1929) Natalie Barney recalled what she nominates as her First Adventure: the story of how Wilde scooped her up as she ran past him fleeing a group of small boys, and held her out of the boys’ reach before sitting her down on his knee to tell her a story, what she recalled as “a wonderful tale.” Thus, a friendship developed with Natalie’s mother, Alice.
Alice’s husband had abandoned her at the shore and returned to New York (as was his wont), so she and Natalie were able to spend the next day with Oscar on the beach. The acquaintance turned out to be precipitous for the mother and prescient for the daughter.
For Alice, the mother, her conversations with Wilde changed the course of her life. Oscar inspired Alice to pursue art seriously despite her husband’s disapproval. As a direct result, she would go on to study under Carolus-Duran and James McNeill Whistler, and later wrote and performed in several plays and an opera, working to promote the arts in Washington, D.C. Many of her paintings are now in the Smithsonian American Art Museum. For Wilde, whose stated aim on his tour was to develop the arts to America, this achievement, unknown to him, must be regarded as a notable success for his mission.
Natalie, the daughter, grew up to be Natalie Clifford Barney, a playwright, poet and novelist resident in Paris, during which time she served on committees “that commemorated both [Wilde’s] birth and death.” . As early as 1900, she was openly lesbian and published love poems to women under her own name, before going on to found a salon of decadent Modernists on the Left Bank for more than 60 years. Within this clique Natalie Barney conducted many non-monogamous relationships, but the intrigue is in the fact that at least two of her lovers had Wildean connections.
The first was a brief affair with Olive Custance, the future wife of Wilde’s own lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, whom Douglas had married after Wilde’s death. Through this relationship Natalie came to know Douglas quite well, befriending him during his visit to Washington DC, and later becoming godparent to Douglas’ and Olive’s only child, Raymond.
Not to be outdone, Oscar’s brother, Willie Wilde, now adds to the complexity.
In 1891 he had married Mrs Frank Leslie, the proprietor of the very newspaper that published the illustration in question: ‘A Scene at Long Beach’. A nice little conjunction. But the intrigue is that much later, in 1927, Natalie Barney met and cohabited with Willie Wilde’s only daughter from his second marriage Dorothy Ierne Wilde, known as Dolly Wilde: Oscar’s only niece. The relationship was a passionate one for both Natalie and Dolly and continued until the latter’s death in 1941.
Perhaps most thought-provoking is provided by Oscar himself who, after having precipatetd these intertwined relationships, died not knowing anything about them.
Numbering the characters 1—9 beginning at top left:
- Douglas (3) and Oscar (5) were lovers
- Dolly (2) and Natalie (4) were lovers
- Natalie (4) and Olive (7) were lovers
- Willie (9) and Mrs Leslie (6) were married
- Douglas (3) and Olive (7) were married
- Willie (9) and Oscar (5) were brothers
- Alice (1) and Natalie (4) were mother and daughter
- Willie (9) and Dolly (2) were father and daughter
- Oscar (5) and Dolly (2) were uncle and niece
- Natalie (4) was godparent to the only child of Douglas (3) and Olive (7)
- Sam (8) was mentor to Oscar (5)
- Oscar (5) was mentor to Alice (1)
- Mrs Leslie (6) was publisher and friend of Oscar (5)
- Oscar (5), Sam (8), Alice (1) and Natalie (4) are all in A Scene at Long Beach illustration published by Mrs Leslie (6)
 Maud Howe Elliott (1854-1948), whom the press had erroneously linked romantically with Wilde, was the daughter of Sam Ward’s sister, Julia Ward Howe, the prominent abolitionist, social activist, poet, and author of The Battle Hymn of the Republic.
 William Henry Hurlbert (1827—1895), editor-in-chief of the New York newspaper The World.
 Noted in Truly Wilde: The Unsettling Story of Dolly Wilde, Oscar’s Unusual Niece, by Joan Schenkar. Virago, 2000. p 151. Fully recounted in Wild Heart: A Life: Natalie Clifford Barney and the Decadence of Literary Paris, by Suzanne Rodriguez, HarperCollins, 2003. pp 30-33.
 Schenkar (qv.)