Men of Letters

The Destiny of Two of Wilde’s Friends

Names like A.A. Milne and Z.Z. Top are not just at the opposite ends of the 20th century’s cultural and chronological spectrum, they are polar examples of another kind. I mean, of course, in the alphabetical use of two initials as a form of nomenclature, which, as a device, often makes for a memorable moniker. 

Oscar Wilde, in his time, knew a few characters thus named, including two of the most celebrated: W. B. Yeats and H. G. Wells.

However, on this day I should like to focus on two similarly styled, but lesser known, artists in the Wilde story, for they share a bond more profound than the form of their familiar names:

I refer to F. D. Millet and W.T. Stead.

F. D. Millet, portrait by George Du Maurier, 1889.

Francis Davis Millet was an American painter, sculptor, and writer with whom Wilde became acquainted quite early on in his American lecture tour of 1882.

On January 11 that year Millet was invited to a reception given for Wilde at the Dress Association on W. 23rd St., hosted by the proprietor of that cooperative enterprise, the journalist and actress, Kate Field. Also present were the actress Clara Morris, E.C. Stedman, and other artists and painters including Elihu Vedder.

At the event Wilde enjoyed a  “bohemian luncheon” at which he attempted to interest Morris in his latest play, which she eventually refused. Of more immediately use to Oscar, however, was his meeting with Millet which provided him with an entrée into the aesthetic community of New York City.

Millet, along with Vedder, was a member of the Tile Club—so called because painting decorative ceramic tiles was one of their pursuits. The Tile Club was an elusive collective of up to 30 notable New York writers, artists and architects who met between 1877 and 1887, usually on Wednesday evenings at their various studios. Other alumni include William Merritt Chase, Edwin Abbey, Stanford White, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, John Twachtman, and Napoleon Sarony.

Wilde later visited Millet at his studio, and, like Mark Twain before him, was also made a guest at a Tile Club gathering in New York. For Wilde, it was to be the beginning of a long acquaintance with Millet which included their joint attendance at a banquet given to American authors in London in 1888.

Wilde’s neighbor around this time, John Singer Sargent, often used Millet’s daughter, Kate, as a model.

John Singer Sargent, Kate Millet, 1886
An Autumn Idyll. Oil on canvas, Brooklyn Museum.
Signed bottom left, F.D. Millet, 1892.
Soldier of Fortune: F.D. Millet 1846-1912 - Joyce A. Sharpey-Schafer - Google Books 2016-04-11 V1
Elihu Vedder: American visionary artist in Rome (1836-1923) - Regina Soria - Google Books 2016-04-11
Bookplate of F.D. Millet.
W. T. Stead

Our second man of letters is William Thomas Stead, the influential English newspaper editor, whose campaign against child prostitution and abduction led to changes in the law. Unfortunately, an unintended consequence was that the same law was manipulated to re-criminalize homosexual acts and was later used to convict Wilde.

William Thomas Stead, c. 1890.

Stead was largely influential in launching Wilde’s career in journalism, and as editor of Pall Mall Gazette he published dozens of reviews and articles by Wilde that appeared in the paper between 1885 and 1890.

He was also generous in print about Oscar at the time of his trials. By chance he later met Wilde in Paris, and, unlike so many others, greeted him as an old friend. When De Profundis was published in 1905, he wrote to Robert Ross saying how “profoundly touching” it was, confirming that he had never joined the herd of Wilde’s assailants.

So we have two old friends of Wilde’s in Millet and Stead, and while it is not clear whether they were ever drawn together in life—although it is likely—we do know one fact. They were destined to be together in death.

On This Day: April 15

111 years ago today F.D. Millet and W.T. Stead were passengers aboard the ill-fated R.M.S. Titanic which sank in the early hours of April 15th, 1912, and both men died together in that cold night.

Stead was sighted by survivor Philip Mock clinging to a raft along with John Jacob Astor IV: “Their feet became frozen,” reported Mock, “and they were compelled to release their hold”, never to be seen again. Millet’s body was recovered, but he was last seen alive helping women and children into lifeboats.

It is a sad footnote for two of men of letters in the Wilde story. 

Did they wish that Wilde, had he lived, could have been aboard with them; or, on that fateful journey were their thoughts for a moment with him. Perhaps not. But in appreciation of two fine men who supported Oscar in friendships long past, it is the hope on this day that our Wildean thoughts might just for a moment be with them.

© John Cooper, 2023, (originally published 2016).

In Memoriam
Francis Davis Millet Titanic Victim
Memorial plaque in Central Park, New York. A similar plaque, with a different inscription, is displayed on Victoria Embankment, London.


Encyclopedia Titanica: F.D. Millet

Encyclopedia Titanica: : W. T. Stead

On this page, I report the ship on which Oscar Wilde sailed twice, the S.S. Arizona, which had its own Titanic moment.

4 thoughts on “Men of Letters

    1. Hi J.D.,
      Excuse me swooping in to answer your question to John – the snippet is from p. 172 of Regina Soria’s book on Elihu Vedder, which you can find on the Internet Archive.


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