You will recall the rediscovered photograph of Oscar Wilde (similar to the one above) that I featured in this post — where it was effectively published for the first time in almost 130 years.
The photograph had originally appeared in the March 10, 1893 issue of the Westminster Budget, in an article entitled “Mr. Wilde’s Forbidden Play” about Oscar’s French work Salomé.
At the time of that earlier post I expressed the hope is that an original print might come to light, but one has not done so yet. However, what has emerged is another copy of the newspaper, this time with a better quality image—now shown above.
The woman Oscar Wilde met as a girl in 1882 who became the lover of his niece and had an affair with his own lover’s future wife.
Confused? Then to understand the full intrigue you should read my post A Scene at Long Beach and learn how the story began with Natalie Barney as a little girl. Then return to this article which features a rare interview with her in her 90th year.
Natalie Barney was 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, and at least two of her lovers had Wildean connections.
Take a closer look at the details of the above cartoon.
It is one of the Fancy Portrait series from the long established satirical journal Punch and it appeared in response to the opening night of Wilde’s play Lady Windermere’s Fan at the St. James’s Theatre on February 19, 1892.
It was an event worth memorializing, not least for the occasion of Oscar’s famous curtain call, two aspects of which have become the stuff of legend.
First, that Wilde took to the stage still smoking a cigarette—which some thought disrespectful. Second, that he gave an amusing speech of playful immodesty—which others thought condescending. Or, at least they did in those stuffy Victorian days. One irate newspaper correspondent referred to Wilde’s “vulgar impertinence”.  These were, of course, the Victorians who could neither grasp irony nor face the change in attitudes that Wilde boldly anticipated.
Conversely, others saw no ill-manners in Wilde’s appearance. Indeed, the theatre audience on the night was thoroughly amused, and one report of it found his demeanor “very touching”. 
Whichever view one took, everyone agreed on one thing: that Wilde was different. And being different is a sure way in any era of achieving the second worst thing the world: i.e. being talked about. So the story of Wilde’s curtain call was seized upon by the press at the time and has been well-documented by authors over the years.
But my analysis begins with the cartoon. In it Wilde’s curtain call is immediately recognizable: the smoking, the speech, and Lady Windermere’s fan. So as we have already alluded to the record of journalism and biography, let us revisit the circumstances through the prism of caricature.
Nobody ever alleged that my allegiance to alliteration was anything other than alluring, so allow me to allude to this little Oscar Wilde story about the Liberal, the Lord of Language, and the ladies Labouchère and Langtry.
Or perhaps it would be even more obscure, and thus more intriguing, to say it is about Henrietta Hodson, Hester & The Two Henrys, and The Home Depot.
Either way, we must first place the tale in context.
Lecturing in the midwest, Oscar Wilde meets pioneers and native Americans
This is Boyd’s Theatre and Opera House in Omaha, Nebraska, as it was when Oscar Wilde lectured there.
If the surroundings look a little unmade (and Oscar complained about the muddy streets) it was to be expected—in 1882 the midwest of America was still a place of frontier development, something that the people of St. Paul ironically accepted:
By the time Wilde arrived in Omaha in March 1882, the geography of his American adventure had started to take shape.
A previously unpublished autograph letter signed (ALS) by Oscar Wilde appeared a little while ago at auction in North Carolina. Aided by the letter’s evident authenticity and the fact that the consignor is a direct family descendant, it sold at auction for $5,500.
The item is a note sent by Wilde to Anne Lynch Botta, the 19th century doyenne of New York literary society, in which he expresses regret at not being able to attend a reception, owing to his impending departure for Canada.
We can use internal evidence from the letter to learn more about Wilde’s itinerary.
Wilde’s play Salomé was published in the 1890s in two languages, and the bane of each was a lordly limitation.
First was the original work that Wilde wrote in French—albeit with a little help from his friends. Rehearsals in 1892 for a London production based on the French draft were unexpectedly derailed by the Lord Chamberlain who deemed the drama too decadent to be staged. One presumes that incestuous and homoerotic desire, murder and necrophilia were a tad more taboo in those days—and the autocratic aristocrat refused to grant it a license for the theatre. Undeterred, Wilde proceeded into print and the play appeared in book form as Salomé: Drame en un acte — or what is now referred to simply as the original French edition (1893).
Next was the troublesome task of translating the text into English. This time the noble impediment was altogether more predictable because it was Wilde’s paramour and translator of the play himself Lord Alfred Douglas—or Bosie to his friends if he had any friends left after characteristic bouts of squabbling and fraught correspondence about his lingua franca with all concerned.
Owing to the personal discord between various participants and the 23 year-old Douglas, his work on the translation has often been maligned in mainstream commentary. But such a conviction conveniently overlooks the fact that Wilde’s conversational French was grammatically unsatisfactory, and the composition artistically unsuited to an English version. Little wonder that Wilde, who had himself received native assistance with the finer points of the argot, did not translate his own work himself, and never repeated the experiment.
So it might be a more sympathetic view of then Douglas translation to accept that literary style is notoriously difficult to render harmoniously at the best of times—never mind the complications converting Wilde’s repetitive symbolist subtleties from the gendered Gallic into the neutered syntax of stodgy old Anglo-Saxon.
In any event, the task was clearly a tall order for his willful lily-like lordship and consequently authorial corrections and editorial diplomacy were requisite to Wilde’s French play eventually being Anglicized about a year later as Salome: Tragedy in One Act, or the First English edition (1894).
So we have the French and the English editions, and these twin pillars of publication have provided an orthodoxy accepted by all studies of Salome to date, namely that the Douglas translation of 1894 marked the first time the English-reading world had been privy to Wilde’s controversial French play.
So far so good; but not so fast.
What if a hitherto unheralded full synopsis of the play and a partial translation in English was already in the public domain long before Bosie got his hands on Oscar’s feminine nouns?
Moreover, would it not be a noteworthy addition to the bibliography of Salome if such an English translation not only existed prior to Douglas’ ‘First English’, but also that it appeared in print on the very day after the French edition was published?
“Mais non!” I hear scholars protest, “c’est pas possible?”
No longer a theater, it may have been just another empty converted office building symbolic of a Midwest hollowed out by recession, but it was still there. Unlike so many of the Wilde’s lecture venues which were lost to fire in gaslit days, surely, one thought, this building had survived that fate.
But no, and here’s what makes the loss a little more personal.
Just a day earlier I had been discussing which city from Wilde’s lecture tour that I would most like to visit. No kidding. I said St Joseph, Missouri. One reason was that both Wilde’s hotel and lecture theater were extant, and very few cities that can boast that—although there is one fewer now.
There was also much history attached to the city, and I have already featured the story of Wilde’s hotel on this blog here: Oscar Wilde’s Pony Tale, and thankfully that building remains. But we must now bid farewell to Wilde’s lecture theater. Somewhere, the grand chandelier grows dim one last time.
Today is April 14, a date noted in history for the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the sinking of the Titanic. Not that Oscar Wilde had much to do with either event, although he once met the former President’s widow, Mary Lincoln, when she was living in retirement in New York City; and two of his friends died in the Titanic disaster.
But April 14 is also the 161st anniversary of the opening of the short-lived but historic Pony Express, and this, surprisingly, does give me an opportunity to talk a little about Oscar Wilde.
by John Cooper With the kind assistance and guidance of Rob Marland and Matthew Sturgis. *
The artist Banksy has recently demonstrated that deliverance from Reading Gaol remains a popular concept. But, as you might imagine, Oscar Wilde’s real life liberation from the prison was an even more newsworthy event back in 1897.
Oscar himself attested to the potential for a public invasion of his privacy. This is what he wrote to his dear friend, Reggie Turner, just prior to his release:
Already the American interviewer and the English journalist have arrived in Reading: the Governor of the Prison has just shown me a letter from an American interviewer stating that he will be here with a carriage on Wednesday morning for me, and offering any sum I like if I will breakfast with him! Is it not appalling?
(Complete Letters, 829).
The archive photograph of Reading Gaol (above) curiously portends such a carriage handover. But, of course, no interview took place outside Reading prison—appalling breakfast or otherwise—nor could it, because Wilde was not discharged from the prison system at Reading. He was spirited 43.8 miles away to be released from Pentonville Prison in London, his first place of incarceration.
This subterfuge, and others along the way, protected Wilde’s seclusion well enough, and so history has chronicled Wilde’s removal from Reading free from the Fourth Estate.
But now it is time to reconsider the event—particularly for those who might underestimate the doggedness of the Victorian press. Could it really be possible that, in fact, there exists a hitherto forgotten prison interview?
As remarkable as this sounds, it appears that a media dialogue of sorts could have taken place with Wilde at Reading Gaol.
—THE POWER THAT IS IN ME WILL RESUME ITS SWAY—
In anticipation of Wilde’s impending release from prison on May 19, 1897, journalists began to gather in the town of Reading in search of a story. But there was one scribe who had had his finger of the local penitentiary pulse for some time.
That man was the trusty American reporter Frank Marshall White, currently the London correspondent for William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal—and thus wireman to all of the other US-syndicated titles of the Hearst Corporation.
In May 1897, White was stationed in Reading with an evident a zeal for ‘inside’ knowledge of Wilde’s temporary abode. For at least a week before the ballyhoo really began, White had been reporting, albeit with varying degrees of accuracy, Oscar’s daily routine at Reading (and Wandsworth). He noted Wilde’s grueling diet, his prison chores, his current weight, the length of his hair, and his still clean-shaven state of appearance. He also revealed the name of Wilde’s prison chaplain (M. T. Friend) to whom, it can be inferred, he had spoken. 
But as Wilde’s release date approached, news was still thin on the ground.
We now know that in his last few days in his cell at Reading, Wilde was busy continuing his correspondence with Ernest Leverson about financial matters. He also wrote two long letters to Reggie Turner making arrangements for his post-prison life; another to More Adey; yet another to Robert Ross; and finally a note to his kindly warder, Thomas Martin, offering to pay to have some hungry children released from the horrors of prison remand.
Clearly, Wilde was preparing to leave Reading. The question was when?
The word on Fleet Street was that Wilde might be moved from Reading before his official release. Accordingly, Frank White connected the grapevine wires to his readers with the news that: “reporters were swarming in Reading today, as it is rumored that Wilde’s friends will obtain permission from the Home Office to remove him secretly from the prison before his term has entirely expired.” [And, of course, this is precisely what happened.]
So to Frank White in Reading, possibly charged with gaining a first-hand interview, it was becoming increasingly conspicuous that all he had offered his editor so far was second-hand gossip.
It was time for action. It was time for London journalist, Robert Batho.
Robert Batho, a freelance journalist in England (and later an editor and author in Canada), was a contributor to several newspapers including London’s Evening News. He was apparently possessed of a Zelig-like ability where Oscar Wilde was concerned, and claimed to have been the source behind verified interviews with Wilde on three earlier “epochs” (as he called them) in Wilde’s career. 
Just the man, therefore, to join forces with Frank White at Reading Gaol.
Consequently, White and Batho, formed a transatlantic alliance, and they are most likely “the American interviewer and the English journalist” whose letter the Governor had shown to Wilde requesting the post-prison interview—a request no doubt denied.
Denied, yes, but Batho was not to be rebuffed. Perhaps leveraging his track record with Wilde, or by simple ingenuity, the English journalist apparently sought to eke out an alternative form of access.
In the published “interview” White explained how it came about:
IN CARCERE, ET IN DIURNA?
The result was a short interview with Wilde which White sent via special cable to New York where it appeared in the morning edition of The New York Journal.
Later Hearst imprints, with the advantage of the time delay, such as the San Francisco Examiner, and the one below from the Buffalo Evening News of May 17, 1897, identify Batho as the person who conducted the interview and also expand on his history with Wilde.
Note about the text: This is the most common text of the interview in which some questions are implied by conflating answers, a style common in interviews and court reporting. In some other versions, however, for instance in The Chicago Tribune, the same interview is given as a more verbatim conversation.
What are we to make of the “prison interview”?
Whether Batho actually gained entry to the prison or, perhaps, merely handed in written questions at the gate and was given a written reply, does not seem to matter as much as the idea of using an intermediary—which does appeal as it might have allowed the Governor to bend the visitation rules without breaking them.
In evaluating the interview, these are the points to be considered, and on balance they generally favor plausibility:
—The unusual collaboration of White and Batho bears out “the American interviewer and the English journalist” in the letter shown to Wilde on the same day as the interview.
—If the Governor, Major Nelson, had been inclined to deny all communication with his prisoner, why would he show the letter to Wilde at all, if there was nothing to be gained from it?
—Although copyrighting articles was a growing practice at the time, on this occasion the publisher himself, William Randolph Hearst, thought enough of the interview to append his own name to the claim to copyright.
—Frank Marshall White was career journalist  with no record of anything other than solid journalism. It must be said, however, that Robert Batho has a history of operating somewhat under the radar of authorship, and was not averse to self-aggrandizement.
—If the interview is not genuine, it would have been an extremely clever and elaborate hoax, because the claims in it are so reserved and abbreviated. And there is nothing in it that is obviously wrong; indeed the language and assertions have a ring of truth.
—For instance, Wilde is quoted as placing himself in the hands of his friends, which he did do. Further, Wilde is tentative about his plans, which was also the case: while arrangements were made for his immediate departure to France, Wilde was doubtful about it and considered seeking seclusion and solace in a Catholic retreat in London—which he actually attempted and was refused. (Sturgis p. 628). There seems to be no other way for Batho to have known any of these, and other, details before, or even after Wilde’s release.
—Finally, and perhaps most strikingly, Wilde was asked if he will write under his own name. “Most assuredly,” he says, “as presently disposed”. First, why would Wilde say “most assuredly” if he never intended, and never did, write under his own name? Is it not the case that Wilde’s imperative is in what he goes on to say, that he would write “most assuredly as presently disposed“. It is difficult to see what else Wilde could have meant by this expression other than what came to pass. That he was presently disposed in prison where he was known by his prison cell number C.3.3., the name under which he published his first written work after prison: The Ballad of Reading Gaol.
 ‘Wilde Will Soon Be Free,’ Buffalo Evening News, May 10, 1897, p. 19.
 Robert Batho had a long career in journalism in England and Canada. For details of this “prison interview” and his previously attributed encounters with Wilde, see Robert Marland’s forthcoming Oscar Wilde, The Complete Interviews, (2021).
 FRANK MARSHALL WHITE
Reporter Buffalo Evening News, 1881, New York Times, 1882-1885. Editorial writer New York Commercial Advertiser, 1885-1887. Literature editor Life, 1887-1889. London correspondent New York Sun, 1889-1893. Later divided his time between Europe and United States as editor or correspondent of New York newspapers. Editor Paris edition of New York Times during exposition of 1900. Author of many stories and sketches in American and English magazines and periodicals.
The sketch of Wilde in prison at the top is from The Illustrated Police Budget with the caption: Can you imagine what the mental and physical sufferings of a man of the Oscar Wilde temperament must be?’
ROB MARLAND Rob Marland’s work on Oscar Wilde includes graphic novels, audiobook recordings, and compilation and editorship of a forthcoming book Oscar Wilde, The Complete Interviews (2021). https://marlandonwilde.blogspot.com
MATTHEW STURGIS Matthew Sturgis is a historian, critic, and the acclaimed biographer of Oscar: A Life (2018).