LESSER KNOWN IMAGES RELATED TO OSCAR WILDE
Continue reading The Rarer Oscar
—I have nothing to declare except my genius.—
In my latest post I referenced the godfather of Oscar Wilde researchers, Stuart Mason, in connection with his unique scrapbooks of Wilde ephemera.
“Stuart Mason” was, in fact, the pseudonym of Christopher Sclater Millard, who produced Wilde’s first, and finest, bibliography, a decade-long study he conducted alongside many other Wildean pursuits including authoring Wilde books, being his staunch defender, and sharing his experience as a fellow victim of state-sanctioned homophobia and imprisonment. He was also, crucially to our story, at one time the private secretary to Wilde’s literary executor Robert Ross, in whose circle he was intimately entangled.
One of Millard’s projects in 1910 was to produce, with the assistance of Ross, a small volume entitled The Oscar Wilde Calendar. A Quotation from the works of Oscar Wilde for every day in the year with some unrecorded sayings selected by Stuart Mason.
It is difficult now, with an over-abundance of real and imaginary Wilde quotations, to appreciate that back in 1910, a book of Oscar Wilde quotations was not only a novel idea, it was a necessary one. The majority of these now famous Wilde sayings would have been new to most people fifteen years after Wilde was airbrushed from society.
Ross, meanwhile, was on a charm offensive to rehabilitate Oscar’s reputation, and this little book would help to amuse the public and fill a literary gap. In this respect, it is worth noting that the Calendar is also symbolic as the first appearance in print of two pictures: the last live image of Oscar Wilde taken in Rome in 1900, and a photograph of the painting of Wilde by Harper Pennington.
Returning to our purpose, however, this little Calendar is important because it provides a new earliest example of the remark Wilde dubiously made at New York Customs: “I have nothing to declare except my genius.”
And therein lies a story.Continue reading Something To Declare
WILDE LETTER REVEALS IMPROMPTU ARRANGEMENTS
A previously unpublished autograph letter signed (ALS) by Oscar Wilde appeared a little while ago at auction in North Carolina.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.Continue reading An Impromptu Lecture
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 starring Sarah Bernhardt were unexpectedly derailed by the Lord Chamberlain who deemed the drama too decadent to be staged. One can only presume that incestuous and homoerotic desire, murder and necrophilia were a tad more taboo in those days—and so the autocratic aristocrat refused to grant Salome 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 required native assistance with the finer points of the argot, did not translate his own work and never repeated the experiment.
So it might be a more sympathetic view of the Douglas translation to accept that literary style is notoriously difficult to render harmoniously at the best of times—never mind the complications of 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?”Continue reading First English
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.Continue reading Pony Tale
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:
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.
© John Cooper, 2021
 ‘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’s work on Oscar Wilde includes graphic novels, audiobook recordings, and compilation and editorship of a forthcoming book Oscar Wilde, The Complete Interviews (2021).
Matthew Sturgis is a historian, critic, and the acclaimed biographer of Oscar: A Life (2018).
In charting the cultural rehabilitation of Oscar Wilde in my article Finding Oscar, I alluded to the first appearances of him as character on screen.
I made reference to the well known bio-pics about Wilde released in 1960; before those he was in episodes of two separate UK and American TV series in 1958; and the erstwilde earliest Oscar could be found in a Canadian TV drama series of 1955.
Now the bar has been lowered. Predating all of those Oscars was this brief portrayal (above) by a quite Wildean-looking actor complete with cane and green carnation.
The problem is that nobody seems to know who he was.Continue reading Cloak of Mystery
In my last article I alluded to how that erstwhile sinner, Oscar Wilde, had achieved the exalted air of sainthood. Unfortunately, for collectors of Wildean memories, with that classification comes the saintly cliché that a good man is hard to find.
And nowhere is that maxim manifested more in Oscar Wilde’s case than in the promised land of lost pictures. On the artifact scale of hardness-to-find, the rarest commodities are gold dust, hen’s teeth, and, hardest of all, previously unseen photographs of Oscar Wilde.
At least that was the case until earlier this year when this late in Wilde’s long posthumous existence (what the Native American appropriately dubbed the happy hunting ground), unearthed a little-known, and even less seen, image of Oscar. That photo has now ascended to the canonical next life as Sarony 3A. For Wildeans, this one discovery would normally be rapture enough. However, now another rare photograph has appeared from the digital clouds.
It is worthy of investigation.Continue reading Rediscovered
During his visits to America in the early 1880s, Oscar Wilde was merely a controversial figure. His fall from grace was more than a decade hence; or, to employ his own ethical framework, he was still a sinner who had a future.
This is an idea forms a part of Wilde’s redemptive aphorism in which he differentiates saints and sinners in just one respect: the passage of time.
The only difference between the saint and the sinner
is that every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.
A Woman of No Importance (1893)
Wilde’s dictum has devolved so much into the public domain that it is often misattributed to the ancients, so I shall not dwell upon it beyond noting that Grayson Quay recently provided an interesting, although circular, analysis of it here.
Besides, now that the Sinner in question has ascended to Saint Oscar—just as he once amusingly styled himself —his quotation has reached the finality of QED. Nothing remains except for me to use it as a shaky segue into another saint with a Wildean past: namely St. Louis, Missouri and Oscar’s visit there in February 1882.
The strain is worth the while, however, as it provides one the opportunity to focus on the two proximate men in the splendid St.Louis cartoon above.
In late-Victorian America, Oscar Wilde was stung by most U.S. newspapers, and oddly several dozens of them were called The Bee—the most prestigious, perhaps, being the extant Sacramento Bee founded in 1857.
But by far the most repellant press treatment Wilde received was from the influential journalist Ambrose Bierce in the satirical journal The Wasp. It took the form of a bitter excoriation (read it on this page) that Karl Beckson once described as “unparalleled as an example of creative vituperation”.
And it was also an edition of The Wasp that featured the famous cartoon depicting Oscar on his arrival in San Francisco as an impecunious modern messiah.
With the Victorian telegraph thus a-buzz with various bees and wasps it will be no surprise to learn that there was also a hornet.
The Hornet was another satirical newspaper, this one published in St. Louis around the time of Oscar’s visit. Although it was short-lived (1880-1882), The Hornet lasted just long enough for its little-known staff artist, F. Welcker, to capture Oscar in a wonderfully camp piece of chromolithography.
The cartoon portrays two odd fellows being acclaimed with bouquets and laurels. Alongside the familiar form of Oscar is the local personality Berry Mitchell in renaissance costume. The two can be identified by judiciously placed labels: Berry’s name on his short trunk hose, and Oscar’s on his sunflower.
Berry Mitchell was what you might call a character.
He had inherited the enormous sum of $125,000 when he was young, and he proceeded to devote his life to spending it. Berry was evidently a man of games for in later years he became a billiards instructor, and, after moving to Chicago, he held a concession at Riverview Park playing checkers, offering a dollar-watch to anyone who could beat him—apparently he never needed to hand over the watch.
But his first love was the acting game. I use the word ‘game’ advisedly in this context because he was not, as Shakespeare would have put it, to the manner born.
Indeed, there was something rotten in the state of Missouri and, based on his Hamlet, it was Berry Mitchell’s acting.
Berry Mitchell did become a popular thespian—but it was not by fathoming the depths of theatre; it was rather by flaunting his talent for theatrics. For in reality, his Hamlet was a burlesque.
This might have been a good idea had he conveyed the concept to someone before opening night. For instance, why wasn’t the Danish court, nor anyone else in Elsinore, on the same page—that is the question. The St. Louis Globe and Democrat described how Mr Mitchell’s decidedly amusing turn could have been a very comical piece had the impulsive Laertes, the earnest Horatio, and the poor demented Ophelia not mistakenly imagined they were playing in a tragedy.
Perhaps the cast should have suspected something was afoot at the start, when a representative emerged from backstage to say that the play would be delayed because the ghost had failed to appear on time—in fact, that they could not raise him.
The packed audience, some sitting on stools squeezed into every available corner, were having none it. One gentleman in the gallery surmising that Mr Mitchell was actually still busy stuffing his calves.
All of this alerted the Globe reporter to an air of frivolity abroad, so when the spirit (and the curtain) were eventually raised he noted that the “ghost failed to inspire anything like the decent respect that should be awarded to the inhabitants of another world”.
Not that mere mortals were received any better. Bernardo, Horatio, and Marcellus played out the opening scene from frosty ramparts to dumb benches. It was Berry Mitchell they had come to see, and the audience would only thaw and resolve itself when the pastiche Prince himself arrived. And, according to the the Globe, what an arrival!
Subverting the philosophic Dane’s usual mode of entry in train of the King and Queen emerging solemnly upstage, Berry Mitchell announced himself with “utter disregard for the traditional mode of playing the character” with a “sudden, jerky appearance” into the footlights from the wings, affording himself the all the more opportunity of accepting the plaudits of his devotees while the courtiers filed into place. This was not going to be a performance for the purist.
The press mused on how an unsuspecting stranger, who had been lured into a cozy little theatre on Fifth Street, would be astonished to see Hamlet in his “sable habiliments” provoking “such peals of laughter as would make Grimaldi envious”.
The critics’ blank expressions must have competed with the blank verse; one hack saying that Mitchell’s reading bore as much resemblance to the original text as the actor himself did to Edwin Booth.
However, our man from the Globe gave credit where it was due, saying that when Mr Mitchell’s memory failed he, “never hesitated to supply the deficiency with the first words he could invent”. Impartiality prevailed when the journalist pointed out that while this “is doubtless a happy faculty in an actor…it is rather hard on Shakespeare”.
So in deference to the bard we should construe a rejoinder; some measure for measure for this calumny. We shall update Hamlet’s despairing conclusion “what a piece of work is a man!” by adding that Berry Mitchell was probably the piece of work he had in mind.
Another entertainer capable of drawing an admiring St. Louis crowd, was Oscar Wilde, as we can see from the above cartoon that appeared at the time of his visit to the city. 
Here is how the press described Oscar as he arrived at the recently re-built Southern Hotel at the corner of Walnut and Fourth Streets. The comparison clearly linking the two “too-too” cartoon counterparts in the public’s perception. 
Interest in Wilde was at fever pitch. Fully five columns of the daily paper were given over to various aspects of his visit. Crowds were anxious for a glimpse of the aesthete, not only upon arrival and departure, but all the while as people thronged the Southern Hotel parlors.
He visited the (then Crow) Art Galley disappointed in the art; a disappointment matched by fans at a jeweler’s store that he had thought better of visiting: not perhaps owing to the window-dressings draped with sunflowers, but because more than 200 ladies there awaited him.
Wilde’s lecture at the Mercantile Library Hall on Locust Street was sold out to the best of St. Louis society, “a large and fashionable audience”, except, that is, for a back row of young fellows who failed in their periodic attempts to disrupt the speaker with continued applause.
After the lecture Wilde was given receptions at the Press Club and the Elks Club, where he drank and met the presidents and signed his name in autograph books.
Aesthetic floral emblems were a story in themselves. The laws of supply and demand from the ladies of the city prompted one vendor on Olive Street into the confession that “the present value of the lily is slightly fictitious”.
While over in Missouri Park a somewhat clairvoyant florist produced the Oscar Wilde boutonniere: “a full blown double camellia and bud, shaded from light to dark pink, and fastened with a laurel leaf into a very soulful cluster”.
Probably by now feeling quite greenery-yallery himself, Wilde spent the next day, February 26 (a Sunday) with a visit to the St. Louis botanical gardens, ensuring always, of course, that he remained never far away from a square meal—his menu in St. Louis being worthy of its own narrative.
So there we must leave Messrs. Wilde and Mitchell now both ghosts of St. Louis past: one a sadly comic tragedian and the other a sadly tragic comedian.
But to our eternal gratitude, two fellows of infinite jest.
© John Cooper, 2020
 “I shall now live as St. Oscar of Oxford, Poet and Martyr.” Letter to Robert Ross, Complete Letters, p. 1041.
 St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 27, 1882, 5.
 St. Louis Globe-Democrat (St. Louis, Missouri ) Feb 26, 1882, 3.