Pony Tale

Rare postmark of the short-lived Pony Express (1860-61)

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

Wilde’s Prison Interview?

WILDE’S PRISON INTERVIEW?

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. [1]

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? 

PRESS/RELEASE

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. [2]

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.

THE INTERVIEW
THE VERDICT

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 [3] 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


Illustrated Police News – Saturday 29 May 1897.


NOTES

[1] ‘Wilde Will Soon Be Free,’ Buffalo Evening News, May 10, 1897, p. 19.

[2] 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). 

[3] 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).

Cloak of Mystery

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

Rediscovered

Restored by John Cooper © 2020
A Rediscovered Photograph of Oscar Wilde

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

A Saint With A Past

A SINNER IN SAINT LOUIS

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 [1]—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.

INSECT REPELLANT

In late-Victorian America, Oscar Wilde was stung by most U.S. newspapers, and oddly several dozens of them were called The Beethe 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 WaspIt 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.

QUEENS: BERRY AND WILDE

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.

TURN OF THE CRANK

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.

THE BELLES OF ST. LOUIS

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. [2] 

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. [3]

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


[1] I shall now live as St. Oscar of Oxford, Poet and Martyr.” Letter to Robert Ross, Complete Letters, p. 1041.

[2] St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 27, 1882, 5.

[3] St. Louis Globe-Democrat (St. Louis, Missouri ) Feb 26, 1882, 3.

Destroyed By Fire

In my now completed itinerary of Oscar Wilde’s lecture tour of across North America in 1882, you will find logged more than one hundred hotels or houses where Oscar stayed while lecturing, along with illustrations of all the different lecture theatres, music halls, or opera houses where he spoke.

A commonality emerges among most of these venues, and it is exemplified in the phrase most often repeated in the chronicle: Destroyed by Fire—a common occurrence for many public buildings during an era of open hearths, gas lighting, indoor smoking, and a general lack of fire-resistant materials.

Some of the buildings Oscar visited suffered this fate more than once, but none were burned down more times than the Dafoe House in Belleville Ontario.

Continue reading Destroyed By Fire

One By One

Oscar-1

In a recent post I highlighted the difference between an illustration and a photograph of Oscar Wilde in the same pose—the result being that the photograph was the more authentic.

But what happens when there are differences between two versions of the same photograph?

In this case the image is Sarony No. 1—the famous iconic headshot of Wilde. The one on the right is the more familiar, but they do not quite look the same.

Which one is a good egg, and which one is a Wilde goose chase? Let us take a gander.


Continue reading One By One

False Bottom

Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, January 21, 1882. The caption to the full page reads: Oscar Wilde, the Apostle of Aestheticism—From a Photograph by Sarony, and Sketches by a Staff Artist.

Here we see an illustration from Frank Leslie’s newspaper showing Oscar Wilde in a pose reminiscent of those taken by Napoleon Sarony.

Scholars were never quite sure whether the caption to this sketch which says “From a Photograph by Sarony” meant that the illustration was from Sarony (in the sense of an artist’s impression of similar poses) or was a direct copy of an actual photograph of this particular pose.

One view favored was the former: i.e. that the whole illustration was an invention. One reason for this (apart from the fact that no photograph was known to exist) was that the bottom of the coat did not quite look right—it was too skirt-like. And further, the illustration shows Wilde wearing dress shoes, while in the photographs the only shoes we see are Oscar’s patent pumps. Indeed, all of the Sarony photographs of Wilde standing in an outer garment, are three-quarter length.

However, with the re-emergence of Sarony 3A, we now know the latter is the case, and the photograph has taken its place among the list of known Sarony photographs of Oscar Wilde. We can now see that the illustration and photograph are identical.

Identical, that is, apart from that lingering anomaly of the full-length sketch vs. the three-quarter length photograph. The question is: do these feet belong to Oscar or the illustrator? In other words, has the photograph been cropped or does the sketch have a false bottom?

A little more research can clear this up and it is almost certainly true that the lower portion of the illustration is an invention of the artist.

Take a look at Wilde’s coat in Sarony number 8, below: as you will see, it does not have a fur border at the hem as depicted in the sketch.

Mounted Sarony number 8 showing the coat without a fur hem.

Sarony 3A

New Sarony Photograph Identified

A rarely seen image of Oscar Wilde has recently been added to the series of photographs taken by Napoleon Sarony on January 5th, 1882.

Its rarity is evidenced by the fact that it does not appear to have been been published in any publicly available print medium to date, nor anywhere else previously online.

However, a proof print of it has lain dormant in the extensive Wilde holdings of the Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin—in the James McNeill Whistler collection to be precise—and their copy might be the only extant print.

Let us see how this photograph re-emerged and how it affects the total count of known Sarony images of Oscar Wilde, let’s start the ball rolling.

Continue reading Sarony 3A

The Rest Is History

Oscar Wilde by Napoleon Sarony, 1882

There is a pleasing symmetry in the idea of the flamboyant Napoleon Sarony photographing Oscar Wilde because they were both specialists in posing—albeit from opposing ends of the camera. So it is not surprising that they also had parallel views about it.

Continue reading The Rest Is History