Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Around the World in 80 Gays : Part 24 - Earnest

LAST TIME : 71) Count Robert de Montesquiou (1855-1921) was prominent in the Parisian artistic community and supported painter such as 72) Romaine Brooks (1874-1970) who had a 50-year relationship with 73) Natalie Clifford Barney (1876-1972), who also had a  relationship with 74) Dolly Wilde (1896-1941), niece of the famous 75) Oscar Wilde (1854-1900).
75) Oscar Wilde had actually met 73) Natalie Clifford Barney before 74) Dolly Wilde had even been born.

In 1882 Oscar went on a lecture tour of America. One stop on the tour was the Long Beach Hotel in New York, Staying at the hotel at the time was Mrs. Alice Pike Barney and her family, which included the 5-year-old Natalie. At that young age Natalie remembered the encounter and recalled it in her memoirs. She remembered how she was being chased by a group of boys and ran past a gentleman who scooped her up and away from her pursuers. That gentleman was Oscar Wilde who then sat her on his knee and told her a “wonderful tale”, as she described it.

Oscar’s influence on her mother was no less marked. Mrs. Barney wanted to be an artist, despite her husband’s objections. Oscar persuaded her to follow her dream, and she studied art under several established painters, including James McNeill Whistler, the friend of 71) Count Robert de Montesquiou and influencer of 72) Romaine Brooks. Some of Mrs. Barney’s paintings are in the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Now we come to a convoluted set of relationships. In 1900 73) Natalie Clifford Barney had a short romance with 76) Olive Custance (1874-1944), a bisexual heiress and aspiring poet. Olive had been moving in London’s literary circles since the age of 16 and had met 75) Oscar Wilde. It wasn’t long after the romance began that Olive introduced Natalie to 77) Lord Alfred Douglas (1870-1945). The well-known relationship between Lord Alfred and Oscar Wilde and the trial that ensued is one of the key moments in the UK’s lgbt heritage. But that was a few years previously in 1895.

Olive Custance and Lord Alfred began a courtship around the time of Oscar’s death. However, Olive found herself becoming engaged to another acquaintance, an old school friend of Lord Alfred. When this other suitor returned from a trip to America Olive and Lord Alfred ran away and married in 1902, much to her father’s objections. Olive remained a close friend of Natalie Barney, making her godmother to their only child. The marriage wasn’t a particularly successful one with various issues leading to separations and reconciliations (of sorts) but they remained married. They died just over a year apart from each other.

The Wildean Web, as I call it, the many connections that can be centred around Oscar Wilde, would fill a whole volume. His reputation and personality drew people to him like moths to a flame. Those people I’ve already mentioned come from the period after Wilde became famous, but there are also other literary lgbt connections that date from his younger years.

One connection cones through the Salon, not Natalie Clifford Barney’s Paris Salon, as Oscar died before it was established, but a London Salon established by his own mother Jane, Lady Wilde. She was also a very successful writer who had a large number of influential connections.

I cannot finish without mentioning a very unusual connection. Wilde’s most famous play in arguably “The Importance of Being Earnest”. It was made into an equally famous film in 1952 starring Michael Redgrave and Edith Evans (the words “a handbag?” have never been the same since). The film was directed by the openly gay Anthony Asquith, or the Hon. Anthony Asquith, to give him his title. That’s because is father was the former British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, Earl of Oxford and Asquith. Oscar Wilde had known Herbert Asquith since the 1870s through his mother’s connections. Before becoming Prime Minister Herbert was Home Secretary, and quess who signed the arrest warrant for Oscar Wilde in 1895? Yes, the Home Secretary Herbert Asquith.

It is Lady Wilde who introduces us to the next link in our journey Around the World in 80 Gays. One of her acquaintances was another famous writer who actually married the girl Oscar Wilde had hoped to marry. That other writer was 78) Bram Stoker (1847-1912).
In the final part of this series we’ll see how 78) Bram Stoker and two other lgbt people take us back to 1) Alan Turing.

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