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LGBT HISTORY MONTH Oscar Wilde in Chicago
Part One
by Sukie de la Croix
2014-10-08

This article shared 7171 times since Wed Oct 8, 2014
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Introduction: The original manuscript for "Chicago Whispers: A History of LGBT Chicago Before Stonewall" included three chapters that never made it into the final book because of cost concerns. This is one of them.

"In every city they start schools of decorative art after my visit, and set on foot public museums, getting my advice about the choice of objects and the nature of the building. And the artists treat me like a young god."—Oscar Wilde in a letter to Mrs. George Lewis sent from Chicago.

William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan's light operetta, "Patience," opened in London at the Opera Comique on April 23, 1881, then later moved to Richard D'Oyly Carte's new theater at the Savoy, the first in Britain to install electricity. The story is about a unit of dragoons who return home to find their fiancées swooning over Reginald Bunthorne, an aesthetic poet who, in turn, has fallen in love with Patience, a milkmaid, the only woman in the village who doesn't worship him. She prefers her childhood friend, Archibald Grosvenor, a poet himself. The characters of Bunthorne and Grosvenor were composites of Oscar Wilde, the young Irish playwright and aesthete who was causing a stir among the literary circles of London; although it wasn't until 1895, the year of his arrest, that his most famous play "The Importance of Being Earnest" was first staged at the St. James' Theatre in London.

"Patience" opened in New York in September 1881 and to exploit its success, D'Oyly Carte sent a cablegram to Wilde suggesting he visit America for a lecture tour, an idea thought to have been suggested to him by actress Sarah Bernhardt. Wilde accepted the invitation with enthusiasm; it served the dual purpose of publicizing the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta and would also afford him the opportunity to engage producers with "Vera: Or the Nihilists," his first play. At the time Wilde was virtually unknown in the U.S., and as he stepped off the SS Arizona in New York he was met by an enthusiastic press eager to meet the inspiration for the poets in the hit show "Patience." It was on this trip that Wilde is reputed to have told a customs official "I have nothing to declare but my genius."

Wilde delivered his first lecture, "The English Renaissance" at New York's Clickering Hall on Jan. 9, 1882, which was a sold-out success. After New York he spoke in Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Baltimore, then nine other locations before appearing for the first of two lectures at Central Music Hall in Chicago.

On his tour, Wilde heard that newspapers across the country had already published parts of his lecture, so he hastily wrote another, "The Decorative Arts," for his first appearance in Chicago, and "The House Beautiful," for his second a month later. Tickets to the event cost 50c, 75c, and $1, and he received $1,000 for each of his Chicago engagements.

On the evening of February 13 Wilde walked onto the stage at Central Music Hall at Randolph and State streets to be greeted by a sold out crowd. One reporter, swept up in the aesthetic mood, described the Irish poet as a "living watercolor in two prevailing lines, black and white, with the crowning cloud … to follow the figure … of sunset glow in the shape of the much described old gold locks depending to the shoulders." Wilde wore glazed shoes with black silk bows, black silk hose, a black full dress suit and white vest. "Of jewels," the paper continued, "besides those unctuous ones of speech that fell from the sensuously full lips, a diamond cluster glowed on the expanse of shirt front, and a double fob of the latest order displayed stones of interblending hues, contrasted aesthetically on the ebony background … "

The aesthete's exquisite appearance and wit captivated the audience as he began his speech: "In every great nation there is a certain amount of artistic power produced every year. You may use it or you may squander it, you may strew it on the sand of the desert or build for yourselves beautiful cities with it … "

Wilde's foppish, arrogant and snobbish manner brought jeers from hecklers in smaller towns, but in Chicago the audience remained polite and cordial. In fact, he elicited laughter and several rounds of applause, once on the subject of telephones: "It is no doubt a great advantage to be able to talk to a man at the antipodes through a telephone but it depends entirely on what the two men have to say to one another. If one of them merely shrieks along into the tube, and the other whispers folly into the wire I don't think that any of us are a bit the better for it."

Again, his comments on the design of Chicago's water tower brought raucous laughter: "In Chicago I have seen very little that is more beautiful than the machinery at your water works here. The rhythmic rise and fall of those long rods of polished steel, the stately orbit of that circling and giant wheel, were simply grand, but when I came out and saw your water tower, that castellated monstrosity, that perforated pepper-box stuck all over it, I felt amazed and grieved, that you should so misuse gothic art, and that when you built a water tower you should try to make it as unlike a water tower as possible, to make it look like a medieval fortress."

And yet more applause on the subject of dinner plates: "In a certain American city … I haven't the courage to tell you the name … a beautiful young lady I saw painting away at a romantic moonlit landscape on a large round dish and another young and fair one covering dinner plates with a wonderfully imaginative series of sunsets. Let young ladies paint sunsets if they like, and moonlight if they dare, but don't let them do it on dinner plates. Let them take canvas and paper for such work, not clay and china. Such heavenly scenes, let us not sup off them, neither send them down to the kitchen to be scrubbed and washed by a handmaid."

However, not everyone was impressed; the Chicago Times headlined their review: "The John the Baptist of the Beautiful Languishes to a Large Audience." The article reports the event as a freak show: "The people paid to see a celebrity as they would to see a two-headed Australian 'what-is-it?' who could talk Greek and Choctaw at the same time."

Wilde's sexual orientation was also called into question: "The face is neither that of a man nor a woman. The absence of a beard gives to it an added look of effeminacy. To merit the appellation of 'Miss' Wilde, which has been applied to him by some of his defamers, the lecturer should have a soprano voice; but Mr. Wilde is not so endowed, and at the same time his voice is not like that of others of his fellow men."

In a Chicago Daily Tribune interview, the reporter asked: "Mr. Wilde, are you aware that you wounded the pride of our best citizens by referring slightingly to our water-tower?'

"'I can't help that,' replied Wilde, 'It's really too absurd … Your city looks positively too dreary to me.'

"'Have you seen much of Chicago since you have been here?'

"'Oh yes, quite as much as I care to see. I have driven through the parks, and viewed the principal objects of interest.'

"'Of course, then, you have been to the Stockyards and seen them kill pigs?'

"'No, indeed,' said Mr. Wilde, with a horrified look, 'such sights have no interest for me.'"

In high societal circles Wilde was embraced as a breath of fresh cultural air. On the afternoon before his first lecture he attended a reception in his honor given by Mrs. Franklin MacVeagh, the wife of the grocery magnate and secretary of the treasury, at her residence at 1828 Michigan Ave. The following day he was the guest at a small dinner party given by Mrs. H. O. Stone, a member of a prominent Chicago family, at 2035 Prairie Ave. with a dozen guests, among them Mr. and Mrs. Marshall Field. After the dinner Wilde was presented to 30 selected guests, and while surrounded by a group of women, one asked Wilde what the conversation at dinner had been. "Oh," replied the poet, "We talked about the beautiful, the good, and things we loved."

"If you talked about things you hated," said one of the listeners, "It would have been infinitely more interesting." Wilde was taken aback by this remark, possibly because it could have emanated from his own lips.

On both his Chicago visits, Wilde stayed at the Grand Pacific hotel, whose clientele included mostly railroad kings and stock market aristocracy. The hotel, destroyed in the Great Fire of 1871 and rebuilt the following year, was heralded by Chicago's gourmets for its wild-game cuisine, a passion of the owner John B. Drake: Quail, pheasant, venison, bear steak and antelope were among the specialties.


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