Other Worlds, Dame Nellie Melba and Oscar Wilde, Savoy Hotel

London

Oscar Wilde's work featured motifs of deception, as did his life. It led to his downfall, as his friend, Dame Nellie Melba, witnessed.

'I have grown to love secrecy. It seems to be the one thing that can make modern life mysterious or marvelous to us. The commonest thing is delightful if only one hides it.'
― The Picture of Dorian Gray

In the late 1800s the hospitality industry in London was in the doldrums. The most famous diva of her time, Australian opera singer Dame Nellie Melba, described the cooking at the city’s leading hotels as ‘execrable…The carpets were dirty, the menu was medieval, the service an insult.’

The opening of The Savoy in 1889 changed all that. Built by impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte with profits from his Gilbert and Sullivan opera productions it was designed as a luxurious venue for his theatre-goers. Sitting between the river Thames and London’s theatreland, and adjacent to D’Oyly’s own theatre, it was the first luxury hotel in London to be centrally heated, have elevators and be lit by electricity. At that time respectable women did not dine in public restaurants but D’Oyly Carte cleverly overcame this taboo by enlisting Lillie Langtry to eat there. His secret weapon was August Escoffier, the renowned chef, whose innovative cooking made the Savoy dining room the envy of Europe. Escoffier became the model for head chef Rocco in Arnold Bennet’s The Grand Babylon Hotel (1902), a hotel which is based of course on the Savoy:

All the great hotels in Northumberland Avenue and on the Thames Embankment had tried to get Rocco away from the Grand Babylon, but without success. Rocco was well aware that even he could rise no higher than the maître d’hôtel of the Grand Babylon which, though it never advertised itself, and didn’t belong to a limited company, stood an easy first among the hotels of Europe – first in expensiveness, first in exclusiveness, first in that mysterious quality known as ‘style.’

Once Lillie Langtry’s lover, the Prince of Wales, began to join her in the dining room, dinner parties at the Savoy caught on.

Dame Nellie Melba

Helen Porter Mitchell, the building contractor’s daughter from Melbourne, had adopted the stage name Melba after her native city. She took to the Savoy like a moth to a flame. Nellie’s usual suite overlooked the Thames and was more like an apartment in size, its sitting room amply accommodating her grand piano.

Nellie’s exquisite silvery voice had conquered London. ‘Melba Nights’ at Covent Garden were packed, attracting royalty and an audience bedecked in furs, lavish gowns, diamond tiaras and stiff white shirts. She returned season after season, for nearly forty years. In her farewell speech to Covent Garden she said it ‘is to me perhaps the place I love more than anything else in the world.’ One opera-goer remembered her:

Pretty in the comely sense rather than handsome, as she stood there, her bouquet of roses over her heart, her hair done in a crown upon her shapely head, and coming up to a queenly twist. I can still see her dress of white silk, décolleté, but with its slip drawn modestly to hide the bosom. One always felt that here was a woman capable of deep affectionate love – if any man could be found to awaken her – for she was “The Sleeping Beauty” of life as of opera, with a certain proud modesty about her poise and smile.

Nellie hosted post performance supper parties at the Savoy, often still dressed in full costume, and on one occasion even employed a palm reader to entertain her guests.

She was a complex person: remorselessly ambitious; exuberant company but demanding and domineering. She was also generous. To maids, porters, anyone whose service she appreciated she gave away coveted opera tickets. One such recipient was Auguste Escoffier. Nellie called him ‘an artist in his own materials if ever there was one’ and in gratitude she sent him tickets to her final Covent Garden performance in the Wagner opera Lohengrin. The production featured Lohengrin’s beautiful boat in the shape of a swan, and the next day, Escoffier, a small, shy man, sent his thanks to Nellie with a gift of his own. As she tells it in her memoir Melodies and Memories (1925):

I was lunching alone in a little room upstairs at the Savoy Hotel on one of those glorious mornings in early spring when London is the nearest approach to paradise that most of us ever attain. I was particularly hungry, and I was given a most excellent luncheon. Towards the end of it there arrived a little silver dish, which was uncovered before me with a message that Mr Escoffier had prepared it specially for me. And much as Eve tasted the first apple, I tasted the first Pêche Melba in the world.

According to Escoffier the silver dish contained poached white peaches in vanilla syrup on a bed of vanilla ice-cream, covered with a puree of raspberries. He had perched the dish dramatically on the back of Lohnegrin’s swan carved from a single block of ice. It has become a staple of the Savoy ever since.

Oscar Wilde

The Savoy was also a regular haunt of an acquaintance of Nellie’s: Oscar Wilde. He was a twenty-seven year old aspiring writer from Ireland, hungry for fame, when the proprietor of the Savoy, Richard D’Oyly Carte, gave him his first break. Oscar had yet to find the right vehicle for his wit, having just one failed play Vera to his name and he was living way beyond his means. But his flamboyance, sensual preoccupations and beliefs about the preeminence of poetry and beauty attracted attention and fostered a Victorian appetite for aestheticism. In the 1880s cartoonist George Maurier (Daphne’s grandfather) satirised Wilde in Punch Magazine as the poet Jellaby Postlethwaite, an effeminate creature, with a sad smile, large head, and a poor grasp on ‘reality’. In one example he is seen in a restaurant ‘dining’ on the beauty of a lily instead of food.

But far from damaging aestheticism, these cartoons started a cult. Gilbert and Sullivan capitalised on this interest in their operetta, Patience, or Bunthorne’s Bride (1881) a light-hearted look at the collision of Victorian straight-laced ideals with the passions and indulgences of the aesthetic movement. Oscar Wilde is widely believed to have been the model for its rather ludicrous character, the poet Bunthorne.

The show was a hit in London but Richard D’Oyly Carte needed to promote it to an American audience that was largely ignorant about the aesthetic movement. He offered to send Wilde to America as a way of generating interest in the opera that mocked him. Bright, ambitious, and broke, Wilde accepted. He arrived for a year-long lecture tour in early January 1882, telling customs officers: ‘I have nothing to declare but my genius.’

The gruelling tour covered 15,000 miles and almost every state of the Union. Oscar delivered a staggering one hundred and forty lectures about ‘The English Renaissance’ and ‘The House Beautiful’ in opera houses, fancy restaurants, private homes, even at the bottom of a silver mine, where he held the miners spellbound. There was tremendous interest in this fancily dressed man with his original and brilliant mind, who offered a completely different approach to life. Said one critic: ‘I have seen no man whose charm stole on me so secretly, so rapidly, and with such entire sweetness.’

In Boston, his lecture was gatecrashed by an unruly procession of sixty Harvard students who marched down the centre aisle in pairs, dressed in Wilde-style knee-breeches, hats like Bunthorne’s, carrying sunflowers, and seating themselves in the front two rows. Oscar was prepared for them, having been tipped off in advance, and was wearing a disappointingly conventional outfit.

Glancing as if by chance at the spectacle before him, he smiled and said:

I see about me certain signs of an aesthetic movement. I see certain young men, who are no doubt sincere, but I can assure them that they are no more than caricatures.  As I look around me, I am impelled for the first time to breathe a fervent prayer, “Save me from my disciples.”

And with that, he won over virtually everyone in the room.

Yet it is quite hopeless trying to convey Oscar’s brilliance as a raconteur. As his biographer Heskell Pearson said:

I could repeat one of Wilde’s anecdotes for you, but not his way of telling it, without which it would be nothing; and it would be dismissed as a paraphrase of a story by Mark Twain.

Having been raised by a family of dazzling talkers, Oscar was comfortable in this lecturing role. Since school he had learned the art of exaggeration and the use of paradox to subvert audience expectations, to make ‘the Verities become acrobats’, as he later said. But it was on this tour that he had some essential practice of playing up to audiences, and he learned too, the value of being an image-maker.

Hitting his stride

By the time he turned forty Oscar Wilde had become the most popular and wealthiest playwright of London’s West End. Most Londoners could recite by heart quotes from his witty drawing room satires: Lady Windermere’s Fan, A Woman of No Importance, An Ideal Husband and The Importance of being Earnest. The press in London and Paris reported on his every move and invitations poured in from the aristocracy. He had become the most talked about writer in Britain.

As a man who believed the secret of remaining young was to have inordinate passion for pleasure, Oscar enjoyed his new wealth with gusto. At eleven each morning, he would be picked up in his hansom cab and driven straight to a florist in Burlington Arcade to collect a large buttonhole for himself and his driver. Most of his days were spent between the Savoy and the Café Royal, a five-star hotel in London’s Regent Street. In both he drank, smoked, dined, slept and talked about himself and everyone around him with his usual perceptive flair, living up to his saying: ‘To become the spectator of one’s own life is to escape the suffering of life’.

The French Symbolist poet Henri de Régnier said of him:

From cab to cab, from café to café, from salon to salon, he moved with the lazy gait of a stout man who is rather weary. He carried on his correspondence by means of telegrams, and his conversation by means of apologues…he was curious about all kinds of thoughts and manners of thinking…Nothing disturbed his stolid bearing, his smiling serenity, and his mocking beatitude.

A Meeting

Nellie Melba first met Oscar Wilde at a soiree held at the home of mutual friends in Paris. She wrote in her memoir that when she first arrived, she thought she had interrupted a poetry reading. A tall, rather large man stood in the centre of the room and had everyone’s rapt attention while ‘a brilliant fiery-coloured chain of words’ fell from his ‘coarse lips’. He wore a bunch of violets in his button-hole and had a sallow, unhealthy look.

Nellie had never seen anyone like him before: ‘We did not seem to breed that type in Australia’, she wrote. She was struck by the brilliance of Wilde’s wit and conversation, and also by a strange, ‘almost macabre element in his character which made me feel always a little uneasy when he was in the room.’ Yet he won her over, writing her charming letters, paying visits and cultivating a relationship with her as he had already done with a who’s who of beautiful socialites and actresses, among them Lillie Langtry and Isadora Duncan.

Unusually for those drab, male dominated Victorian days, Oscar genuinely loved women. He taught Lillie Langtry Latin so she could read the classics, and he encouraged her to take her talents and charisma to the stage. He also edited the popular magazine The Woman’s World and elevated it to a cultural periodical. He wrote for women in a time when doing so was considered beneath most men, but he loved it, writing two pieces of fiction each edition, one for women to read to their children and the other for their enjoyment.

Different Worlds

Outwardly, Oscar’s life seemed the picture of Victorian respectability. He was married to the beautiful bohemian Constance Floyd, a woman he loved deeply and they had two sons. But he was increasingly compelled to seek out new identities and forms of being, ‘forced to have more than one life’, as the dandy Henry Wootton muses about married men of a certain temperament, in Oscar’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890). Just as his life had attained all he had hoped for, Oscar began to act on his attraction to younger men.

In March 1893 Oscar made a reservation at the Savoy Hotel and checked into room number 362. His lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, known as Bosie, took the adjoining room. The rooms became their headquarters for much of the month. They ordered gallons of champagne and every other luxury, racking up an enormous bill. Bosie had introduced Oscar to the gay life of London and Oscar took a number of young male prostitutes (rent boys) to his suite for sex. He was knowingly treading a thin line, risking his marriage, stellar career and reputation; the illicitness was doubtless part of the allure. They checked out at the end of the month but it was a visit they would live to regret.

Around about this time, Oscar had a conversation with Nellie Melba that hinted at the tragedy to come. He confided to her that he had recently told stories to his two sons about little boys who were naughty and made their mother cry, and the terrible things that could happen to them if they did not improve their behaviour. ‘Do you know what one of them answered?’, he queried Nellie, ‘He asked me what punishment could be reserved for naughty papas, who did not come home till the early morning, and made mother cry far more?’

The ethics of this duplicity preoccupied him. His biographer Richard Ellman points out that he was drawn in his work to motifs of duplication: mirrors, portraits, and doubles. There is a telling scene in The Picture of Dorian Gray, his dark, gothic masterpiece about a young man who sells his soul for eternal youth and beauty. Dorian when speaking of his faithful and besotted lover Sibyl Vane, announces that he ‘cannnot understand how any one can wish to shame the thing he loves.’ Yet after leaving her for the last time, he finds himself walking through Covent Garden at dawn on his way home just as the markets are stirring to life:

The darkness lifted, and, flushed with faint fires, the sky hollowed itself into a perfect pearl. Huge carts filled with nodding lilies rumbled slowly down the polished empty street. The air was heavy with the perfume of the flowers, and their beauty seemed to bring him an anodyne for his pain. He followed into the market and watched the men unloading their waggons. A white-smocked carter offered him some cherries. He thanked him, wondered why he refused to accept any money for them, and began to eat them listlessly. They had been plucked at midnight, and the coldness of the moon had entered into them. A long line of boys carrying crates of striped tulips, and of yellow and red roses, defiled in front of him, threading their way through the huge, jade-green piles of vegetables. Under the portico, with its grey, sun-bleached pillars, loitered a troop of draggled bareheaded girls, waiting for the auction to be over. Others crowded round the swinging doors of the coffee-house in the piazza. The heavy cart-horses slipped and stamped upon the rough stones, shaking their bells and trappings. Some of the drivers were lying asleep on a pile of sacks. Iris-necked and pink-footed, the pigeons ran about picking up seeds.

It is as if those with ‘ordinary’ lives are appearing on a stage, and Dorian is their wraithlike witness. The atmosphere feels sad and slightly ominous. The flowers no longer feed a desire for beauty; they are a salve for pain. It is a Covent Garden far removed from the one Nellie Melba knew.

In the early 1890s, Oscar lived in two worlds: the glittering opening nights where he hobnobbed with with royals and aristocrats, and a second one involving secret assignations with more ‘ordinary’ folk: young prostitutes, factory clerks, and music hall aspirants. Although he was obliged to keep these worlds separate, or risk arrest, Oscar decided to live all aspects of his nature, acknowledging that contradictions were the evidence of a full life.

Trials

But on Valentine’s Day in 1895, his worlds nearly collided dramatically at the opening night of his play about deception: The Importance of Being Earnest (1895). Oscar’s affair with Bosie had sparked the ire of Bosie’s father, the Marquess of Queensbury, who had made sustained attacks on Oscar’s reputation with public accusations of his homosexuality. That evening he had planned to arrive at the theatre with an accomplice to throw, instead of the usual floral tribute, ‘a grotesque bouquet of vegetables’. Discovering the plan, Oscar had him banned from the theatre. His lawyers dissuaded him from suing the Marquess for libel, but a further incident finally spurred him on to do so, encouraged by Bosie, who despised his father. The trial failed spectacularly because of the number of witnesses willing to testify against Oscar. He was immediately arrested and put on trial for criminal sodomy and gross indecency. And although given the opportunity to escape to France, he stayed.

Oscar’s care for Bosie kept him out of the witness box, bringing the statements of others to the fore. The Crown needed reliable witnesses to prove the case and a number of them were found at the Savoy. Margaret Cotta, a chambermaid, testified that she had found a young boy in Oscar’s bed. She said his sheets were always ‘in a most disgusting state’, and described how he would kiss the page boys who delivered newspapers and paid them for their ‘troubles’. It was a scandal that rocked not just Britain but much of Europe too. It must have been a wretched dilemma for the Savoy Hotel that prided itself on absolute discretion, but it was this reputation that made the witnesses so credible to the jury, rather than the testimony of the professional rent boys, and the other young men of ‘lowly’ occupations, who also gave statements.

Punishment

Oscar was convicted and sentenced to two years of hard labour which he was not expected to survive. It was the end of everything: his marriage, access to his children; his career, reputation and health. He had first been sent to Holloway, the prison where, in a sad irony, the solicitor in The Importance of being Earnest threatens to send Algernon for ‘running up food bills at the Savoy.’ After his trial he went to Wandsworth and then Reading. For the first month he was tied to a treadmill six hours a day, and allowed only brief rests every twenty minutes. The bland prison routines, enforced silence and dreadful sanitary conditions had a terrible effect on his mental and physical health and literally broke him.

Towards the end of his stint, by this time at Reading Gaol, Oscar was granted a pen and paper, and he set about tutoring a guard who was interested in literature. He also wrote a long letter to Bosie who remained silent and never once visited him in prison. It was full of hurt, fierce passion and seduction and was published posthumously as De Profundis, (Latin: ‘From the Depths’). In it he explained that the depth of his suffering had opened up new possibilities, ‘a fresh mode of self-realisation’. He believed his next step was to ‘absorb… all that has been done to me, and to make it part of me.’ Whereas he had once exalted shallowness, he now regarded it as ‘the supreme vice.’ And while he had previously thought the adoption of different selves was a path to the development of a complex selfhood, he now realised how inadequate this was. ‘Those who want a mask have to wear it’, he said. Self-realisation did not emerge from performance, but from hard won experience. He understood that one had to take everything, the brilliance and the muck, and integrate it, give it coherence in both life and art.

After he was released in 1897 Oscar fled to Paris where he had always felt most at home. But within a few months, all the resolve he expressed in De Profundis broke down and he fell into old patterns and habits. He and Bosie had one last reunion in Naples, much to the dismay of both their families. Oscar wrote to a friend that Bosie is, ‘witty, graceful, lovely to look at, lovable to be with. He has also ruined my life, so I can’t help loving him – it is the only thing to do.’ But their relationship soon broke down irrevocably.

By the end of that year, Oscar had written his dramatic narrative poem, The Ballad of Reading Gaol. It was his final work. He had planned to write a Symbolist drama, a libretto, a social comedy, but according to Bosie, his life in exile was ‘too narrow and too limited to stir him to creation.’ In fading health, he lived out his last years in seedy Paris hotels.

A Final Meeting

Sometimes friends from Oscar’s London life would snub him in the street. Others would stop to talk, or take him out for a meal. He said to one, ‘I am a vagabond. The century will have had two vagabonds, Paul Verlaine and me.’

Nellie Melba was walking in Paris one morning when a tall, shabby man lurched around a corner, a man with a ‘hunted look’ in his eyes. She was about to pass him when he stopped.

‘Madame Melba – you don’t know who I am? I’m Oscar Wilde, and I’m going to do a terrible thing. I’m going to ask you for money.’

Shocked to the core, she gave him every last louis in her purse. Oscar almost snatched the money from her grasp, mumbled his thanks and disappeared before she could utter a word. Nellie later thought back to what he had said to her at their first meeting, which seemed another world away:

‘Ah, Madame Melba, I am the Lord of Language and you are the Queen of Song, and so I suppose I shall have to write you a sonnet.’

He never did write that sonnet.

Music

Elsa’s Dream’, from the opera Lohengrin by Wagner, sung by Dame Nellie Melba (1910)

Wagner’s mythic, fantastical romance in three acts is about the damsel Elsa, who stands accused of a terrible crime. A noble swan knight answers her prayers and offers to help her on condition that she never asks his name. ‘Elsa’s Dream’ appears in Act 1 and introduces the tale, acting as a catalyst for the rest of the action. Wagner described his music as ‘streams of gold, ravishing the senses of the beholder’.

Nellie was not known as a Wagner singer but she performed the role of Elsa a number of times at Covent Garden and before Tsar Alexander III in St Petersberg in 1891. It was this role of course that famously triggered Escoffier to create the famous Peach Melba. For the part she wore a pearl and sequin encrusted green silk ‘cloak of angels’ designed by Worth of Paris. It was shot with gold and featured nine hand painted angels set in a circle of velvet with beads and gold ruche.

Connection

In his Fragments of Autobiography (1972), Graham Greene recounts an intriguing story about his father’s curious encounter with Oscar Wilde. His father was a headmaster, always a distant man, who sometimes chose to spend his winter holiday separate from his family, travelling alone or in the company of another headmaster and clergyman, Mr George. They remained on formal terms throughout their friendship, calling each other by their surnames They liked to reminisce about their travels, on one occasion to France: ‘You remember, George, that was where we drank a bottle of wine.’

In Naples they encountered a stranger, who on hearing them speak English, asked if he might join them over coffee. The man seemed faintly familiar to them both. He kept up a charming, witty exchange for more than an hour before he left. They never exchanged names but the stranger left the drink bill unpaid. It was only afterwards that they realised he was Oscar Wilde. ‘Think’, announced Greene’s father, ‘how lonely he must have been to have expended so much time and wit on a couple of schoolmasters on holiday.’

As Greene later surmised, it did not occur to his father that he was paying for his drink ‘in the only currency he had.’ Greene believed the meeting took place during the Christmas holidays of 1897-8 shortly after Bosie left him for the last time, and Oscar had written of ‘ill-health, loneliness and general ennui with a tragi-comedy of an existence.’

Notes

Stephen Fry was invited to be the Savoy Hotel’s first writer in residence following its reopening in 2010 after one of the most expensive and extensive hotel refurbishments in history. Fry has often spoken about Oscar’s huge influence on him, and he well understood the role the Savoy played in both Wilde’s meteoric rise and fall. In an interview with Gay Byrne, Fry discussed the impact of reading The Trials of Oscar Wilde by Montgomery Hyde:

It was a book I read with increasing horror, and an increasing sense that this was very close to me. As well as being a man I can admire for his brilliance with words, a man who’d opened up an idea of literature to me, he was also someone who was of the same – or well, where I say sexuality he used the word nature – the same nature as me, and I kind of felt my heart thudding inside me as I read about this wonderful man and the appalling downfall, the messianic, this almost Christ-like betrayal by some friends and this pulling down of this gentle, huge soul, and it upset me desperately. And of course, I thought, as so many gay people of my generation did, that this was essentially what would happen to all gay people and the chances are everything would end up in scandal, and everything had to be secretive.

It was not just Fry’s cohort; the enormous indignities suffered by Oscar Wilde cast a long shadow over generations of people of different gender and sexual orientations. It was the first thing that crossed Vita Sackville West’s mind when her husband told her about his sexual liaisons with men. Lord Beauchamp, the man who became Waugh’s model for Lord Marchmain in Brideshead Revisited, suffered a similar fate to Oscar, and in a forthcoming story, I examine its disastrous consequences for his family.

The Savoy has always been a magnet for people from the arts, and was a significant destination for a number of writers and artists I’ve written about. It was Agatha Christie’s  favourite London hotel. She used the Savoy as the meeting place for a number of her of her characters, including her famous detective Hercule Poirot, who at the start of Lord Edgware Dies (1933) is enjoying a pleasant supper party there as the guest of the ravishing Lady Edgware, a former American actress. During their conversation, Lady Edgware lets it slip that she wishes to get rid of her husband who refuses to divorce her. Shortly afterwards, Lord Edgware is found dead, forcing the little detective’s grey cells into overdrive.

Claude Monet painted scenes of the Thames from the Savoy’s windows, then rushed back to Giverny with the chef’s recipes for marmalade and Yorkshire pudding to give to his cook Marguerite. When they were flush, Virginia and Leonard Woolf liked to dine at the Savoy Grill. It’s no surprise Ernest Hemingway loved its American Bar. And Émile Zola, on a ten-day visit to London in 1893 to attend the annual congress of the Institute of Journalists, stayed at the Savoy, where he was feted as a guest of honour.

I had to smile when I recently read that one person’s idea of their top post Pandemic destination is the Savoy’s American Bar for a cocktail. I discovered that although the price of a martini is eye watering, it is well worth it for the chance to linger for a couple of hours and soak up the ambience, take some notes, listen to the pianist. Either on my own or with a partner in crime (hello Tracey), I was made most welcome there. In speaking of other worlds, it felt surreal to be encouraged to sing along with the pianist to ‘Hotel California’, the song that was the soundtrack for my days at a surfie Sydney high school.

I have left talk of Covent Garden out completely – I’ll cover it in another story.

Weblinks

London’s Savoy Hotel

The Channel Five documentary Inside The Savoy.

Dame Nellie Melba’s emotional farewell speech to Covent Garden. She said that one of the last people she would bid farewell to was Austin, keeper of the door at Covent Garden for forty years, who had put her in her carriage and wished her good night for more than thirty-six years.

Film footage of Dame Nellie Melba.

The Nellie Melba Museum, in Victoria’s Yarra Valley.

 The First ‘Pop’ Invasion: Oscar’s aesthetic tour of America is one of a series of six lectures based on an exhibition hosted by Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute at Qunnipiac University in 2020. The lectures closely follow all aspects of Oscar’s life and feature actors reading his poetry and letters.

In this article in The Guardian, novelist Colm Tóibín visits the cell where Oscar Wilde wrote De Profundis.

The Oscar Wilde Appreciation Society (online Chapter).

The character Bunthorne, modelled on Oscar Wilde, strutting his stuff in a 1995 Opera Australia production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience or Bunthorne’s Bride.

The Oscar Wilde Society

Sources:

Bennet, Arnold. The Grand Babylon Hotel, Vintage, 1902.

Blainey, Ann. I am Melba, Black Inc Books, 2008

Bucknell, Clare. ‘The Myth of Oscar Wilde’s Martyrdom’, New Yorker, October 4, 2021

Ellman, Richard. Oscar Wilde, Penguin

Greene, Graham. Fragments of my Autobiography, Penguin, 1972

Melba, Nellie, Dame. Melodies and Memories, Hamish Hamilton, 1980

Pearson, Hesketh. The Life of Oscar Wilde, Penguin, 1985

Riker, Martin. ‘When America Met Oscar’, The Wall Street Journal, Jan 24, 2013

Wilde, Oscar. De Profundis and other Prison Writings, Penguin, 2013

Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray, Penguin, 2012

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Comments from others

  1. Roger East on

    Thank you again Jo; I’m once again glad of my decision a while ago to subscribe to your blog.
    This piece is, as ever, full of pearls, and beautifully crafted to bring Wilde and Melba together at its poignant end. Recently, re-reading the Ballad of Reading Gaol, I was reminded of the angry, generous humanity which rose up in Wilde in those awful circumstances. Here you have captured perfectly the curve of his life. Perhaps he died wishing he’d written her that sonnet.

    Reply
    • Jo Wing on

      Hello Roger. I’m so pleased you enjoyed this piece. Yes, he was beautifully complex – meeting his ruin with a generous humanity AND anger. If only he had drawn on that fierce energy after prison to fuel his life and work. Perhaps there was an element of self-sabotage in the mix.

      Reply
    • Jo Wing on

      Thank you Larry. I’d vaguely heard of that chance meeting between Oscar and Nellie in Paris just before Oscar died and was curious to know more.

      Reply
  2. Tracey on

    What a wonderful account of people & place – and so perfectly intertwined. It is beautifully written (as your blogs always are) with some real gems of information. I agree with the comment below, the end of the section where Oscar Wilde met Dame Nellie Melba in Paris was especially poignant. This one heartbreaking scene you write about captures just how far the great Oscar Wilde had fallen.

    ‘Ah, Madame Melba, I am the Lord of Language and you are the Queen of Song, and so I suppose I shall have to write you a sonnet.’

    He never did write that sonnet.

    Reply
    • Jo Wing on

      Thank you, Tracey. Discovering these stories adds an extra dimension to the places for me. Oh for a tardis so we could zip back to the Savoy, eh?

      Reply
  3. Martin Constable on

    Wonderful to read anything about Oscar Wilde, and his frequent stays at the Savoy(must try their afternoon teas one day) Fascinating life, thanks again.

    Reply
  4. Paula Ashworth on

    Jo,
    I have only dipped into this early in the morning… and have yet to click on the links, but already feel I couldn’t have started the day in a more pleasurable way! Really a delightful (mostly) piece; much of the detail of the content is new to me, to be lingered over while getting dressed! Some time in the not too distant future I would love to share a drink with you in The American Bar and to hell with the cost!

    Reply
  5. Jo Wing on

    In the not too distant future Paula, we WILL have that drink at the American Bar! Really glad you enjoyed the story.

    Reply