On May 24, the Oscar Wilde Society is holding a dinner to celebrate Robert Ross‘s 150th birthday. (The sound you just heard was Lord Alfred Douglas screaming in his grave.)
I happen to have recently come across a report originally printed the Boston Transcript on the first celebratory dinner in recognition of Ross’s handling of the Wilde estate. (These excerpts are actually from the Nebraska State Journal, which on January 14, 1909, printed the wire piece.)
The 1909 dinner celebrating Ross was the spark that finally exploded the friendship between Ross and Lord Alfred Douglas. When we see such a bitter feud, we instinctively look for a profound cause. Often, in life, a small thing is enough. In this case, it was Douglas’s ungraciousness when Ross finally achieved his goal of putting out Wilde’s complete works and paying off his bankruptcy.
Douglas was frustrated that Robert Ross was increasingly celebrated for his friendship with Wilde, while he was still viewed as a scandalous figure for his own friendship with him. Douglas had always been proud of how he stood by Wilde, and he was jealous at how people were now talking about Ross as if he was Wilde’s only true friend. (This seems to have been mutual. It always rubbed Ross the wrong way when Douglas claimed to be Wilde’s truest friend.) He was frustrated that Ross was able to remain respectable in society while maintaining the type of secret life that Douglas had renounced and gotten no credit for. The celebratory dinner brought out all of these unpleasant emotions. Douglas became peevish and unpleasant.
He publicly criticized Ross’s handling of the Wilde estate in his literary journal The Academy. Ross might have been able to put up with that, but Douglas’s decision not to attend the celebratory dinner at all (and to grumble to mutual friends about it) was the final straw. Knowing this context, you can read between the lines and see that the slight was still bothering Ross on his big night.
It was the only blemish on an otherwise wonderful evening. There were about 200 luminaries in attendance.
Ross gave a gracious speech full of self-depreciating humor.
The friend that Ross is about to mention in this next passage is undoubtedly Lord Alfred Douglas.
After a brief discussion of the work he did, and making it clear that he did not pay off Wilde’s debts from his own pocket (and a long defense of German art and culture) he went on to clarify that he was not the only person who had stood by Wilde in his hour of need. A perceptive and prophetic line here is “…it is only an accident which made me the symbol of their friendship…”
Finally, the Boston Transcript reporter spoke to Ross after the event.