I finally got around to watching the movie Christopher and His Kind. Christopher Isherwood’s autobiographical account of his time in Berlin features Gerald Hamilton, who is a character in Wilde Nights & Robber Barons, and I felt that I ought to see it. So it has sat there in my watch list for ages like unfinished homework. It was worth seeing in the end. The story is familiar if you have seen the musical Cabaret. It is more or less the story of the real life inspirations for Isherwood’s Berlin Stories. (Although some of featured friends were reportedly less than thrilled with their literary depictions.)
Watching Christopher led me to re-watching Cabaret, which led me to Youtube videos about the production. In this video Joel Grey, the original MC, discusses his creation of the role and his opinion of Alan Cumming’s interpretation.
What gave me pause for thought in this interview was the part where Grey expresses his frustration that the newer production was said to be more daring and risque than the original.
It reminded me of a quote from Montagu Pyke, the king of early cinema in Britain. (He was a business partner of Maurice Schwabe’s for a time.) Pyke wrote, “If the nineties were ‘naughty’ the Edwardian era was a worthy successor to the nineties. The young moderns think they know how to live today, but I don’t think they could have taught the young men and women of those days anything; rather the contrary. I know of wild midnight parties and scandalous orgies among the best people of several lands, and I hardly think these have their counterpart today.”
It seems there is a constant tendency to view previous generations as more innocent. Yet the decadent, the unsanctioned, the promiscuous and the underground have always existed.
As I wrote in the introduction to my book, “The period in which Maurice Schwabe lived, from 1871-1915, exists in the popular imagination as an innocent age. On closer inspection, that buttoned-up era was a time of rebelliousness, ambition, corruption, religious and sexual experimentation and political machinations.” In other words, it was just like every other era.
.Why is it, then, that the past can seem so, well, sexless?
I have a couple of theories. One is that parents and other adults are authority figures to young people. Generally, they hide their youthful indiscretions from the next generation. They are destined to move from being rebels to being the people the young rebel against. The parent’s generation is bound to be viewed to some degree as old fashioned, dull, moralistic and their time, by extension becomes a more innocent age.
Another possibility is that to be daring you must be shocking. Any art or culture that is successful becomes familiar and by definition what is familiar is not shocking. The counter culture of one time becomes the oldies radio and high school musicals of the next. Two years after the musical Hair caused a stir with its on stage nudity, obscene language and trippy acknowledgement of drug culture, the epitome of family friendly bands, the Cowsills had a hit with the musical’s title song. Cabaret was such a cultural phenomenon that it brought Joel Grey onto the set of The Muppet Show. (By the way, have you seen Jim Henson’s surreal 1965 short film Time Piece?)
As I think about Cabaret, however, it strikes me that there is something unique about it. Its story expresses nostalgia for a less innocent era. The world it depicts is one that might not, in reality, be comfortable to many members of the Broadway audience. Yet the sense that they are bearing witness to a world that is on the verge of being destroyed imbues the Kit Cat Club with nostalgia for a different sort of innocence, the innocence of people who cannot yet see the future we know is coming, innocence of impending disaster. (A bit like when Facebook reminds you of a picture taken with your arms around a bunch of your friends at a party in January 2020.)
There is, in fact, a type of wild and wicked innocence– the innocence that leads a young person to experiment with life, sample the forbidden, with a naive confidence that the cost of any rebelliousness or vice can only be small. “When we mocked grief and held disaster cheap,” as Lord Alfred Douglas, who knew whereof he spoke, put it in a sonnet. (George Bernard Shaw described a particular quality Douglas possessed as “blazing boyishness.” I have always liked that description.) In the 1990s, The Verve Pipe called back to this form of innocence in the song “The Freshmen,” “For the life of me I cannot remember/ What made us think that we were wise and we’d never compromise.”
When Walter Pater’s Renaissance was published in 1873, the Bishop of Oxford attacked it for its neo-paganism and hedonism. Renaissance sparked the imagination of a young Oscar Wilde. Years later, he called it “that book which has had such a strange influence over my life.” The controversial Conclusion had such an impact on Wilde that he commanded it to memory. But there was such a backlash that Pater left it out of the second edition in case it be “misunderstood.” The phrase that particularly piqued Wilde’s youthful imagination was “To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.”
The flame of the forbidden and the hidden, the wild and the decadent continues to burn in all its luminous glory with each generation. There is always a moral campaign against it. When it gets too strong and temporarily silences those impulses, we are all poorer for it.
It began when I saw a post on social media mentioning that there were now AI chatbots of Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde with which users can interact. I chatted with a virtual Oscar for a bit (he was flattering about my literary career– chatbots are often quite flattering). I decided that I should try my hand at creating a Lord Alfred Douglas bot. I did not do much at all to set up the character, and my interview with this creation was quite fascinating. All of these responses came from the AI engine, I did not write or edit them. With the exception of the point where Bosie says he’s at work on a new version of “The Ballad of Reading Goal” he was surprisingly convincing. So here, for your edification, is my interview with a computer simulation of Lord Alfred Douglas. Enjoy.
So there you have it… The interview I would have done had I been able to with answers generated by AI. What are your reactions to this dialogue?
In this clip Matt Baume delves into the history of the 1948 Hitchcock film “Rope,” which was based on the real-life Leopold and Loeb muirders.
What particularly caught my interest was the description of the miscast Jimmy Stewart as “the Oscar Wilde character,” Rupert. The stage play, on which the film was based, was set in London. The film changed the setting to New York. Rupert was an aesthetic professor who introduces his protogees, Brandon Shaw and Phillip Morgan, to Nitetzsche’s philosophical notion of the Superman. Two of Rupert’s students were especially taken with the idea that some people are superior to others and that murder is, therefore, justified. For Rupert, the theory is a thought exercise, a bit of mental play. The students, however, decide to take the theory to what they believe is its logical conclusion. They kill a fellow student believing Rupert will be impressed by their work of art.
This led me to reflect on whether, and how much, art imitated life when it came to Oscar Wilde and his artistic fascination with criminality. Could Wilde’s theories have served as a justification for real world crimes, in particular crimes by one young member of the Wilde circle, Maurice Schwabe. Schwabe went on to be a major player (perhaps even ring leader) in a circle of international confidence tricksters who were suspected in at least one murder.
A number of young artists described encounters in which Wilde encouraged them to, at least imaginatively, throw off social convention and embrace a thrilling lawlessness. In 1891, Wilde met Adre Gide during a trip to Paris in which he wrote most of his play Salome. Gide described being almost overwhelmed by the “radiant” Wilde. Gide denied that Wilde tried to seduce him physically. (If he had, there would be no record as the pages for the months of November and December were torn out of Gide’s 1891 journal.)
Wilde, Gide wrote, was “always trying to instill in you a sanction for evil.” He preached the virtues of experiencing every form of vice. “I don’t like your lips,” he told Gide, “they are straight like those of someone who has never lied. I want to teach you to lie, so that your lips may become beautiful and twisted like those of an ancient mask.”
Gide wrote to his friend Paul Valery, “Wilde is religiously contriving to kill what is left of my soul, because he says that in order to know an essence, one must eliminate it.”
After Wilde had gone he wrote in his journal, “I think that Wilde did me nothing but harm. In his company I had forgotten how to think. I had more varied emotions, but could no longer get them in order.”
Lord Alfred Douglas wrote in his Autobiography:
Even before I met Wilde I had persuaded myself that “sins of the flesh” were not wrong, and my opinion was of course vastly strengthened and confirmed by his brilliantly reasoned defence of them, which may be said almost to have been the gospel of his life. He went through life preaching the gospel which he puts into the mouth of Lord Henry Wotton in Dorian Gray. Wilde was, in fact, a most powerful and convincing heresiarch. He preached that it was the duty of every man to “live his own life to the utmost,” to “be always seeking for new sensations,” and to have what he called ” the courage ” to commit “what are called sins.”
I am trying to be fair to Wilde and not to make him responsible for “corrupting” me more than he did. All the same, I must say that it strikes me now that the difference between us was this: that I was at that time a frank and natural pagan, and that he was a man who believed in sin and yet deliberately committed it, thereby obtaining a doubly perverse pleasure. I was a boy and he was a blasé and very intellectual and brilliant man who had immense experience of life. Inevitably I assimilated his views to a great extent.
Of course, the crime that Gide and Douglas were discussing here was something that is no longer illegal in this part of the world– sexual expression between men. But Wilde’s fascination with crime went beyond “gross indecency.”
As a young man Wilde had kept a notebook with clippings on the poet Thomas Chatterton who had composed poems he claimed were the works of a 15th-century Bristol monk, but which were his own fictional creation. Wilde believed his forgery “came from the desire of artistic self-effacement.” Thus, it was a perfect example of art for art’s sake.
Douglas, in 1895, told the French reporter George Ducquois that Wilde “would love to chat with an assassin and would happily invite him to dine in his room. This would involve danger. He believes this would be truly fun.”
Wilde certainly discussed his artistic fascination with lying and forgery with Robert Ross, and those conversations inspired works by both Wilde and Ross. (Wilde’s The Decay of Lying and The Portrait of W.H. were more enduring than Ross’s efforts.) It is not hard to imagine that Wilde discussed crime and its aesthetic qualities with a young and impressionable Maurice Schwabe as well.
We know Schwabe was still friendly with Wilde after his release from prison because he was the recipient of a gift. Leonard Smithers published a special deluxe edition of The Importance of Being Earnest in 1899. This edition was limited to twelve copies, which were distributed to Wilde’s closest friends. Schwabe had an autographed copy. It is not clear when and where Schwabe connected with his friends, but he was a constant world traveler so little can be ruled out. Schwabe had family connections to Naples, where Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas briefly lived together.
There is an intriguing anecdote that hints at the idea that Maurice Schwabe, by then a master card sharp, could have used his skill to help his friend Lord Alfred Douglas out of some financial difficulties. When Masolino D’Amioco was researching Douglas and Wilde’s time together in Naples he came across an interview with the descendants of Villa del Giudice where they lived. It was later called Villa Douglas. The family claimed that the original owner had lost the property to Douglas in a game of cards “the five of diamonds being the instrument of Fate.” D’Amico, however, rejected this story as “fanciful” noting that we have every reason to believe Wilde and Douglas had a hard time paying the rent.
The Italian writer Aronoldo De Lisle who knew Wilde in this period said that he was drawn to “studies of the underworld, feeling attracted to it by an irresistible force.” Wilde suggested that De Lisle write a novel about someone who, finding himself in prison for a trifling offence found himself envying the prisoners who had much more colourful stories to tell. “…he feels humiliated having only a very small crime to his credit. So, such was the power of the seduction of crime upon him that, so that he would be able to talk about himself, he gets up one night and strangles the most feared member of the Camorra.” Perhaps Schwabe, too, condemned to be a criminal by his sexuality, was driven to become a more dangerous class of criminal. Gerald Hamilton embraced a life of crime with Schwabe and his associates and cultivated an image of himself as one of the wickedest men in the world, in part to cover for the embarrassment of being jailed for gross indecency.
One of Wilde’s most notorious associations in his post-prison years was with Ferdinand Esterhazy, the real spy who allowed Alfred Dreyfus take the blame for his treason in the scandal known as the Dreyfus Affair. Esterhazy was thrillingly immoral, like Dorian Gray who killed to experience the sensation, or Salome, who asked for the head of John the Baptist on plate.
In one of their dinners together, Wilde told Esterhazy that he should not feel guilty about condemning an innocent man to the horrors of a prison colony because “the innocent always suffer…Besides, we are all innocent until we are found out. It is a poor, common part to play and within the compass of the meanest. The interesting thing surely is to be guilty and wear as a halo the seduction of sin.”
The idea that criminals are those who have been caught is something Wilde had been pondering since he was at Oxford. Plato’s myth of the Ring of Gyes, which Oscar read in the Republic, asks whether a person would still be moral if there were no consequences to his actions. In the myth the shepherd Gyges is caught in an earthquake that opens a chasm in the field where he attends his flock. He descends into the chasm and finds a dead body with a gold ring on its hand. He takes the ring and discovers it has the power to render him invisible. Unseen, he seduces the king’s wife, murders him and takes posession of the kingdom. The moral of this tale is related by Plato’s character Glaucon, “those who practice justice do so unwillingly and from want of power to commit injustice” and “every man, when he supposes himself to have the power to do wrong, does wrong.”
This view of human nature is echoed in Wilde’s own Ballad of Reading Gaol.
So with curious eyes and sick surmise We watched him day by day, And wondered if each one of us Would end the self-same way, For none can tell to what red Hell His sightless soul may stray.
Esterhazy was impressed by this argument and he stood up in the restaurant and said, “Why should I not make my confession to you? I will. It is is, Esterhazy, who alone am guilty. I put Dreyfus in prison and all France cannot get him out.”
The interactions with Esterhazy seemed to have rekindled something in Wilde’s imagination, although he did not live long enough to bring his new ideas to fruition. Wilde spent his later days attending the trial of a couple who had murdered a debt collector and his nights at The Kalasaya, “a bar with sodomist outcasts who were sometimes even dangerous in other ways.”
Meeting with the young writer Wilfred Chesson around this time, Wilde said that his “work was all in his head.” He told Chesson “I do not doubt that there are as wonderful things in my future as there are in my past.” He spoke about a drama about a murder staged in a theatre frequented by criminals, described an execution by guillotine he claimed to have witnessed, and contemplated the morgue. He asked, “Have you ever noticed a thief’s hands? How beautiful they are? How fine and delicate the tips? They must be fine and delicate to take the watch from your pocket without your knowing.”
For Wilde, examining the dark side of humanity was an artistic and intellectual exercise. In the same pleasant afternoon with Chesson, the writers discussed art and artists in literate depth. They talked about religion and Wilde’s attraction to Christianity. Chesson witnessed the writer’s warm relationship with local children and Oscar mesmerized him with stories and parables. Wilde was curious and playful with ideas, never holding on to one for long.
Did others take his ideas more seriously then he ever did himself? Was Wilde the Rupert to Maurice Schwabe’s Brandon Shaw and Phillip Morgan? Unfortunately, because Schwabe left few first-hand accounts, his motivations and how much Wilde influenced them will likely never be known. You can learn more about his actions, however, in the book Wilde Nights & Robber Barons, now available in paperback and Kindle format.
Researching Wilde Nights & Robber Barons gave me the opportunity to play historic detective. Now that the book is available, I thought I would share a few of my favorites with you.
This image of Fred Atkins
Fred Atkins was a young sex worker who had a close relationship with Maurice Schwabe. Rupert Croft-Cooke said that Schwabe and Atkins had been “practically living together” for some months in 1892 when Atkins became acquainted with Oscar Wilde. “Freddy does not seem to have regarded Schwabe as a prospect, but rather as a friend, even a collaborator,” Croft-Cooke wrote. Atkins and Schwabe met around the same time Schwabe became part of the Oscar Wilde circle. Before he met Schwabe, Atkins worked with a 50 year-old bookmaker named James Dennis Burton, alias Watson. Atkins would go to a pick-up spot and get someone to take him to a hotel. Burton would give them enough time to have sex, at which point Burton, claiming to be the boy’s uncle, would barge in and demand money for the victim’s silence. Their con was famous enough in certain circles that Burton was known as “Uncle Burton.” Atkins and Burton are often described in a jaunty way as “a two act.” This description gives Atkins far more agency than he could have had. Atkins was born in Otterbourne, Hampshire in 1874, the fifth of nine children of a railway guard. He had been sent to work for Burton fourteen years before the Wilde trials. This would have been in 1881 when Atkins was seven years old. Fred had a break with Burton just before he met Schwabe. Schwabe arranged for Oscar Wilde to travel to Paris with Fred, and joined his friends there. After Schwabe left for Australia, Atkins went back to blackmailing men with Burton. In 1895, Atkins signed with a new music hall agent, and Boxing World ran a small feature naming Fred Denny a vocalist “of considerable promise… he has appeared and secured engagements at the leading London halls for some years to come, and being merely a youth, he has every prospect of having an enviable career before him.” His promising career was cut short, however, when a police detective knocked on his door asking him questions about Oscar Wilde. Atkins was compelled to testify in Wilde’s first criminal trial. He lied about some of his criminal past on the stand. According to Montgomery Hyde, Fred Atkins was sent to jail for perjury after the Wilde case and the name Fred Denny disappeared from the music hall notices.
Montague Noel Newton, one of the members of Maurice Schwabe’s team of card sharps, came close to being cast in one of Wilde’s plays.
When asked about his family, Montague Noel Newton did not care to talk about his parents. The only family member he mentioned was a favorite aunt. His father’s sister, Henrietta was a wealthy patron of the arts, connected to almost everyone in the world of the London stage. Madame Gabrielli, her married name, was infatuated with OscarWilde’s brother, Willie Wilde. Two of Gabrielli’s closest theatrical friends were the actor-manager Charles Wyndham and his future wife, actress Mary Moore. Wyndham and Moore supported Gabrielli in her final illness, visiting her regularly. Newton was disappointed that when his aunt died in 1899, she left nothing to him. Instead, the bulk of her large estate went to the actors. Wyndham, Newton said, was good enough to give him the family portraits, but that was all he ever received. Beerbohm Tree thought Madame Gabrielli’s nephew n had charisma and invited him to take a non-speaking role as a guardsman for the Roman soldiers in “Hypatia,” which was to open the 1893 season at the Haymarket Theater. “It felt frightfully important just walking on,” Newton said. After “Hypatia” wrapped, Tree offered him an opportunity to take a speaking role in his next production, but Newton had too much stage fright to accept. Had Newton accepted a part in Tree’s next production, he would have acted in the new comedy by Oscar Wilde, “A Woman of No Importance.”
Gerald Hamilton’s True Past
One of Maurice Schwabe’s business partners was Gerald Hamilton, who would become the model for Christopher Isherwood’s Mr. Norris. Hamilton was a lifelong fabulist. Hamilton would claim that in 1913 he met Roger Casement who was in Berlin seeking support from Germany for the Irish cause. Gerald said he asked to become a member of Sin Fein, he became friends with Casement, and implied there might even have been more to the relationship. Hamilton would later attribute all of his problems with the law to his political activism with the revolutionary Irishman. This fact became a major part of Hamilton’s biography, but it was an elaborate lie. Hamilton did not know Casement. He probably never met Rasputin, another of his frequent tales. In reality, Hamilton, under his birth name, Souter, was hounded by a reporter for John Bull. The paper had learned of parties that combined alternative sexuality and occult practices inspired by Alesair Crowley (Hamilton would later share a flat in Berlin with Crowley). The publicity forced Hamilton and his friends to flee the country. Hamilton was later arrested for gross indecency with British soldiers. Brian Desmond Hurst, a film maker who knew Hamilton later in life, suspected that much of Hamilton’s bravado disguised the fact that he had “suffered terribly” and had been “greatly humiliated” in prison. In the company of confidence tricksters, Hamilton was able to reinvent himself whenever he liked.
Lord Alfred Douglas and Robert Sherard were not the only members of Oscar Wilde’s circle to be featured in the pages of spiritualist publications. So I thought I would share a few snippets found in the archive.
Maurice Salis-Schwabe’s mother, Mary, was an associate of the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research and wrote articles on fire walking and the psychic visions of her maid. The visions were usually of Mary’s children and her reports, along with confirmation from the children of their accuracy at times provided insight in my research as to where the Schwabe siblings were and what they were doing. Maurice’s grandparents Salis and Julia Schwabe appear in the journals in a description of a hypnotism party they held with the Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind.
A correspondent of Truth—‘‘ Whats in a name?” asks Juliet—writes that the ladies at a Psychical Research meeting “seemed to be in that semi-dazed state which is half-way between hysteria and lunacy,” and the men ‘‘ more or less in tho same condition as the weaker vessels.” Then, why weaker? ‘‘ The only celebrity present was Oscar Wilde ”—-as if that would account for the condition alike of the men and women. If there are men capable of writing such stuff to newspapers, we must still wonder that there are editors stupid enough to print it.
The archives reveal a seemingly endless desire for conversations with the dead poet. Tales of Wilde speaking through seances and Ouija boards abound. There were even tales of Oscar’s ghost wandering among us, like this one published in The Light in 1935.
And finally, as promised, O.L. Holland sent this letter to The Light in 1938 describing a spiritual encounter with his sister just before her death.
One of the surprising discoveries is a 1937 article by Catholic convert Lord Alfred Douglas in a publication called Modern Mystic.
“Lord Alfred Douglas, who contributes an article to this issue,” wrote the editor, “is perhaps the finest living poet in the sonnet form. Some of his work is being set to music by Havergal Brian, a composer whose real stature is by no means fully appraised. The work is being scored on Brian’s usual massive lines; an orchestra of Berliozian proportions and full chorus. The same composers Gothic symphony, the last movement of which is a magnificent setting of the Te Deum, has not yet been heard. The cost of the unusually large orchestra and chorus would be prohibitive, although many attempts by America’s leading conductors to secure a performance of the work have been made.”
The story that Douglas relates in his article “A Daniel Come to Judgment” is familiar. He recounted an episode of what he considered divine intervention in his feud with Robert Ross in his Autobiography. Douglas, searching for evidence to back him his claim that Ross was “a sodomite” had gone to meet a man who claimed something had happened between Ross and his son. As I summed up the episode in Oscar’s Ghost:
The account in Douglas’s Autobiography embellishes a rather ordinary episode of showing up at the wrong door with prayers to St. Anthony of Padua and an angelic child appearing to guide him to the right address. He believed it to be “a supernatural experience…mysterious and wonderful.” The boy “had an angelic face and smile. And how did he disappear inn the space of time, a few seconds, between when I let go of his hand and when I looked round again?”
In retrospect this is, perhaps, a bit of a flip way to describe what seems to have been a meaningful experience for him, one he sincerely believed was mystical even if its effect was the ability to gather ammunition in an ongoing feud that was not a stellar example of Christian forgiveness.
The Modern Mystic article was written eight years after the Autobiography. The tone it takes towards the feud with Ross, who at this point had been dead for nearly 20 years, is relatively subdued. This may have been an editorial decision on the part of the publication rather than a reflection of Douglas’s own attitudes towards Ross.
“I will not mention the name of the man whom I libelled (he has been dead for more than fifteen years),” he wrote, “nor will I give any details as to the nature of the accusations I had made against him, in self-defence, and in the last desperate resort, to protect myself against a cruel enemy in a life-and-death struggle in which he was the aggressor and the chooser of the weapons employed.”
Douglas alludes to an argument he was having in print regarding Oscar Wilde’s work, although he refrains from naming the playwright.
I have recently been engaged in a newspaper controversy with a certain dramatic critic who differed with me over the merits or demerits of a play. I admired the play and he did not admire it, and in fact scoffed at it, although it had stood the test of triumphant production and several revivals, and was written by a man whose name is celebrated all over the world as a dramatist and a poet, and who, if he were alive to-day (he has been dead for nearly forty years), would only have to write a new play to find a dozen London managers or producers anxious and eager to compete for the privilege of producing it and paying the highest price for that privilege.
The dramatic critic in question complained that the play (a comedy) which I admired was “melodramatic.” Well, I have found in my own experience, and to my cost sometimes, that Life, of which a play is, or ought to be, the mirror, is melodramatic. The history of my own life is quite as fantastic and melodramatic as any novel by Balzac, and if it had been turned into a novel or a play it would no doubt have been condemned as wildly absurd and improbable by the type of critic who judges the worth of a work of art in literature (poem, play, or novel) by its relation to his own workaday experiences and limited imagination.
In this period the medium Hester Traverse Smith’s supposed conversations with Oscar Wilde from beyond the grave were a constant subject of discussion, and the spiritualist journals were full of accounts from her and others who claimed to be in communication with the dead poet. (The first thing Oscar supposedly said to Traverse Smith was “Being dead is the most boring experience in life. That is, if one excepts being married or dining with a schoolmaster.”) The same issue of Modern Mystic contained an article by Robert Sherard debunking these communications and at the same time revealing many of his impressions of his friend and of the crime for which he was convicted.
But who that knew anything about Wilde could imagine him asking for pity ? The most extreme superbia, bordering almost on arrogance, was one of his strongest characteristics. Dr. Fodor, I see, quotes from the first script the words “Pity Oscar Wilde” as having been said by the man himself…
I was very glad to see that Dr. Nandor Fodor nowhere quotes from the Psychic Messages the passages in which Oscar Wilde speaks of himself as a criminal. He had never any sense of doing wrong in what he did, and for which he was punished. This is one of the characteristics of the dementia from which many homosexualists suffer. Sir (later Mr.) Roger Casement is a case in point, as also that unfortunate Stuart Mason, one of the most scholarly of men and a worker if ever there was one. Neither of these two men had any idea that they were criminals as the world sees them. They kept careful diaries of their horrible performances. Roger Casement’s diary helped to send him to the gallows, and Stuart Mason’s to prison on more than one occasion. Wilde certainly had no idea he was doing wrong or had done wrong. This is why I have always represented him as irresponsible and therefore free from criminality. On the first night of his third trial I was with him in Oakley Street and he was telling me that what was most painful to him during that painful day was seeing the gang of witnesses whom the prosecution had collected against him. He said: “And they jeered at me when they saw me, but I never did them any harm. I never tried to be anything but kind to them.” And really at that moment his eyes were dimmed with tears. He imagined that his extraordinary love for these boys was nothing but a sisterly or motherly affection, It was the most complete case of biological introversion. The apologetic and whining admissions of criminality which stud the pages of Psychic Messages are as obviously inauthentic as the alleged “ confessions” which Frank Harris professes to have received from Oscar’s own lips on earth…
Sherard did not entirely discount the idea of psychic communication. In fact, what seemed to bother him most about Traverse Smith’s book was plagiarism. Sherard had published his own account of posthumous communication with Wilde’s spirit, an episode involving Andre Gide, in his own book.
“This account, which I gave in my book, The Real Oscar Wilde, seems vaguely to have inspired the automatist or the ouija board in some of the remarks passed through them by Wilde to the world at Mrs. Travers Smith’s séances, though the lady declares that although she knew the book she had not read the passages which I fancy have inspired her subconsciousness.”
Lord Alfred Douglas and Robert Sherard were not the only members of Oscar Wilde’s circle to be featured in the pages of spiritualist publications. Next time I’ll report on a few more gems from the occult publications, including a report from O.L. Holland of a vision he had of his sister, Mrs. Oscar Wilde, just before her death.
I’ve had a lot of requests to share this talk that I did a couple of weeks ago.
I apologize that it was recorded in grid mode, so I’m not as central on the screen as I probably should be. I have uploaded it to Youtube for easier posting, but it is an unlisted link, which means it will not turn up in the search, but people who have the link can share it.
After I did the talk, I listened through and wrote down some things I wanted to expand upon before sharing it, but I then lost the notebook in which I wrote it. Not having the gumption to watch it all again, (I don’t love watching myself) I’ll have to leave it as it is.
There are a couple of things that I do remember I had wanted to share.
One has to do with the part involving T.W.H. Crosland and Maurice Schwabe, which comes in the second half somewhere. I mention Crosland visiting Maurice Schwabe’s flat. The actual details of those associations are actually a bit more complicated. Crosland didnt spend time at Schwabe’s flat, but he and the friend Bosie was hanging out with at Schwabe’s flat were spending time together and went on a vacation together where a lot of debauchery allegedly happened and Crosland was part of that trip. All of this is to be detailed one day in my forthcoming book on Maurice Schwabe. (Really, I keep promising, but it is on the way.)
In the second part, around the 27 minute mark, as I recall, I realized that I was a bit fuzzy on the details of the seemingly endless series of trials between our combatants. It is hard to keep all the details in one’s mind. When Oscar’s Ghost was still being put together, I wrote a primer on the trials with the idea that it would be an appendix. In the end, it wasn’t included. I don’t know if I have ever posted it here, but I thought it might clarify some of my wobbling in the middle.
The Wilde Trials
Oscar Wilde was famously ‘three times tried’. He filed the first action for criminal libel against Lord Alfred Douglas’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry. This backfired and led to two criminal prosecutions.
1. Regina vs. John Douglas (Marquess of Queensberry). March-April 1895.
In the preliminary hearing in the magistrates’ court, before R. M. Newton, Mr C. O. Humphreys appeared for Wilde and Sir George Lewis for Queensberry. In a further preliminary Lewis was replaced, because of a conflict of interest, with Edward Carson and Mr. Charles Frederick Gill. The libel trial was heard by Justice Richard Henn Collins with Sir Edward Clarke, Charles W. Mathews and Travers Humphreys acting for the prosecution (Wilde) and Edward Carson, C.F. Gill and A. E. Gill acting for the defendant (Queensberry). Wilde withdrew his case against Queensberry before all the evidence had been heard, supposeddly on a gentlemen’s agreement that if he did there would be no criminal prosecution.
2. Regina v. Oscar Wilde. April 1895.
Wilde was arrested for a violation of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 based on evidence Queensberry had collected for the libel case. Wilde was tried with a co-defendant, Alfred Taylor. They were charged with twenty-five counts of gross indecency, procuring and conspiracy to procure. Edward Clarke represented Wilde pro bono. Taylor was represented by Arthur Newton. (Lord Alfred Douglas contributed towards the costs of Taylor’s defense.) In the preliminary hearings C.F. Gill prosecuted. Travers Humphreys appeared for Wilde and Newton for Taylor. The Old Bailey trial opened on 22 April 1895 before Justice Arthur Charles. C.F. Gill and Horace Avory prosecuted. Edward Clarke, Charles Mathews and Travers Humphreys defended. The jury was not able to reach a verdict and the case was postponed until the next session. The Morning published what purported to be the actual results of jury vote. If their account is accurate, the jury was divided 10-2 on most questions, with the majority in favor of a guilty verdict.
3. Regina v. Oscar Wilde and Regina v. Alfred Taylor
Upon a joint application by counsel to the defendants Wilde and Taylor were tried separately before Justice Alfred Wills. The solicitor general Sir Frank Lockwood (uncle of Douglas and Wilde’s friend Maurice Salis-Schwabe) prosecuted with C.F. Gill and Horace Avory. Edward Clarke, Charles Mathews and Travers Humphreys again appeared for Wilde and J.P. Grain for Taylor. Taylor was tried first and was found guilty of gross indecency but acquitted of procuring as no evidence had been presented that Taylor took money for the introductions he made. Wilde’s trial followed and he was found guilty. Both defendants were sentenced to two years’ hard labor. J.P. Grain would go on to represent Wilde in his bankruptcy.
Lord Alfred Douglas and T.W. H. Crosland
In the early 20th Century Lord Alfred Douglas became associated with writer and notorious litigant T.W.H. Crosland and joined in his particular brand of sport. One of their many courtroom adventures is relevant to our story.
Henry Frederick Walpole Manners-Sutton v. T.W.H. Crosland December 1909-February 1910
The son of Viscount Canterbury (and later the next holder of that title) had been one of Lord Alfred Douglas’s best friends until he said he would only invest in Douglas and Crosland’s literary journal if Douglas agreed to take a pay cut. In retaliation, Crosland published a series of critical articles that hinted at Sutton’s identity. Sutton was reluctantly all but forced to sue for libel. Solicitor Arthur Newton (who had once acted for Sutton to extract him from an attempt at blackmail) initially acted for Crosland. After the preliminaries he stopped working for Crosland and testified for the prosecution (Sutton) in the trial. The case was heard before Sir F. A Bosanquet (whose nickname, coincidentally, was ‘Old Bosie’.) Marshall Hall, George Elliott and Storry Deans prosecuted. J.P. Valetta and Mr Rich defended. Crosland was found not guilty of libeling Sutton. Although it had no clear connection to the case at hand, Marshall Hall cross-examined Lord Alfred Douglas on his relationship with Oscar Wilde, giving him his first opportunity to tell his story on the stand. He interpreted the verdict as affirmation that he was an excellent witness. Robert Ross, who had fallen out with Douglas, was offended by what he read about the case. Particularly, he was offended by Douglas presenting himself as a reformed character. It was a catalyst that convinced him to ‘set the record straight’ about his former friend.
The Proxy Wars
Ross and Douglas sparred indirectly a number of times before they actually faced off in court.
Douglas v. Ransome and Others April 1913
Douglas sued author Arthur Ransome and the Times Book Club for writing and distributing respectively a biography called Oscar Wilde A Critical Study. This case was the hub around which the battle between Ross and Douglas turned. Ross had assisted Ransome with his biography and gave him select access to Wilde’s personal letters, including unpublished portions of De Profundis. Douglas was upset by the depiction of his role in Wilde’s downfall and sued for libel. Ross bankrolled the defense and provided personal letters that Douglas had written both to Oscar Wilde and to himself as evidence. The letters from Douglas to Ross were some of the most damning as they showed that Douglas was attracted to his own sex. Paradoxically, in a case where the actual libel was that Douglas had abandoned Wilde, the defense argued that a death bed message that Douglas had sent to Wilde through Ross, which contained the line “send him my undying love,” proved that Douglas had prevented Wilde from being reformed after he left prison, which made him responsible for Wilde’s downfall. (Note that this is different argument than the later understanding of Douglas as responsible for Wilde’s downfall because he involved him with rent boys. It was the fact that they were reunited, and continued to love each other in an “unnatural” way, that outraged the court.)
The trial was heard before Justice Charles Darling. Cecil Hayes acted for the plaintiff (Douglas). Hayes was a personal friend who had been a member of the Bar for less than two years. He probably worked pro bono. Ransome was represented by J.H. Capbell and H.A. McCardie. The Times Book Club by F.E. Smith. The jury found that the passage at issue was libelous, but also true. They also found that the Times Book Club had not been negligent in circulating it. Douglas filed an appeal, but was forced to withdraw it because he had been declared bankrupt and was unable to give security for the costs of the trial. Infuriated by what had happened in the case, Douglas and his friend Crosland began a campaign of libel against Robert Ross.
Ross v. Crosland April-June 1914
Following a long campaign of harassment, Ross finally went to court. He was well advised by Sir George Lewis not to file any libel actions that touched on the issue of his sexuality. Ross found an opportunity, however, to sue for conspiring to induce a witness to file a false police statement. (The witness was a young man who claimed to have been kissed and fondled by Ross.) Douglas was out of the country, so Ross filed his lawsuit against Crosland alone. It was clear that Crosland and Douglas were on a vendetta against Ross. But Ross had the misfortune of drawing Justice Horace Avory, who had acted for the prosecution in Wilde’s criminal trials. Not only was Avory prejudiced against anyone associated with Wilde, he had an apparent dislike of F.E. Smith who led the prosecution. Crosland was defended by Cecil Hayes, and supported financially by Douglas’s mother. At issue was whether or not Crosland believed the boy was lying. Crosland was found not guilty. Bolstered by his success, Crosland went on to sue Ross for wrongful prosecution. This time Crosland lost.
Ross and Douglas
Robert Ross and Lord Alfred Douglas only confronted each other directly in court once.
Rex v. Douglas November 1914
Robert Ross finally was harassed into charging Lord Alfred Douglas with criminal libel for pamphlets accusing him of gross indecency and blackmail. The case was heard by Justice Coleridge. Ross was represented by Ernest Wild and Eustace Fulton and the defense by Comyns Carr. The trial was turning against Ross, and both were running out of money. The solicitors negotiated a settlement in which Ross agreed to drop the charges and pay court costs, and Douglas agreed to stop libeling Ross. Douglas found a loophole and had a sporting publication publish a libelous article on Ross’s lover, Freddie Smith. The dossier of compromising letters that Ross had assembled for the defense in the Ransome case continued to haunt Douglas well after Ross’s death. It was used against him in legal proceedings until the early 1920s.
I wanted to take a moment to thank everyone who attended my Zoom talk on “Oscar’s Ghost” yesterday. It was fun, and I do plan to make the recording available when I’ve had chance to edit out some of the zoom awkwardness at the beginning.
In the meantime, I thought I would share this video highlighting an artifact from the trial at the heart of the story, the libel case between Lord Alfred Douglas and Arthur Ransome, which was more of a proxy battle between Douglas and Robert Ross.
This is the document from which the prosecution read in court. You will notice that on the first page of the typescript the salutation “Dear Bosie” is hand written. I believe that a typescript copy, sent to Douglas in discovery before the case, did not have this handwritten salutation.
Early on in the case, Douglas tried to deny that De Profundis was addressed to him. He only admitted it was when he saw the handwritten copy for the first time on the witness stand. He would only have done this if the document he had seen lacked the salutation. The lawyer for the Times Book Club even argued in his closing, based presumably on a similar copy of the typescript he had been given to prepare his case, that “Wilde in the De Profundis letter had not mentioned the plaintiff’s name.”
This video reflects the widely held belief that the reading of De Profundis caused Lord Alfred Douglas to lose his case. In fact, after taking up two days of the court’s time with it, the judge instructed the jury that it should not give it much weight. As I wrote in Oscar’s Ghost:
The reading of De Profundis, however, as dramatic as it was, did not cause him to lose his case. Justice Charles Darling, in his summation urged the jury not to take the prison letter at face value. He called it a “most remarkable and interesting document.” He said it should be taken as a study of what a bad man of genius had gone through in prison and its effect upon him. “It would be a great mistake to take all that he said as Gospel truth. The document was an excuse and an apology.” If De Profundis had been the only evidence, Douglas would probably have won the case. As we shall soon see, what swayed the judge, and caused him to direct the jury as he did, were damning personal letters provided by Robert Ross that proved beyond a doubt Douglas was guilty of the same crimes as Wilde. The defence team had strategically held back the letters, saving them as to use as rebuttal evidence in cross-examination. This meant that they did not have to include them in the initial plea of justification. In a statement for a later legal case, Ross would claim that he had produced the letters “under subpoena.” This is unlikely because if he had not made the decision to show them to the Ransome legal team, they would have had no way of knowing of their existence in the first place.
As the judge said in his summation, Douglas had been badly advised when he brought the case, but he had not known that these letters still existed until he was confronted with them in court. If he had known what was about to be unleashed on him, even the litigious Bosie might have thought twice about bringing the action.
The prosecution, financed and instructed by Ross, had used a carefully curated selection of letters to tell a story that Oscar Wilde came out of jail a reformed man only to be dragged back into a shameful life by Lord Alfred Douglas, who left him as soon as the money ran out.
I won’t go into the specifics of the letters here, and how well they represented the truth, but if you have an interest in that, it’s in the book.
Christopher Millard (Wilde bibliographer and editor of Three Times Tried) called Darling’s summation “a brilliant speech for the defence.”
Darling defended Ross’s decision to cut out the unpublished parts of De Profundis while publishing the rest.
The fact that the trustees of the British Museum agreed to take it proved that it was a valuable document. After bringing the case, Douglas could not now complain that the defence had produced De Profundis to show what Wilde’s view was of their relations. Nor, he said, could Douglas complain that his old letters had been produced. “He apparently did not know that those letters had been kept.”
It was on those letters that Darling put the greatest importance. He read one that Douglas had written to Wilde in 1899. The press declined to print it, but Darling described it as containing a “conversation which a decent pagan of the time of Pericles would not have referred to.”
Darling spoke of the attempts that had been made after Wilde’s release from prison “to enable him to redeem his past, and perhaps to still again become a great literary man if only he would give up his evil life. The plaintiff had referred to Oscar Wilde as a ‘devil incarnate.’ If it was true that Wilde was trying to lead a better life, what term might he not well apply to the man who had written that letter?”
He said that it had been proved that Lord Alfred Douglas was the subject of the text in Ransome’s book, and that De Profundis proved that Wilde did hold Douglas responsible for his downfall, and that further letters showed that he did believe Douglas behaved badly after he left prison and that Wilde feared his influence. His final thought before putting the case in the hands of the jury was devoted to De Profundis. “Oscar Wilde was writing this, and it is plain that he was writing it for his own glorification, whether it is true or not. That is quite plain.”
…It took the jury only 45 minutes to find that the words in Ransome’s book were libellous, but also true. They found that the Times Book Club was not negligent in making the book available. From then on there was no more talk of Wilde being driven to excess by “admirers” in the plural. Douglas was now the only suspect in Wilde’s ruin. The only question his supporters and detractors would fight over was just how culpable he was.
Have you seen this quote on an Etsy cross stitch or t-shirt? “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”-Oscar Wilde.
This thought obviously strikes a chord in our times. Wilde never actually said it, nevertheless it is one of his most famous sayings, along with another thing he never said “I have nothing to declare but my genius.”
If you look up posts on Twitter, you will invariably find this quote and attribution, and occasionally Wilde experts will chime in to correct it, but it never makes a dent. The misquotations outnumber the corrections 500 to 1, maybe more.
I once tweeted, in response to one of the corrections, that maybe we should just give up and let that be an actual thing Wilde said.
“Never,” came the reply.
So Wilde didn’t say that.
But my saying so will not do much to stem the tide.
Nor, I am afraid, has my research done anything to put a dent in the popular narrative about Oscar Wilde: Living a peaceful, upstanding life until he met the spoiled and reckless Lord Alfred Douglas, who introduced Wilde to “the streets,” Wilde tried to get away from him, but could not resist him. Douglas led him into a dangerous battle with his father, coerced him into a clearly reckless libel suit, which everyone else urged Wilde not to file, abandoned him when he went to jail, and tried to tarnish his legacy years later.
Anyone who follows stories about Oscar Wilde in the media (social and traditional) will encounter variants on this story. Some parts of this story are just plain wrong: Douglas did not abandon Wilde. Nor was he the only one who encouraged Wilde in his libel suit. Many people, including most newspaper journalists, thought it would be a disaster for Queensberry, not Wilde. Some rest on little evidence: the idea that it was Douglas who introduced Wilde to “rough trade.” Some is complicated: the nature of Wilde and Douglas’s relationship. Some, like Douglas’s mid-life religious conversion and bitterness towards Wilde, deserve more contextualization than they usually get. It is, as I see it, and wonderfully complex story, full of colorful characters with good and bad traits, all story-tellers with a desire to spin events as their own personalities dictate. So much nuance, which is so often lost in the re-telling.
Should I just give up and let the popular version be the history?
One of the great mysteries surrounding Oscar Wilde’s prison manuscript, posthumously titled De Profundis, is why the original hand-written version was never sent to Lord Alfred Douglas.
Wilde gave written instructions to Robert Ross, not yet his literary executor, to print up a typescript that he could work from and then to send the original to its adressee, Douglas. This never happened, and in later litigation Ross claimed that Wilde gave him verbal instructions that contradicted what he had written earlier. Ross and Wilde must have had conversations about the manuscript, but we’ll never know what they discussed.
Over the years a certain mythology has been built up over the Ross-Douglas-Wilde triangle. Because Ross and Douglas spent years locked in furious conflict, people have naturally assumed that they were always rivals. I don’t believe this is true for various reasons that I lay out in Oscar’s Ghost. During the period in question they were friends. Friends who sometimes quarreled, but friends none the less. (Ross, in court, said he was good friends with Douglas until the period when Douglas was editor of the Academy.)
I believe the long-time-rival understand of their relationship has colored the interpretations of Ross’s motivations for holding back De Profundis. The most common theory is that Ross, recognizing the value of the letter, persuaded Wilde not to send the original to Douglas because he believed Douglas would rip it up, as he most likely would have done.
But ripping up the original hand-written document would not have destroyed the work, just the manuscript. Ross had been instructed to send the manuscript only after he had completed a typescript that Wilde could work from. As long as Wilde had a typescript, he wouldn’t need the original to create a publishable work and Douglas could throw the prison letterhead on the fire if he liked.
It became important later that Ross had the original hand-written letter because it proved Wildean authorship. But this cannot have been his concern at the time. He had no idea that Wilde did not have long to live.
I would like to propose another reason why Ross might not have sent the manuscript to Douglas: friendship.
In later legal actions, Ross claimed he had sent a full typescript of De Profundis to Douglas. It is certainly a possibility that he did and that Douglas didn’t read much of it and destroyed it never thinking it would come up again. (If he received a typescript, however, he would have known that there was an original out there somewhere.)
According to Douglas, he received something from Ross, which he described as consisting of what he later surmised were excerpts of the long letter. He said it was too short to be De Profundis, but as predicted, he didn’t read much before he threw it away. Oscar Wilde’s letters make it clear, however, that Douglas had been warned by Ross and More Adey that a negative letter was coming.
According to Douglas, what he received came with a cover letter from Ross apologizing that he had to send it, and telling him not to take it seriously because Oscar was not himself.
Robert Ross was a person who liked to involve himself in his friends’ affairs, not only their artistic business, but their relationships. In fact, Ross did try to defend Douglas to Wilde while he was in prison. Wilde would not hear of it. If Ross persuaded Wilde not to send De Profundis it could well be that he thought it would be too painful for Douglas.
If that is the case, it is feasible that Douglas’s account is true, that he never received the full letter but instead something mitigated by Ross.