Oscar Wilde and the Two Bohemias

Written by Kevin Taylor

(Click photos and scroll to read full descriptions.)


Oscar Wilde whipped up a storm of publicity from the moment he landed in New York in January of 1882 on his grand American lecture tour. Memorable moments in his year-long, action-packed odyssey were many: Falling prey to a conman in N.Y.C.’s Tenderloin. Camping with miners in Colorado. Having potluck with Mormons in Utah. Wining with Walt Whitman (homemade elderberry wine) and dining with authors Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Louisa May Alcott, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Henry James. Calling on former presidents Jefferson Davis at his Mississippi plantation, and then Ulysses S. Grant at his seaside cottage in N.J.

Oscar Wilde by John Rooney

A rumor circulated that P.T. Barnum offered Wilde 200 pounds to ride Jumbo the Elephant, clutching his famous adornment of a sunflower. That didn’t make the itinerary.


Wilde’s lectures centered around the decorative arts. The charming Irish aesthete and writer taught people coast to coast how to transpose the beauty they saw in art into daily life. Wilde’s tour was financed by theater impresario and talent agent Richard D’Oyly Carte and coincided with the NY opening of Patience, a comic opera by musical theater legends Gilbert and Sullivan, that lampooned the fads, superficiality, vanity, hypocrisy and pretentiousness of the aesthetic movement of the 1870s and ’80s. Oscar played the part of a protagonist for “Art for Art’s Sake” living while impersonating lead character Reginald Bunthorne. [1]


Bohemian Club Vice President and editor of The Argonaut Jerome Hart wrote, “he wore the same garb as Bunthorne on the stage—lace jabots at throat and wrists, black velvet coat and knee-breeches, silk stockings, silver-buckled shoes; he carried a lily in his hand; his walk was the mincing gate of Bunthorne; his attitude ‘I am limp and I cling.’” [2] Wilde played the part of an erudite Aesthetic evangelist/savvy art connoisseur perfectly. How much of the exaggerated farce of his American lecture tour was conscious parody and how much was the doctrines of a zealous dandy was hard to determine. He became a pin-up boy for the Aesthetic Movement itself.

Oscar arrived in San Francisco by Uncle Charley Crocker’s Central Pacific Railroad on Sunday, March 26, 1882. He wasn’t yet the Behemoth literary figure that he would become having only self-published a book of poetry (the first public performance of an Oscar Wilde play would be in New York the following year). In San Francisco, he went slumming in Chinatown (“this is just like a chapter from the Arabian Knights”); visited the Bohemian Club, (“I never saw so many well-dressed, well-fed business-looking Bohemians in my life”); toured Berkeley; and stayed at the splendid Palace Hotel, which was then the largest hotel in the world. They flew a British flag in his honor.


Another highlight of the California leg of his American tour was meeting a female firecracker in the form of Amy (later Aimée) Crocker both in San Francisco and Sacramento. Amy met Oscar socially and he made a lasting impression on the teenage temptress, who even then shared his love of the arts and his proclivity to causing scenes and garnishing attention. She wrote about him in her memoirs:


Oscar Wilde, who when he was not busy shocking England in that day, was a frequent visitor at my San Francisco home. I am aware of the gigantic structure of naughtiness which the world has hung around the neck of his memory, but I must say, if my timid and unimportant voice can whisper a defense… if he needs defending… that I found Mr. Wilde a charming gentleman, fascinating as much for his courtly manner to women as for the pungency of his wit.


An incident? Yes, I can remember several. Here is one, amusing and quickly told. After a dinner given at my home in San Francisco, the other invited gentlemen decided that it would be an amusing thing to drink Mr. Wilde “under the table.” A deep and dark plan was laid. I was a party to it, although not an active one. The idea was that if he should relax his guard in drinking, he might reveal some of the things which had already caused scandal.


The drinking started with champagne after dinner. Oscar Wilde dominated the conversation… the only tiresome thing I could detect in him… and the glasses clinked. At ten o’clock, there was far more boisterous talk and very much less wit, except for Mr. Wilde who seemed to expand and grow more than ever magnificent in his repartee. At midnight, some of the gentlemen had withdrawn from the contest, and others were decidedly red in the face. At two o’clock, Mr. Wilde threw consternation into the conspiracy by demanding gin instead of whisky, and pouring an enormous glass of it for each of his fellow drinkers as well as for himself.


At three o’clock in the morning, Mr. Wilde came suddenly to the realization that he had been making pretty witticisms to an audience that was snoring soundly and had been out of conversation for twenty minutes. He filled himself another gin, tossed it off neatly, and said to me that really he was quite sleepy and would retire. The would-be tipplers had to be carried to their rooms by my servants, but Wilde never even suspected the plot. He was really magnificent. [3]


Wilde was met by scores of interested spectators at the Central Pacific Railroad Depot in Oakland (Oscar guessed some 4,000). Also at the pier was a reception committee that included theatrical manager Charles E. Locke, several Bohemian Club men, and a flock of reporters including a Daily-Union man who traveled from Sacramento with him.

When Wilde arrived in San Francisco, he was greeted by thousands of people curious to see him. This carton features sunflowers, one of the emblems of the aesthetic movement. Uncle Charles Crocker is shown on the left with his signature goatee beard. He attended Wilde’s first lecture at Platt’s Hall.


First Visit to Sacramento


Wilde’s reputation arrived some time before he unpacked his bags at the Palace. The Sacramento Record-Union wrote a lengthy article about the well thought out philosophies that Oscar Wilde was propagating three months before he arrived in California. The Oscar Wilde depicted speaks eloquently about the Arts elevating them to the realms of the mystical, the cosmological, the ethereal and the revelatory. Wilde claims that, “True love for art for its own sake, and in its highest development, marks the best forms and systems of civilization most easily attainable…All art is the expression of the noble and joyous in life…The best service of God is found in the worship of all that is beautiful. Such a worshipper can do no wrong willfully.” In Wilde’s universe getting an insight into Art was like the getting of Christian “grace”: a matter beyond and above Reason, or a Rikshi contemplating Nirvana. The Record-Union reporter concludes that Aestheticism was a cult “eminently fitted for ladies, and for ladylike men.” After laying out Wilde’s doctrines he closes with rebukes, “…the present age has had enough, and more than enough, of the kind of cant and twaddle his school represents.” [4]


The Sacramento Bee called on The Society for the Prevention of the Dissemination of Obscene Literature to take a look at some of Wilde’s poems, especially “Charmides,” which was considered so obscene in its salaciousness that no one would dare to read the verses out loud. [5]


On the evening of March 31, 1882, at his Congregational Church lecture in Sacramento, in spite of the critics’ consternation, Mr. Wilde drew a large crowd and was an undeniable success. “There was no applause, because he permitted none; there was the profoundest quiet, because his words commanded that respect. He had ideas to express, and he found an audience respectful, receptive and more than interested… Probably no one who attended but went away satisfied that some seeds for new reflection had been sown, and all went away impressed with much of the truth this young apostle of aestheticism and undoubted poetical genius uttered.” [6]


Later that evening, Wilde was entertained by the Bric-a-Brac Club at the residence of Mr. and Mrs. Charles McCreary. They supplied a full musical and literary program which included songs and instrumentals and a reading of one of Wilde’s poems. There was an exhibit in the art room featuring works by the most talented Sacramento artists: two pastel paintings, a landscape of Yosemite, and a beach scene study by C.J. Robinson; a crayon portrait by William F. Jackson (later the curator of the Crocker Museum and an instructor of the California School of Design at the Crocker); and four landscapes in oil and one in black and white by Norton Bush, the president of the club. [7]

Oscar Wilde visited the studios of Norton Bush, William F. Jackson and Charles D. Robinson in Sacramento. Left Norton Bush’s “On the San Juan, Nicaragua,”1871. Bush was hired by E.B. Crocker to do landscape paintings of Nicaragua. Center: William Jackson’s Poppy Field on the Bay, 1926. Crocker Art Museum. Jackson was the curator of the Crocker Museum from 1885-1936 and an instructor at the Sacramento School of Design at the Crocker. Right: C.D. Robinson’s Crests of the Sierra, 1909, Crocker. Robinson’s studio was at the corner of Fifth and J Streets.


April Fools


On April 1, 1882 the Bohemian Club entertained three special guests Archibald Forbes, a war correspondent, Sir John Lister Kaye, 3rd Baronet (later Groom-in-Waiting to King Edward VII), and Oscar Wilde. [8] The attendance was very large. The Club’s “High Jinks” performance took place the same evening, and all three gentlemen participated in the exercises. The president of the club at the time was Col. Alexander G. Hawes, who fought on the fields of Shiloh and Fort Donaldson and at the Battle of Atlanta during the Civil War.


Special guests at the Bohemian Club on April Fool’s Day 1882 Oscar Wilde, Sir John Lister Kaye, 3rd Baronet and Archibald Forbes.

The Bohemians, who organized on April Fool’s Day ten years earlier, were lying in wait to put this young Caesar in his place. Wilde arrived wearing his esthetic togs, and carrying a lily. Some of the members considered him a “Miss Nancy,” and were determined to get him tipsy and have some fun with him, according to Jerome Hart, who would be elected Vice-President of the club a week later. [9]


San Francisco’s Bohemian Club grew out of a Sunday salon hosted by James F. Bowman of the San Francisco Chronicle. The original gatherings were Sunday breakfasts at Bowman’s home on Russian Hill for mostly bachelor artists and journalists who met at local subterranean pubs. They came for the camaraderie and inspiring conversation and soon formed into a salon that attracted some of the city’s most talented writers, performers and artists.


A circular suggesting a new San Francisco club was distributed and 32 men, the inner circle of journalism in the city at the time, showed up. Col. J.C. Cremony of The Commercial Herald made the motion for the name “Bohemian.” The moniker had become synonymous with “newspaper writer” on both coasts after the Civil War. Objections arose immediately. Some advocated for the Press Club. The discussions became heated. Founding member J.N.H. Irwin wrote, “And then the trouble began, and there was as lively, and perhaps as vital, a difference of opinion as the organization has ever known.”


The popular notions of the Bohemian was a stringy-haired, unkempt fellow, perhaps “a painter of pictures shivering in frosty attics, or a writer of poetry starving in cheap restaurants or else a predatory, disreputable character who devotes his cleverness to borrowing money from his friends, which he never repays,” according to one of the opposing journalists.


To quiet objections to the dreadful word, Dan O’Connell of the Chronicle adroitly altered the depiction of the Bohemian from an unwashed ruffian of artistic inclinations to “a man of genius who refuses to cramp his life in the Chinese shoe of conventionality, whose purse is ever at the disposal of his friends, and who lives generously, gaily, carefree, and as far from the sordid, scheming world of respectability as the south pole is from the north.”[11] The Bohemians won with a vote of twenty to twelve.


The Bohemian Club on Pine Street. The Club occupied the upper floor. The cage containing a live owl can be seen at the windows on the left. The main entrance is beneath the middle window. This building was destroyed by fire on November 4, 1894. San Francisco Public Library


Two rooms were secured at Astor House at the corner of Sacramento and Webb streets. recently vacated by a convivial association known as the Jolly Corks. A club charter was drafted advocating, “the promotion of social and intellectual intercourse between journalists and other writers, artists, actors and musicians, professional or amateur…” [10]


Club member and poet George Sterling would give his own definition of bohemianism years later:


Any good mixer of convivial habits considers he has a right to be called a Bohemian. But that is not a valid claim. There are two elements, at least, that are essential to bohemianism. The first is devotion or addiction to one or more of the Seven Arts; the other is poverty. Other factors suggest themselves: for instance, I like to think of my Bohemians as young, as radical in their outlook on art and life; as unconventional, and, though this is debatable, as dwellers in a city large enough to have the somewhat cruel atmosphere of all great cities. [12]


This camaraderie of Bay Area fellows never really lived up to there original mission statement. There was a world of difference between the inner city Bohemian: a poor, starving, gypsy artist who drinks cheap wine, sleeps on sofas and smells like a billy goat, and California’s Bohemian Club Bohemians who were by and large patrons of the arts and consumers of exotic commodities. They were an elite band of Bohemians, the haute bohème—bon vivants and dandies—artsy aristocrats who enjoyed slumming. There were, from the beginning, successful pillars of the community with a professed appreciation of the arts and avant garde yearnings among the ranks, but within a few years these “men of affairs” began dominating the club roster.


When the club halted the inclusion of females as bona fide members of the club and membership dues were raised, there was a revolt. In the fall of 1880. A group of painters and writers issued a proclamation to the Bohemian Club charging that “the present day is not as the past days, the salt has been washed out of the Club by commercialism, the chairs are too easy and the food too dainty, and the true Bohemian spirit has departed.” [13]


The rabble rousers resigned the Club and formed the “Pandemonium.” Their slogan: “None of Your Silk Plush Imitation Bohemia!” The attempt by this band of desperate nostalgiacs, rebelling against “the trespass of the money-changers” failed miserably and the Pandemonium was closed before the first month was over. Many of the artists depended upon the moneybags of the Bohemian Club for their portrait and panel commissions. Many of the editors and reporters were in vassalage to the politicians who ran both the municipal affairs and the Bohemian Club in San Francisco. The rebels had to come back, their heads bowed. [14]


An impressive list of legends became members including Ambrose Bierce, Joaquin Miller, Jack London, painter Jules Tavernier and photographer Arnold Genthe. Early visitors and honorary members included Rudyard Kipling, Mark Twain, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Edwin Booth, Sir Henry Irving and Robert Louis Stevenson.

Ambrose Bierce, the Sovereign of Insufferables

The Bohemians saw themselves as the arbiters of culture and refinement, intellect and wit. The aristocracy of arts and letters. They also identified as rough and tumble Wild West pioneers and trail blazers. The feeling in the club about self-professed genius and art aficionado Oscar Wilde crossing their threshold was a mix of curiosity and antagonism. A few days earlier a blistering and pungent critique of Wilde’s first lecture at Platt’s Hall in San Francisco was written by prominent Bohemian Club member and former secretary Ambrose Bierce (who also fought at Shiloh) in his weekly column “Prattle” in The Wasp:


That sovereign of insufferables, Oscar Wilde, has ensued with his opulence of twaddle and his penury of sense. He has mounted his hind legs and blown crass vapidities through the bowel of his neck, to the capital edification of circumjacent fools and foolesses, fooling with their foolers. He has tossed off the top of his head and uttered himself in copious overflows of ghastly bosh. The ineffable dunce has nothing to say and says it—says it with a liberal embellishment of bad delivery, embroidering it with reasonless vulgarities of attitude, gesture and attire. There was never an impostor so hateful, a blockhead so stupid, a crank so variously and offensively daft. Therefore is the she fool enamored of the feel of his tongue in her ear to tickle her understanding.


The limpid and spiritless vacuity of this intellectual jelly-fish is in ludicrous contrast with the rude but robust mental activities that he came to quicken and inspire. Not only has he no thoughts, but no thinker. His lecture is mere verbal ditchwater—meaningless, trite and without coherence. It lacks even the nastiness that exalts and refines his verse. Moreover, it is obviously his own; he had not even the energy and independence to steal it. And so, with a knowledge that would equip an idiot to dispute with a cast-iron dog, an eloquence to qualify him for the duties of caller on a hog-ranche, and an imagination adequate to the conception of a tom-cat, when fired by contemplation of a fiddlestring, this consummate and star-like youth, missing everywhere his heaven-appointed functions and offices, wanders about, posing as a statue of himself, and, like the sun-smitten image of Memnon, emitting meaningless murmurs in the blaze of women’s eyes. He makes me tired.


And this gawky gowk has the divine effrontery to link his name with those of Swinburne, Russetti and Morris—this dunghill he-hen would fly with eagles. He dares to set his tongue to the honored name of Keats. He is the leader, quoth’a, of a renaissance in art, this man who cannot draw—of a revival in letters, this man who cannot write! This littlest and looniest of a brotherhood of simpletons, whom the wicked wits of London, haling him dazed from his obscurity, have crowned and crucified as King of the Cranks, has accepted the distinction in stupid good faith and our foolish people take him at his word. Mr. Wilde is pinnacled upon a dazzling eminence but the earth still trembles to the dull thunder of the kicks that set him up. [15]


Bierce received protests about his ungentle and ungentlemanly rhapsody by many aggrieved correspondents claiming his response to the Oscar invasion was abuse and not criticism.


Vice President Hart wrote simply that Wilde bored his audiences almost to extinction and that those that thought Oscar, the imitation Bunthorne, would be more amusing than the comic-opera one, they were grievously in error. [16]


Major-General of the National Guard of California W.H.L. Barnes became President of the Bohemian Club in April of 1883

Wilde met the Bohemians at a new location, on Pine St. in the nastiest district of the city–the Barbary Coast. The chief conspirators, those who were expected to take down the Irish fop that April Fool’s Day, were big guns Judge Ogden Hoffman who was a guest from the Olympic Club and Bohemian Club icon Major-General W.H.L. Barnes. Dan O’Connell gave a full account of what transpired that evening fifteen years later for the Chronicle:


“The wise men of Bohemia [had] held a conference and decided that the mask should be torn from the face of this imposter. Figuratively speaking, every guest attended the feast with a dagger hidden beneath his toga.


“Oscar was to be well fed and wined, and when bursting with viands and liquid to be led to the altar and knifed. Judge Hoffman, whose reputation as a classic stood high in the clubs and the Bar Association, was to do him up with the ancients, and General Barnes was to wipe the floor with him on English literature.


“At dinner Wilde was placed upon the right of General Barnes, and Judge Hoffman opposite, with instructions [to them], when the proper time arrived, to open the attack and demolish Oscar.


“There was a feeling of impatience among the crowd. Even as the Roman grew impatient for the hustling of the Christian martyrs into the arena, so did those bloodthirsty Bohemians await the sacrifice of Oscar. When the walnuts and the sparkling wine came in, Judge Hoffman opened the attack. But the old gentleman was no match for a young man fresh from Oxford, where he had taken a gold medal for those things with which the Judge endeavored to confound him.


“[Eventually] Wilde grew nettled and not only parried Hoffman’s thrust but lunged back in return, until the Judge lost his temper and the contest.” [17]


The General, a wily warrior, fared no better than the Judge. The young Irishman outclassed them. When the guests arose from the table Wilde’s victory was complete.


Oscar departed the Bohemian Club that evening in the best of spirits. The Bohemian Club asked if Wilde would sit for a portrait. He graciously accepted and member Theodore Wores took on the assignment. General Barnes, an accomplished lawyer who wrote a popular play, would become president of the club a year later…