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.