February 28, 2021 (SFGate.com)
San Francisco today is a city passionately divided on many issues, from the naming of schools to whether the Ferris wheel in Golden Gate Park should keep spinning. But in 1882, the city’s chief cause of furor was the arrival of a 28-year-old Irish dandy.
More than a century before gay marriage was legalized in the city, Oscar Wilde visited in lavender pants and seal fur cuffs and wowed the city with his biting wit and ivory cane, though many tried to tear him down from the moment his Italian brogues stepped foot off the ferry.
The year-long trip across America — ostensibly a lecture tour on aesthetics and interior design — got off to a memorable start when he famously told New York City customs agents that he “had nothing to declare, except his genius.” This Kanye-type egotism was a gift to newspapermen, and arguably birthed the concept of the modern celebrity.
The Irish poet and playwright has been described as the most sardonic wit in the history of the English language. And as word followed Wilde from New York to Chicago, Detroit, Minnesota and finally to California, San Franciscans readied themselves for the arrival of the one-man show.
Thousands gathered at the (since-demolished) Platt’s Hall on Montgomery Street to hear Wilde’s musings on the artistic world, though most just wanted to get an eyeful of the flamboyant poet.
Everyone in San Francisco seemingly had an opinion, as the San Francisco Chronicle observed, “The city is divided into two camps, those who thought Wilde was an engaging speaker and an original thinker, and those who thought he was the most pretentious fraud ever perpetrated on a groaning public.”
While in the city Wilde stayed in the Palace Hotel, at the time the biggest hotel in California. At night, he drank everyone under the table (absinthe being his drink of choice) at the Bohemian Club — the secretive fraternity also known for ceremonial owl sacrifices and unending conspiracy theories. “I never saw so many well-dressed, well-fed, business-looking Bohemians in my life,” he later wrote of the society.
Between lectures he rode the ferry from San Francisco to Oakland and back and was met everywhere by thunderous crowds, adoring women and bitter newspapermen.
Most of the criticism against Wilde came from reporters and their barely hidden homophobia.
As writer Bill Lipsky wrote in the San Francisco Bay Times, old American archetypes at the time of the sturdy farmer and the hardy pioneer were starting to give way to a more urbane “tender ideal” of manliness. But Wilde’s aesthetic values — a love of artistry, beauty, taste and pleasure — was still a little too much for American men, and promoted a “dreaded effeminacy.”
In a maelstrom of scathing commentary, reporters outdid themselves in gleefully ridiculing him. Stories of the era reveal that while women adored him, educated men saw his new style with contempt. The Museum of the City of San Francisco writes that long tight trousers, high stiff collars and full mustaches were the order of the day in 1880s San Francisco, and Wilde’s radical short breeches, long silk stockings and shoulder-length haircut were seemingly an affront to American society.
While sexuality could not be discussed in newspaper inches in the 1880s, reporters deliberately chose their words to convey that Wilde was “unmanly” and “unnatural.” A Newark paper described his eyebrows as “the sort coveted by women,” while the New York Times referred to him as a “mama’s boy” with “affected effeminacy.”
Even the turn of phrase of one of the English language’s greatest speakers was mocked in the press. Reporters were horrified by Wildean expressions such as “too utterly utter,” “just too too” and “do you yearn?”
This cartoon published in the San Francisco Wasp during his visit takes some explaining, but it’s not flattering to the Irish poet.
The scathing artwork published in the now-defunct satirical weekly magazine during his visit is entitled “The Modern Messiah,” and depicts many well-known members of S.F. society who attended his first lecture in the city.
The sunflowers represent the symbol of Wilde’s Aesthetic movement. The bag of money alludes to the $5,000 fee he received for his American tour, and the padlock depicts the theater manager responsible for booking the poet’s lectures in the city, Charles E. Locke.
Amid this cruel barrage of slander, Wilde may well have objected to his own famous words, “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”
On April 8, 1882, Wilde left San Francisco after his two-week visit and would never return. After seeing huge success and adulation over the next decade for the publication of his masterpieces “The Picture of Dorian Gray” and “The Importance of Being Earnest,” Wilde’s life would take many cruel turns and end in incarceration and poverty.
In 1895, he was sentenced to two years imprisonment in Reading jail for gross indecency with men, a story which made front-page news in San Francisco.
He would never live freely in England again and spent his final years in poverty in France before dying of meningitis at the age of 46.
Oscar Wilde’s visit to San Francisco — a city he described as “the most lovely surroundings of any city except Naples” — did leave a mark on the author.
As he later wrote in “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” “It’s an odd thing, but anyone who disappears is said to be seen in San Francisco. It must be a delightful city and possess all the attractions of the next world.”More San Francisco History
SFGATE Local Editor Andrew Chamings grew up in Devon, England and moved to San Francisco in 2007. He was formerly Senior Editor at The Bold Italic and has written for The Atlantic, Vice and McSweeney’s. Follow him on Twitter. Email: Andrew.Chamings@sfgate.com