Gary Kamiya tells stories on SFGate.com, from the history of San Francisco and its newspaper archives. It’s a rich history for such a small city, and it’s a strong literary history, too, which is apt with Silicon Valley becoming a Media Valley.
This week Mr. Kamiya tells the story of Oscar Wilde’s visit to San Francisco in 1882, as part of strange promotional stunt for a Gilbert & Sullivan opera lampooning the Aesthetes, an English artistic and literary set enamored with a “Cult of Beauty,” a heightened level of sensitivity to the beauty of nature, and in the decor of their surroundings — rooms, furniture, and even wallpaper.
[San Francisco's Legion of Honor museum last year hosted an excellent "Cult of Beauty" exhibit with several pre-Raphaelite artists represented, such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti; William Morris graphics design; and Aubrey Beardsley.]
Oscar Wilde was young, just 28 years old but already well known in London for his literary and other achievements, mostly on a very public stage of London society. He was considered a leading light of the Aesthetes, even though after three decades, it was on its way out.
A withered bouquet and a sombrero…
He made a memorable first impression on his arrival San Francisco, the tall, stocky young man quickly attracted a curious crowd, and no wonder:
He was flamboyantly dressed in a black velvet coat ornamented with a withered bouquet, highly polished pointed shoes and a velvet waistcoat. His long hair hung below a Mexican-style sombrero.
The promoter of the opera paid Wilde $5,000 to go on a lecture tour of the US, so that San Francisco and other cities, could see and meet a member of the Cult of Beauty and thus find the resulting Gilbert & Sullivan performance understandable and hilarious when it arrived later.
… offensively daft
He was scheduled for four lectures in San Francisco. I find this fact hard to believe but Wilde was a terrible public speaker and many reviews were horrible. Here’s one from Ambrose Bierce:
“There was never an impostor so hateful, a blockhead so stupid, a crank so variously and offensively daft.”
Wilde always seemed to know how to impress those around him, and for some congregations it didn’t require incisive wit. During his visit, he was invited to a reception at the city’s notorious Bohemian Club.
The merry pranksters assumed that the foppish import was, like his literary alter ego Bunthorne, a hopeless twit, a sunflower-sniffing pansy. They planned to get the “Miss Nancy” drunk and make a fool of him…
Before, during and after dinner, the Bohemians kept pouring drinks, expecting Wilde to lose it, but the beefy, 200-pound Irishman kept downing them and calling for more. Soon it was the rootin’ tootin’ sons of the Wild West who were collapsing in a drunken heap, their would-be mark still emptying his glass and continuing his urbane conversation.
It is said that the members of the Bohemian Club, filled with newfound respect for the “three-bottle man,” commissioned a portrait of Wilde to hang in the club. Wilde returned the compliment to the city, saying he had fallen in love with San Francisco.
Never ever, try to out-drink an Irishman — even if he is dressed as a “Little Lord Fauntleroy.”
Mr. Kamiya makes a touching observation: “It was a happy episode in the early life of a great writer, later to be destroyed by Victorian homophobia, in the city that would someday become a beacon of gay pride for the world.”
Gary Kamiya is a co-founder of Salon and executive editor of SF Mag. He has a new book “Cool Gray City of Love,” about San Francisco, it looks great. Here is Clara Jeffery from the New York Times:
To tell the geo-politico-psycho history of a city as prismatic as San Francisco, and to do it as skillfully as Kamiya does, is no small undertaking…
San Francisco is a metropolis molded, far more than most, by topography and weather, and Kamiya artfully helps us imagine the landscape as it once was: a place of mostly windswept dunes where nomadic bands of American Indians traveled between summer and winter camps, along trails whose contours still exist.
Photo of Oscar Wilde in in America, 1882, 28 years old.