On this day, one hundred and twenty years ago in London, Dorothy Ierne Wilde, known as Dolly Wilde, was born as an only child of Willie, known only as Oscar Wilde’s older brother.
“She looked, said everyone who knew them both, remarkably like her uncle Oscar. She had the same artfully posed, soft, white hands, the same elongated face, and the same air of indolent melancholy which Aristotle insisted was always the natural accompaniment of wit.
She spoke remarkably like her uncle too or, rather, like a brilliantly female version of Oscar — for there was nothing parodically male about Dolly Wilde. And although she would occasionally dress up as her uncle in borrowed, too-tight pants, a great flowing tie and a famously ratty fur coat (perhaps it was Oscar’s favourite coat after all, the one Dolly’s father Willie was supposed to have pawned when Oscar was imprisoned), she looked most like Oscar Wilde when she was dressed up as herself: a beautiful, dreamy-eyed, paradoxical woman — wonderfully stylish and intermittently unkempt, spiritually illuminated and clearly mondaine. She stares out at us from her few significant photographs with a distinctly contemporary gaze; conscious of the camera, casual about her audience.”
Dolly Wilde as Oscar Wilde
Having lost her father early in childhood, Dolly became uncanny connected with her uncle Oscar whom she never met and therefore idealized, sharing his brains and wits she used to make her life a work of art. Indeed she was known for her conversational abilities she, unlike her uncle, seldom used in writing, but rather in socializing she was a master of. She was one of the Beautiful Losers: a legendarily gifted speaker whose talent was large, whose expression was private, and whose friends, lovers, and enemies all ended by wringing their respective hands over her squandered gifts and lost opportunities.
“Her conversation was, from the accounts that survive, funny, lyrical, flowing, intimate, interested, penetrating and frequently acerbic. The most tantalising and frustrating part of trying to understand Dolly Wilde is that the hypnotising experience of being in a room with her is lost forever now. Even those who experienced it struggled to recreate it, those grey morning afters having rubbed the edges off the memory, and her essence stubbornly refusing to be separated from herself. While Oscar left a body of written work that would make his wit immortal, Dolly never managed to distil her great talent with words into writing, and so it died with the last person who remembered her.”
Culture & Stuff, November 13, 2011.
It was a peculiar time in Paris in which she arrived in 1914 at the age of nineteen, soon after the World War One it became the time of salons, parties, socialites, the time when one half of the world felt guilty and not wanting to celebrate ever, and the other half having nothing else to do. Peculiar and unique, Dolly belonged to the latter, making her life a work of art and becoming the dream of many women in her social circles.
“Charming herself, she could be charmed into putting off anything, even the narratives she loved so much.
`Go on,’ Dolly would say to her friend Victor Cunard, the LondonTimes correspondent in Venice, as he hesitated between the irresistible desire to pour out his secret life to her and the fully justified fear that his secret would be instantly betrayed. `Go on,’ she would saw disarmingly in her `bird-charmer’s’ voice to the New Yorker magazine writer Janet Flanner, who was telling her a particularly violent fairy tale, `but tell it slowly, tell every word so that it will last longer.’ Dolly Wilde’s life was full of such interesting, unfinished, delayed relationships through which she was sometimes tempted to try and fulfill herself.”
Dolly’s was generation that lost its men: some of them slaughtered in trenches of war, and others returned war heroes but forever scarred by battle experience.
Women took over the role of men, and did it quite directly. Dolly was no different.
Women loved Dolly, while Dolly loved one woman, the love of her life, Natalie Clifford Barney. Dolly loved her till the day she was found dead for never completely revealed causes in her flat in London in 1941, at the age of 45.
Natalie Clifford Barney painted by her mother Alice Pike Barney.
“Although she could only have been produced by the follies and grandeurs of the 1920s and the 1930s, Dolly Wilde seems sensationally contemporary. Her tastes for cutting-edge conversation and `emergency seductions’ (as she called the sexual adventures which she applied like unguent to her emotional wounds), for fast cars and foreign films, for experimental literature and alcoholic actresses, are still right up to the minute, and it is too easy to forget that she has been dead — and deader still for being unnoticed — these sixty years.”
Lived extravagantly and passed mysteriously, Dolly was undoubtedly one of most peculiar infamous persons of twentieth century.
The least we can say on this day is: Happy birthday, Dolly!