Truly Wilde: The Unsettling Story of Dolly Wilde, Oscar's Unusual Niece


A "born writer" who never completed the creative life promised by her famous name and gorgeous imagination, Dolly Wilde was charged with charm, brilliantly witty, changeable as refracting light, and loaded with sexual allure. She made her career in the salonsand in the bedroomsof some of London's and Paris' most interesting women and men. Attracting people of taste and talent wherever she went, she drenched her prodigious talents in liquids and chemicals, burnt up her opportunities in flamboyant affairs, and ...

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A "born writer" who never completed the creative life promised by her famous name and gorgeous imagination, Dolly Wilde was charged with charm, brilliantly witty, changeable as refracting light, and loaded with sexual allure. She made her career in the salonsand in the bedroomsof some of London's and Paris' most interesting women and men. Attracting people of taste and talent wherever she went, she drenched her prodigious talents in liquids and chemicals, burnt up her opportunities in flamboyant affairs, and created continuous sensations by the ways in which she seemed to be re-living the life of her infamous uncle. In this revolutionary and very modern biography, Joan Schenkar provides a fascinating look at what it means to live with the talents but not the achievements of biography's usual subjects: those obliterating "winners"like Dolly's uncle Oscarwhose stories have almost erased riveting histories like Dolly's own. And she uncovers never-before-published evidence of the hidden life of the Wilde family and of the extraordinary salon society of Natalie Clifford Barney, Dolly Wilde's longest and most fatal attachment.

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Editorial Reviews

Daily Telegraph
At last Dolly Wilde...has found a biographer with the intelligence, sensitivity and flamboyance to write the work of art that was her life.
Simon Callow
The book is an absolute winner. —The Mail
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Dolly Wilde, born the year Oscar Wilde went to prison, bore a striking resemblance to her famous uncle and spent her life both burdened and animated by his legend. She inherited much of his charm, a portion of his wit and none of his genius. Consequently, she left behind little of substance save the fond recollections of her friends and lovers, among them salon hostess Natalie Clifford Barney, New Yorker Paris correspondent Janet Flanner and Russian actress Alla Nazimova, and several bundles of love letters. Such a dearth of achievement leaves a biographer at a considerable disadvantage. The playwright Joan Schenkar, who appears to have fallen as much under Dolly's spell as any of her contemporaries, resolves these difficulties by approaching Dolly's life thematically, inventing and dramatizing in the absence of fact, interpreting what facts there are from a variety of perspectives. Such an approach requires her to ignore chronology and with it whatever impact the larger historical and political context may have had on Dolly's development. What emerges is a flamboyant sketch of that glittering, often frantic, sometimes brilliant society of rich lesbians that flourished between the wars in London and Paris. In this milieu, Dolly seems a kind of lesbian Zelda Fitzgerald, self-destructive, addicted, often foolish and, by the end of her brief life, quite sad. Schenkar strives valiantly to make of Dolly's life a tragic work of art. While she is able to convey Dolly's charm and attractiveness, she is not quite as successful in convincing the reader that her subject is sufficiently consequential to merit a full-length biography. Illus. (Nov. 30)
Library Journal
Dorothy Irene (Dolly) Wilde (1895-1941), who should have been an extraordinary talent during the Modernist period, died alone at the age of 46 of mysterious circumstances after a tumultuous life of glamorous poverty and drug and alcohol use. Nearly forgotten through the passage of time, lovely lost Dolly's troubling history is brought to light by experimental playwright Schenkar (Signs of Life: Six Comedies of Menace). Using snippets from Dolly's letters and quotes from interviews given by her Left Bank intimates, Schenkar, in this thematic biography, relates the life of a woman who was heir to the rich literary gifts of her famous uncle Oscar yet was never able to put pen to paper and write something beyond a wittily executed note to a friend on borrowed stationery. Schenkar does an admirable job of making Dolly's sometimes bleak life (as sparkling raconteur and eternal houseguest) fascinating; and her tone is light and engaging, almost as one might imagine Dolly's would be if she were telling her own story.--Kimberly L. Clarke, Univ. of Minnesota Libs., Minneapolis Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Sarah E. Chinn
Schenkar's biography is a terrific introduction to the life of a remarkable women.
The Advocate
Kirkus Reviews
A sprawling, eclectic take on one of the most sensual and tragic figures of the Lost Generation. Present-day notions of the glory that was Paris (circa 1922) rest heavily on the social prowess of the American expatriate, millionaire, lesbian Natalie Clifford Barney, who collected literati as others might coins. Her grand "Fridays" and her numerous affairs of the heart, now the stuff of legend, were greatly enhanced by the arrival in June 1927 of one Dorothy "Dolly" Wilde (1895—1941). An exotic melding of something like her notorious uncle Oscar and the flamboyant Tallulah Bankhead, Dolly was one of a kind. Her exceptional wit, glamorous features (which bore an uncanny resemblance to Oscar's), and unbridled need for what she termed her "emergency seductions" of women prompted friends to dub her a "beautiful exuberant cuckoo." Schenkar portrays her as a writer who, for one reason or other, could not write; driving an ambulance in WWI was the closest Dolly came to a vocation. In such a life it is not surprising to find parental abandonment, suicide attempts, and a lethal heroin addiction. While the author makes a valiant effort at reconstructing Dolly's largely unrecorded story, the telling of it doesn't always do her subject justice: each chapter is written as if readers either had not read the previous ten or have the mental retention of goldfish, and one can only be told so many times that Dolly preferred living her life to writing it before some doubts begin to creep in. But beyond this distracting repetition and an odd reliance on occult sources (Appendix 3 contains a contemporary palmist's reading of Dolly's left handprint), Schenkar does explore what it means to be afemaleintellectual in a famously self-destructive family. For fans of the Wilde mystique or the modernist Paris scene, an intriguing first look at one of its enchanting but lesser-sung figures. Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr. A LIFE IN THE 20TH CENTURY: Innocent Beginnings, 1917-1950 Houghton Mifflin (384 pp.) Nov. 14, 2000
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781402842962
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 11/1/2000
  • Pages: 442

Meet the Author

Joan Schenkar
Joan Schenkar
JOAN SCHENKAR is the author of Truly Wilde: The Unsettling Story of Dolly Wilde as well as a collection of plays, Signs of Life: 6 Comedies of Menace. She lives in Paris and Greenwich Village
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Table of Contents

A Few of the Principal Players xi
1 Exits and Entrances 1
1 Atlantis Rising: an Introduction 3
2 Stormy Weather 21
3 Dead Again 37
2 Truly Wilde 49
4 Fathers Are Depressing 51
3 Social Studies 75
5 Madchen in Uniform 77
6 The Friends of Dorothy 97
7 Behaving in Public 115
8 Smart Society 132
4 The Knights of Natalie's Round Table 149
9 Natalie Clifford Barney 151
10 The Knights of Natalie's Round Table 171
11 Oscaria 198
5 Living up to Oscar 215
12 Living up to Oscar 217
6 Body of Evidence 243
13 La Main Heureuse 245
14 Dolly and the Doctors 262
15 Dolly's Addictions 283
16 Dolly in Bed 307
7 The Letters 327
17 Love Me: the Letters of Dolly Wilde 329
8 Afterword 363
Afterword: Truly Wilde 365
Notes and Sources 370
1 Poulet Maryland 394
2 I Don't Remember Dolly Wilde 396
3 Dolly's Left Hand 401
5 The Lesbian in Louise Brooks's Life 406
Acknowledgements 412
Selected Bibliography 415
Index 423
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