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Born a scant three months after her uncle Oscar's notorious arrest, raised in the shadow of the greatest scandal of the turn of the twentieth century, Dolly Wilde attracted people of taste and talent wherever she went. Brilliantly witty, charged with charm, a "born writer," she drenched her prodigious talents in liquids, burnt up her opportunities in flamboyant affairs, and died as she lived—repeating her uncle's history of excess, collapse, and ruin. In this biography, Joan Schenkar has created both a ...
Born a scant three months after her uncle Oscar's notorious arrest, raised in the shadow of the greatest scandal of the turn of the twentieth century, Dolly Wilde attracted people of taste and talent wherever she went. Brilliantly witty, charged with charm, a "born writer," she drenched her prodigious talents in liquids, burnt up her opportunities in flamboyant affairs, and died as she lived—repeating her uncle's history of excess, collapse, and ruin. In this biography, Joan Schenkar has created both a captivating portrait of Dolly and a cultural history of Natalie Clifford Barney's remarkable Parisian salon—frequented by Janet Flanner, Mina Loy, Djuna Barnes—in which she shone so brightly.
The Unsettling Story of Dolly Wilde, Oscar's Unusual Niece
Copyright © 2001 Joan Schenkar
All right reserved.
I am a darting trout; shifting, glancing & flashing my iridescent tail in a hundred pleasant pools! ...
How long I shall keep in the path of virtue I can't say but virtue with an object is so much more salutary than virtue with its own reward!
Dolly Wilde, Letters to Natalie Barney
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 Oscarwas 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.
For sixty years she was a delicious rumour: Oscar Wilde's enchanting niece Dorothy, born in 1895, a scant three months after her uncle's notorious trials and shameful imprisonment. In titled, artistic, and carefully closeted circles in Paris and London and Hollywood, stories of the outrageous things Dorothy Ierne Wilde said and did were passed around like canapés at a book launch. Photographed by Cecil Beaton and the Baron de Meyer, adored by the Sitwells, the Cunards, and French Academicians such as Edmond Jaloux, attracting people of taste and talent wherever she went, Dolly Wilde was almost, as her friend Janet Flanner wrote, 'like a character out of a book ... like someone one had become familiar with by reading, rather than by knowing' — too literary, in short, to be believed.
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.
Stories of Dolly's life usually start out with stories about other people's lives — her uncle Oscar's fabled conversation, the duchesse de Clermont-Tonnerre's bal masqué, Natalie Clifford Barney's famous salon — because Dolly Wilde always did. She adored listening to people, a trait which everyone said came from her fatal paresse, her indolence. And while it flattered her friends to have such a brilliant speaker listening so brilliantly to them — for Dolly was surely the world's most active audience — this tendency of hers to delay things was the first drug that imprisoned her early on. Like many fascinating people, Dolly was easily fascinated. 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 London Times 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.
Although Dolly often behaved like a luxury item let loose in a lavish era — treating even the maisons de santé where sine was regularly disintoxicated like private suites in European spas — her family had undergone a famously public deconstruction. Her mother was left so impoverished that she could not afford to keep her at home; whatever her father possessed in the way of character had dissolved itself in alcohol by the time she was born; her uncle's dirty linen had been washed in every scandal sheet in Europe. Unlike her family, however, Dolly herself kept many secrets, telling — such was the refinement of her indiscretions — only the ones in which she was not involved.
For someone who loved stories as much as Dolly did — loved telling them, loved hearing them, loved their facts, their fictions, and all their complications — she was strangely silent on the subject of her own childhood, All her life, she avoided talking about her early years, and she resolutely refused to supply herself with a 'history'. Like most self-created people, she was infinitely more comfortable without the inconvenient explanations supplied by an actual, painful past.
There was only one anecdote from her childhood that Dolly Wilde ever told, and she only told it once. But with unerring instinct she told it to the best raconteuse in Paris, Bettina Bergery. And Bergery — wife of the French diplomat Gaston Bergery and originally one of the three beautiful Jones girls for whom the phrase 'keeping up with the Joneses' had actually been invented — remembered the appalling little vignette for the rest of her life and wrote it down.
What Dolly told Bettina Bergery was this: when Dolly was very young, she used to like to take lumps of sugar, dip them in her pretty mother Lily's perfume, and eat them.
Like Lord Goring, her uncle Oscar's theatrical double in An Ideal Husband (still playing in London without Oscar's name on it just before Dolly's birth in July 1895), and a lot like Oscar himself, Dolly Wilde appears to stand 'in immediate relation to modern life'. Her attachment to transgressive art, her talent for engaging the people who were creating it, put Doily in the centre of whatever was exciting in Paris — where she lived around the corner from the hotel Oscar died in — and in London — where she died around the corner from the hotel Oscar stayed in.
But all the qualities which make Dolly seem so contemporary were underscored by a very characteristic exception. Dolly Wilde 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. In our millennial world of hard-eyed achievers, the romantic prodigality Dolly came to exemplify — perfect for decades like the 1920s and the 1960s which dedicated themselves to excess, rapture, and the supervening laws of love — has been written almost entirely out of the books. A heroine of our time would never wheedle her rent, burn up her opportunities, or drench her prodigious talents in liquids and chemicals — at least not for very long. A superficial look at Dolly's life tempts us to criticise it, recommending a bracing stay at Betty Ford and a serious chat with a financial adviser.
Possessing many of the gifts that might have carried her into the Winners' Circle and displaying much of the style that would have made her journey there an elegant one, Dolly refused to keep her eyes on the prize. She presents an almost perverse counterpoint to all her grandmother Jane's and uncle Oscar's push and drive and swelling themes of self. Her Wildean talent to amuse did not guide her into the larger world; she ended by dazzling the select and the soignés in restaurants and drawing rooms, and by performing for famous writers in fabulous salons. And more regularly than not, Dolly would pour all her literary talents into personal communications and then drop, decoratively, into her correspondents' lives.
'Darling, wait for me with open arms & let me fall breathless into them,' is how she usually put it.
What Dolly lost by dispersing her gifts in private rather than public ways, and the strange values and rewards that inhered to this 'wasting' of her talents, are well worth examining now — and not merely for the contrasts and resemblances they present to the life of her uncle. For Dolly Wilde's life offers a rare opportunity to look at what it means to live with the endowments but not the achievements of biography's usual subjects: those obliterating 'winners' — like Dolly's uncle Oscar — whose notorious stories have almost erased interesting histories like Dolly's own. And the ways in which Dolly carried the Wilde myth forward and what that blighted inheritance did to her own development leave us with yet another interesting 'Wildean' paradox: the serious sense that Oscar Wilde's every gain became his niece Dorothy's permanent and damaging loss.
The ambitious young Irishman who came down from Oxford to London in 1881 with little besides his remark about living up to his blue china to recommend him, was, by the time his niece Dolly was born, 'as well known as the Bank of England', though considerably less solvent. Oscar Wilde had one play, An Ideal Husband, running in the West End, another one, The Importance of Being Earnest, in rehearsal there, and two well-shod feet in every interesting Mayfair salon. In Mayfair, his presence usually ensured an evening's success and his conversation regularly hypnotised whole drawing rooms-full of eager listeners.
And after his gorgeous drawing-room talk died down, and the last crystal glass of brandy had been drained, Oscar would step through the mirror of his brightly polished remarks into the second, 'secret' act of his social drama. Inspired by the two fundamental principles of all great provocateurs, (1) that the best place to hide something is in plain sight and (2) that it is both amusing and profitable to épater la bourgeoisie, he appeared in public looking, said his friend the actress Elizabeth Robins, 'as though he would bleed absinthe and clotted truffles', royally ensconced in the centre of a circle of youthful male admirers at the Café Royal. Late into the night, an ageing and antic Oscar — surely the Pied Piper of Literature — would conduct his army of young poseurs through conversations as brilliant as he had produced earlier in the evening in Park Lane.
Then, sporting his social violations as outrageously as he displayed his green carnation — and with perhaps the same intention — he would amble through the lobby of the Albemarle Hotel accompanied by a claque of rent boys to whom, generous as ever, he continued to give the benefit of his sparkling repartee, this time adding to it items Mayfair never saw: silver cigarette cases inscribed 'For Services Rendered'.
So annealing was Oscar Wilde's talk that dying friends actually requested his presence at their deathbeds and his wit consoled their mourners like no other person's could. One of his biographers wrote that he was, strictly speaking, a kind of 'healer', for 'the virtue of happiness in him passed into others'. It was said that he exerted linguistic sorceries 'which transmuted the ordinary things of life' and that he lifted the level of living to 'strangeness and glamour'.
Everyone who met Dolly Wilde remarked on the disturbing ways in which she was like her famous uncle. Some people felt that in Dolly's enormous blue-grey eyes and virtuosic wit — so strangely like her uncle's — they were seeing another 'Oscar', born again in female form and playing to a smaller audience. Others discerned in her very public dissolution a woman tragically marked by Oscar's decline and fall. Every comparison between Dolly and Oscar Wilde — right and wrong — returns us to the crucial investigations of our own time. Who decides on a failure? What determines a success? Why is a woman's fate so essentially different from a man's? 'Shall I', as Dolly Wilde said, 'ever get through life?'
Dolly wrote that clichés, if you consider them 'impartially' are 'apt, concise & accurate'. Oscar Wilde's remark to André Gide (the remark that became Oscar's obituary cliché), that he had put his talent into his work and reserved his genius for his life, can be applied with far greater accuracy to the salon career of Oscar's niece Dorothy — who performed with her life for so many of the artists whose work still 'performs' for us.
Dorothy Wilde was a 'born writer'. She had many of the freedoms and took all of the liberties that were possible for a woman to have and to take in the first forty years of the twentieth century. And none of these was enough to allow her to complete the creative life promised by her famous name, her electric wit and her gorgeous imagination. What happened to Dolly Wilde? And what did her uncanny resemblance to her uncle Oscar have to do with it?
Most of the questions and all of the problems provoked by Dolly Wilde's life are with us still — less certain, now, in their phrasing, and more unmanageable in their form than they were when Dolly was alive. But in her habitual addictions, in her affinity for high fashion and low behaviour, and in the outrageous performances of her myriad and fractioned selves, Dorothy Ierne Wilde sometimes seems like the most modern woman around.
More modern even than Dolly's habits were the exaggerations of her dazzling social character. Charged with charm, brilliantly witty, changeable as refracting light, and loaded with sexual allure, it served to conceal a repetition of hidden horrors. Her birth was badly shadowed by her uncle's infamy; her father drank himself to death when she was a toddler; her impoverished mother left her to an aunt's care and then to a country convent; her closest remaining relative begrudged the very blooms he sent to her funeral.
Much of Dolly's adulthood was spent in the unsuccessful search for a 'home life' with Natalie Clifford Barney, the salonnière who was the twentieth century's least monogamous femme de lettres, and Dolly failed to find a final form for her brilliant talents. She was fashionably, then horribly, entangled with heroin; she came to use alcohol and every other available drug urgently and often. She never ever had enough money or what Virginia Woolf meant by a Room of Her Own. She died, chillingly, at the same age as her father and her uncle — and of the same addictions. And she died alone.
And yet the impressions Dolly Wilde left upon the people who saw her and heard her and knew her were so indelible that, ten and twenty years after her death, after a war so devastating that everyone's ideas of what it meant to be human were changed for ever, she was still mourned regularly and with real heart. The iridescent bubbles of her humour, her lightning-swift retorts, her devasting arrows of wit, her necromancer's ability to transform the Dull Waters of Daily Life into the Champagne of Real Living, so impressed themselves upon her accomplished friends that they continued to conjure her up — a fabulous fragment here, a sparkling shard there — until a coruscating portrait assembles itself before our eyes; a portrait framed by laments for the brilliant 'something' Dolly Wilde might have written, if only she'd been able to honour her magniloquent talents.
What even Dolly Wilde's closest friends didn't realise, was that she had written 'something'. That, in fact, she had been writing 'something' for the last thirteen or fourteen years of her life. For Dolly kept her writing in as covert and as casual a form as she kept her other, less socially acceptable, inclinations. She confined it, for the most part, to a literary genre which has sometimes made reputations (like those of Mme de Sevigné and Mme de Staël — one of Dolly's heroines) but which is more often relegated to the level of domestic employment, the level of 'woman's work'.
Despite this confinement of imagination or because of it, Dolly Wilde's 'secret' writing fulfils some of the promises her famous name makes. Five years ago, in an obscure library in Paris, at the dead end of what seemed to be an evaporating trail of evidence, I came upon a biographer's dream: a cache of more than 200 letters written by Dorothy Ierne Wilde. The letters are mostly love letters, a genre for which Dolly had all the requisite talents. And they constitute, faute de mieux, a fascinating and intermittent form of autobiography. Wonderfully written in themselves, they are because of Dolly's personal revelations and brilliant renderings of compelling figures of her time, social and personal documents of considerable significance.
The astonishing thing is that these letters — a landmark in the history of a family so notorious that even its laundry lists are set out in best-selling books — were hidden away for sixty years, secreted in a library not noted for its ease of use by the scholars who frequent its archives. Like her life, Dolly's writings have remained inaccessible: unknown, unread, and unpublished. And they are, in their very specific way, as gorgeously figured and concentratedly witty as any work of fiction her celebrated uncle ever wrote. But I am getting ahead of my story.
I think I must have come across The Amazon of Letters, by George Wickes, the biography of the femme de lettres Natalie Clifford Barney which introduced me to Dolly Wilde, in New York in about 1977. Style and Beauty were everything to me then and so, quite naturally, the beauteous Dolly Wilde, niece of the Emperor of Style, was an appealing subject. Dolly had her own short chapter in George Wickes's book and she came up so vividly on the page, in such a shimmer of charm and bas-relief of brilliance, that l wondered why she'd never been heard of before. With her swift ripostes (when asked what she would do that day, she replied: 'Probably nothing but hesitate'), her luscious hothouse looks (men, women, even children were always falling in love with her), her exotic imitations of Oscar in Parisian salons, and her suicidal gestures of love and extravagance (she was so drawn to death that she actually swallowed an entire bottle of sleeping tablets when she was unconscious), her life seemed to strike just the right notes of myth and literature. A real romantic heroine, I thought, but why didn't she write something?
I was much more interested in Romaine Brooks, the fabulously rich and enigmatic portrait painter who had been Natalie Barney's lover for fifty-two years and whose demons had at least prodded her to prodigious output. Or in the superior Djuna Barnes, the Emily Brontë of Modernism, who had written my favourite novel and to whom I had actually summoned the nerve to write a letter, in French of course, the language of Colette and Voltaire, the only language worthy of her, a letter I mailed to her publisher shortly before discovering that, despite her long tenure in Paris, Miss Barnes had been too superior even to learn French.
Both of these accomplished women were regular participants in an extraordinary literary salon presided over by its equally extraordinary founder, the American expatriate, belle-lettrist and multi-millionaire, Natalie Clifford Barney. The salon convened for more than fifty years in Paris on what Paul Valéry came to call 'perilous Fridays', until just before Barney's death in 1972. It was, quite simply, the most subversive literary salon that ever existed. Run by an unabashed lesbian who took her own and everyone else's sexual predilections for granted, the Barney salon invited and received only the people Natalie Barney thought were interesting — socially, professionally, and sexually. This was already a revolutionary idea. But Natalie Barney went much further.
In full agreement with her friend Gertrude Stein that 'fathers are depressing', Barney still regularly entertained not only all the great Modernist male writers — Joyce and Proust, Eliot and Valéry, Pound and Eluard — but also recruited, attracted, and showcased all the brilliant female subverters of the Modernist style. Among these extraordinary women were: Natalie Barney herself, Renée Vivien, Colette, the duchesse de Clermont-Tonnerre, Romaine Brooks, Isadora Duncan, Ida Rubenstein, Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Lucie Delarue-Mardrus, Mercedes de Acosta, Allanah Harper, Janet Scudder, Sybille Bedford, Esther Murphy, Radclyffe Hall, Una, Lady Troubridge, Bettina Bergery, Djuna Barnes, Marie Laurencin, Mina Loy, Marguerite Yourcenar, Janet Flanner, Elisabeth Eyre de Lanux, and Dorothy Ierne Wilde.
All of these women merit — a few have already had — biographies of their own. Eyre dc Lanux will have her own pages in this book; Natalie Barney has threaded her slippery, silvery self throughout it just as she wove herself in and out of Dolly Wilde's later life.
From 1927 onwards, Dolly Wilde remained in the midst of Barney's glittering gallimaufry and also at its margins, for Dolly had the cold eye for detail that comes only with distance. Every Friday afternoon and evening in Natalie Barney's salon, Dolly faithfully performed the brilliant social role she had set for herself and everyone remembers the 'variety of tones in which she could say, BUT DARLING'. And every Friday afternoon and evening in that same salon, Dolly also — and endlessly — seemed to be rehearsing the life, the inclinations, the very essence of her dead, but still notorious, uncle Oscar.
Certainly, the fact that Dolly's life was so oddly shadowed by her crucial relative (imagine dressing up as your uncle at a bal-masqué, as Janet Flanner reported Dolly doing in a 1930 New Yorker magazine 'Letter From Paris') that she enhanced her own attractions by performing his, seemed tragically fascinating. But Dolly, as she did with everything, went too far with this uncle business: Oscar was the only family member she ever spoke about; she began to live and even to die like him. And she was almost as shameless as Oscar was about begging money from people, although a good deal more straightforward: she rarely promised anything in return.
In 1985, on a trip to Paris and on a whim, I took a room at what was then the Hôtel d'Isly on the rue Jacob, a scant half-block from where the Barney salon had been. By then I had read everything I could about the Barney salon and tracked down, in a lazy way, the few tantalising tidbits about Dolly Wilde that were available.
In the mid-eighties, the rue Jacob was only beginning to be overtaken by the bon chic bon genre boutiques and fabric stores that today have transformed it into a miniature Madison Avenue. By 1985 the street still retained a suggestion of its between-the-wars literary past. In the late twenties and thirties, the heyday of the Barney circle and of Dolly's salon career, the rue Jacob had been a tiny seventeenth-century street of charming, cheap hotels and private houses.
An inviting place, in short, for expatriates to perch and a street perfectly accustomed to the kinds of performance staged at Natalie Barney's famous Fridays, where le tout Paris came to see such spectacles as Mata Hari dance nude, Nadine Hwang whirl swords above the heads of the spectators, Colette emote irrepressibly in home-made theatricals, and Dolly Wilde incarnate some of her famous family's style and substance.
I knew that Berthe Cleyrergue, the elderly Burgundian woman who had been Natalie Barney's housekeeper and confidante since 1927 (when Djuna Barnes told Berthe — it could only have been in an antic mood — that working for Natalie Barney would be just as interesting as travelling), was, as recently as 1976, still living at 20 rue Jacob in a tiny apartment over the carriage entrance to the courtyard. Was it possible that Mme Cleyrergue was still living there in 1985? She was as much a personnage as Proust's Céleste or Colette's Pauline. What stories she could tell if I could find her!
Berthe Cleyrergue, as Janet Flanner once remarked, was the only married woman around Natalie Barney. She had been the author of the Barney salon's fabled cuisine and was privy to Barney's affaires de coeur, in particular to the fourteen-year relationship with Dolly Wilde. Gifted with almost total recall and an unusually vivid talent for description, Berthe had become an invaluable source of original material for many books and films about literary Paris.
Berthe was much closer in age to Dolly Wilde than anyone else around Natalie Barney, and Dolly and Berthe had entered the Barney household in the same month: Berthe arrived on 8 June 1927 and Dolly appeared on 28 June 1927. Because Dolly made a practice of being friendly with Natalie's long-suffering help, Berthe and Dolly became very companionable, girlfriends almost. Dolly had given Berthe the Vionnet dress she was married in and Berthe repeated until she died that Dolly was the most wonderful and charming woman of all the charming, wonderful women who visited Miss Barney.
In happy times, Dolly and Berthe used to buy records like teenagers, playing them on Dolly's Victrola when Natalie wasn't around. In difficult periods — and there were plenty of these — Berthe saved Dolly from suicide more than once, fetching her back from solitary hotel rooms to the rue Jacob and nursing her to a fragile equilibrium.
It seemed impossible that Berthe Cleyrergue could still be alive in 1985, or, if she were still alive, that she would still be in her apartment. I knew that De Gaulle's ex-Prime Minister, Michel Debré (Janet Flanner described him as 'porcine'), had moved into Barney's pavillon and engineered a renovation that had destroyed all traces of her fabled salon. Nonetheless, every day on the way to my café for a morning crème, I paused before 20 rue Jacob, thought about the wonderful writers who had walked those cobblestones to arrive at Barney's bed or board, reviewed the mysterious circumstances of Dolly Wilde's tragic death (at the same age as both her father Willie and her uncle Oscar!), considered my chances of conversing with Berthe Cleyrergue — if Mme Cleyrergue were still alive — without an introduction, and fought down the desire to press the buzzer releasing the courtyard doors. Finally, I consulted the telephone directory. And there she was. CLEYRERGUE, Philiberthe, 20 rue Jacob, and the telephone number. I could feel Atlantis rising.
And so began a long, richly rewarding relationship with Berthe Cleyrergue and, with it, the real beginnings of this book. For it was clear from our first meeting, or perhaps it was the second — I was so shocked by this encounter with living history that I forget the facts and remember only the feelings of our first meeting — that Berthe had chosen me to hear the history of Dolly Wilde, and to make something of what I had heard. I never asked why.
Perhaps Berthe had tired of talking always of 'Miss Barney" or of 'la belle Romaine' or of 'Mlle Colette'. God knows she had been speaking to these legendary women privately for forty years and about them publicly for another fifteen. Her stories of them sounded very well rehearsed to me and they were well rehearsed by now. Berthe had recited them again and again to the steady trickle of the curious, the scholarly, and the felonious — I heard terrible tales of 'writers' who arrived with innocent smiles, 'borrowed' priceless mementoes, and never returned — who had found their way to her door since the death of her fabled employer.
But the history of Dolly Wilde was a 'new' story — and something from the darker side of Natalie Barney's celebrated salon. Berthe told me what she knew of it — her side of the story — as completely as she could over many years. And she told it in the way that Dolly herself loved having stories told to her:
... something she had never heard before and that seemed almost like a new secret, told by someone who had been involved in it and above all whose connection with it was so old that there was good reason to suppose that the teller had long since forgotten to tell it to anybody else.
In the enchanted atmosphere of Berthe's crowded, low-ceilinged apartment, with its chronically overheated temperatures perpetually enhancing its hallucinatory qualities, Berthe's incredible photographs and mementoes of the Barney salon (arranged in shrine-like configurations on every possible surface) regularly combined with her rich Burgundian accent and superb French cooking to produce a synaesthesia of historical experience that, I swear, hypnotised me into the subject.
'Yes, that is Miss Barney's bookmark which she kept always on her night-stand in the blue bedroom where Dolly Wilde stayed; see, here, the embroidered crest on the table linen which Miss Barney designed herself and which we regularly used on our "Fridays"; this is a letter Dolly wrote to me from London; here are macarons like the ones I used to make for Colette when she came to lunch with Miss Barney; this photograph of Dolly was taken after she slit her wrists in the Hôtel Astoria when Miss Barney ran off to St Petersburg after that faithless actress ...' etc, etc, etc.
Who could resist such monologues? Or such a cuisine? I was a goner. Like all chosen people, I had no choice.
Janet Flanner, who shared a sexual secret with Dolly, wrote that Dolly Wilde
was so interesting to cull over and think about ... because one wanted to locate in immediate recollection the particular version of her or vision of her which had been visible on that special day, and she had as many versions of herself, all as slightly different, as could have been seen in views of her supplied by a room lined with mirrors.
Writing about Dolly Wilde's life has posed some hard questions about the form this biography should take (thematic, contradictory, and presented in several versions, like Dolly herself) and about the shape Dolly's biographer should assume (a posthumous friend, critically alert and thinking in prose about Dolly Wilde). Oscar, incidentally, referred pungently to all biographers as 'thieves of souls' and 'Judases'.
It is difficult — but very necessary — not to regard biography as an extended form of the obituary style. It is just as difficult not to approach it with the same slyly mortuarial intentions. Aside from Dolly's letters and the small commemorative volume Natalie Barney published about her in 1951, this book is the only remnant of Dolly Wilde's passage through the planet, functioning rather like Ortega y Gasset's remark about culture: that culture is what remains after we've forgotten everything we've ever read. The few people still alive who met Dolly are now too old to remember much about her. The impulse to gild the lily (or cosmeticise the corpse) has had to be firmly resisted at every turn, for Dolly herself is very persuasive in this respect, sometimes inclining — dare I suggest it? — to a self-presentation of dizzying social correctness. Like most intensely talented, inadequately expressed people, Dolly Wilde entertained a thoroughly mixed collection of bad motives, good intentions, and crossed purposes — and I have tried to give the proper weight to each.
Unlike biographies of living people, which often seem to be exercises in virtual 'reality' (a word Vladimir Nabokov said had meaning only when it was controlled by quotation marks), biographies of the dead are very much like ghost stories. They involve an almost incantatory attempt to raise the departed subject, to make her or him breathe once again for history's sake — and in the old way. Because of the intimacy created by this act of evocation, one of biography's more unsettling side effects — the dark asteroid circling its brighter planet — is the way in which the biographer begins to inhabit the subject and the way in which that subject takes up residence in the biographer and begins a kind of persistent haunting.
In a very 'real' sense, and to a sometimes shocking degree, I became involved with the life of Dolly Wilde. I was haunted by the idea of her, this deeply shadowed woman of great wit and glittering gifts who disappeared without a trace. And I developed a peculiar set of sensitivities which led me to information I could not have found, information which would not have been found, but for the intense telepathies produced by a communion with my subject. There is no rational explanation for these instincts and I present none. They exist, they are useful, and Dolly, I might add, would have been delighted by them. But nothing about their exercise has made any easier the experience of investigating the mercurial and instructive paradox that was Dolly Wilde. Writing about Dolly in terms that would not violate her has been as difficult and as interesting as trying to control quicksilver, invoke the scent of perfume, or precipitate a cloud.
Since many of Dolly's 'intimate friends' and/or their descendants have preserved a careful reticence about their attachments to her; since most people in Dolly's milieu had something to hide; and since Dolly herself obfuscated her chemical history, mythologised her social circumstances, and was not above lying in London to promote a purpose, or prevaricating in Paris to bolster a bank account, documenting Dolly Wilde became a complicated adventure in itself. I found myself vetting receipts from her numerous drug and alcohol detoxifications and beguiling emotional histories from people who adroitly denied having experienced them; scanning private collections of black-market erotica and deciphering hand-lettered documents; thumbing through autopsy reports in the Westminster Coroner's Office and opening albums of ancient photographs in French sitting rooms. I came upon a lost letter in a cupboard in Paris; and then, a whole cache of them in a tin box in London. I discovered Dolly's Will and then found — still alive in New York City — the 102-year-old artist who had been her rival in love. All this, and much more, in search of a woman who never should have disappeared in the first place.
And despite my best efforts, I know too well and sadly that relevant materials still remain boxed in boudoirs, boarded in storage bins, secreted in damp cellars, locked away in libraries, and shut up — deliberately — in the failing memories of certain survivors.
Further, because Dolly's life does not lend itself to those conventional male biographical narratives involving a 'quest' or a 'redemption' (the kind of 'quest' her uncle Oscar set out on, the kind of 'redemption' he is now enjoying), because her history does not regularly present a bundle of facts to hang out on the laundry line of chronology (how Dolly would have laughed at the idea of things happening one after another: things usually happened to Dolly Wilde all at once and over and over again), and because I wanted to avoid writing the kind of biography Roland Barthes called 'the novel that dare not speak its name', I had to develop some unusual ways of recovering the life of Dorothy Wilde — who, though evasive while alive, became positively elusive when dead.
Like the lives of too many Modernist women, Dolly's life was merely 'noticed', not 'recorded'. She managed to slip through literature's net, slide under the scan of the census, elude the long arm of the law, and die an unexplained death. Writing her life was like raising a rabbit from folded cloths; it was sorcerers' work and, occasionally, I have called upon sorcerers' apprentices for assistance. Among them: astrology, social anthropology, the panoply of psychologies, literary theory, chirology, psychometry and ambulomancy. In finding ways to tell her story, I allowed Dolly's own passionate interests to guide me: her feel for inventive imagery turned me to the vivid enlargements that metaphor permits; her contempt for time gave me the intense concentrations that thematic — rather than chronologic — treatment enables; her unalloyed romanticism lead me to the 'recreations' that make up the next chapter of this book, etc., etc. From time to time, I have used different styles of writing in different settings to suggest Dolly's own changing — and very elusive — states of being.
But none of these dim instruments illuminate Dolly Wilde as well as she could illuminate herself in those rare, private moments when she took the trouble to explain — pen in hand and always on someone else's writing paper — how she felt about who she was.
In the end, anyone who has ever assembled the collection of 'partial' truths (in both senses of the term), painstaking researches, hopeful conjectures, informed intuitions, and educated guesses which constitute a biography knows by heart how far short of the mark this Tantalus form always falls. And while I hope this particulars biography introduces you in a pleasurable and even a personal way to a remarkable woman, and that it helps restore Dorothy Wilde to the company she should be keeping — company of her unusual grandmother, her legendary uncle, and the fabulous generation of Modernist women in Paris and London whose achievements bloomed so beautifully in the first half of the twentieth century — I am all too aware of what the work crucially wants.
Dorothy Wilde was an artist of the spoken word. Lacking the sound of her voice as others heard it and the shape of her sentences as she uttered them, I have only been able to bring her to you complete with missing parts. It remains for you to do what Dolly could have done so beautifully for us all:
Imagine the rest.
Excerpted from Truly Wilde by Joan Schenkar Copyright © 2001 by Joan Schenkar. Excerpted by permission.
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|A Few of the Principal Players||xi|
|1||Exits and Entrances||1|
|1||Atlantis Rising: an Introduction||3|
|4||Fathers Are Depressing||51|
|5||Madchen in Uniform||77|
|6||The Friends of Dorothy||97|
|7||Behaving in Public||115|
|4||The Knights of Natalie's Round Table||149|
|9||Natalie Clifford Barney||151|
|10||The Knights of Natalie's Round Table||171|
|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|
|16||Dolly in Bed||307|
|17||Love Me: the Letters of Dolly Wilde||329|
|Afterword: Truly Wilde||365|
|Notes and Sources||370|
|2||I Don't Remember Dolly Wilde||396|
|3||Dolly's Left Hand||401|
|5||The Lesbian in Louise Brooks's Life||406|