Art, Homosexuality, Pop Culture

Oscar Wilde In Indianapolis.

Oscar_Wilde

Original publish date:  February 28, 2019

It would be harder to find a more quintessential Victorian Era Englishman than Oscar Wilde, especially if you were to ask a literate American. Who was Oscar Wilde you ask? Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde (October 16,1854-November 30, 1900) was THE flamboyant Irish poet and playwright. He became one of London’s most popular playwrights in the early 1890s and is perhaps best remembered for his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, and the peculiar circumstances of his imprisonment and early death. What is largely forgotten is his visit to America in 1882, including two stops in the Hoosier state.
On January 3, 1882, 27-year-old Oscar Wilde arrived in New York on what would become a year long 15,000 mile visit to 150 American cities. The Dublin-born Oxford educated man was at the pinnacle of his personal eccentricity. His garish fashion sense, acerbic wit, and extravagant passion for art and home design had made such a spectacle in London that none other than Gilbert & Sullivan penned an operetta named “Patience” that lampooned Wilde as the champion of England’s aesthetic movement of the 1870s and ’80s . He was hired to go to America to lecture on interior decorating but in the end, it turned out to be a way for Wilde to promote himself. His visit may well have been one of the very first examples of “branding” as we know it today. It was on this lecture tour where most of the iconic photographic images so associated with Wilde and his “fierce” fashion sense were made.z Wilde-Sarony1
Despite the fact that at the time of his visit, Wilde was only the author of one self-published book of poems and a single unproduced play, he often proclaimed himself a “star”. His established routine was to appear on stage dressed in satin breeches and a velvet coat with lace trim crowned by a velvet feathered slouch hat perched at a jaunty angle as he advocated the importance of sconces and embroidered pillows—and himself. Wilde was among the first “celebrity” to understand that fame for it’s own sake could launch a career and sustain one. Good or bad, no matter, Wilde’s only concern what that they spell his name right.z wilde 1
According to biographer David M. Friedman (Wilde in America) Widle’s tour of nineteenth-century America ranged “from the mansions of Gilded Age Manhattan to roller-skating rinks in Indiana, from an opium den in San Francisco to the bottom of the Matchless silver mine in Colorado—then the richest on earth—where Wilde dined with twelve gobsmacked miners, later describing their feast to his friends in London as “First course: whiskey. Second course: whiskey. Third course: whiskey.” Wilde gave 100 interviews in America, more than anyone else in the world in 1882. Wilde arrived in an America whose news headlines were populated by outlaws (Jesse James), Presidential assassins (Charles Guiteau), legendary showmen (P.T. Barnum), and inventors (Thomas Edison). Where grabbing headlines are concerned, Oscar Wilde went toe-to-toe with them all. The difference being that Oscar Wilde was the first to become famous for being famous.
The first stop in Indiana on Wilde’s tour came in Fort Wayne on February 16, 1882. Wilde appeared at a facility known as “The Rink” located at 215 East Berry St. in the city (between Clinton and Barr streets). As the name denotes, it was opened as a rollerskating rink in 1869 and was converted into a public house known as “The Academy of Music” for the next decade before it became “The People’s Theatre” before being demolished in 1901. According to the “Pictorial History of Fort Wayne” the building stood on the site of the present Lincoln Memorial Life Insurance Building and was 60 feet wide by 150 feet long with a floor space capable of accommodating 500 ice skaters.

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Fort Wayne Indiana Map.

The Fort Wayne daily Gazette reported, “the Academy was about three quarters filled last night to hear Oscar Wilde, the greatly advertised lecturer, who has carried with him the lovers of the beautiful and his ideas of art. His lecture, in the main, is certainly an elaborately written, beautifully worded piece of literature; but for Oscar Wilde he is not an elocutionist, his voice is as effeminate as a school girl’s, and he becomes very tiresome to his auditors, even those who admire the lily and sunflower theory of the aesthetic genius. That Oscar Wilde is a cultured man no one will deny, that he is an orator, every one will hold up their hands in horror against such an insinuation.” The Fort Wayne News called the talk a “languid, monotonous stream of mechanically arranged words … scholarly but pointless; as instructive as a tax list to a pauper, and scarcely as interesting.” From Fort Wayne, Wilde circled around to Detroit, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Louisville, and Indianapolis.
Wilde’s February visit to Indianapolis came at a busy time in the city with 3 major conventions taking place: A veterans of the Mexican War reunion, the GAR reunion of Civil War Vets and the Greenback Party convention. Wilde appeared in person for one of his fashion lectures at the English Opera House on the northwest quadrant Monument Circle on February 22, 1882. A full color poster inside the opera house’s marble entryway declared that Wilde’s visit would be “The Fashionable event of the season.” The building was constructed by the Honorable William H. English, a businessman, banker, historian, and politician. Opened on September 20, 1880, the English immediately became the city’s leading theatre and remained so for the next 68 years. Widle’s visit came two years after Hancock ran for Vice-President with Civil War Hero of Gettysburg, General Winfield Scott Hancock.

 

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The English Opera House.

A crowd of 500 people crowded the opera house to witness Wilde’s 75 minute performance titled “The Decorative Arts”. The Feb. 23, 1883 issue of the Indianapolis News reported, “Oscar Wilde delivered his lecture on “The English Renaissance” last evening at English’s Opera House, to a large audience. He appeared half an hour late, and was greeted with a tender murmur of applause. He came upon the stage alone and proceeded to his lecture without formal introduction. He was dressed partly in the style made familiar to most of his hearers by “Grosvernor” in “Patience.” He wore a dress coat, double-breasted white vest, exposing a wide expanse of unsullied shirt front, in the middle of which glowed a single stud of gold, a standing collar, dead white silk necktie most artistically knotted, knee breeches, black silk stockings and low-cut shoes… Mr. Wilde has been has been variously criticized, but all agree that he is well worth seeing and listening to. Some can make nothing out of his lecture while others are delighted with it. The only way to judge is for each to go and hear for yourself.”
z strike-me-sunflowerNo less than five separate newspaper columns excoriated Wilde or his performance. The Indianapolis Journal newspaper said “We have grown sunflowers for many a year, suddenly, we are told there is a beauty in them our eyes have never been able to see. And hundreds of youths are smitten with the love of the helianthus. Alackaday! We must have our farces and our clowns. What fool next?” Soon, gaggles of admiring young men sporting sunflowers in their velvet lapels formed clubs known as “sunflower boys” to sit front and center at Wilde’s appearances. At Wilde’s other appearances, so many young street toughs interrupted Wilde’s shows that he sent advance notice to Denver that he would no longer act the gentleman and that he was “practicing with my new revolver by shooting at sparrows on telegraph wires from my car. My aim is as lethal as lighting. — O. Wilde.”

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“He knows uncommonly well what he is doing,” said the Indianapolis News. The Indianapolis Daily Sentinel reported that “from pit to dome,” most came to make fun of him, but many soon realized that he had something to say. “It would be safe to wage a cigar that if Oscar can be induced by his manager to be a little more utilitarian, he will not want for appreciate or applause.” Wilde took the conservative criticism seriously and decided to tone down his outlandish stage costumes. Wilde later noted that his next night’s audience was “dreadfully disappointed at Cincinnati at my not wearing knee breeches.” Of the Queen City, Wilde quipped, “I wonder that no criminal has ever pleaded the ugliness of your city as an excuse for his crimes.”

1882-2-22-indianapolis-news-341 Morris Ross, one of the “legendary foursome” staff of writers and editors for the Indianapolis News (including Hilton U. Brown, Meredith Nicholson and Louis Howland), said that Wilde gained attention “mainly by adopting knee breeches and a lily. The latter’s lecture at the last-named city was by no means successful. One reporter caught him using the word “handicrawftsmen” seventeen times and noted his pronunciation of “teel-e-phone,” “eye-solate,” and “vawse.” The same newsman disliked Wilde’s legs, which he said had no more symmetry than the same length of garden hose. Wilde was invited to the governor’s party that evening and on the way he was asked why he came to America. “For recreation and pleasure,” he answered with his typical wit, “but I have not, as yet, found any Americans. There are English, French, Danes, and Spaniards in New York; but I have yet to see an American.” This was a common British criticism of this country during the nineteenth century. At dinner with the governor and his family, Wilde ate greedily. The Saturday Review reported that when he was introduced to ice cream he spooned it up “with the languor of a debilitated duck.”29 Indiana of the 1880’s was truly unsympathetic to Wilde and the aesthetic movement.”
z OSCAR-WILDE-Signed-Photograph-Writer-AuthorOn his 1882 lecture tour of America drank elderberry wine with Walt Whitman in Camden (of whom he said, “I have the kiss of Walt Whitman still on my lips.”), conversed chillily with Henry James in Washington (who called Wilde “the most gruesome object I ever saw”), lectured in Saint Joseph, Missouri (two weeks after the death of Jesse James), called on an elderly Jefferson Davis at his Mississippi plantation (of whom Wilde inexplicably remarked, “The principles for which Jefferson Davis and the South went to war cannot suffer defeat.”), and fell prey to a con-man in New York’s Tenderloin (he lost $ 5,000 to legendary Gotham City conman Hungry Joe Lewis in a rigged Bunco game).
However, my favorite encounter story from Wilde’s American tour comes from his visit to Hildene. the New Hampshire estate of President Abraham Lincoln’s son Robert Todd Lincoln. Wilde ate dinner with the former Secretary of War and his wife Mary. Mrs. Lincoln was apparently entranced by Wilde but Robert remained silent throughout the encounter. The visit culminated with Mr. Lincoln’s sudden rise and push back from the table followed by a slamming of his napkin onto his dinner plate and announcement, “I do not care for that man!” Years after Lincoln’s death in 1926, an imperial sized cabinet photo of Wilde (dressed in all his finery) was found in the Secretary’s estate signed “To Robert T. Lincoln, with my very best wishes, Oscar Wilde”. Oh, if they only knew.

Abe Lincoln, Museums, Politics

Osborn Oldroyd-Keeper of the Lincoln flame. Part I

OLDROYD Part IOriginal publish date:  July 6, 2017

In the seven years since I ran parts I and II of this article, much has changed. Osborn Oldroyd has remained the windmill I tilt at and he has never strayed far from my side. I will share the “new” developments about this man in part III of this series. But first, let me reintroduce you to Captain Oldroyd.
As a fan of history, I find myself drawn to characters who populate the sidelines of historic events in a way that sometimes threatens to overtake the subject itself. Anyone familiar with my musings knows that I am, like many a homegrown Hoosier, a fan of Abraham Lincoln. If Lincoln had never been born, literature would surely have created him. In November of 2010, I traveled to Springfield, Illinois on the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s election to the Presidency in search of the man who I believe to be the original keeper of the Lincoln flame.
I met with historian James Cornelius, curator of the Lincoln Presidential library and museum. The state-of-the-art museum opened in 2005 and featured as it’s principal speakers President George W. Bush and a then little known Illinois Senator named Barack Obama. However, this is not the first Lincoln museum in Springfield, Illinois. There was an unofficial version housed in the Lincoln Home from 1884 to 1893 created by Civil War veteran Osborn Oldroyd, a man as quirky and controversial as the museum he created.
When Oldroyd began collecting Lincoln items in 1860, Honest Abe was still very much alive. Oldroyd was among the first Americans to attempt such an undertaking, a collection he himself described as “books, sermons, eulogies, poems, songs, portraits, badges, autograph letters, pins, medals, envelopes, statuettes…anything related to the man”. In many cases, it is Oldroyd’s collecting habits we have to thank for the preservation of priceless Lincoln relics. However, to some, he was as much historical huckster as hero. It was Oldroyd’s “P.T. Barnum” sideshow approach that continues to rankle Lincoln scholars to this day.
Eccentricity ran in his genes. The evidence can be found in the very first thing he owned: his name. His parents, William and Mary, named their son “Osborn Hamiline Ingham Oldroyd” so that his initials would spell the name of their beloved home state, Ohio. Sergeant Osborn Oldroyd was only nineteen years old when he enlisted with the 2Oth Ohio Volunteer Infantry on October 15, 1861. He was mustered out of the army on July 19, 1865. During his years in the Union Army, he was a careful diarist keeping day-by-day observations of the war. His 1885 book, “A Soldier’s Story of the Siege of Vicksburg” gives a sixty-five day account of the Vicksburg Campaign. Oldroyd re-enlisted after the Vicksburg campaign but his chronic asthma made him unfit for duty. Following the war, Oldroyd returned to Ohio and was made Steward of the National Soldiers’ Home in Dayton. Friends lovingly referred to him as ‘Captain’ or ‘Colonel’ while others simply called him ‘Ozzie’.
Oldroyd found his life’s calling when he attended memorial services at Lincoln’s Tomb on the 15th anniversary of the president’s death just a few months after his arrival in Springfield in 1880. He came up with a plan to build a Memorial Hall in Springfield to display his growing collection of Lincoln memorabilia. Within two years after that first visit, Oldroyd wrote a 500-plus-page book, containing excerpts from Lincoln speeches and writings, as well as anecdotes and memories collected by Oldroyd from Lincoln’s friends and contemporaries, to raise money for the Memorial Hall. Book sales were fairly good, but Memorial Hall was never constructed.
Oldroyd croppedDuring his early years in Springfield, he ran a succession of failed businesses. All the while, Oldroyd was moving his family ever closer to the Lincoln Home at Eighth and Jackson streets. The Oldroyd family first lived at 1101 South Seventh, then 500 South Eighth Street (immediately south of the home) and then, in 1883, when the Lincoln Home became available to rent, Oldroyd moved his family in before the last occupants had completely moved out. At that time, Lincoln’s only surviving son, Robert, owned the home and reluctantly charged Oldroyd $25 per month rent. Contemporary accounts claim that Robert Todd Lincoln agreed to the idea of a museum as long as it was free to the public, a stipulation in place to this day.
Oldroyd could not believe his luck. He immediately began to arrange his nearly 2,000 piece Lincoln collection on the home’s first floor, while he and his family lived on the second floor. On April 14, 1884, the 19th anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination, he opened the ” Oldroyd Lincoln Memorial Collection” museum. Admission was 25 cents, although later in his life Oldroyd denied ever charging admission. According to the Illinois State Journal “The reception at the Lincoln residence last night was a brilliant affair. Mr. Oldroyd has been at work for years on this matchless collection, and it is believed its equal does not exist in the United States. At last his labors have been crowned with success, and the hundreds of people who thronged the rooms last night are loud in their praise.” z 9c5921de875bf4f37876d22de69952c0--illinois-state-historic-homes
Oldroyd, ever the promoter, found creative ways to publicize his museum while at the same time filling the public’s desire to own Lincoln artifacts. He sold photographs of his collection for 25 cents and a box of “Lincoln relics” for 75 cents. These boxes contained bits of the Lincoln Home and grounds: pieces of brick, shingle, ceiling plaster, elm tree, apple tree, lath, joist, and floor that Oldroyd claimed he saved during house repairs. In an ominous portent of things to come, two years after moving into the home of the man he adored, Oldroyd began stiffing the man’s son when he stopped paying rent in 1885. Robert Lincoln, a lawyer, was reluctant to attract public attention to the matter. He refused to pursue legal proceedings against Oldroyd even after no rental payments arrived for two years.
Not only did Robert feel he was being used, but “he was not happy with the way Oldroyd had turned the home into a sort of carnival sideshow, selling pieces of it and putting other things into it that had not been the Lincolns’,” says James Cornelius. “Robert referred to Oldroyd as a deadbeat and called the exhibits in the house traps.” Even though Oldroyd wasn’t paying rent, he continuously schemed for a way to live rent-free in the home with his collection indefinitely. Behind the scenes Oldroyd lobbied Illinois legislators to acquire the Lincoln Home for the state and let Oldroyd and his museum remain in it. The legislature’s first two attempts to ask Robert Lincoln for the house failed because Lincoln’s eldest son said he wasn’t ready to part with the home just yet. The third time was the charm. In 1887 the legislature succeeded and Robert deeded the Lincoln Home to the state of Illinois. Robert insisted on only two provisions; that his father’s home “be kept in good repair” and that it be”free of access to the public.”
Osborn Oldroyd was appointed custodian of the house for a salary of $1,000 per year (just under $ 25.000 today) and was allowed to continue living in the home rent free. He was also allowed to keep his museum as long as he didn’t charge admission anymore. Ever the operator, Osborn made up for that loss of income by allowing several of his in-laws to move in and charging them rent. The records don’t reveal whether Oldroyd ever paid Robert the two years of rent he owed, but I highly doubt it.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFor the next five years “Captain” Oldroyd kept the Lincoln Home and added to his Lincoln collection. At one point, reports claim that Robert Lincoln was furious when Oldroyd allegedly displayed a photograph of John Wilkes Booth in the home, reportedly on the fireplace mantle. Some sources claim that Robert protested and in 1893, when the Illinois state political tides shifted, Robert had Oldroyd unceremoniously ousted as custodian. The new governor put one of his own men into Oldroyd’s former position as political patronage.
The Illinois State Journal, writing nearly 9 years to the day after its first article on Oldroyd, criticized the move by saying, “The removal of Captain O. H. Oldroyd…means that the Lincoln Home will be stripped of the features of most interest to visitors, which are the personal property of Captain Oldroyd, and…the new custodian…will have nothing to show to those who visit the Home.” Nothing, that is, but the Lincoln home itself. In the July 1888 issue of Harper’s magazine, Charles Dudley Warner wrote after a visit to the home that he could not find Lincoln’s “sense of personality there… although the parlor is made a show-room and full of memorials, there is no atmosphere of the man about it.” Oldroyd, it appears, had wedged himself into the very fabric of the home and many citizens felt that without his passion and guidance, the Lincoln home would eventually fail in its pursuit to attract the steady stream of visitors so carefully courted under the “Captain’s” care. But Oldroyd, ever the huckster, had other plans for his unmatched collection of Lincoln memorabilia.
Next week: part II of “Osborn Oldroyd-Keeper of the Lincoln Flame.”