The Oscar Wilde Party
Oscar Wilde whipped up a storm of publicity from the moment he landed in New York in January of 1882 on his grand American lecture tour. Memorable moments in his year-long, action-packed odyssey were many: Falling prey to a conman in N.Y.C.’s Tenderloin. Camping with miners in Colorado. Having potluck with Mormons in Utah. Wining with Walt Whitman (homemade elderberry wine) and dining with authors Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Louisa May Alcott, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Henry James. Calling on former presidents Jefferson Davis at his Mississippi plantation, and then Ulysses S. Grant at his seaside cottage in N.J.
A rumor circulated that P.T. Barnum offered Wilde 200 pounds to ride Jumbo the Elephant, clutching his famous adornment of a sunflower. That didn’t make the itinerary.
Wilde’s lectures centered around the decorative arts. The charming Irish aesthete and writer taught people coast to coast how to transpose the beauty they saw in art into daily life. Wilde’s tour was financed by theater impresario and talent agent Richard D’Oyly Carte and coincided with the NY opening of Patience, a comic opera by musical theater legends Gilbert and Sullivan, that lampooned the fads, superficiality, vanity, hypocrisy and pretentiousness of the aesthetic movement of the 1870s and ’80s. Oscar played the part of a protagonist for “Art for Art’s Sake” living while impersonating lead character Reginald Bunthorne. 
Bohemian Club Vice President and editor of The Argonaut Jerome Hart wrote, “he wore the same garb as Bunthorne on the stage—lace jabots at throat and wrists, black velvet coat and knee-breeches, silk stockings, silver-buckled shoes; he carried a lily in his hand; his walk was the mincing gate of Bunthorne; his attitude ‘I am limp and I cling.’”  Wilde played the part of an erudite Aesthetic evangelist/savvy art connoisseur perfectly. How much of the exaggerated farce of his American lecture tour was conscious parody and how much was the doctrines of a zealous dandy was hard to determine. He became a pin-up boy for the Aesthetic Movement itself.
Oscar arrived in San Francisco by Uncle Charley Crocker’s Central Pacific Railroad on Sunday, March 26, 1882. He wasn’t yet the Behemoth literary figure that he would become having only self-published a book of poetry (the first public performance of an Oscar Wilde play would be in New York the following year). In San Francisco, he went “slumming” in Chinatown (“this is just like a chapter from the Arabian Knights”); visited the Bohemian Club, (“I never saw so many well-dressed, well-fed business-looking Bohemians in my life”); toured Berkeley; and stayed at the splendid Palace Hotel, which was then the largest hotel in the world. They flew a British flag in his honor.
Another highlight of the California leg of his American tour, according to several accounts, was meeting a female firecracker in the form of Amy (later Aimée) Crocker both in San Francisco and Sacramento. Amy met Oscar socially and he made a lasting impression on the teenage temptress, who even then shared his love of the arts and his proclivity to causing scenes and garnishing attention. She wrote about him in her memoirs:
Oscar Wilde, who when he was not busy shocking England in that day, was a frequent visitor at my San Francisco home. I am aware of the gigantic structure of naughtiness which the world has hung around the neck of his memory, but I must say, if my timid and unimportant voice can whisper a defense… if he needs defending… that I found Mr. Wilde a charming gentleman, fascinating as much for his courtly manner to women as for the pungency of his wit.
An incident? Yes, I can remember several. Here is one, amusing and quickly told. After a dinner given at my home in San Francisco, the other invited gentlemen decided that it would be an amusing thing to drink Mr. Wilde “under the table.” A deep and dark plan was laid. I was a party to it, although not an active one. The idea was that if he should relax his guard in drinking, he might reveal some of the things which had already caused scandal.
The drinking started with champagne after dinner. Oscar Wilde dominated the conversation… the only tiresome thing I could detect in him… and the glasses clinked. At ten o’clock, there was far more boisterous talk and very much less wit, except for Mr. Wilde who seemed to expand and grow more than ever magnificent in his repartee. At midnight, some of the gentlemen had withdrawn from the contest, and others were decidedly red in the face. At two o’clock, Mr. Wilde threw consternation into the conspiracy by demanding gin instead of whisky, and pouring an enormous glass of it for each of his fellow drinkers as well as for himself.
At three o’clock in the morning, Mr. Wilde came suddenly to the realization that he had been making pretty witticisms to an audience that was snoring soundly and had been out of conversation for twenty minutes. He filled himself another gin, tossed it off neatly, and said to me that really he was quite sleepy and would retire. The would-be tipplers had to be carried to their rooms by my servants, but Wilde never even suspected the plot. He was really magnificent. 
Whether this account of a Wilde/Crocker friendship is accurate and honest or rather conflated and embellished is a matter of debate.
Wilde was met by scores of interested spectators at the Central Pacific Railroad Depot in Oakland (Oscar guessed some 4,000). Also at the pier was a reception committee that included theatrical manager Charles E. Locke, several Bohemian Club men, and a flock of reporters including a Daily-Union man who traveled from Sacramento with him.
First Visit to Sacramento
Wilde’s reputation arrived some time before he unpacked his bags at the Palace. The Sacramento Record-Union wrote a lengthy article about the well thought out philosophies that Oscar Wilde was propagating three months before he arrived in California. The Oscar Wilde depicted speaks eloquently about the Arts elevating them to the realms of the mystical, the cosmological, the ethereal and the revelatory. Wilde claims that, “True love for art for its own sake, and in its highest development, marks the best forms and systems of civilization most easily attainable…All art is the expression of the noble and joyous in life…The best service of God is found in the worship of all that is beautiful. Such a worshipper can do no wrong willfully.”
In Wilde’s universe receiving an insight into Art was like receiving Christian grace. It was a matter beyond and above Reason. It was a Rikshi contemplating Nirvana.
The Record-Union reporter concludes that Aestheticism was a cult “eminently fitted for ladies, and for ladylike men.” After laying out Wilde’s doctrines the article closes with rebukes, “…the present age has had enough, and more than enough, of the kind of cant and twaddle his school represents.” 
The Sacramento Bee called on The Society for the Prevention of the Dissemination of Obscene Literature to take a look at some of Wilde’s poems, especially “Charmides,” which was considered so obscene in its salaciousness that no one would dare to read the verses out loud. 
On the evening of March 31, 1882, at his Congregational Church lecture in Sacramento, in spite of the critics’ consternation, Mr. Wilde drew a large crowd and was an undeniable success. “There was no applause, because he permitted none; there was the profoundest quiet, because his words commanded that respect. He had ideas to express, and he found an audience respectful, receptive and more than interested… Probably no one who attended but went away satisfied that some seeds for new reflection had been sown, and all went away impressed with much of the truth this young apostle of aestheticism and undoubted poetical genius uttered.” 
Jerome Hart, who was a friend of Amy and fellow Bohemian, second husband Harry Gillig, wrote disparagingly about Wilde that he simply, “bored his audiences almost to extinction and that those that thought Oscar, the imitation Bunthorne, would be more amusing than the comic-opera one, they were grievously in error.” 
Later that evening, Wilde was entertained by the Bric-a-Brac Club at the residence of Mr. and Mrs. Charles McCreary. They supplied a full musical and literary program which included songs and instrumentals and a reading of one of Wilde’s poems. There was an exhibit in the art room featuring works by the most talented Sacramento artists: two pastel paintings, a landscape of Yosemite, and a beach scene study by C.J. Robinson; a crayon portrait by William F. Jackson (later the curator of the Crocker Museum and an instructor of the California School of Design at the Crocker); and four landscapes in oil and one in black and white by Norton Bush, the president of the club. 
The Heart of Bohemia
While Amy may have met Mr. Wilde, it certainly wasn’t at her San Francisco home as it wasn’t yet built. According to close friend Isobel Strong, step daughter of the great literary giant Robert Louis Stevenson, Amy first met Oscar Wilde at a party thrown for him by her painter friends Joe Strong and Jules Tavernier. Their studio was the top floor of a converted old San Francisco Criminal Court building at 728 Montgomery Street. They were prominent members of the Bohemian Club as well as a Bohemian community developed in the 1880s and 1890s around the intersections of Pacific, Washington, Jackson, and Montgomery Streets in the rough and tumble Barbary Coast district, formerly the center of business, banking, and mining speculation. When this commercial center moved south, the Bohemians moved in. The nearby “Monkey Block” building was the Chelsea Hotel of its day.
Bragging that he had, “the kiss of Walt Whitman still on my lips,” Wilde came to the party wearing a wide white hat, velvet coat, green necktie and handkerchief and a big cloak which he threw over one shoulder. He was impressed by the California artists and their Bohemian tabernacle. Tavernier filled the courthouse loft with keepsakes collected during a coast to coast sketching tour for Harper’s Magazine, which included Asian idols, porcelain finery, a suit of armor, skulls of long-horned Texas cattle, Japanese and Chinese brocades, fencing foils, a stuffed pelican with outstretched wings, carved ivories, fans acquired from San Francisco’s Chinatown and a magnificent warrior’s wampum bristling with eagle feathers. The floor was bare except for worn buffalo hides and the bleached vertebrae of whales. Foreign art journals, scattered throughout, kept visitors and residents alike abreast of current artistic trends.
Isobel Strong darkened the room, lit Chinese lanterns and arranged rose colored draperies before the lights. Jules climbed out on the roof and painted a profusion of roses on the skylight, though heavenly beams of light shone through. It was a new kind of church for both Oscar and the young and impressionable Amy. “This is where I belong! This is my atmosphere! I didn’t know such a place existed in the whole United States,” said an enthralled Oscar Wilde.  He regretted that he had to leave the next day and that he couldn’t have spent every day of his California visit hanging with these true Bohemians.
Tavernier and Strong invited some fellow Bohemian Club members including playwright Clay Greene, painter Theodore Wores and Frankie Unger, who would become a constant companion to Amy in the next chapter of her life. Painter Nellie Hopps who shared a studio in the building with Joe’s sister Elizabeth attended as did actor John Howson, who would play Bunthorne two days later at the California Theater and at the Metropolitan Theater in Sacramento on May 12th. Mrs. Mary Therese Hart Austin “Betsy Bee,” the theater critic for the Argonaut also joined in the gaiety.
Hostess Isobel described guest heiress Amy Crocker as 17-years-young and radiant, “a little hat perched at a tilt over masses of glorious red hair. She was so richly dressed, and so entwined with ropes of pearls and strings of diamonds that she rustled and rattled with every movement.” 
The artists had welcomed her at the studio originally as an art patron when she came to buy a piece from Jules, and to have Joe paint her portrait. They got to know her and like her, “for her generous, good-natured, friendly self.”  A bevy of young society girls came to meet Mr. Wilde at the studio. Isobel noticed that the girls edged away from Amy though they eyed her with interest, “for she had already started a hectic career that was to make her the center of whirlwind gossip in many parts of the globe.”  Wilde accepted an invitation to visit the new Crocker Art Gallery in Sacramento the next day.
In her book, This Life I’ve Loved, Isobel wrote about Wilde, “He was charming. His enthusiasm, his frank sincerity, dispelled at once any constraint we may have felt at meeting such a distinguished stranger. We didn’t know that we were listening to one who was acknowledged to be the wittiest man in London. We were exhilarated by his talk, gay, quick, delightfully cordial and almost affectionately friendly.” She relayed a tidbit about Wilde holding conversation with a studio mannequin they called Miss Piffle. It was “a superb performance, a masterpiece of sparkling wit and gaiety.” 
Tavernier was an impetuous “enfant terrible” known for his hot-blooded temperament and disdain for the bourgeoisie. The parties held in his magical space were legendary. With evenings of drawing for friends and of dancing on the studio’s hardwood floors, the old courthouse soon came to be known as the “Heart of Bohemia.” The Tavernier-Strong studio, with its talented young painters and their charming, versatile, and attractive young wives, drew about it a circle of San Francisco’s most brilliant literary, artistic and musical people. Isobel Strong was the stepdaughter of another literary giant, Robert Louis Stevenson, who sometimes dropped in to smoke a cigarette and watch the artists paint. This was a Bohemia that, unlike her cousins’ all male Bohemian Club, was very inviting. Amy Crocker was hooked.
“It was a happy-go-lucky life and they were a happy-go-lucky crowd, who never spoiled the present day’s happiness by thinking of the morrow,” wrote Isobel’s aunt in an article published nearly 40 years later in the Oakland Tribune. “When money was flush they spent if freely, sharing with their friends, and when the lean days came they got along the best they could, I fear often to the sorrow of trusting tradesmen. Erratic they were in many respects, but each had his touch of genius, and their clever conversation and open-hearted camaraderie made them the most delightful companions in the world. They did not pile up gold, but they added much to the joy of living.” 
Wilde lectured at San Francisco’s Platt’s Hall, Armory Hall in Oakland, the California Theater in San Jose, Mozart Hall in Stockton and the Congregational Church in Sacramento on the topics of The English Renaissance, Art Decoration, The House Beautiful and Irish Poets of the Nineteenth Century. Wilde’s last lecture in his California engagements was held at the Congregational Church in Sacramento. The matinee lecture “The House Beautiful” was offered at half-price. The audience was half as large as the one that greeted him on the occasion of his first appearance.
By chapter and verse Oscar Wilde explained to his eager NorCal audiences how to carry his theories of art into decorating their homes. He railed about the houses of America calling them ill-built and ill-proportioned. The architecture was “funereal.” He went through a catalogue of crimes committed in American decoration such as the machine-made furniture, cast iron stoves (dreadful monstrosities), hatracks (instruments of torture), stuffed birds under glass cases (abominations) and glaring mirrors. No paper should be used to represent marble and no wood should be painted to look like stone, according to Wilde.  And no photographs should be put on the walls (etchings and woodcuts are fine). He preferred blue china to white and Queen Anne to Eastlake style. He praised his friend James Whistler’s glorious Peacock room designed for the wealthy shipping tycoon Frederick Leyland.
“One should either be a work of art or wear a work of art,” is one of the better known Wilde quotable quotes. During his California adventure, Wilde weighed in on fashion. “The women are the slaves of the dressmakers, who pile on all sorts of useless and encumbering knots and bows, and fanciful and meaningless and ungraceful things, that are only equaled for ugliness by the artificial flowers on the hats and the bonnets.” When Wilde announced that the modern bonnet was the most irrational monstrosity ever invented, the men smiled and the women squirmed.  The Sacramento Bee wasn’t having any of it:
From the days of Adam down to those of Oscar Wilde, men have always lectured the women upon their dresses, and invariably with one result—the women listen cheerfully and then go and don just what they were asked not to wear. And in this they are right. They should be the judges of what constitutes a proper and becoming costume. What does a man know about the cut of a dress, the embroidery of a stocking, the scallop to a petticoat, the—but this subject need not be pursued any farther. 
The public had fun at the Oscar Wilde carnival. They loved rugged individualism even in its most exotic form, but they moved on from Oscar’s splendid ideas. “It is all change for the sake of change, folly for the sake of folly, fashion for fashion’s sake alone, and not because any one thing is better or purer than another,” wrote The Sacramento Record-Union.  There was another attraction available that edged out the flamboyant aesthete. The new headline was that Governor Stanford and Charles Crocker purchased the Ward Collection of scientific curiosities in its entirety and gifted it to the Academy of Sciences that it might remain as a museum for the instruction of the people. Hundreds of visitors went into the hall and made a slow tour of the exhibition. School children flocked to see the mammoth sixteen feet high and twenty-six feet long, fossil remains of strange creatures of former ages and of foreign countries, skeletons of snakes and birds, collections of skulls of different races; models of the habitations of the cave-dwellers, cases of metals, of crystals and of stones, and the head of half human Neanderthal man.
Oscar’s lecture tour was an unmitigated triumph. Between January and November of 1882, Wilde visited and lectured in 125 American cities eclipsing the success of the opera that he was being paid to promote. Patience closed in New York after six months.
Oscar Wilde fell in love with California, and confessed that he fell in love with at least one California girl (one Wilde biographer deduced that it was Hattie Crocker, Amy’s cousin).  He vowed to return the next year and believed that the Golden State was the most beautiful part of America. Oscar’s initial assessment upon arrival was that California was “Italy without the Art”  and that the knowledge of Art west of the Rocky Mountains was infinitesimal. He made a point of urging the establishment of a school of design in every city he visited. He implored artists to move away from painting old gods and goddesses, kings and queens, but fields, trees and flowers and “the men at work at the wharves, the boys at play at school, the oarsman at this boat…” 
Mr. Wilde thought it absolutely imperative that there be a museum of art in every city. Although he wouldn’t encourage the Academy of Sciences Museum or any collection that would include “dreadful, dusty, stuffed giraffes and kindred monsters.”  Oscar season in NorCal ended with the great aesthete viewing the great art of California. He made a point of taking a second look at the works of Bush, Robinson and Jackson at their private studios in Sacramento, no doubt impressed by their brilliance. He followed that excursion with a tour of the glorious collection at The E.B. Crocker Art Gallery, then one of the largest private collections in the country, before it was gifted to the city. 
Wilde would have a lasting effect on the Bohemians in the famous San Francisco club and the Bohemian artists of Northern California. His visit and the discussions that he provoked caused its members to take a hard look at their own artistic dreams and visions (and its roster) and would instigate one of the more pronounced rifts in the community. They would never take on the “Art for Art’s Sake” battle cry as a group. A sub-group, a clique of painters, writers and performers, formed within the club who called themselves “The Roseleaves,” aka “the Roseleaf Social, Outing, Rescue, Gin, Gun, Grub, and Guzzle Club” (Amy’s first two husbands were Roseleaves). Within 20 years they would lose most of their influence. True eccentricity and bohemianism retreated into art studios. Tavernier and Strong would move to Hawaii as would several other club members. Captains of industry and politicians would take up the mantle for the increasingly conservative men’s club.
There are reports that Amy Crocker was in another part of the country gallivanting with a beau and her mother at the time of Wilde lecture tour of California. She could have met him in London when she was having a steamy extra-marital love affair with Oscar’s friend and literary rival Edgar Saltus. Or maybe she just wanted to link her legend to that of Ireland’s most famous Bohemian. Oscar Wilde had a profound effect on the heiress Amy Crocker. Her career in the limelight mirrored Wilde’s in countless ways. Like Oscar, Amy’s outrageous fashion sense would often be noted in print. Her famous “flame dress” and her “peacock gown” worn at Broadway openings upstaged all of the action on the stage. An advocate of dress reform, Amy once wrote an article promoting the wearing of kimonos, for both women and men.  Like Oscar, Amy would be involved in scandalous court cases which rocked the nation and laid bare her unconventional love life. And like Oscar, Amy Crocker had an aptitude for self-promotion, became a paragon of vivid individuality, possessed an irresistible charm of manner, and elevated the craft of selfhood to an art. She wrote:
I believe absolutely that living, in the completest sense of that word… discovering the full beauty of living and plunging oneself utterly into the human beings that swarm through this life… is a pure art. It is, I honestly think, the highest artistic accomplishment we can hope for. All the recognized arts… your paintings, your sculpture, your music, your books… all those things are only the symbols of that higher art: living. 
As Wilde and the Aesthetes would say, “How utterly utter.”
Caricatures of Oscar Wilde
- The sixth Gilbert & Sullivan collaboration “Patience,” or “Bunthorne’s Bride” opened on April 23, 1881 at the Opera Comique in London and ran for 578 performances, moving on October 10, 1881 to D’Oyly Carte’s new theater, the Savoy, the first theater in the world to be lit entirely by electric lights. Patience closed in New York on March 23, 1882. It had been performed in various American cities in 1881, before Wilde’s arrival (including St. Louis and San Francisco), and afterward, was staged in various North American cities from coast to coast. In the smaller cities, like Sacramento, the productions were one-night-only events, but most performances occurred in conjunction with Wilde’s lecture tour.
- Jerome Hart, In Our Second Century (San Francisco: The Pioneer Press, 1931) 312-313.
- Aimée Crocker, the Princess Galitzine, And I’d Do It Again (New York: Coward-McCann, 1936) 286-287. The place and time of a meeting between Amy Crocker and Oscar Wilde is a matter of debate. It was not at her home in San Francisco, but may not have been at the Crocker Gallery in Sacramento or at a party in San Francisco as reported by contemporary and close friend Isobel Strong-Field in her book This Life I’ve Loved (Lafayette, CA: Great West Books, 1938), as there are conflicting reports that Amy was in another state during Wilde’s tour of California. Amy’s story is very similar to those given by attendees of a Bohemian Club party in Wilde’s honor. She may have met Wilde during her clandestine love affair with his friend and literary rival Edgar Saltus years later.
- “Oscar Wilde and his Cult,” Sacramento Daily Union, January 21, 1882, 4.
- “Notes,” The Daily Bee Mar 29, 1882, 2.
- “Oscar Wilde’s lecture,” The Sacramento Record-Union Apr 1, 1882, 4
- Hart, In Our Second Century, 312-313.
- “Reception to Oscar Wilde,” The Daily Bee Apr 1, 1882“Hart, In Our Second Century, 312-313.
- Isobel Field, Peter Browning, This Life I’ve Loved (Lafayette, CA: Great West Books, 1938) 139.
- Ibid, 148-149.
- Nellie Van De Grift, “Charles Warren Stoddard and the Artist Colony: Recollections of Oscar Wilde’s Visit to Bohemia,” Oakland Tribune, Dec 26, 1920, 52.
- “Oscar Wilde’s Last Lecture,” Sacramento Record-Union, April 10, 1882, 3.
- “Notes,” Sacramento Bee April 3, 1882, 2.
- “Some Thoughts about the Esthetic Craze,” Sacramento Record-Union, April 8, 1882, 6.
- Wilde reported, “I have been madly in love five times since I have been here—in San Francisco, in New Orleans, in Kalamazoo and twice in New England—and I don’t know what would have become of me if my agent hadn’t dragged me along.” “Sizing us up,” San Francisco Examiner Sept 3, 1882, 1. Oscar Wilde wrote, “When I think of America I only remember someone whose lips are like the crimson petals of a summer rose, whose eyes a.re two brown agates, who has the fascination of a panther, the pluck of a tigress, and the grace of a bird. Darling Hattie, I now realize that I am absolutely in love with you, and for ever and ever…” Merlin Holland and Rupert Hart-Davis, The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde, (New York: Henry Hold and Company, 2000) 65. Biographer Michael Sturgis believes that the Hattie that Wilde mentions in a love letter was most likely Hattie Crocker. Matthew Sturgis, Oscar: A Life (London: Head of Zeus, 2018), IV. Charles and Mary Ann Crocker attended one of the lectures, according to Sturgis. He contends that Hattie may have joined them. Known for her charity work, Hattie’s social calendar was nearly as busy as the fleet footed lecturer who visited five cities during his three-week California tour.
- “Letter to Norman Forbes-Robertson March 27, 1882,” Holland and Hart-Davis, The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde, 138.
- “Oscar Wilde,” Sacramento Record-Union, April 1, 1882, 4.
- “Art Decoration,” Daily Alta California, March 30, 1882, 1.
- “Oscar Wilde’s Last Lecture,” Sacramento Record-Union, April 10, 1882, 3.
- Amy Crocker Gouraud, “Why Men Should Wear Kimonos,” The San Francisco Examiner, March 31, 1912, 16.
- Crocker-Galitzine, And I’d Do It Again, v.