Oscar Wilde, meet Aimée Crocker…

Oscar Wilde had been the center of a maelstrom of scandalous publicity from the moment he came to New York in January of 1882 on his grand American lecture tour. Memorable moments in his year-long sojourn included drinking elderberry wine with Walt Whitman in Camden, New Jersey, holding chilly conversation with Henry James in Washington; lecturing in Saint Joseph, Missouri, two weeks after the death of Jesse James; falling prey to a conman in New York’s Tenderloin; calling on an elderly Jefferson Davis at his Mississippi plantation then former President General Ulysses S. Grant at his seaside cottage in Long Branch. 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 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 (the first public performance of an Oscar Wilde play would be in New York the following year). His 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. In San Francisco, he made the obligatory tour of Chinatown, which he called “the most artistic town I have ever come across;” visited the Bohemian Club, (“I never saw so many well-dressed, well-fed business-looking Bohemians in my life”); toured San Jose; and stayed at the splendid Palace Hotel, which was then the largest hotel in the world. Another highlight of his American tour was meeting a female firecracker in the form of Aimée Crocker both in San Francisco and Sacramento. Aimée 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.

from And I’d Do It Again by Aimée Crocker

The Heart of Bohemia

The Monkey Block was the Chelsea Hotel of early San Francisco

While Aimée certainly met Mr. Wilde, it certainly wasn’t at her San Francisco home as it wasn’t yet built. Aimée 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 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. Some of the notable writers and artists who lived there included Ambrose Bierce, Joaquin Miller, George Sterling, Jack London, Sadakichi Hartman, Frank Norris, Yone Noguchi, Margaret Anderson, Kenneth Rexroth, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.

Bragging that he had, “the kiss of Walt Whitman still on my lips,” Wilde came to the party wearing a Spanish sombrero, a velvet suit, a puce cravat, yellow gloves, buckled shoes, and a big cloak that 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, conspicuous throughout, kept visitors and residents alike abreast of current artistic trends. Joe Strong’s wife Isobel 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 Aimée. “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.

Jules Tavernier

Tavernier and Strong were members of the Bohemian Club, so naturally they invited some fellow members including playwright Clay Greene, painter Theodore Wores and Frankie Unger, who would become a constant companion to Aimée in the next chapter of her life. Aimée Crocker, 17 years young and radiant, a little hat perched at a tilt over masses of glorious red hair, was already a guest of distinction. 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. Hostess Isobel Strong noticed that the girls edged away from Aimée 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, however, was duly impressed by the wit of the bedazzling young Aimée and accepted her invitation to visit the new Crocker Art Gallery in Sacramento the next day.

Tavernier was an improvident “enfant terrible” with impulsive ways and a complete disdain for money and bourgeois standards. 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 cousin’s all male Bohemian Club, was very inviting. Aimée Crocker was hooked.

The Tavernier-Strong studio as it looks today

“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.”

After his tour, which was financed by musical theater impresarios Gilbert and Sullivan, Wilde remarked about the girls he met in the states, “American children did not seem to be numerous and were not as healthy or as joyous as in England, but very precocious. They grow up, some of them, into girls who are the prettiest despots in the world. Each American girl seemed to be an oasis of picturesque unreasonableness in a desert of common sense, able to talk on every subject, whether she knew anything of it or not, with lovely hands and feet, and the prettiest boots in the world.”

Wilde’s tour was a commercial success. Newspaper reporters, however, outdid themselves in ridiculing the twenty-eight-year-old “lecturer.” The most stinging criticism for his San Francisco appearances came from Crocker nemesis and Bohemian Club founder, Mr. Ambrose Bierce, who wrote a weekly column called “Prattle” in The Wasp. After attending a lecture at Platt’s Hall, on Irish Poets and Poetry of the Nineteenth Century, he lambasted Wilde: 

…this gawky gowk has the diving effrontery to link his name with those of Swinburne, Rossetti and Morris—this dunghill he-hen would fly with the eagles. He dares to set his tongue to the honored name of Keats. He is the leader, quoth’a, of a renaissance in art, this man who cannot draw—of a revival in letters, this man who cannot write! This littlest and looniest of a brotherhood of simpletons, whom the wicket wits of London, haling him dazed from his obscurity, have crowned and crucified as King of the Cranks, has accepted the distinction in stupid good faith and our foolish people take him at his word. Mr. Wilde is pinnacled upon a dazzling eminence but the earth still trembles to the dull thunder of the kicks that set him up.

Wilde invoked comparison to another Bohemian Club writer, Aimée’s chum Charles Stoddard who the Chronicle claimed Wilde, “resembled in manner and sentiment.” Stoddard was San Francisco’s “Boy Poet” of “lavender verse” and thinly veiled homoerotic travel stories.

Isobel Strong wrote Stoddard about the party. “He was delightfully entertaining, and said that the only thing he regretted about California was that he had not seen the Yosemite Valley and Charley Stoddard. But you, Charley, are the real aesthete—he affects what to you is natural and he had not your languor, grace, or beautiful voice and so the general verdict is that we have a better aesthete at home than this fellow who came all these miles to ‘show off.’ But seriously, he is well educated, witty, and if he didn’t pose quite so much he would be delightfully entertaining…”

Aimée’s most revered lover, writer Edgar Saltus, years later referred to his friend Oscar Wilde as a “three decanter man” who, “was a third rate poet who occasionally rose to the second class but not once to the first.” He further thought Wilde was rather sloppy in prose. As a conversationalist, however, Wilde had no peers according to Saltus. “He talked infinitely better than he wrote… He exuded wit and waded in it with a serenity that was disconcerting… in his talk he was lord and more — sultan, pontifex maximus… In talk he blinded and it is the subsiding wonder of it that his plays contain.”

Caricatures of Oscar Wilde

Artists have enjoyed drawing Oscar Wilde for more than 125 years. Wilde once commented, “Caricature is the tribute which mediocrity pays to genius.” Touché.