It’s the winter of 1881 and you’re burning through your inheritance as a boarder in London’s hip literary enclave known as Chelsea. You’re 27-years-old and an Oxford grad, but otherwise not much is happening. In just over a decade, your intellect will be the toast of all Victorian London, but right now all you’ve managed to do is grow out your hair. And then opportunity knocks, in the form of theatrical impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte, who invites you to tour America and prime the pump for a creative team he’d also taken an interest in: namely a young librettist known as W.S. Gibert and a composer called Arthur Sullivan.
Before you know it, you’re ringing in both Christmas and the New Year – 1882 – aboard “a souped-up transatlantic hot rod” christened the USS Arizona. After two weeks at sea, you’re eager to debark, but spend the night on New York harbor, the entire ship on quarantine. Lady Liberty is absent, still being constructed in France, while New Yorkers struggle to raise the money for the pedestal upon which she will stand. Ellis Island is still not operational, so you’re processed across the harbor at Castle Garden, which we know today as Battery Park’s Castle Clinton. It’s there you reportedly tell a customs official, “I have nothing to declare except my genius.”
The tour upon which you’ll embark sells-out lecture halls across the country as you stump for Aestheticism, or the triumph of beauty over anything as banal as deeper socio-political meaning in the arts. The lectures are meant to last four months but stretch on for a year, and though the country is still rattled by reconstruction, you manage to throw back whiskey with Colorado silver miners and win over a 62-year-old Walt Whitman in his Camden home. But it’s in the port of your arrival where things really happen and your tour kicks off. It begins in New York, at Chickering Hall – now, quite horrifyingly, a Payless shoe store – making graceful, looping circles back to venues like the Brooklyn Academy of Music and Wallack’s Theatre in a Manhattan neighborhood, nicknamed NoMad for its Madison Square Park adjacency. And here begins the Manhattan’s Oscar Wilde Walking Tour:
102 West 33rd Street, New York, NY 10001
Most New Yorkers will tell you this site is the Manhattan Mall, home to their only interior JCPenney, but you, me and Oscar know that this is the site of the old Standard Theatre, where Gilbert and Sullivan held the New York premiere of their operetta “Patience.” Librettist W.S. Gilbert conceived of his comic two-act as not only a takedown of the rabidly peacocking Wilde, but the entire “Art for Art’s sake” Aesthetic Movement. The New York Times wrote, “Gilbert’s pen was rarely sharper than when he invented Reginald Bunthorne.” In fact, Wilde’s entire tour of America was meant to get the States in on the Bunthorne joke, but as ever, it was Wilde who had the last laugh, making buckets of money and racking up more US press clippings that even Queen Victoria. The Standard burning to the ground just after Patience wrapped its 177-performance run was just gravy.
45 West 27th Street, New York, NY 10001
If there’s one thing an Oscar Wilde walking tour of Manhattan is going to need, it’s drinks. And lots of ’em. Where better than NYC? This veritable Wilde museum features New York City’s longest bar, clocking in at over 118 feet, and over 4 million dollars’ worth of appointments including 26 antique clocks all stopped on the blackest hour of Wilde’s demise. As the building only went up in 1909, there’s little chance Wilde himself used it as his local watering hole, but don’t tell that to his life-sized replica occupying a place of pride at the top of the bar. If this boite is also functioning as your walking tour’s pit stop, ladies will be treated to the sounds of talk radio broadcast from Hope Castle in Castleblayney while men will have a choice between urinals labeled “LIAR” and “LARGER.” The joint is now open for lunch and a Wilde Burger will set you back $18, while a specialty cocktail like the elderflower-infused Gutter & Stars is $14, but hey, all this Milanese stained glass isn’t going to pay for itself.
1232–1238 Broadway, New York, NY 10001
Wilde only lasted a couple of days in this Second Empire Style gem, before departing the Grand Hotel for a private apartment around the corner on West 28th Street because of a hungry press corp. “I had to leave my hotel,” Wilde said, “and go to a private house when I wanted to push along my work,” although he was soon granting interviews from the new private address. When Wilde returned to New York in both February and May, it was The Grand into which he checked. Wallack’s Theater, where Wilde had his May 11th address on the decorative arts, was brand-new at the time and attached to the hotel, however it’s now demolished. The building that housed the Grand, however, is still extant and thankfully landmarked.
201 West 13th Street, New York, NY 10011
Saving the most ephemeral for last, though 20-years in the making, this secular temple dedicated to Wilde will only be open through December 2nd, when it departs for London. The brainchild of art world duo McDermott & McGough, the centerpiece of this temple is a devotional altarpiece of Wilde carved from linden wood in the style a portrait he commissioned of himself from the photographer Napoleon Sarony in Sarony’s Union Square studio. It was one of the first things Wilde did when he arrived in America and the image promptly did the late nineteenth century version of blowing up on Insta. The temple is also available to hire for weddings and the goal is to “transport visitors back to the precise moment of Wilde’s visit to America in 1882-83, with an Aesthetic Movement interior suggesting the world in which Wilde lived, worked, and loved.” The temple is ringed by a much darker gaol, a series of eight stations of the cross-inspired paintings based on British newspaper engravings rendered in Wilde’s signature Limoges blue depicting the harrowing two-years of hard labor in Reading Gaol that effectively ended both his career and life at the ripe old age of 46. Never one to button things up on a downer, Wilde’s reported last words, issued from his deathbed were, “Either that wallpaper goes or I do.”