About Dorothy Lerne Wilde
Everybody said that Dorothy Wilde, known always as Dolly, looked startlingly like her infamous uncle, who had died in Paris in 1900 at the shabby Hôtel d’Alsace (now L’Hotel). Dolly’s natural resemblance to Oscar was only enhanced by her propensity to dress like him, even on occasions as him. You might even be forgiven for imagining that she was Oscar’s daughter, given how strongly she gravitated towards his memory and how little she spoke of her actual father, Oscar’s older brother Willie. Like Dolly, born three months after Oscar’s arrest for homosexual acts, Willie lived in the shadow of his younger brother. The two looked so alike that Willie joked that Oscar once paid him to grow a moustache so people could tell them apart. In any other family, Willie, who was certainly not without charm and was a journalist of some talent, might well have been the star. In the Wilde family, however, his achievements were eclipsed both by his brother’s icandescent fame and dark disgrace, and by his own descent into severe alcoholism, drug addiction, infidelity, abusive behaviour and chronic debt problems. Willie was in every way that mattered an absent father, and, perhaps as a means of filling this void, Dolly learned to idolise the uncle she had never met but had always exercised such a strange influence over her life.
In 1941, at the age of 45, she was found dead in her flat in London. She was almost exactly the same age as Oscar and Willie had been when they died. The coroner refused to be drawn on the cause of her death. Although several empty bottles of the sleeping drug paraldehyde were found in her flat, this was hardly unusual given her addiction, and there is no evidence that she had taken cocaine. So Dolly Wilde’s death, like the rest of her life, is ambiguous and uncertain. Perhaps she had simply died of the cancer she had refused to tackle head on. Perhaps, as some people said, Natalie Barney had driven her to suicide, as she had at least one of her other lovers. Crueller tongues might have wagged that she had simply fulfilled her destiny as a Wilde; Dolly, after all, was Oscar, with all the tragedy and none of the talent. This of course does Dolly a huge disservice. The story of Dolly Wilde shines a light on a time of distinctively beautiful but fragile decadence in the history of Paris and it reveals the swirling and often devastating wake created by a fame as great as Oscar Wilde’s. More than that, it allows us an introduction to a circle of truly fascinating people who could never have existed except in that precise moment in time, and whose world, like those nights recalled through a haze of headaches and regret, can never fully be recovered.