Dolly Wilde, in life, was like a character out of a book, even if it was never written…she seemed like someone one had become familiar with by reading, rather than by knowing.
– Janet Flanner
The study of Dolly Wilde belongs to a discipline that doesn’t exist.
While nominally listed as a “socialite” in biographical entries, she didn’t entertain on a grand scale, patronise genius or pioneer new ways of living, so you won’t find her mentioned in social histories of the 20th century. Despite her wit and facility with words you will search in vain for a book by her, so she’s not a subject for literary history. Contemporaries never failed to mention her dazzling eloquence but her performances, it seemed, belonged to the moment.
After her death, friends compiled a book called Oscaria, an attempt to capture her evanescent qualities, largely through fondly remembered anecdotes. But both this volume and Joan Schenkar’s 2000 biography Truly Wilde somehow serve to enhance rather than deconstruct the mysterious essence of their subject’s evident allure.
So who was this elusive character? Dolly – Dorothy – was born in London in 1895; her father was Oscar Wilde’s brother Willie, a successful journalist in his own right. Dolly never met Oscar – he was already doing hard labour when she was born – but like her cousin Arthur Cravan she was immensely proud of her famous uncle at a time when his reputation was far from rehabilitation. She was the only one to retain his name into the 20th century; his immediate family abandoned after his fall from grace.
Wilde began her continental adventures as an ambulance driver during World War I, during which time she had an affair with the younger Joe Carstairs. It was an occupation ideally suited to the dynamic Carstairs, but represented a rare burst of activity for Wilde whose preferred theatres of engagement were the salon and the bedroom.
Appropriately, then, it was to the company of Stephen Tennant, Brian Howard and the other Bright Young Things that she was drawn in the 1920s, sharing the group’s passion for parties, dressing up and hysterical chatter. While Cecil Beaton described her as “rather vulgar”, his portrait of her (main image) is one of the most glamorous of his early pictures.
Without riches to free or anchor her, Wilde lived out her life in hotels and the houses of generous friends. After a brief affair with the silent screen star Alla Nazimova she met Natalie Clifford Barney who, as we have already seen, had met Oscar Wilde as a child. She was just as warmly disposed to his niece, who counted as one of her most enduring liaisons, much to the distress of Romaine Brooks, Barney’s long-time partner.
Wilde was a hit at Barney’s Paris salon, her sparkling wit apparently a direct inheritance from Oscar; Lady Una Troubridge said Dolly was “much the better man” in comparison with her uncle. Dolly played up the connection, dressing as Oscar for a party in 1930.
As Janet Flanner observed, Wilde was “like a character out of a book”, which she duly became, captured as Doll Furious in Djuna Barnes’ roman à clef of Barney’s circle, Ladies Almanack. But Wilde was jealous of Barnes’ achievements, asking “Why should you be the one with genius? If anyone has it, it should be me.”
This frustration, a condition which both sprang from and inflamed her insecurities, led to heavy drinking, excessive even by the generous standards of her circle, and eventually supplemented with a heroin addiction. The thirties, which many of her friends experienced as a hangover to the excesses of the previous decade, were particularly hard on Dolly. She had developed a sleeping draught addiction during one of her attempted cures and towards the end of the decade she was diagnosed with breast cancer, but refused treatment.
While there had been at least one suicide attempt, when Barney broke off their affair and returned to Brooks, it’s not clear that Wilde was harbouring serious thoughts of self-harm as she retired to bed in her flat in London’s Belgravia on April 9, 1941. But the last of the Wildes was found dead the next morning, having overdosed on either sleeping draught or heroin, or a combination of the two.
On hearing the news, Barney commented that “just as no one’s presence could be as present as hers, so no one’s absence could be so absent.”