TRULY WILDE: The Unsettling Story of Dolly Wilde, Oscar's Unusual Niece
Review excerpts for TRULY WILDE:
"At last, Dolly Wilde has found a biographer with the intelligence, sensitivity and flamboyance to write the work of art that was her life."
–The DAILY TELEGRAPH
"It is Dolly's posthumous good fortune that Schenkar became intrigued by her...Dolly was a beautiful loser, the book is an absolute winner."
–Simon Callow, DAILY MAIL
"A fascinating account of a largely unexplored corner of High Bohemia between the wars."
–THE SUNDAY TELEGRAPH
"Joan Schenkar is an American playwright, which perhaps explains why she takes such a fresh approach to biography...this book is a dazzling, mulitifaceted exploration of a 'loser.'"
–Emma Donoghue, IRISH INDEPENDENT
"TRULY WILDE is a revelation, the great story of a life and of the creation of modern culture. Read this biography for its high drama, its hijinks, and, at the end, for its poignancy and horror."
–Catharine R. Stimpson
"[Dolly Wilde] had her uncle's gifts, her father's indolence, and the terrifying capacity for self-destruction that marked them both. Schenkar's biography is a labour of love."
–Jeannette Winterson, THE TIMES
© Joan Schenkar
"I am a darting trout; shifting, glancing & flashing my iridescent tail in a hundred pleasant pools!..."
–DOLLY WILDE, letter to Natalie Barney
"She looked, said everyone who knew them both, remarkably like her uncle Oscar. She had the same artfully posed, soft, white hands, the same elongated face, and the same air of indolent melancholy which Aristotle insisted was always the natural accompaniment of wit.
She spoke remarkably like her uncle too, or, rather, like a brilliantly female version of Oscar – for there was nothing parodically male about Dolly Wilde. And although she would occasionally dress up as her uncle in borrowed, too-tight pants, a great flowing tie and a famously ratty fur coat (perhaps it was Oscar's favorite coat after all, the one Dolly's father Willie was supposed to have pawned when Oscar was imprisoned), she looked most like Oscar Wilde when she was dressed up as herself: a beautiful, dreamy-eyed, paradoxical woman – wonderfully stylish and intermittently unkempt, spiritually illuminated and clearly mondaine. She stares out at us from her few significant photographs with a distinctly contemporary gaze; conscious of the camera, casual about her audience.
For sixty years she was a delicious rumor: Oscar Wilde's enchanting niece Dorothy, born in 1895, a scant three months after her uncle's notorious trials and shameful imprisonment. In titled, artistic, and carefully closeted circles in Paris and London and Hollywood, stories of the outrageous things Dorothy Ierne Wilde said and did were passed around like canapés at a book launch. Photographed by Cecil Beaton and the Baron de Meyer, adored by the Sitwells, the Cunards, and French Academicians such as Edmond Jaloux, attracting people of taste and talent wherever she went, Dolly Wilde was almost – as her friend Janet Flanner wrote – "like a character out of a book...like someone one had become familiar with by reading, rather than by knowing" – too literary, in short, to be believed.
Although she could only have been produced by the follies and grandeurs of the 1920s and the 1930s, Dolly Wilde seems sensationally contemporary. Her tastes for cutting edge conversation and "emergency seductions" (as she called the sexual adventures which she applied like unguent to her emotional wounds), for fast cars and foreign films, for experimental literature and alcoholic actresses, are still right-up-to-the minute, and it is too easy to forget that she has been dead – and deader still for being unnoticed – these sixty years.
Stories of Dolly's life usually start out with stories about other people's lives - her uncle Oscar's fabled conversation, the duchesse de Clermont-Tonnerre's bal masqué, Natalie Clifford Barney's famous salon - because Dolly Wilde always did. She adored listening to people, a trait which everyone said came from her fatal "paresse," her indolence. And while it flattered her friends to have such a brilliant speaker listening so brilliantly to them – for Dolly was surely the world's most active audience – this tendency of hers to delay things was the first drug that imprisoned her early on. Like many fascinating people, Dolly was easily fascinated. Charming herself, she could be charmed into putting off anything, even the narratives she loved so much.
"Go on," Dolly would say to her friend Victor Cunard, the London Times correspondent to Venice, as he hesitated between the irresistible desire to pour out his secret life to her and the fully justified fear that his secret would be instantly betrayed. "Go on," she would say disarmingly in her "bird-charmer's" voice to the New Yorker magazine writer Janet Flanner who was telling her a particularly violent fairy tale, "but tell it slowly, tell every word so that it will last longer." Dolly Wilde's life was full of such interesting, unfinished, delayed relationships through which she was sometimes tempted to try and fulfill herself.
Although Dolly often behaved like a luxury item let loose in a lavish era – treating even the maisons de santé where she was regularly disintoxicated like private suites in European spas – her family had undergone a famously public deconstruction. Her mother was left so impoverished that she could not afford to keep her at home; whatever her father possessed in the way of character had dissolved itself in alcohol by the time she was born; her uncle's dirty linen had been washed in every scandal sheet in Europe. Unlike her family, however, Dolly herself kept many secrets, telling – such was the refinement of her indiscretions – only the ones in which she was not involved.
For someone who loved stories as much as Dolly did - loved telling them, loved hearing them, loved their facts, their fictions, and all their complications - she was strangely silent on the subject of her own childhood. All her life, she avoided talking about her early years, and she resolutely refused to supply herself with a "history." Like most self-created people, she was infinitely more comfortable without the inconvenient explanations supplied by an actual, painful past.
There was only one anecdote from her childhood that Dolly Wilde ever told, and she only told it once. But with unerring instinct she told it to the best raconteuse in Paris, Bettina Bergery. And Bergery - wife of the French diplomat Gaston Bergery and originally one of the three beautiful Jones girls for whom the phrase "keeping up with the Joneses" had actually been invented – remembered the appalling little vignette for the rest of her life and wrote it down.
What Dolly told Bettina Bergery was this: when Dolly was very young, she used to like to take lumps of sugar, dip them in her pretty mother Lily's perfume, and eat them."