If you like history, wit, scandal and France, follow the trail of Oscar Wilde in Paris. There is no better way to explore the City of Lights.
Handcuffed, standing on a train platform in the rain on his way to Reading Gaol after being convicted of gross indecency, Oscar Wilde, Victorian wit and author of The Importance of Being Earnest, muttered, “If the Queen can’t treat her prisoners any better than this, she doesn’t deserve to have any.”
Ditching England – Oscar Wilde in Paris
Maybe that’s why, when Oscar Wilde was released two years later in 1897, the Irish-born writer left England, ending up finally in Paris, ill, broke and shunned. Over a century later, I end up at the same right bank hotel, the modest Hotel Louvre Marsollier Opera, where Oscar Wilde spent his next-to-last days until he was kicked out for not paying his bill.
The Oscar Wilde Trail in Paris
Sitting in my 7th floor room, the original wood beams running across the ceiling, I grow curious to visit more of Oscar Wilde’s haunts in Paris. With his flair for the original and taste for hedonism, could there be any better partner in crime?
Oscar Wilde in Paris – Père Lachaise cemetery
My first stop is Oscar Wilde’s last, the vast Père Lachaise cemetery where he rests in the company of Colette, Chopin, Proust and Jim Morrison. Located in eastern Paris, Père Lachaise is a grey atmospheric world of its own. Strange phone booth-sized tombs with peaked roofs vie for space with mournful statues, and amiable cats mew for attention atop weathered slabs of stone. Wandering under a silvery winter sky, I finally find Oscar Wilde in Division 89.
Kissing Oscar Wilde in Paris
Oscar Wilde’s tomb is a huge stone block accompanied by a faintly Sphinx-like winged deity, whose once prominent private part has long disappeared. Unlike other tombs, content to receive flowers, Wilde’s tomb is smothered in lipstick kisses (taupe being a particularly favored shade). Briefly, I consider joining the Oscar Wilde bandwagon and smooching the stone myself, then reject the idea. As Wilde said, “everything popular is wrong.”
UPDATE: You can no longer kiss the tomb (designed by Jacob Epstein). It’s now under plexiglass. I wonder what Wilde would have made of that.
Oscar Wilde in Paris – the glamorous Café de la Paix
Deciding a café would be an appropriate next stop, I head to one of Oscar Wilde’s hangouts, the Café de la Paix on the Place de l’Opéra. Part of the InterContinental Le Grand Hôtel, it was built in 1862 during the reign of Napoleon III. Cowed by the well-groomed Parisians and lavish surroundings, I scuttle under the ornate gilt ceiling with its blue sky frescoes, and take a table on the enclosed terrace.
A devilish temptation
Budget-wise, my intentions are to stick to an $11 cup of tea, but with Oscar Wilde whispering into my ear like a devil on my shoulder that “self-denial is the shining sore on the leprous body of Christianity,” I order an $18 soft chocolate cake. Moist, filled with caramel, it’s topped with chocolate, cream, and a flake of gold leaf. Digging in, I feel an instant kinship with Oscar Wilde, who said he could resist everything except temptation.
While I’m scraping gold leaf off my plate and licking my fork, a handsome young man in a black turtleneck and camouflage pants winds his way through the café and approaches my table. I catch the words permettez and invite but not much else. Realizing I’ve understood nothing he’s said, he switches to English.
Oscar Wilde would approve
“I saw you from the street and came in to say, you are beautiful,” he says. “Only that.” He turns and leaves.
Not deterred by the fact that once he’d seen me up close, he’d beat a hasty retreat, I’m filled with a Parisian-fueled bonhomie. Of course I’m not the only one to appreciate the attention of beautiful young men. Oscar Wilde did, too. In fact, it was his affair with Lord Alfred Douglas, 16 years his junior, that caused his downfall, after Douglas’s father, the Marquis of Queensbury, called Wilde a sodomite. Wilde sued the Marquis for libel and lost, which led to his own ill-fated court case.
In 1900 the Marquis died, leaving Douglas a fortune. Here, in the sumptuous Café de la Paix, a debt-ridden Wilde asked Douglas if could have an income from the inheritance. Douglas refused and accused Oscar Wilde of wheedling like an old whore.
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Oscar Wilde in Paris – his final hours
By now, ejected from the Louvre Marsollier, Wilde was living on the left bank at the seedy l’hôtel d’Alsace on rue des Beaux Arts. I’m not sure he’d recognize it today. Now it’s the intimate 4-star L’Hotel, the red marble pillars, muted leopard print carpet and small domed atrium more luxe than shabby chic. At the desk I ask the clerk if it’s true that the wallpaper in Oscar Wilde’s old room, number 16, is a replica of the original.
“Oh, no,” replied the woman. “It is from his dining room in London. Because then this was a very bad hotel.”
Bad or not, that wallpaper has a place in history and was the source of one of the best known quotes of Oscar Wilde’s in Paris. Not long before his death at the age of 46, some say from syphilis, some say meningitis, Oscar Wilde fought his final battle. “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death,” he said. “One or the other of us has to go.”
Sadly, the wallpaper won.
Travel tips for Oscar Wilde in Paris
The 3-star Hotel Louvre Marsollier Opera is located at 13, rue Marsollier. Tel: +33 (0)1 42 96 68 14 www.hotellouvremarsollier.com
The 4-star L’Hotel is at 13, rue des Beaux Arts Tel: +33 (0)1 44 41 99 00 www.l-hotel.com
Read more: about my picks for top European destinations.