Oscar Wilde: A Life
By Matthew Sturgis
c. 2021, Alfred A. Knopf
The life of playwright and queer icon Oscar Wilde was wittier and more tragic than most any dramatist could imagine.
To capture Wilde’s life and spirit in a bio is a daunting task. Wilde, himself, may not have been up to it. Yet, in “Oscar Wilde: A Life,” Matthew Sturgis, an historian, makes Wilde’s story come alive.
Maybe you don’t know that Wilde, born in Dublin, lived from 1854 to 1900; that, early on, he wanted to obtain “success, fame or even notoriety;” or that, while lecturing in America, he was kissed by Walt Whitman.
Even so, you’ve likely heard of Wilde. In LGBTQ+ history, Wilde, who spent two years in prison for “acts of gross indecency with other male persons” is a hero for not denying his sexuality.
If you’ve been to the theater, to a dinner party or to a Starbucks, you’ve likely encountered Wilde’s wit. “Only dull people are brilliant at breakfast,” Wilde’s line from “An Ideal Husband,” is emblazoned on one of my fave T-shirts.
“Oscar Wilde is part of our world,” Sturgis writes.
One day, Sturgis went to the library at Columbia University to look at one of Wilde’s letters. On his way to Columbia, he encountered quotes from Wilde everywhere he looked.
“I passed a chalkboard outside an Irish bar scrawled with the legend ‘Work is the curse of the Drinking Classes,’” Sturgis writes. “Opposite me on the uptown subway sat a girl whose mobile phone case carried the slogan ‘To live is the rarest thing in the world.’”
It’s hard to think of an author, other than Shakespeare, Mark Twain or Charles Dickens, who is more omnipresent in the culture. “The Importance of Being Earnest,” “An Ideal Husband” and Wilde’s other plays are still performed and he’s been a character on stage and screen, Sturgis writes.
Before Allen Ginsberg or Andy Warhol, there was Wilde. Before Gatsby, Wilde invented himself.
In the 1880s, Wilde, because he’d become famous for being famous, went on a lecture tour of America. Louisa May Alcott and Ulysses S. Grant hung out with him. He drank whiskey with miners. Crowds came to hear him talk about art and to bask in his celebrity and eccentricity. Wilde was friends with the actresses Ellen Terry and Lily Langtree, and it was rumored that he’d walked about London with a lily in his hand.Yet, despite his hobnobbing with celebs, Wilde isn’t a lightweight cultural figure.
“Wilde’s defiant individualism, his refusal to accept the limiting constraints of society, his sexual heresies, his political radicalism, his commitment to style,” Sturgis writes, “all conspire to make him ever more approachable, more exciting, and more relevant.”
“Oscar Wilde: A Life” is the first major bio of Wilde since Richard Ellmann’s 1987 biography.
Ellmann, a literary critic, focused a great deal on Wilde’s work. Ellmann’s book illuminates his literary output. Wilde’s work ranged from the novel “The Picture of Dorian Gray” to fairy tales which, Wilde said, he wrote “partly for children, and partly for those who have kept the childlike faculties of wonder and joy.”
Sturgis, who had access to newly discovered transcripts and testimony from Wilde’s trials along with letters and early notebooks of Wilde’s, sheds light on Wilde’s life.
It’s well-known that Wilde was sent to prison for two years, and that he died a few years later in Paris in poverty.
But Sturgis makes it vividly clear what a cad Wilde’s lover Lord Alfred (Bosie) Douglas was. Sturgis makes you feel how awful it was for Wilde to be in prison where he was isolated, his hair was cropped and the food was gross. It’s heartbreaking to read how his wife Constance prohibited Wilde from seeing their two sons and changed the family name to Holland.
It’s easy to forget that until his trials and imprisonment, Wilde led a rich, colorful, productive life. With Sturgis as guide, we’re with Wilde as he hangs out at Oxford, meets Andre Gide in Paris, chats with Sarah Bernhardt and lusts after rent boys.
For a Wilde ride, check out “Oscar Wilde: A Life.”
‘Capote’s Women’ is catnip to older pop culture fans
Revisiting iconic author’s seven ‘swans’
By Laurence Leamer
C.2021, Putnam $28/356 pages
Her lips are locked tight.
Your best friend knows all your secrets, and she’s keeping them; you told her things you had to tell somebody, and she’s telling nobody. You always knew you could trust her; if you couldn’t, she wouldn’t be your BFF. But as in the new book “Capote’s Women” by Laurence Leamer, what kind of a friend are you?
For months, Truman Capote had been promising a blockbuster.
Following his success with “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “In Cold Blood,” he was “one of the most famous authors in the world” but he needed a career-booster. The novel he was writing, he teased, would be about “his swans,” seven wealthy, fashionable women who quite personified “beauty, taste, and manners.”
His first swan was Barbara “Babe” Paley, whom he’d met on a trip with the David Selznicks to Jamaica. For Capote, “Babe was the epitome of class,” simply “perfect” in every way; it helped that the famously gay writer was no threat to Paley’s “madly jealous” husband.
Babe’s “dearest friend” was Nancy “Slim” Keith, who quickly learned that if a lady wanted her confidences kept, she didn’t tell Capote anything. She shouldn’t have trusted Babe, either: When Slim left for a European trip, Babe asked if Slim’s husband could accompany Babe’s friend, Pamela Hayward, to a play.
Slim was aware of Pamela’s predatory reputation, but what could she say?
Of course, Pamela, another of Truman’s swans, stole Slim’s man, a scandal that Capote loved.
Gloria Guinness was highly intelligent, possibly enough to be a spy in Nazi Germany. Lucy “C.Z.” Guest was an upper-crust “elitist” with a “magical aura.” Marella Agnelli “was born an Italian princess”; Lee Radziwill, of course, was Jacqueline Kennedy’s sister.
Through the late 1960s, Capote claimed to be writing his masterpiece, his tour de force based on his swans, but several deadlines passed for it. He was sure Answered Prayers “would turn him once again into the most talked-about author in America.”
Instead, when an excerpt from it was published, his swans got very ruffled feathers.
Every time you stand in line for groceries, the tabloids scream at you with so much drama that you either love it or hate it. Or, in the case of “Capote’s Women,” you cultivate it.
And that’s infinitely fun, as told by author Laurence Leamer.
Happily, though, Leamer doesn’t embellish or disrespect these women or Capote; he tells their tales in order, gently allowing readers’ heads to spin with the wild, globe-hopping goings-on but not to the point that it’s overdone. While most of this book is about these seven beautiful, wealthy, and serially married women – the Kardashians of their time, if you will – Capote is Leamer’s glue, and Truman gets his due, as well.
Readers who devour this book will be sure that the writer would’ve been very happy about that.
“Capote’s Women” should be like catnip to celeb-watchers of a Certain Age but even if you’re not, find it. If you’re a Hollywood fan, you’ll want to get a lock on it.
James Ivory on movies, beauty — and a love of penises
If you enjoy film and wit you’ll love ‘Solid Ivory’
‘Solid Ivory: Memoirs’
By James Ivory
C.2021, Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Few things have been more pleasurable to me during the pandemic than Merchant/Ivory films. COVID becomes a dim memory as I ogle the costumes, beautiful vistas from Italy to India, music and spot-on dialogue of “A Room with a View,” “Maurice,” “Remains of the Day” and other Merchant/Ivory movies.
For decades, fans from gay men to grandmas have enjoyed these films, directed by James Ivory and produced by Ismail Merchant in partnership with the writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.
In “Solid Ivory,” Ivory, 93, gives us his memories of movie making, growing up gay, his decades-long romantic and professional partnership with Merchant and (you’re reading this correctly) the penises he has known.
If you believe that elders don’t enjoy sex, Ivory’s memoir will blow your ageism to smithereens.
From watching the movies he’s directed and knowing his age, you might think (as I did) that Ivory would be shy about talking of his sexuality. Wow, was I wrong!
Ivory appreciates penises as a sommelier savors fine wine.
Ivory knew that he liked boys early on. Ivory recalls playing at age seven with a boy named Eddy. He and Eddy were “putting our penises into each other’s mouths,” Ivory writes, “…I made it clear that Eddy’s dick must not touch my lips or tongue, nor the inside of my mouth. I had learned all about germs at school by then.”
Though Ivory and Merchant were devoted partners, they each had other lovers. Bruce Chatwin, the travel writer who died from AIDS, was Ivory’s friend, and sometimes, lover.
Chatwin’s penis was “Uncut, rosy, schoolboy-looking,” Ivory writes.
Ivory’s memoir isn’t prurient. His sexuality doesn’t overpower the narrative. It runs through “Solid Ivory” like a flavorful spice.
The book is more an impressionistic mosaic than a chronological memoir. Ivory, often, tells the stories of his life through letters he’s written and received (from lovers, friends and professional contacts) as well as from diary entries.
Many of the chapters in the memoir were previously published in other publications such as The New Yorker.
“Solid Ivory” was originally published in a limited edition by Shrinking Violet Press. The Press is a small press run by Peter Cameron, a novelist, and editor of “Solid Ivory.” Ivory grew up in Klamath Falls, Ore. He was originally named Richard Jerome Hazen. His parents changed his name when they adopted him. Some of the most engaging moments of the memoir are when Ivory writes about what life was like for a child during the Depression.
Ivory’s father lost his savings when the stock market crashed, and his mother frequently gave food to “tramps” who came to the door.
His “eating tastes were definitely formed during the Depression,” Ivory writes.
Since that time, Ivory has lived everywhere from England to Italy. “But although I consider myself an advanced expert in the more sophisticated forms of cuisine,” Ivory writes, “My gastronomical roots remain dug deep in the impoverished soil of the American Depression.” Ivory became smitten with movies when he saw his first picture when he was five.
He and Merchant, a Muslim from India who died in 2005, fell in love when they met on the steps of the Indian consulate in New York in 1961. I wish Ivory had written more about the 30+ movies that he made (mostly with Merchant and Jhabvala, who died in 2013).
Yet, he provides tantalizing recollections of filmmaking, actors and celebs.
The chapters on “Difficult Women like Raquel Welch and Vanessa Redgrave” are fun to read.
Welch, a bombshell brat, doesn’t want to play a love scene in “The Wild Party.” During the filming of “The Bostonians,” Boston is captivated by the drama of Redgrave’s off-screen politics.
Ivory isn’t that impressed when in 2018, at age 89, he becomes the oldest Academy Award winner when he receives the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for “Call Me By Your Name.” “Its fame eclipses even Michelangelo’s David and the Statue of Liberty,” Ivory says, with irony, of the Oscar statue.
If you enjoy the movies, beauty and wit, you’ll love “Solid Ivory.”
Bisexual journey ‘Greedy’ is a book to share
A tale of universal experiences – rejection, love, vulnerability
‘Greedy: Notes from a Bisexual Who Wants Too Much’
By Jen Winston
c.2021, Atria $18/336 pages
Share, and share alike.
That may, in retrospect, be the most ridiculous thing you’ve ever heard. You’re not asking for the stars and the moon; you just want what you want and why pass it around? As in the new book “Greedy” by Jen Winston, who’d ever think that getting what you deserved to have was wrong?
Back in the “aughts,” when Jen Winston was rocking her AIM handle and pretending to be boy-crazy, she had no word for liking boys and girls – though she knew she did. Had she questioned anyone, she would have been told that it was a phase, an experiment, or a matter of confusion but she never asked. She instinctively knew that doing the “gay stuff” was hard.
As she grew up and learned the word for what she felt, the idea of being with a woman became more appealing but not quite comfortable. Yes, Winston quietly told herself she was bisexual, but bisexuality “never felt queer enough.” Besides, dating straight men was like the equivalent of “comfort food,” though it never worked and was really not much fun.
Various roommates through the years indulged in her search for love, though, by crowdsourcing answers to questions posed by online dates. They also looked the other way as Winston learned that self-pleasure could be ugly, and she didn’t want to be “U-G-L-Y.” She tried threesomes but they were loaded with potential rejection; she tried chatrooms but they were scary. She learned that “we” is a painful word when you’re not part of it.
Bisexuality comes with a lot of frustrating myths and bisexual people, says Winston, are sometimes not included in the LGBTQ community. Bi people aren’t especially promiscuous – they’re not trying to steal your partner from you – and they’re not all just white or female. They are well aware that dating sucks, fairy tales are hard to believe in, and that there are lots of different ways to be gay.
You want it all: You want hearts and romance but you also want down and dirty. You want to be heard, but you don’t want to talk about it. You want to be enough but not so much that it’s weird. And you want it with laughs, though that’s not the main thing about this book.
While its cover indicates lightheartedness and author Jen Winston seems perfectly happy to tell funny, tongue-in-cheek tales about herself, “Greedy” sports a serious vein that almost feels like a shout. Winston writes of universal experiences – rejection, falling in love, vulnerability, and wanting so much to be adored – and she makes light of them in a way that clearly isn’t meant to be all that humorous. We can chuckle, yes, but she also lets us pretend that we don’t care about those hurts – even though, like Winston, we all know that we do.
Be aware that there are chapters here that are very graphic and are not appropriate for just anyone. If Winston’s journey is your journey, too, though, “Greedy” is something to share.
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