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Parting Glances: Green carnations for a Hilberry

By |2009-08-27T09:00:00-04:00August 27th, 2009|Opinions|

Somewhere pressed in my book of tattered memories is a green carnation, remarkably fresh with the passage of time.
It’s there with a wrist corsage I hadn’t the courage to wear to my senior prom and some daisy chains I linked together at my 50th coming out party. The green carnation dates to 1991, when the Detroit Area Gay/Lesbian Council, an activist confabulation, held a fundraiser at Wayne State University’s Hilberry Theater.
(DAG/LC vanished into the sunset, as did Association of Suburban People, Michigan Organization for Human Rights, Motor City Business Forum and, I’ll add nostalgically, the old Downtown YMCA. DAG/LC’s legacy is Motor City Pride.)
The Hilberry Theater gala was Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest.” (Ray Schultz, who starred in the Detroit Repertory Theater ’08 production of “Doubt,” was Earnest.) Seventy-five of us wore green carnations as badges of honor that memorable evening. The boutonniere was Oscar’s brainstorm, or so he led the “earnests” of his day to believe.
(Oscar borrowed the idea from Parisian gais, and at the 1891 first night opening of “Lady Windermere’s Fan” got London queens to give new meaning to the wearin’ o’ th’ green. The effect was electric, as was Wilde’s curtain call, gold-tipped cigarette in hand. A quite shocking breach of manners.)
Some time ago I swore I’d never read another Wilde bio (ditto Radclyffe Hall), having read my fill of the Irish genius, playwright, poet, esthete, raconteur, iconoclast, fashion maven and 19th century martyr for gay rights.
However – armpit snoop that I am – I couldn’t resist Neil McKenna’s “The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde: An Intimate Biography” (Basic Books; 2005). Based on new Victorian documents, diaries and letters, it’s strip-tease tragedy glimpsed from a gloryhole perspective.
Two tamer items: 1) The maiden name of “Bosie” Lord Alfred Douglas’s mother is Montgomery – and it’s just deliciously possible that Triangle’s former ED, Jeff – now busy annotating his memoirs – is distantly related to Wilde’s lover; and 2) Francis, Lord Drumlanrig, Bosie’s older brother, killed himself because he feared exposure of his same-sex love affair with Prime Minister Lord Rosebery. Rule Fruitannia!
According to McKenna, Oscar and Bosie burned their candles at both ends – more than once singeing hotel bed linen. Together they indulged in a rarely interrupted orgy of boner escapades with clerks, waiters, bellhops, messengers, adoring gay groupies, stage door Johnnies, rent boys. Wilde called the latter act of noblesse oblige “feasting with panthers.”
Oscar & Bosie were not exactly discrete in public as to whom they rubbed their velveteen kickers with; and among close friends they boasted of joint weekly conquests, providing salacious details of activity, size, position, male brothel decor, hospitality, tea service (or, lack thereof).
One of Bosie’s down-the-Nile travel companions, Robert Hichens, a journalist, took copious shorthand notes while sailing and counting pyramids, turning queersay into a roman a clef, entitled – call FTD – “The Green Carnation,” published anonymously in 1894, one year before Wilde’s three notorious trials.
Thanks to blabbermouth Bosie’s trash talk, Hichen’s novel sold like holiday hot-cross buns. Though not mentioning O&B by name, it was clear to titillated readers just who did what, with which to whom. “The Green Carnation” ran through four sizzling editions. It “ruined Oscar’s character with the general public” and painted a lurid – and fascinating – picture of London’s lavender set.
Wilde wrote to the Pall Mall Gazette: “I invented that magnificent flower. But … with the middle-class and mediocre book that usurps its strangely beautiful name, I have nothing whatsoever to do. The flower is a work of art. The book is not.” (Mary, Mary, quite contrary.)

About the Author:

Charles Alexander