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This column first appeared in BTL Aug. 2017
Somewhere pressed in my book of tattered memories is a green carnation, still remarkably fresh with the passage of so much time.
It’s there with a wrist corsage I hadn’t the courage to wear to my senior high prom and some daisy chains I linked together in celebration at my graduation party.
The green carnation dates to 1991, when the Detroit Area Gay/Lesbian Council, an activist confabulation of over a dozen, then LG andB organizations, held a fundraiser at Wayne State University’s Hilberry Theater.
(DAG/LC vanished into the sunset, as did fledgling gay organizations: Association of Suburban People, Michigan Organization for Human Rights, and Motor City Business Forum. DAG/LC’s legacy is Motor City Pride.)
The Hilberry Theater gala was Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest.” WSU actor Ray Schultz, now tenured theater professor at University of Minnesota, was Earnest.
About 50 of us secret thespians 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. (In the 1920s, the gay signaling device was a red tie. Color-coded hanky-panky handkerchiefs arrived late 1960s.)
Oscar borrowed the carnation idea from Parisian gais, and at the 1891 first night opening of his play,”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 with a 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 — cluttered closet snoop that I am — I couldn’t resist Neil McKenna’s “The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde: An Intimate Biography” (Basic Books). Based on new Victorian documents, diaries, letters, it’s a 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 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 patchouli-scented 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 grammatically correctwhom. “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.)