Oscar Wilde

The Goncourt residence, avenue de Montmoréncy
The Hôtel du Quai Voltaire

Oscar Wilde (Dublin, 1854 - Paris, 1900) first visited Paris in the summer of 1874,in the company of his mother, Speranza. They stayed at the Hôtel Voltaire on the Quai Voltaire (7th arrondissement), an establishment whose other famous clients down through the years have included Charles Baudelaire, Richard Wagner and Jean Sibelius. Wilde returned to Paris in late January 1883, staying first for a few weeks at the Hôtel Continental before moving to the Hôtel Voltaire again in early April, where he remained until May. During this stay, he met Edmond de Goncourt on a number of occasions at the latter’s residence at 53 (now 67) Avenue de Montmoréncy (16th arrondissement). In his diary, Goncourt writes that Wilde was “an individual of doubtful sex who talks like a third-rate actor and tells tall stories”. Wilde also met the actress Sarah Bernhardt on several occasions and later told a reporter that “it is not easy to exhaust the message of Paris, especially when Sarah Bernhardt is playing.” Wilde was back in Paris at the beginning of June 1884, this time on a honeymoon trip with Constance Lloyd, staying in three rooms at the Hôtel Wagram at 208, Rue de Rivoli (1st arrondissement), just a couple of doors down from the Hôtel Brighton, where Charles Stewart Parnell had stayed three years earlier.

Wilde did not return to the French capital again until February 1891, when he stayed at the Hôtel de l’Athénée at 15, rue Scribe (9th arrondissement), and again in November and December 1891, when he had an address at 9 (or 29) Boulevard des Capucines (2nd arrondissement). During his late-1891 stay, Wilde met a number of personalities at the Café d’Harcourt on the Place de Sorbonne, where J.M. Synge was to be attacked by rabid policemen six years later and James Joyce was to become ill 30 years later. During this time, Wilde worked on Salomé, a play he wrote first in French. The play was eventually staged for the first time on Feb. 11, 1896 at the Théâtre de l’Oeuvre at 55, rue de Clichy (9th arrondissement), by which time Wilde was in Reading jail.

L’Echo de Paris described Wilde's 1891 stay as “le ‘grand event’ des salons littéraires parisiens”. But his next visit, on his way down to Italy in September 1897, was undertaken under much less auspicious circumstances, a couple of months after his release from Reading jail. During this 1897 visit, Wilde met a writer-acquaintance called Vincent O’Sullivan. Wilde was broke and broken but O’Sullivan took pity for him. After lunch one day, O’Sullivan writes, “we drove to the Banque de Paris et des Pays-Bas in the rue d’Antin where I had an account. He stayed in the cab and I brought him out the sum he wanted.”

The Hôtel d’Alsace

Wilde returned to Paris from Naples in February 1898 and was to remain  in the French capital until December of the same year. He first stayed at the Hôtel de Nice in the rue des Beaux-Arts (6th arrondissement) and then at the Hôtel d’Alsace in the same street, probably because it was cheaper. Wilde’s money problems remained acute: in a letter to his friend Robert Ross he writes: “My dear Robbie, something must be done. Friday and Saturday I had not a penny and had to stay in my room, and as they give only breakfast at the hotel, not dinner, I was dinnerless.“

In December 1898, Wilde travelled down to the French Riviera and then through various parts of France, Italy and Switzerland. In June 1899 he was back in Paris, staying first at the Hôtel de Neva on the rue de Monsigny (2nd arrondissement, hotel no longer exists), then at the Hôtel Marsollier just a 100 metres further on in the rue Marsollier. Failing to pay his bill, Wilde was kicked out of the latter hotel in August 1899 and moved back to the Hôtel d’Alsace. He was to stay there until April 1900 when he left on a trip to Italy. Wilde was back at the Hôtel d’Alsace in July 1900 and stayed there in room 16 under the assumed name of Sebastian Melmoth until his death on November 30 of the same year.

          Wilde's room in the Hôtel                                             d’Alsace

Some controversy surrounds Wilde’s death. Did he call for a priest of his own initiative, or was Wilde’s deathbed conversion to Roman Catholicism the work of one of his entourage? The controversy stems from the fact that Wilde was in virtual coma and hardly able to speak as his end drew nearer. On and off, Wilde had expressed interest in converting to Catholicism, most notably claiming that it was “the only religion to die in”, but Robert Ross was never sure whether Wilde was serious. However, according to Ross’s own account of events, Wilde had made him promise some time before that if ever he became ill and was in danger of death, the first thing he should do was to call a priest who would receive him into the Church. So, on November 28, 1900, Ross took a cab to Saint Joseph’s Church on the Avenue Hoche (8th arrondissement, original church no longer extant), which served the English-speaking community in Paris. There, he found one of the church's Irish Passionists, Father Cuthbert Dunne (Dublin, 1869-Dublin, 1950), who he brought back to the rue des Beaux-Arts. Fr. Dunne gave him conditional baptism and absolved and anointed him. Years later, Fr. Dunne gave the following, suitably nuanced, account of Wilde’s state when he arrived on November 28:

The man was in a semi-comatose condition….(but) he could be roused and was roused from this state in my presence. When roused, he gave signs of being inwardly conscious. He made brave efforts to speak, and would even continue for a time trying to talk, though he could not utter articulate words. Indeed, I was fully satisfied that he understood me when told that I was about to receive him into the Catholic Church and give him the Last Sacraments. From the signs he gave, as well as his attempted words, I was satisfied as to his full consent.

Wilde's first grave in Bagneux

Father Cuthbert Dunne

Wilde died on Nov. 30, 1900. Funeral mass, read by Fr. Dunne, was held at the church of Saint-Germain-des-Près (6th arrondissement) on December 3 in the presence of 56 people. Wilde had a pauper’s burial at Bagneux cemetery and  was parked in a temporary concession until somebody could come up with cash for a permanent resting place. His remains were transferred to Père Lachaise in July 1909 when Jacob Epstein’s infamous, hideous sculpture was placed above the grave.

Fr. Cuthbert Dunne left Paris in 1902 and the Passionist Order to which he belonged, were expelled from France by virtue of anti-clerical legislation introduced in France three years later. Wilde’s bill for his prolonged stay at the Hôtel de l’Alsace came to over £200. But the owner, Jean Dupoirier, proved shy in asking for payment for the room or for the luxuries and necessities he had bought for Wilde out of his own pocket during the latter's final four months.


Select Bibliography
Oscar Wilde (1987)
Richard Ellmann

The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde (2004)
Neil McKenna

“Oscar Wilde: the final scene”, Rev. Edmund Burke in The London Magazine, vol. 1, no. 2, May 1961