The Private Life of Oscar Wilde

Before gifting a long-lost batch of Oscar Wilde’s intimate letters and manuscripts to the Morgan Library, the late Lucia Moreira Salles, a Brazilian philanthropist, had them painstakingly re-created for her dearest friends.

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The Private Life of Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde (at left) and Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas in Oxford, 1893.

The Private Life of Oscar Wilde

Before gifting a long-lost batch of Oscar Wilde’s intimate letters and manuscripts to the Morgan Library, the late Lucia Moreira Salles, a Brazilian philanthropist, had them painstakingly re-created for her dearest friends.

Last fall New York’s Morgan Library & Museum received an astonishing present: a handsome album bound in red Morocco leather with a coat of arms stamped in gilt. Inside was the real treasure: a long-lost collection of Oscar Wilde’s manuscripts and letters, including the earliest surviving note written to his great love, Lord Alfred Douglas, known as Bosie. This spring, as visitors to the museum admire the volume in its vitrine, where it is part of a show of important recent acquisitions, a select group of fortunate institutions and individuals, including David Rockefeller, Jayne Wrightsman, Valentino and several Wilde scholars, will be receiving copies of a magnificently produced facsimile edition. “Almost no one does this sort of thing today,” says Christine Nelson, the Morgan’s curator of literary and historical manuscripts, of the painstaking reproduction. “It’s something that Pierpont Morgan would have done.”

Both the original and the facsimile edition were the final gifts of a remarkable woman, Lúcia Moreira Salles, a Brazilian philanthropist who died in January after a long battle with cancer. Still beautiful at 70, she passed away at a São Paulo hospital, where she was registered under an assumed name to avoid press. Born to a middle-class family in Porto Alegre, a city in southern Brazil, she learned French and moved to Paris in the early Sixties to work as a model. Her natural elegance and handsome dark looks caught the attention of Coco Chanel, who made her the house model. In the early Seventies she became both a muse and an international public relations liaison for Valentino, with whom she remained close until her death. “She was a perfect woman,” says the designer. “Everything she did was extremely refined and elegant. At the same time, she was very adorable, very warm. She was like my sister.”

Lúcia left behind her career in fashion in 1986, when she married banker and diplomat Walther Moreira Salles. Twice ambassador to the U.S., he was one of the wealthiest men in Brazil and a passionate collector in several fields, including that of rare books. With Lúcia, who shared his interests, he acquired the Wilde volume in the late Eighties from a source that remains unknown. (Lúcia couldn’t remember and passed away before the invoice could be found.) In the years following her husband’s death in 2001, Lúcia began to think about donating the book to an appropriate institution; she settled on the Morgan Library because of the strength of its other Wilde holdings and its commitment to scholarship. In 2005, during a conversation with her close friend Juan Pablo Queiroz, a young Argentine publisher, she decided to produce a facsimile edition before parting with the treasure. On her behalf, Queiroz contacted Merlin Holland, a leading Wilde scholar and the author’s only grandson, for guidance.

When Holland first heard about the book, he had doubts about its authenticity. “It seemed too good to be true,” he recalls on the phone from his home in the Burgundy region of France. “There have been so many forgeries. I thought, What are the chances of an unknown Wilde manuscript coming up?” But one detail gave Holland cause to reconsider: that gold coat of arms on the red binding. Nearly a decade earlier, while researching at Duke University, he had come across a similarly bound edition of Wilde’s papers. The coat of arms­—a shield flanked by two winged horses over the motto “Forward”—was that of the Marquess of Queensberry, the father of Bosie and the man who effectively destroyed Wilde.

Enraged by his son’s relationship, the Marquess visited Wilde’s London club in 1895, leaving a message with the porter accusing Wilde of being a sodomite. Goaded on by Bosie, who loathed his father, Wilde brought a libel action against the Marquess. With two of his plays running on the West End, Wilde was at the peak of his success and probably felt indestructible, but the suit backfired on him. It was withdrawn, and the Crown then brought charges of gross indecency against the writer. He was convicted, and after serving two years’ hard labor, he exiled himself to Paris, where he died of cerebral meningitis in 1900.

The scandal, which convulsed Victorian society, naturally shook the Wilde family. Constance, Wilde’s wife, who remained largely loyal to him, settled with their sons, Cyril and Vyvyan, in Genoa, Italy, and changed their surname to Holland. Merlin, Vyvyan’s only child, coedited The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde (2000) and authored several books on his grandfather’s work. Now, at 63, he’s writing a more personal book that he plans to title After Oscar: A Legacy of Scandal. “It’s a look,” he says, “at how the echoes of that disastrous court case in 1895 continued to influence the lives of his friends, his enemies and, most of all, his family.”

While Bosie outlived his lover by nearly a half century, his was hardly a happy life. The third son of the Marquess, he inherited some money but went bankrupt in 1913. In his later years he was supported by his nephew, Francis, who became the 11th Marquess of Queensberry. As Holland recalls, “Bosie made overtures to my father, but he did not respond.”

Following Bosie’s death in 1945, however, the enmity between the Hollands and the Queensberrys finally thawed. “My father got to know Francis, probably out of curiosity, and the two gentlemen became close,” Holland says. Francis also developed an interest in the families’ mingled history and acquired a collection of Wilde’s signed books and papers, many of which had been sold at a sheriff’s sale after Wilde went to jail.

To confirm that the Moreira Salles’ volume was indeed part of Francis’s cache, Holland called a trusted London book dealer, Edward Maggs, to ask if he knew how Francis’s library had been dispersed. Maggs revealed that he’d bought the volume himself, for stock, at Sotheby’s in 1952, but he couldn’t remember when or to whom he’d sold it. The book’s whereabouts for the next three decades remain a mystery.

Beginning in the fall of 2006, Holland made several trips to New York, where Moreira Salles owned a palatial apartment in the famed River House. He was somewhat bewildered upon first seeing the book, as the letters and manuscripts had been bound in no particular order, but when he rearranged the pages chronologically he was stunned by the insight they provided. “Here were writings from the very earliest stages of [Wilde’s] life to just six months before his downfall, which revealed many aspects of his creativity,” he says.

Nelson saw the volume for the first time this past September at River House. “I was in tears,” she recalls of her reaction to its contents. “It was a complete surprise and a thrilling one.”

While the letter to Bosie is relatively short, it is an important find, as Lord Douglas destroyed much of their correspondence. Written on the stationery of the Albemarle Club, it expresses Wilde’s yearning to be together: “I should awfully like to go away with you somewhere—where it is hot and coloured…” In addition to nine manuscripts of poetry and prose, the album contains letters to three other individuals, including one to a young admirer, Bernulf Clegg, in which Wilde sums up his conviction that works of art should exist for their own sake: “A work of art is useless as a flower is useless. A flower blossoms for its own joy. We gain a moment of joy by looking at it.”

In the facsimile edition, these documents are reproduced on papers that match the originals to an astonishing degree, down to the embossing on Wilde’s personal stationery. Boxed and bound in Tyrian purple (Wilde’s choice for the first edition of his play Salomé), the book also contains an introduction and commentaries written by Holland. He incorporated rare archival photos and documents, including a portrait of the writer with his lover, taken in Oxford in 1893. Designed by Marcus Ratliff, an art director who lives in Vermont, the book was issued in an edition of 525 by famed Veronese printer Stamperia Valdonega, with a binding crafted by Legatoria Rigoldi in Milan. A Portrait of Oscar Wilde, as the book is titled, is an example of a nearly lost tradition. “This is the sort of thing very posh people in England used to do in the Twenties,” says Holland. “Wealthy collectors would produce these facsimile editions to share with their friends.”

While there is no doubt that this was a costly undertaking (“Lúcia wanted something, with no expense spared,” Holland attests), it is anything but flashy. “In today’s world, people tend to want to make more noise with their money,” he adds. “But this is a very quiet, elegant way of showing affection for one’s friends. It will give them a great deal of pleasure for a long time.”

In her final years, Moreira Salles became increasingly reclusive, avoiding the press and rarely attending social events. But attention will no doubt come to her posthumously this fall, when portions of her estate are auctioned off at Sotheby’s in New York. The lots are expected to include her extraordinary collection of jewels, among them a 28-carat cabochon emerald that formerly belonged to King Farouk of Egypt and was mounted for her by JAR. Some of the proceeds may go to the Synergos Institute, which helps the poor in Rio de Janeiro’s most dangerous slums, among other places. A longtime supporter of the charity, Moreira Salles had no biological children but four stepsons with her late husband, including The Motorcycle Diaries director Walter Salles.

As her health worsened last year, Moreira Salles spent several months at New York Presbyterian Hospital. The Wilde project, says Holland, seemed to lend her strength. Five hundred twenty-five loose pages, one destined for each book, were shipped to New York, where Moreira Salles and Holland signed them and then decided upon their recipients. Moreira Salles’s list also includes Deeda Blair, Marisa Berenson, Lee Radziwill, Susan Gutfreund and Gwyneth Paltrow (whom she met through Valentino). She asked Holland to send copies to any institution or scholar he thought should have one.

In December, as Moreira Salles lay in the hospital in São Paulo, Queiroz wanted to make sure she had a chance to see the fruits of her work. Stamperia Valdonega agreed to have two copies of A Portrait of Oscar Wilde bound by hand and couriered to Brazil. Just days before his dear friend’s death, Queiroz presented her with copy No. 1 in her hospital room. “We went through it page by page,” he says. “It was a very emotional moment. It was really her creation.”