Who she was: The lesbian niece of Oscar Wilde and a noted bon vivant of the early 20th century.
What she accomplished: Dorothy “Dolly” Wilde is said to have had brains and wits to match those of her famous uncle, but instead of writing plays and novels, she made her life a work of art. She was born in London in 1895, just a few months after her uncle stood trial for “gross indecency,” for which he was eventually jailed. Dolly never met her uncle but idolized him just the same, and identified with him far more than with her father, Oscar’s brother Willie, a talented but alcoholic journalist overshadowed by Oscar’s fame. Dolly also resembled Oscar greatly. “She had the same artfully posed, soft, white hands, the same elongated face, and the same air of indolent melancholy which Aristotle insisted was always the natural accompaniment of wit,” wrote biographer Joan Schenkar in the introduction to Truly Wilde: The Unsettling Story of Dolly Wilde, Oscar's Unusual Niece. “She spoke remarkably like her uncle too, or, rather, like a brilliantly female version of Oscar.”
She came of age in an era of new opportunities for women. In 1914, with the outbreak of World War I, she went to Paris to serve as an ambulance driver. “This would be an exhilarating time in Dolly’s life, partly because she was never happier than when she was behind the wheel, partly because Paris in 1914 still represented a world of experimentation, freedoms and new ideas, and partly because she formed intimate relationships with the extraordinary group of women in her ambulance corps,” wrote a blogger at Culture & Stuff. Those extraordinary women included heiress Marion “Joe” Carstairs (see more about her here), with whom Dolly fell in love.
The great love of Dolly’s life, though, was Natalie Clifford Barney, an American writer who hosted a fabled literary salon in Paris. Among Barney’s guests were Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, W. Somerset Maugham, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and T. S. Eliot. “But even in this illustrious company, people still came home from the salons talking about Dolly Wilde,” according to the Culture & Stuff article. They were captivated by both her beauty and her wit: “Her conversation was, from the accounts that survive, funny, lyrical, flowing, intimate, interested, penetrating and frequently acerbic,” writes the blogger. Dolly is said to have propositioned Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda, but Scott intervened, furious. Zelda, although she may not have reciprocated the romantic interest, was apparently comfortable in the presence of Dolly and other lesbians. A scene in Scott’s novel Tender Is the Night featured a character based on Dolly, but he deleted it from the final manuscript.
Dolly and Natalie Barney both had other lovers over the course of their relationship, but Barney brought a “detached cruelty” to this pursuit that Dolly did not, noted the Culture & Stuff blogger, sometimes banishing Dolly from their home so Natalie could be with another woman. Yet Dolly continued to love Natalie madly, and Dolly’s love letters to her provided a key source for Schenkar’s biography, in addition to great evidence of her sharp wit.
Dolly encountered problems other than her romantic ones. Like many of her generation, she had a great fondness for alcohol and drugs, the latter including cocaine and sleeping pills. When she was found dead in her London apartment in 1941, having left Paris in advance of Nazi Germany’s invasion, the coroner noticed several empty pill bottles, yet could not conclusively determine a cause of death. It’s possible she died of cancer, as she had been diagnosed with breast cancer in 1939 but refused conventional treatments.
“Although she could only have been produced by the follies and grandeurs of the 1920s and the 1930s, Dolly Wilde seems sensationally contemporary,” Schenkar wrote. “Her tastes for cutting edge conversation and ‘emergency seductions’ (as she called the sexual adventures which she applied like unguent to her emotional wounds), for fast cars and foreign films, for experimental literature and alcoholic actresses, are still right-up-to-the minute, and it is too easy to forget that she has been dead — and deader still for being unnoticed — these sixty years.” Thankfully, Schenkar’s book, which came out in 2001, has made contemporary audiences sit up and notice Dolly.
Choice quotes: “I am a darting trout; shifting, glancing & flashing my iridescent tail in a hundred pleasant pools!” — Dolly Wilde in a letter to Natalie Barney
“How long I shall keep in the path of virtue I can't say but virtue with an object is so much more salutary than virtue with its own reward!” — again, Wilde in a letter to Barney; both quoted by Joan Schenkar in Truly Wilde