Episode 18: She's a Real Wilde One

What would an exploration of the Wilde family be without taking a closer look at Oscar Wilde’s ‘virulently lesbian’ niece Dolly Wilde? Gretchen and Leigh take you on a journey to learn more about this elusive personality. Unlike her uncle, Dolly left little written work behind and is best known from her letters and from what other people have to say about her. They dive into the life and loves---many, many loves---of Dolly Wilde, including the love of her life Natalie Clifford Barney, speedboat racer Joe Carstairs, silent screen actor Alla Nazimova, and others. Come join the ouroboros of gay that is the Sapphic ‘sewing circle’ of 1920s Hollywood and Paris. 

A Closer Look At Dolly Wilde

 One of a series of portraits of Dolly Wilde photographed by Cecil beaton.

One of a series of portraits of Dolly Wilde photographed by Cecil beaton.

 Another of Cecil Beaton’s portraits of Dolly Wilde, and one of the most glamorous portraits of his early career.

Another of Cecil Beaton’s portraits of Dolly Wilde, and one of the most glamorous portraits of his early career.

 Another glamor shot of Dolly, perhaps one of Beaton’s, but the exact date and photographer are unknown.

Another glamor shot of Dolly, perhaps one of Beaton’s, but the exact date and photographer are unknown.

 a more casual dolly wilde, date and photographer unknown.

a more casual dolly wilde, date and photographer unknown.

 Dolly doing one of her favorite things, being behind the wheel. Date and photographer unknown.

Dolly doing one of her favorite things, being behind the wheel. Date and photographer unknown.

 Still from 1937 film by Rognon de la Flèche (Lady Cara Harris) 'Treason's Bargain,” in which dolly appeared.

Still from 1937 film by Rognon de la Flèche (Lady Cara Harris) 'Treason's Bargain,” in which dolly appeared.

Dolly Wilde on Meeting Virginia Woolf

“Cambridge on a frosty night. The Dean’s room in King’s College, firelight, books, sober colours, elegance and a group of charming people holding conversation. We are waiting for dinner when someone says “Leonard and Virginia are very late.” The smooth waters of my mind are ruffled by fear by this unexpected remark, and my heart beats perceptibly quicker. The chief Lama of Thibet will be here any moment —easy manners must give place to decorum, familiar friendship be brought stiffly to attention. Then the door opens and a tall gaunt figure, grey-haired, floats into the room. Her age struck me first, and then her prettiness —shock and delight hand in hand. How to explain? There is something of the witch in her —as in Edith Sitwell— with the rather curved back and sharp features. She is dressed in black, old fashioned elderly clothes that make me feel second-rate in my smart clothes —her feet are very long and thin encased in black broché shoes with straps of the Edwardian period. All is faded and grey about her, like her iron grey hair parted in the middle and dragged into a bun at the back. And yet immediately one sees her prettiness and a lovely washed away ethereal look making all of us look so gross and sensual. The eyes are deep-sunk and small the nose fine and pointed, a little too pointed by curiosity, but the feature that most strikes one is the mouth —a full round mouth, a pretty girl’s mouth in that spinster face. It is so young, young like her skin that is smooth and soft. She greets Honey and me without looking at us and at dinner never once makes us the target of her eyes —there is embarrassment around the table and she only talks to her intimates. She is witty and kindly malicious. Then suddenly I say something that makes her laugh and the curtain of her eyelids are raised and we talk together, flippantly delightfully. I had once been told one must never mention her books and as we threaded byeways of humour I thought of your letters about her so much. I saw her, too, all the time as such a little pretty girl in a big hat, and Kew Gardens with the governess planting a kiss on the back of her neck —do you remember?— which was the parent of all the kisses in her life…

She has nothing to do with maternal life —is supposed to be a virgin, to have experienced no physical contact even with Orlando. She says she has no need of experience —knows everything without it: and this impression she gives as one meets her. I felt cruelty in her, born of humour —tiredness, great tiredness and her eyes veiled with visions rather than brightened by them.”

A letter from Dolly Wilde to Natalie Clifford Barney, dated 1931

A Closer Look at Dolly’s Lady Loves

 A young joe Carstairs holds a bow and arrow (and our hearts). Image Courtesy of the LIFE photo collection.

A young joe Carstairs holds a bow and arrow (and our hearts). Image Courtesy of the LIFE photo collection.

 Joe Carstairs, butch icon, with her doll, Lord Tod Wadley.

Joe Carstairs, butch icon, with her doll, Lord Tod Wadley.

 Janet flanner ca 1920.

Janet flanner ca 1920.

 Silent screen actor Alla Nazimova.

Silent screen actor Alla Nazimova.

 Alla Nazimova photographed by Arthur Rice as ‘Marguerite Gautier’ in  Camille.

Alla Nazimova photographed by Arthur Rice as ‘Marguerite Gautier’ in Camille.

Watch the full version of Alla Nazimova’s film adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s play “Salomé.”

 Zelda Fitzgerald, 1917.

Zelda Fitzgerald, 1917.

 Gwen Farrar ca 1925

Gwen Farrar ca 1925

 The 1920s Hollywood sewing circle chart, courtesy of  Autostraddle .

The 1920s Hollywood sewing circle chart, courtesy of Autostraddle.

Select Images of Natalie Clifford Barney

 This portrait of Natalie Clifford Barney as “The Happy PRince” by Carolus-Duran hung on the wall of her salon at 20 Rue Jacob.

This portrait of Natalie Clifford Barney as “The Happy PRince” by Carolus-Duran hung on the wall of her salon at 20 Rue Jacob.

 a young Natalie Clifford Barney.

a young Natalie Clifford Barney.

 Natalie Clifford Barney, between ca. 1890 and ca. 1910.

Natalie Clifford Barney, between ca. 1890 and ca. 1910.

 Natalie Clifford Barney (Left) and lover Romaine Brooks (Right), ca 1915.

Natalie Clifford Barney (Left) and lover Romaine Brooks (Right), ca 1915.

If you want to learn more about Dolly Wilde, check out our full list of sources and further reading below!

Online Articles:

Books and Print Articles:

  • Truly Wilde by Joan Schenkar

  • Wilde’s Women by Eleanor Fitzsimons

  • In Memory of Dorothy Ierne Wilde: Oscaria by Natalie Clifford Barney

  • The Sewing Circle by Axel Madsen

  • The Girls: Sappho Goes to Hollywood by Diana McLellan

Videos:

Until next time, stay queer and stay curious!