So here we are, wondering why Kim Kardashian’s butt didn’t break the Internet. Or how long Mike (the Situation) Sorrentino’s sentence will be, if he is convicted of hiding $9 million from the IRS. Or which Real Housewife will be arrested next—or marry and divorce Kelsey Grammer. The list goes on and on. Never have so many people been famous merely for being famous.
It’s widely believed this is a new phenomenon, the product of the World Wide Web, 24-hour-cable news, the rise of so-called reality TV, and the unceasing focus of glossy magazines such as People, Us, and In Touch.
But, in truth, the idea that being famous for being famous is a valid career path was pioneered more than a hundred years ago by none other than Oscar Wilde. He arrived in America in January 1882 as an unknown—he hadn’t yet written any of the plays that we remember him for today—and left a year later as the second-most famous Briton in the United States, behind only Queen Victoria. Not bad for a guy most Americans had never heard of when he stepped off the ship that brought him here.
“I am torn to bits by Society. Immense receptions, wonderful dinners, crowds wait for my carriage,” Wilde wrote from New York, on Jan. 15, 1882, to a friend in London. “I wave a gloved hand and an ivory cane and they cheer…. Rooms are hung with white lilies for me everywhere. I have ‘Boy’ (champagne) at frequent intervals, also two secretaries, one to write my autograph and answer the hundreds of letters that come begging for it. Another, whose hair is brown, to send locks of his own hair to the young ladies who write asking for mine. He is rapidly becoming bald.”
The part about the balding secretary was made up, and some of the rest was exaggerated. But Wilde was telling a larger truth: he had taken Manhattan by storm. New York’s newspapers—and in 1882 the city had nearly a dozen—chronicled every bon mot he uttered at public galas held in his honor. Invitations to private dinners, including one sent by a former presidential candidate and another by a former ambassador to France, were presented to Wilde on a silver tray by his valet in his hotel suite in the theater district. His lecture on interior decorating on Jan. 9 at Chickering Hall, the 1,250-seat auditorium on Fifth Avenue where Alexander Graham Bell introduced the telephone to New Yorkers in 1877, was a sellout at $1 a ticket—roughly thirty bucks in today’s dollars.
More than a century before the Kardashian clan, Oscar Wilde was the first modern celebrity, which is to say, someone famous for being famous. As of January 1882, he had written only a self-published book of poems that sold a few hundred copies and a play—not a comedy, but a turgid drama about revolutionaries in Czarist Russia—that closed in London while still in rehearsals. That’s not much of a resume. But what Wilde did have was a plan. In America, he would work hard to become a famous person. Then, after returning home to England, he would work hard to become a famous writer. Fame would launch his literary career, not cap it. No one had ever done that before—or even tried to.
Wilde had been sent to New York by Richard D’Oyly Carte, the business manager of Gilbert & Sullivan, the creators of H.M.S. Pinafore and The Pirates of Penzance. Gilbert & Sullivan’s newest operetta, Patience, had just opened in Manhattan. It was a satire of the British aesthetic movement, which championed handworked decorative art over factory made goods, and whose members marched under the slogan, “Art for Art’s Sake.” Wilde, a recent graduate of Oxford, where he had boasted to his friends, “Somehow or other I’ll be famous, and if not famous, I’ll be notorious,” claimed to be the leader of that movement. He made that assertion even though his only credential was that of ingratiating himself with the rich and titled ladies who ran London’s party circuit, then escorting those flattered women to the city’s most important art exhibitions, where, in extravagantly bespoke clothing designed to call attention to its wearer, he expounded on the meaning of beauty. Wilde had famously attended one art opening wearing a brown velvet jacket specially tailored, tinted, and embroidered to resemble a cello—a fashion choice that made him the center of attention, even though the opening was attended by the Prince of Wales.
Wilde was so successful as the docent to the doyennes of London society that he was immortalized in that role, as he was playing it, in a painting, A Private Viewing at the Royal Academy, by William Powell Frith, who began work on it in 1881. Roughly 50 Londoners are depicted in Frith’s painting, but one, in the first row, stands out: Wilde, in a frock coat and top hat, holding a book in his hand, gesturing toward the art on display, about which he is speaking to a fashionably dressed group that includes Lillie Langtry (the mistress of the Prince of Wales) and the actors Henry Irving and Ellen Terry, two of the biggest stars of the London theater. It’s interesting to note that, several rows behind Wilde, Frith painted the poet Robert Browning, the biologist Thomas Huxley, and the novelist Anthony Trollope—three men of unquestioned real-world achievement in 1881 that he deemed less worthy of attention than Wilde.
One of the main characters in Patience was a poet named Bunthorne, a breeches-wearing fop given to self-adoring soliloquies about aesthetics. Though Pinafore and Penzance had done well in America, Carte worried Americans wouldn’t get Gilbert’s jokes in Patience because the British aesthete was not a native species here. So he asked Wilde, the self-proclaimed leader of that movement, to come to the States to present lectures on his decorative philosophy, while wearing the short pants, silk stockings, patent-leather pumps, and snug velvet coat worn in Patience by Bunthorne.
This was asking a lot, even of a self-promoter as eager as Wilde. Carte’s idea was a Russian doll of antivanity: it required Wilde, no stranger to high self-regard, to make a fool of himself in public by playing “himself” as a real-life Bunthorne, a role fashioned by Gilbert to make Wilde and all aesthetes appear fools. Carte sweetened the proposition by offering half the box-office receipts, with all expenses paid. Wilde, who was learning it was expensive to be a well-dressed party wit and museum guide in London, accepted.
Carte’s plan was for Wilde to tour the country promoting Patience. But Wilde’s plan was to promote himself: he would become a star simply by acting like one, especially in front of the press. And, in doing so, he created a strategy for fame-creation that aspiring celebrities are still following today, whether they know it or not. When interrogated by hostile American reporters—many thought him an effete freak—Wilde intuited that, no matter what the reporter’s question, or how rude, the purpose of the answer was to increase the fame of Oscar Wilde. In his first week here, he elucidated his aesthetic autobiography, with more than a few factual embellishments, in interviews with the New York Herald, the New York Post, the New York Tribune, and the New York World. If not the inventor of the hotel-room interview, he was certainly its first great master, an expertise made all the more impressive because he had never been interviewed before. He chided his friend James McNeill Whistler, the American painter then living in London, about his success with the press. I’m being taken “seriously,” Wilde wrote. “What would you do if it happened to you?”
Being heard was important, but so too was being seen. Accounts in the New York Times and New York World described in detail the satin breeches, black velvet coat, pale lavender gloves, and billowing white shirt with large collar accessorized by a robin’s-egg-blue scarf that Wilde wore at a party in Manhattan on Jan. 5 attended by the mayor of New York, William R. Grace, and Justice John R. Brady of the New York Supreme Court, the man who had administered the oath of office to President Chester A. Arthur. Wilde was stationed in an alcove at the party, backlit by a cluster of candles and gas lamps covered by pink cloth, underneath a large handmade Japanese parasol suspended from the ceiling. This setting, the World reporter wrote, gave Wilde the appearance of a “heathen idol.”
Guests at the party lined up to meet the “idol” as if he were related to the Queen. “I stand [in] the reception rooms when I go out and for two hours [people] defile past for introduction,” Wilde wrote in a letter. “I bow and honour them with a royal observation.” “Royal” observations such as this, declaimed to a group of adoring females who had encircled him: “America reminds me of one of Edgar Allen Poe’s exquisite poems.” Why? “Because it is full of belles.” And this, said to a woman who asked his advice on arranging decorative screens in her Manhattan apartment: “Why arrange them at all? Why not just let them occur?”
By the time he left the city in mid-January, the New York Daily Graphic, a popular evening tabloid, had published 22 items on Wilde, 14 of them accounts of his comings and goings (some factual, others not so much), one of them a review of his lecture at Chickering Hall, and the rest of them cartoons (four) or poems (three). When Wilde left America a year later, after granting one hundred interviews—more than anyone else in the world in 1882—and after presenting nearly one hundred and fifty lectures on the aesthetic qualities of sconces and embroidered pillows, delivered in virtually every town between New York and San Francisco, he was famous. The Irish dandy had arrived in America with a plan to become a media star, no matter how little he’d done (so far) to deserve it. It worked.
Author info: David M. Friedman is the author of three books. His latest, Wilde in America: Oscar Wilde and the Invention of Modern Celebrity, was published in 2014 by Norton.