Pride and Green Carnations: Oscar Wilde's Tragic Downfall
I never walk past the Cadogan Hotel in Sloane Street without an ache in my heart because it was from here that Oscar Wilde was arrested for “gross indecency” in 1895. He knew his arrest was imminent and he chose to wait at the hotel, rather than his family home at nearby Tite Street. Perhaps he wanted to protect his wife, Constance, and sons, or maybe it was because his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, was staying at the hotel at the time. Or maybe it’s just that he wanted to go out in style.
Wilde was a regular guest at the hotel in the late 1800s, along with many London socialites, artists and actors. When you visit the hotel now, it’s easy to imagine Oscar, clad in one of his famous velvet smoking jackets, propping up the bar in the wee hours. He frequently hosted parties at the Cadogan because his long-time friend, Lillie Langtry, the British-American actress and socialite, had unlimited access here after she sold her adjacent Pont Street house to the hotel. He regularly stayed here as her guest. Today her original dining room is part of the restaurant and her bedroom is a guest room.
Ironically, Wilde chose to await news of his fate at the hotel where staff members’ testimony ultimately sealed his fate. Homosexuality was illegal in Britain in the late 1800s and chambermaids testified that they had seen young men in Wilde’s bed. Even so, his first court case for conducting illicit activities with young men ended in mistrial when one juror wouldn’t convict him. But a second trial was arranged quickly and Wilde was found guilty. On that fateful day, he was awaiting the results in his first-floor rooms at the hotel – today part of the Royal Suite.
What must he have been thinking as he looked out the window at the classic red-brick Chelsea landscape? Although the hotel has recently had a makeover, the view to the outside would have been similar to that of today. The Queen Anne style buildings associated with this part of Chelsea were freshly-built. And the private gardens of Cadogan Place where well-heeled residents strolled, separated from the hoi polloi by just iron railings, might have seemed mocking as he contemplated his downfall. After all, he was part of High Society.
Perhaps he mused that all of this could have been avoided. When his lover’s father, Lord Queensberry, accused Wilde of sodomy, Wilde sued him for libel because he feared damage to his reputation. But when Queensberry produced evidence of Wilde’s encounters with rent boys (male prostitutes) the libel charges were dropped and the case became about Wilde’s homosexuality. So in standing up for himself, he inadvertently drew attention to the lifestyle that sealed his fate.
It’s hard for us to imagine that a celebrated playwright and wit would be disgraced just for his choice of bedfellows. Even when his friends encouraged him to leave London for more tolerant Paris after the first trial collapsed, he chose to meet his fate head on. Perhaps he felt untouchable as a grand celebrity. Wilde was at the height of success after an American lecture tour launched him on the world stage. The Importance of Being Earnest had just premiered in London - his fourth West End hit in just three years. His charisma had carried him through many situations, why not this one?
Or maybe it was simply a matter of pride. It’s interesting to note that two of the people closest to him, his mother, Jane, and his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, encouraged him to stay. Both thought that he would not be convicted.
Wilde never publicly acknowledged being gay and yet it’s a defining element of who he was. He regularly wore a green carnation, a known symbol of gays in the 19th–century, most likely an idea taken from France, where homosexuality had been legal since 1791. He asked friends to wear one in their lapel at the opening of Lady Windermere’s Fan in 1893. He was elusive when asked the intended meaning but it seems likely he was quietly celebrating his lifestyle. The carnation was never mentioned at either trial but has come to be a symbol of Oscar and many modern LGBTQ groups.
Today the Belmond Cadogan celebrates its link with Oscar Wilde. There’s a peacock statue adorned with Swarovski crystals (named Oscar of course) that acknowledges Wilde's penchant for decorating with peacock feathers. Some staff uniforms boast velvet and tweed in a nod to his distinctive dress style.
All that is great fun and I’m sure Oscar would have appreciated the dotage. But beneath the glitz and glamour is a terribly sad story. So next time you pass by, go into the bar, order a drink and toast to Oscar’s pride and stoicism.