Chances are you’ll never have a conversation as scintillating as the one Oscar Wilde was overheard conducting at a gathering in San Francisco in 1882. At the time, the 27-year-old Irish upstart had yet to write any of the works that would earn his fame. Undercredentialed as Wilde then was, his verbal verve and outlandish dress (satin breeches, velvet jackets, black cape) had made him a sought-after dinner guest in London and prompted a 10-month American tour, where his brio met with an ecstatic reception. “It was a superb performance, a masterpiece of sparkling wit and gaiety,” wrote one audience member in an account of the event. “Never before, or since, have I heard anything that compared to it.” Who was Wilde’s lucky interlocutor? It was a dressmaker’s dummy: The man was, in essence, talking with himself.
Wilde captivated an even unlikelier audience at the bottom of a mine shaft in Leadville, Colo., when he regaled a dozen silver miners with chat of Cellini and Renaissance metal working, then drank them under the table. By his own account, “I brilliantly performed, amidst unanimous applause.” Lest you underestimate the dramatist’s (self-dramatist’s?) powers, keep in mind that Wilde also won over Walt Whitman, who invited him to his Camden, N.J., home for elderberry wine. Whitman approved Wilde’s mission of bringing the British aesthetic movement to the Yanks. “You are young and ardent,” Whitman told him. “The field is wide, and if you want my advice,” he added, “go ahead.” Wilde didn’t need to be told twice.
Without Wilde’s aptitude for self-promotion, there might have been no Andy Warhol, no Paris Hilton, no Kim Kardashian. In his new biography of the Irish playwright, novelist and provocateur, “Wilde in America,” the journalist and cultural historian David M. Friedman argues that Wilde was among the very first to realize that celebrity could come before accomplishment. “Fame would launch Wilde’s career,” Friedman explains, “not cap it.” Wilde’s choice of America as his rocket platform was serendipitous, but in hindsight it seems prescient; our country’s revved-up reporters furnished Wilde’s jet pack. “No one before Wilde had used the press so skillfully to establish a claim to renown,” Friedman argues, ably proving his point by following his subject from interview to interview, state to state, charting the shrewd steps Wilde took to build his brand, “devising a formula for creating fame that other modern celebrities — all of them far more shallow than he — are using today, whether they know it or not.”