Pretty in the Past: Dolly Wilde

Brains, beauty, an intriguing family and a tragic ending. Prepare to fall a little bit in love with Oscar Wilde's niece...
Publish date:
December 12, 2012
pretty in the past, Oscar Wilde, Dolly Wilde

I first happened upon Dolly Wilde when perusing my local library shelves for a biography of her uncle Oscar Wilde. I can't remember why, because I should admit to you all right here and now that I have never read any of Wilde's oeuvre.

I tried to read The Picture of Dorian Gray but gave up half way through the first pleonastic chapter. Shh! Don't tell Barry, my 6th form English teacher and Wilde devotee.

Between the tomes that dissected Bosie and Oscar's relationship I found Truly Wilde: The Story of Oscar's Unusual Nieceand fell, a little bit, in love.

Born in 1895, 3 months after her uncle's notorious incarceration, Dorothy Ierne Wilde's childhood was a mystery even to her closest friends and lovers. We know her father Willie Wilde died an alcoholic when Dolly was a toddler and she was shunted between her aunt, a convent and her mother and step-father.

Dolly mentioned her girlhood only once and the brief anecdote so embodies the woman she became that it is enough: as a little girl Dolly would take sugar lumps to dip in her pretty mother's perfume and eat them. This encapsulates how Dolly would go on to interact with people – with a self destructive desire to make those she loved a part of her.

Dolly resembled Oscar far more strongly than his own sons Vyvyan and Cyril Holland. An actress once was described Oscar Wilde as looking “as though he would bleed absinthe and clotted truffles”, Dolly's creamy complexion looks as though it might have been capable of the same.

This physical similarity was complemented by her Wildean wit. Her voluptuous writing style fills letter after letter (always, always on stolen Hotel headed paper) to friends, lovers and 'emergency seductees.' Dolly was usually to be found in Paris with her lover the American poet Natalie Barney and just as her uncle seemed made for La Belle Époque, Dolly was designed for the Génération Perdue.

She first fled to Paris to drive ambulances, fast, in the First World War and quickly became a central figure in Natalie Barney's lesbian salon. This was an impressive accomplishment considering the Parisian literary salons were hardly short of quick-witted, decadent characters.

What made Dolly stand out among all these artists was her ability to listen. Wilde was well aware of her own devastating wit and ability to tell a great story – which is why her utter captivation to the storyteller could be so flattering and charming. When asked about her plans for the day Dolly would reply “Probably nothing but hesitate” and no doubt request another story.

Although it appears Dolly suffered from an inability to concentrate her talent into anything beyond cribbing stipends from friends and lovers, she did not leave her contemporaries short of material. The writer Djuna Barnes immortalised Dolly Wilde in her Ladies Almanack as Doll Furious. Correspondent Janet Flanner remarked that Dolly “seemed like someone one had become familiar with by reading, rather than knowing.”

It seems all her life the only project she seemed to be able to create was Dolly Wilde: “I see something, I can't express it.”

Alice B Toklas described her as having “an almost mythical pristine freshness.” Like her uncle Dolly was very conscious of her appearance, and her pursuit of 'pristine freshness' once caused an unsightly rash due to her fastidious use of deodorant on, apparently anachronistic, shaven armpits.

But cocaine, heroin and alcohol addiction eventually began to tarnish both the books Dolly took such pride in, and her mind. As her addictions worsened, Dolly became less discreet. At a dinner parties in London she would take a syringe from her handbag and inject her thigh. In Paris it would take longer and longer for Dolly to emerge from the bathroom, sniffing.

At the age of 43 she was diagnosed with breast cancer and chose not to undergo treatment. The cancer spread to her uterus and became untreatable. In 1941 Dolly was found dead from an overdose of heroin and paraldehyde in a London hotel room, close by to where her uncle had died.

And outside her letters and half-remembered conversations there was nothing left of Dolly Wilde.