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Dolly Wilde: Addict and Wit

It's always a great tragedy whenever a lively, creative, and genuinely talented individual loses their potential to an addiction. Here's one you've probably never heard of.

Did you know that Oscar Wilde had a niece who looked just like him? I didn’t. Not until I read Paris Was a Woman by Andrea Weiss and saw a photo that I thought for certain was the Irish rockstar writer in a wig.

I had to peer at the photo closely and question my own confused and distrustful eyes, but this photograph wasn’t him. This was, one hundred percent certain, his niece, Dorothy "Dolly" Wilde (1895-1941) and she was destined to become yet another one of my many hyper-fixations. Mainly because, like my other article topics of choice, she was a shining star rapidly burnt out by untreated mental illness, substance addiction, trauma in early adulthood, sexual excess, and perhaps a family curse.

Dorothy “Dolly Wilde” came into the world on July 11, 1895. Her parents were Oscar Wilde’s older brother, William Charles Kingsbury Wilde and his wife, Sophie Lily Lees. Oscar Wilde was arrested three months earlier for sodomy ('illegal homosexual acts') and she missed the chance to meet him. But she was haunted by him, and something of his very troubled spirit seemed to possess her as she grew up into an eccentric woman with an array of mental health and behavioural issues.

From a young age, she seemed drawn to harmful substances paired with strange habits. Her favourite childhood treat? Sugar cubes soaked in her mother’s perfume. No authority figure in her life seemed inclined to stop her from doing this, so this undoubtedly set the stage for what would be a lifetime of ingesting what she shouldn't and dangerous, unrestricted self-indulgence.

Next up, as an adult, would be promiscuity. Of course, there is no shame in a woman being sexually liberated. Wilde was a lesbian and, according to all her biographers, enjoyed a rollercoaster sex life. She had an affair with Marion Barbara "Joe" Carstairs, a fellow ambulance driver during World War I who went on to become a speedboat racer. That was Wilde's taste in women: fellow daredevils who didn't present the prospect of settling down into a quiet domestic life. Reading about her, what I observe (and this is just speculation) is that Dolly Wilde deliberately evaded anything that resembled stillness and complacency; she never had a relationship in which she was someone's primary partner or the one with whom they worked to build a stable future.

During the 1920s after the war, the only place, really, for a woman like Dolly Wilde was Paris, and so off to Paris she went, where she met the famous and fabulously wealthy salon hostess and centre of the Parisian lesbian community, Natalie Barney.

She was, reportedly, a riot at parties. Everyone wanted to meet her and get to know her. A seasoned socialite, she knew how to stand out in a room and get people howling. She was a comedian.

But she was also an addict, and that is what would ultimately rear up and triumph as her main identity in the second half of her life. She would transition from being Oscar Wilde's fascinating niece to yet another unfortunate casualty of the Roaring Twenties. Her poisons? Alcohol and heroin. All readily available in Europe at the time — prohibition was only a thing in America — and serving as dangerous substitutes for emotional and mental support. It’s been theorised that what she saw during her participation in the war escalated what was already an addictive personality (this is what happened to Ernest Hemingway, also a Paris expatriate in the 1920s). It also may have been hereditary, as her father, Willie Wilde, was an alcoholic, having turned to drink to cope with his failed career ambitions and marital problems.

To me, one of the greatest tragedies that make up Dolly Wilde’s story is the wasted potential.

She had a spark of brilliance, but no fuel in her lighter. She had a touch of genius but no discipline to direct it. She had every advantage and circumstance to become a classic writer in her own right, but this never manifested into anything. It was all in place for her: the scandalous family background, the wartime experiences, the torrid romances, the wild Parisian nightlife, the rich lover/patron to fund her, and of course the inherited wit.

Dolly Wilde’s dependence on drugs ultimately claimed her and ended her lifelong party in 1941, when she was only forty-five years old.

Her cause of death was documented as "causes unascertainable", with the two main candidates being either breast cancer or a drug overdose. Having refused a mastectomy after being diagnosed in 1939, Wilde turned to copious painkilling substances to combat the agony instead, and it was likely one bout of self-medication too many that ultimately brought about her untimely death.

Wilde’s biographer Joan Schenker theorises that Wilde’s murderer was paraldehyde — a drug used traditionally as a sleeping sedative and as a hypnotic — and points out an account made by a Dr. Simpson, who attests that he smelt the drug on Wilde while examining her corpse, found in a rented room at Twenty Chesham Place (a guest house for low-income tenants) in London. As she left no note behind, the possibility that it might have been a suicide will remain just that. A possibility.

There’s a particularly beautifully worded passage from Schenker’s Truly Wilde: The Unsettling Story of Dolly Wilde, Oscar's Unusual Niece that I want to share, which so strikingly paints the morbid setting of Wilde’s final resting place and really captures the ambiguity of the situation:

“The day of her interment was the day after the worst air-raid London had yet experienced, and so Dolly was put to rest in her final bed against the backdrop of a brilliantly stained and smoky sky. The clouds had all been coloured by the fire started by German bombs falling on London, and the effect must have been rather like the violence and beauty of Delacroix’s ‘Death of Sardanapalus,’ the painting that had given Dolly such a lovely idea for her own death in a bed.”

Dolly Wilde should be remembered as a woman who lived life by her own terms until the very end. Her judgement could be considered poor, and she may have had her struggles, but her streak of independence was indomitable and admirable. She was, just like her uncle, a true nonconformist.

For more information about Dolly Wilde and her turbulent life, here are the sources I consulted:


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