Ambrose Bierce meets Oscar Wilde


Love and Kisses:
Ambrose Bierce and Oscar Wilde
by Don Swaim

Wilde arrives in San Francisco. The Wasp. March 31, 1882

Songs were composed about Oscar Wilde but not by Ambrose Bierce. In the Wasp, Bierce attacked Wilde as the sovereign of unsufferables, an eneffable dunce with nothing to say, a hateful impostor, a stupid blockhead, an offensively daft crank, an intellectual jellyfish, a man with no thoughts and no thinker, a gawky gowk, the littlest and looniest of a brotherhood of simpletons, an idiot who would argue with a cast-iron dog, a speaker with the eloquence of a caller on a hog-ranch, a dunghill he-hen who would fly with eagles. Bierce characterized Wilde's lectures as verbal ditch water--meaningless, trite, and incoherent. He accused Wilde of wandering about posing as a statue of himself, of blowing crass vapidities through the bowel of his neck, of uttering copious overflows of ghastly bosh. Outside of the above, Bierce had no quarrel with the flamboyant Irishman, self-proclaimed genius, rage of London, master of the facetious, and champion of the aesthetic movement. In fact, Bierce had never even heard a lecture, nor had he read a syllable written by Wilde, So when Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde, who was nearing the end of his North American lecture tour, placed his card on the Prattler's desk, Bierce was more amused than annoyed, especially at the Irishman's outlandish costume.

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Wilde was dressed in a maroon velvet suit edged with braid, a pale silk shirt with a turned-down collar, a flowing green tie, knee-breeches, and buckled shoes. His brown hair flowed over his ears. In his hand he carried an enormous felt hat with a wide brim. A green carnation to match his tie sprang from the lapel of his coat. He wore gloves. His teeth were dark and he was slightly overweight. His eyes were lidded heavily, his lips delicate, almost like a girl's. He was even taller than Bierce. Wilde believed that the only way to atone for being over-dressed was to be over-educated.

"A colorful flower in your buttonhole, Mr. Wilde."

"A well-made buttonhole is the only link between art and nature, sir."

Bierce said, "I observe the nature but I'm unsure about the art."

"I believe that one should either be a work of art or wear a work of art."

"And which describes you?"

"Both." Wilde sat on the edge of Bierce's desk and crossed his legs. Bierce noticed that Wilde's legs were shaped almost like a girl's.

Bierce shook his head. "Mr. Wilde, I'm afraid I don't have the time..."

"I agree, sir. Time's a terrible waste of money."

" I must ask you to state your business."

Wilde raised the carnation in his button hole and lowered his head to smell it. "Mr. Bierce, I understand that you've been saying awful things about me in The Wasp."

"I say awful things about everyone in The Wasp."

Wilde stood, then walked around the room. He was rather graceful for a man who would probably turn to fat. He straightened on the wall a framed photograph of President Chester A. Arthur. He said, "Mr. Bierce, I've come to personally invite you to my lecture on the Irish poets and the aesthetic movement at Platt's Hall."

"Mr. Wilde, a lecturer is one who has his hand in your pocket, his tongue in your ear, and his faith in your patience."

"Mr. Bierce, it's obvious you aren't enchanted with celebrity. In particular my own."

"I avoid celebrities, sir. For the same reason that I avoid horseshit in the street."

"My celebrity is only partly of my own making, Mr. Bierce. You journalists must accept your share of the blame. Let me present you with a peace offering." He handed Bierce a slim volume. "My first book, but most certainly not the last. Poems."

Bierce leafed through the book. "You expect me to read this?"

"Indeed not, sir. Few have read it and only a few more will do so. My first idea was to print a mere three copies. One for myself, one for the British Museum, and one for Heaven. Then I had doubts about the British Museum."

With reporters jotting furiously, Wilde had stepped off the boat in New York declaring only his genius as he paraded through customs. He was adopted by Joaquin Miller who helped to turn out record crowds at the Irishman's lectures at Chickering Hall. Wilde gleefully attended the New York opening of the Gilbert and Sullivan light opera Patience, in which the role of the aesthetic poet Reginald Bunthorne was based on Wilde. Then Wilde set out on the road, seeing more of America than he cared to, ultimately reaching the conclusion that if one had the money to go to America, one wouldn't go. He wore oilskins to stand under Niagara Falls, which looked to him like a lot of unnecessary water going the wrong way and then falling over unnecessary rocks. He saw groves of orange trees, green fields, and purple hills and thought of America as almost being like Italy without the art. The best scenery in America, he decided, was Yosemite Valley and Delmonico's in New York. During four miserable days on the train from Omaha to San Francisco, Wilde scribbled frantically in his journal, telling his companions that he wrote because he needed something sensational to read. When he arrived in San Francisco, four-thousand people were waiting to get a glimpse of him.

Wilde was cocky in the way of young men who are too smart for their own good, exactly the way Bierce was twenty years before. At the age of forty, Bierce had far from mellowed. Two years earlier, he had returned to San Francisco from his unhappy odyssey to the Dakota Territory fully expecting Frank Pixley to reinstate him to his former position at The Argonaut, but it was not to be. Bierce eked out a living by contributing articles and stories to various journals until E. C. Macfarlane finally engaged him as editor of the resolutely Republican, anti-railroad weekly, The Wasp. Like the Vespoidea, Bierce was born to sting and did so unrelentingly in his column, 'Prattle.'

Despite his contempt for the young Irishman, Bierce displayed his hospitable side by pulling out a bottle of cognac and two jelly jars, which he filled with the liquor. Bierce observed that intoxication was a spiritual condition that goeth before the next morning. Wilde noted that alcohol taken in sufficient quantity produced all the effects of drunkenness.

"I trust you don't find it vulgar to drink good wine from a jelly jar, Mr. Wilde."

"Mr. Bierce, although I firmly believe that while no crime is vulgar, all vulgarity is a crime." Wilde saw life in America as one long expectoration but made allowances for it. He produced a silver case, withdrew a cigarette, put it to his lips and lighted it. He then removed the cigarette from his lips and offered it to Bierce. "Smoke, Mr. Bierce?"

Bierce, seeing the damp end of Wilde's cigarette, declined, repulsed. Wilde, holding his cigarette between his thumb and forefinger, inhaled and released an enormous cloud.

"You must come to my lecture tonight, Mr. Bierce. Let me present you with a ticket for a seat in the loge. And join me backstage before the lecture. You'll find that I'm a man who can speak on any subject at a moment's notice. Name one."

"The Queen."

"Ah, but she's not a subject."


Bierce knew something was wrong as soon as he entered Platt's Hall. The atmosphere was ominous. There seemed to be a certain grumbling among the men, obviously having been dragged to the auditorium by their wives. The three front rows of seats were empty, reserved. In a small dressing room backstage, Wilde sat smoking, drinking absinthe, and admiring himself in a mirror.

"I knew you'd be here, Mr. Bierce. Sit down." Between two fingers Wilde held a strand of hair. "I just plucked this from my head, Mr. Bierce. A gray hair, no less. And I am but twenty-eight years old. Recently, I sat for my portrait. The painting was beautiful. And I thought, how tragic. The portrait will never grow older and I shall. If it were only the other way."

"Yes, Mr. Wilde, to be old is to be rendered obsolete by time--like an old book."

"Mr. Bierce, the old believe everything, the middle-aged suspect everything, and the young know everything." Wilde poured Bierce a glass of absinthe. "I'm led to understand, sir, that you don't approve of my aesthetic movement."

"Aesthetics are the most unpleasant ticks affecting the human race, Mr. Wilde. I can assure you that art isn't necessarily truth, any more than truth is necessarily art. The search for truth is the most ancient occupation of the human mind, and I'll wager it'll exist to the end of time, art notwithstanding."

"Mr. Bierce, I believe a truth ceases to be true when more than one person believes it."

A knock at the door.

"The time has come to face my accusers. In some ways, I feel like a defendant standing in the dock at the Old Bailey, not that that would ever happen to someone as immoral as myself."


"I jest, of course."

To a smattering of applause, Oscar Wilde strode onto the stage. Tonight, he wore a purple coat and knee-breeches, black hose, and shoes with silver buckles. His coat was open showing a lining of lavender satin with lace at the wrists. Over one shoulder he carried a yellow, velvet cloak. His hair was parted in the middle. The applause died. There were a few hisses. Bierce decided to watch from the wings. Suddenly, down the center aisle thumped perhaps sixty young men. They were dressed in knee-breeches and silk stockings, coats with lace billowing from the cuffs, red neckties, green carnations sprouting from the lapels, and huge brimmed hats. Each man carried a sunflower. Bierce recognized the young men as students from Berkeley. They collapsed into their seats at the front of the hall, then sat listlessly, eyes dull, their wrists limp. The audience burst into laughter. Oscar Wilde smiled. "Goodness, save me from my disciples." In unison, the young Berkeley men crossed their legs and half lowered their eyelids. They looked into the ceiling, indescribably bored. Wilde withdrew his silver case, removed a cigarette, and lighted it with a match he ignited by scraping it against the lectern. He exhaled a cloud of smoke. "Perhaps it's not proper to smoke in front of you and the young aesthetes before me, but then it's not proper for you to disturb me when I'm smoking." Hisses from the front row. "Cigarettes, at least, have the charm of leaving one unsatisfied." A few police officers had slipped into the hall and stood unobtrusively in the rear. They carried clubs.

"Dear people, some of you, no doubt, would like to put me to death," Wilde said. "You would send me to the gallows on clearly proven charges of having written poems entirely composed of three wonderful things. Romance, music, and sorrow." A few catcalls. "And to those of you who are so loud, let me say that you're wonderfully tolerant. You forgive everything except genius."

One of the students jumped up and with a little concertina began playing awful and discordant notes to the hee-haws from the front rows. Then rotten tomatoes and beets and figs and apples and peaches and lemons began to fly. The Berkeley students, who had concealed the watery weapons under their coats, climbed to their feet and hurled the fruits and vegetables at the stage. Wilde ducked behind the lectern but not before he was hit above the heart by an overripe tomato.

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"Fairy," screamed a man.

"Disgrace to the Irish," yelled another.




"Lavender boy!"

The produce pelted the stage and smashed into disgusting mounds. The police raced forward, waving their nightsticks. The panicky manager of Platt's Hall, instead of turning up the gaslights, turned them down. The place dimmed. There were shrieks and shouts as the auditorium turned to pandemonium. Several men mounted the stage. One of them pulled Wilde away from the lectern, another snatched his hat and flung it into the confusion below. Still another grabbed Wilde's cloak and began to pull. The cloak ripped. Bierce strode from the wings and aimed a fist at a jaw. The blow connected and the man fell backward. Bierce's boot collided with the stomach of another. The Prattler then removed his revolver. Although the stage was dark, there was enough reflection to display the gun in Bierce's hand. The attackers fell back in panic, tumbling off the stage and into the auditorium. The police swung their clubs, breaking heads and arms. The Irish author, confused, ran in circles before collapsing into Bierce's arms. Bierce led him from the stage, through a back door, and into the alley. Wilde--panting--leaned for a moment against a wall to catch his breath.

"You saved my life, Mr. Bierce."

"I salvaged some of your remaining dignity."

"The mob might have killed me." Wilde breathed heavily. "At the very least, I might have been beaten into irreversible paralysis, forced to die beyond my means."

The two men took a cab to the waterfront to escape the noise and violence at Platt's Hall. They wanted to taste the sea and breathe the night. They walked along the wharf.

"You should have put up some sort of fight back there, Wilde."

"Mr. Bierce, I don't even play cricket because it requires me to assume such indecent postures."

"You've heard of John L. Sullivan?" Bierce said. "This year, Sullivan won the heavyweight bare knuckle boxing championship by defeating Paddy Ryan in Mississippi. Sullivan's touring the country giving boxing exhibitions under the rules of the Marquis of Queensberry."

"The Marquis of...?"

"Queensbury. A countryman of yours. A man devoted to the rules of physical combat."

"He's no countryman of mine, Mr. Bierce. Why, the man's English. Besides, he's not the sort of chap I'd ever have any business with. He's a ruffian."

Clouds passed by in a hurry. Bierce thought he saw a shooting star but wasn't sure. A breeze blew from the north. The waves lapped at the timbers of the pier. In the Bay, a ship was at anchor, lights screaming from every porthole. Wilde removed the wilted carnation from his lapel and threw it into the water to drown.

"Mr. Bierce, Gilbert and Sullivan mocked my love for lilies and sunflowers--and for my favorite color, green. The flowers symbolize what's good and right in a world where there's so much bad and wrong."

"Those students tonight, Wilde. They question your sex. And I must say that your sex does appear to be, well, indefinite."

"Sir, I'm courting the most beautiful woman in the world, Constance Lloyd. I wish the stability of marriage and I crave children. Perhaps I am a bit ambiguous about my sexual identity, but what's true in a man's life is not what he does but the legend that grows up around him. In any event, I'd rather have fifty unnatural vices than one unnatural virtue." Wilde mused. "Sometimes, Mr. Bierce, I think the artistic life is a long and lovely suicide. I'm but a dreamer. Only dreamers can find their way through moonlight."

"Even dreamers must pay the rent, Wilde. Call it a form of punishment."

"No, Mr. Bierce, our punishment is being able to see the dawn before the rest of the world. Walt Whitman is that sort of man. I met him in Camden, New Jersey. We drank a bottle of red wine together. I put my hand on his knee. He kissed me on the lips. May I kiss you on the lips, Mr. Bierce?"

Bierce shuddered. "Wilde, you're too familiar. It's unnatural."

A buoy clanked on the waves somewhere in the dark. Wilde thought of the way buoy was pronounced, almost like 'boy.' He opened his case and withdrew a cigarette. He put it into his lips and lighted it. Then he held out the cigarette to Bierce.

Col 1 "Smoke, Mr. Bierce?"

Impulsively, Bierce took the cigarette from Wilde's hand and put it into his own lips. He felt the damp where the lips of Wilde had been.

Wilde said, "I'd like for you to be my friend, Ambrose. And I'd like you to call me Oscar. May I kiss you now?"

The day after Oscar Wilde left San Francisco for Salt Lake City Bierce found a small package on his desk. He opened it. It was a silver cigarette case. Engraved on it: Ambrose from Oscar. There was something fragile--and eminently sad--about this very public young man. Wilde would come a bad end. Bierce knew it. The collapse would be spectacular, like a rocket bursting into light before dying..

© 1996 by Don Swaim

Ambrose Bierce in the News
Ambrose Bierce on the Notion of God
Ambrose Bierce on Terrorism
Ambrose Bierce on Politics
Ambrose Bierce & Pancho Villa
The Wickedest Man in San Francisco, 1870
Love & Kisses: Bierce & Wilde
Bierce Duels with H.L. Mencken
Bierce & Jack London
Ambrose Bierce Resources on the Web

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