He arrived in San Francisco wearing a white sombrero, black velvet coat and velvet waistcoat, and a pair of pointy shoes.
It was the spring of 1882. Oscar Wilde was twenty-seven years old, not yet a well-known writer but already a style icon and terrific wit. By the time he arrived at the ferry crossing in Oakland on March 27, he’d become a national sensation.
In San Francisco, he checked into the seven-story Palace Hotel, reputedly the most luxurious hotel in the world at the time. There he sat for a slew of interviews.
“The further West one comes, the more there is to like,” he said in response to reports that he was disappointed in America.
He’d arrived in America in January of 1882 for a 150-city lecture tour. From the moment he showed up in New York Harbor with nothing but his genius to declare (his words, not mine), the self-styled ambassador of beauty attracted a robust mix of admirers and critics.
Wilde gave four separate lectures in San Francisco, speaking on home decoration and the English renaissance in art. In between, he was wined and dined at the Bohemian Club, about whose members he remarked, “I have never seen so many well-dressed, well-fed, business-like-looking Bohemians in the whole course of my life.”
He seems to have taken a particular liking to Chinatown, playing the tourist in its various stores, restaurants, theaters, and opium dens.
“There is where I belong,” he told his hosts at one reception. “This is my atmosphere. I didn’t know such a place existed in the whole United States.”
The notoriously cantankerous Ambrose Bierce was not exactly charmed. “There was never an impostor so hateful, a blockhead so stupid, a crank so variously and offensively daft,” he declared.
When the time came for Wilde to leave San Francisco on April 8, he seems to have fallen as hard for the city as most of the city had fallen for him.
“No part of America has struck me so favorably as California,” he said. “I intend to return to San Francisco and the West Coast next year in the capacity of a private gentleman traveling for his own amusement and not as a public lecturer condemned to go on the platform at every place I stop.”
Wilde considered his stay in California the highlight of his 150-city, 15,000-mile American tour. Eight years later, he’d immortalize San Francisco in The Picture of Dorian Gray with these lines: “It’s an odd thing, but anyone who disappears is said to be seen in San Francisco. It must be a delightful city and possess all the attractions of the next world.”
Up until the end of his life, he dreamed about leaving England and relocating to the American West, a place, he said, “where a man can be a man today, and yesterdays don’t count.”