Tuesday, November 29, 2011
This woman is kissing Oscar Wilde's tomb in Père Lachaise cemetery.
But as of tomorrow, the one hundred and eleventh anniversary marking his death, Oscar's admirers will find it harder to get so close. "A kiss may ruin a human life," Oscar Wilde once wrote. It can also ruin the stonework of a tomb, judging by the extraordinary graffiti – kisses in lipstick left by admirers – that over years have defaced eroded the massive memorial to the Irish dramatist and wit.
Oscar died in Paris on November 30th, 1900, aged 46. The fleabag Left Bank hotel where he spent his last days showed his name on the register as Sebastian Melmoth, a name he'd assumed after his trial for homosexuality - then illegal - and imprisonment where upon his release took him to exile in France. At the end, ill, penniless and cadging Absinthe at the cafes some sparkles of wit emanated from the once celebrated novelist, and yes, poet who dazzled London society and once had several plays running concurrently on the London stage. His supposed last words uttered in his cheap hotel room were "Either this wallpaper goes or I do."
Oscar's original internment was a lot different. Merlin Holland, his only living grandson, explained that when Wilde died he was bankrupt and his friends could offer him only 'un enterrement de sixième classe' - a sixth-class burial - at Bagneux, outside the city. Over the following years his friend and literary executor, Robert Ross, managed – through the sale of Wilde's works, including De Profundis, his bitter letter of recrimination from prison to Lord Alfred Douglas - Bosie - his former lover – to annul Wilde's bankruptcy and purchase a burial plot "in perpetuity" at Père Lachaise.
The following year Helen Carew, one of Ross's friends who knew Oscar in his heyday, anonymously offered £2,000 to erect a monument by the young sculptor Jacob Epstein. The commission, a flying naked angel inspired by the British Museum's Assyrian figures, was finally unveiled in 1914, surviving intact until the early 1960s, when the angel was vandalised, its genitals hacked off and stolen.
But now one hundred and eleven years later his restored tomb will finally be unveiled, newly protected from his devotees.
For years visitors would confine themselves to leaving gently admiring billets doux dedicated to the creator of The Importance of Being Earnest and Lady Windermere's Fan. All that changed in the late 1990s, when somebody decided to leave a lipstick kiss on the tomb. Since then lipstick kisses and hearts have been joined by a rash of red graffiti containing expressions of love, such as: "Wilde child we remember you", "Keep looking at the stars" and "Real beauty ends where intellect begins". Surprisingly, perhaps, most are written by women.
Merlin Holland, Wilde's grandson, said the lipstick had become a "serious problem" because the grease sinks into the stone. "Every cleaning was causing a bit more stone to wear away," he said. "No amount of appeals to the public did any good at all. Kissing Oscar's tomb on the Paris tourist circuit has become a cult pastime, which is proving impossible to break. Even if one could catch someone in flagrante delicto – there is a €9,000 fine – most perpetrators are probably tourists, so they would be home before the French authorities could bring them to court. With the Paris authorities offering a fraction of the cost of preserving the memorial, the Irish have come to the rescue, paying for it through the office of public works in Dublin, which is responsible for a number of Irish monuments and buildings overseas. They have paid for a radical cleaning and "de-greasing" of the tomb, as well as a glass barrier which will surround it to prevent the kissers from causing further damage.
The unveiling of the monument tomorrow will be attended by representatives from the Irish and French departments of culture, as well as Rupert Everett, whose films include The Importance of Being Earnest.
Holland hopes that the barrier will deter loving vandals. Designed to be unobtrusive and aesthetic, it could only discourage rather than be preventative and he says: "Some determined kissers will no doubt try to find ways of kissing the upper extremities."
Now Oscar I wonder what you'd say 111 years later?
Cara - Tuesday
Another unquiet grave at Père Lachaise belongs to Jim Morrison, the singer, who died in 1971, has the distinction of being the most visited of the hundreds of artists in the cemetery. The original bust of Morrison was stolen and his tomb is constantly defaced by fans' graffiti.