by Kevin E.G. Perry
“They say, Lady Hunstanton, that when good Americans die they go to Paris.”
~ Oscar Wilde, “A Woman of No Importance”
Oscar Wilde was not an American, but he came to Paris to die nevertheless. 71 years later so too did Jim Morrison. The pair share in eternity at the Cimetiere du Pere-Lachaise with a whole company of France’s own writers and artists, stretching through the ages from Moliere to Edith Piaf.
Wilde himself died on November 30th 1900 at the Hotel d’Alsace, with bon mots, a clever remark, on his lips to the very end. “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death,” he is said to have announced, “one or the other of us has to go.”
He had come to France three years earlier following his release of his poem “Reading Gaol.” Although he found himself in penniless exile he still managed to sip champagne on his deathbed. As he put it, he died as he had lived — beyond his means. He was first buried in a pauper’s grave at the Cimetiere de Bagneux outside of Paris, but his close friend Robbie Ross arranged for him to be moved to the rather more celebrated environs of Pere-Lachaise in 1909.
A century later, it’s a clear, crisp morning in Paris and I pull the collar of my coat up to keep the chill out. I alight at the Metro station named Philippe Auguste. When I find myself standing before the grand entrance of Pere-Lachaise a Smiths lyric falls irresistibly off my tongue: “A dreaded sunny day / So I meet you at the cemetery gates / Keats and Yeats are on your side / While Wilde is on mine.” I discreetly check to see whether Morrissey is waiting for me before making my way inside.
After passing through the gates, I pause at a dignified sign which points to the final resting places of Chopin, Proust and a litany of other immortal names. I locate Wilde’s plot, on the far side of the grounds, and set off down the Avenue Principale, the broad road that runs towards the centre of the grounds. It is immediately apparent why Ross worked so hard to get Oscar moved here. From the moment I stepped within the high walls of the cemetery I felt as if modern-day Paris had been left far behind. The tombs that line the road look at first glance like small houses, and narrow side streets stretch off in all directions. The cobbled paths are lined with trees, and there are road signs at the intersections.
The impression is not of being in a graveyard, but in a small town. Indeed, when I had first announced my intention to visit the cemetery a Parisian had referred to it as “une ville dans la ville.” That is as good a description of the place as any. The sprawling necropolis of Pere-Lachaise is a city within a city, and one that has seemingly been cast adrift from another time.
It’s easy to imagine Wilde as a visitor. He first came here in his 20s, while splitting those formative years between Paris and London. After his successful lecture tour of America in 1882 he settled in London and established his reputation as a writer with his journalism and essays as well as the publication of his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray in 1890.
The book tells the story of a handsome young man who never ages, despite his decadent lifestyle, after his likeness is captured in a portrait. I can’t help but think of Dorian when I take a detour to visit the grave of Jim Morrison. It’s a simple memorial, but it’s strewn with roses and those unavoidable, iconic pictures. Morrison’s young death at 27, accelerated by hedonistic excess, means that he will forever be the Adonis with high cheekbones captured in that black-and-white photograph.
Morrison’s grave seems to draw even more visitors than Wilde’s, and it was the small knot of devoted fans which initially alerted me to its presence. The plot itself is tucked away, hidden from the path, and the grave bears only a small plaque showing his full name; James Douglas Morrison, his dates; 1943-1971, and an inscription in Greek: KATA TON AAIMONA EAYTOY. It translates roughly as “true to his own demon,” a sentiment Wilde, with his prescient understanding of contemporary celebrity, would have understood only too well.
Leaving the gaggle of Doors fans behind me I climb a narrow path shrouded in trees and walk back towards the centre of the grounds. The sun is climbing higher in the sky now and the multitude of statues and monuments cast dappled shadows on the paving stones. The grounds, which spread over nearly 120 acres, are home to around 5,000 trees. It makes Pere-Lachaise a surprising oasis of green, as much a park as a cemetery. It is easy to lose hours here, reading the stones and enjoying the quiet air of contemplation.
After settling in London, Wilde missed the romance of Paris and he returned here in 1891 following the success of The Picture of Dorian Gray. It was here that he wrote his play Salome in French, and later translated it into English. However, rehearsals in London were halted by the Lord Chamberlain due to a ban on depicting Biblical characters on stage. It would not be performed until 1896, when it was finally staged in its original French at the Comedie-Parisienne. Wilde could not attend. By this time he was in prison, serving out a sentence of two years hard labour. He had been convicted of gross indecency after the exposure of his homosexual relationships.
He had already been left bankrupt by the preceding libel case, which he had brought himself against the Marquess of Queensbury, the father of his lover Lord Alfred Douglas. When he was released, he had little choice but to return to France where he travelled under an assumed name, Sebastian Melmoth. In 1897, he used his experience of prison life to write “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” a poem which fiercely criticised the brutalizing nature of the criminal justice system. It was to be his final significant work, as tragedy stalked the final years of his life.
Despite his hardships, he was never alone. Robbie Ross, who is thought to have been his first male lover, was with him during this time and stayed by his side until the end of his life. Wilde was just 46 when he succumbed to meningitis brought on by an ear infection in a dingy hotel room by the Seine. Arrangements were made at his initial burial for him to be placed in quicklime to ease the later transfer of his body. Ross, as loyal in death as in life, was already making plans to ensure that Wilde would in time be given a fitting memorial.
When I find Wilde’s tomb, it is clear that Ross got his wish. Located on the Avenue Carette, it is utterly impossible to miss. An imposing sandstone block looms over me, and I study the modernist sculpture carved into it by Jacob Epstein. It depicts an angel in flight and was intended to be as dazzling as the man it memorialized, and just as scandalous. The original was complete with male genitals, but these were wrenched away as long ago as 1922, presumably by souvenir-hunters but reportedly to the relief of the conservative cemetery authorities.
The genitals may be gone, but the kisses remain. Every inch of this huge monument is covered in lipstick traces. At first I am unsure as to whether they have simply been drawn on, but before long a pair of Japanese girls arrive to show me how it is done. Giggling as they approach the monument, they apply their thick red lipstick and each take a turn to press their lips to the stone. An unusual sign of devotion, but one of which Wilde would no doubt have approved.
He would have been just as pleased by the countless scrawled messages from his legion of fans. As I decipher them it’s soon clear that while they seem to have come from every country on the globe, the sentiments are universal: “We love you, Oscar!” says one, “Je t’aime Wilde,” adds another, while another hand has clearly marked “L’importanza di essere Oscar!”
Even in a cemetery full of eye-catching monuments and heart-rending sculptures, Wilde’s is defiantly ostentatious. Ross, who also became Wilde’s literary executor after his death, charged himself with ensuring that his dear friend Oscar would be remembered in all his glory, and he seems to have succeeded. Ross’ reward is that he is here as well. At his request, Wilde’s tomb contains a small compartment where his own ashes were placed in 1950.
I watch the other visitors come and go and realise that although Pere-Lachaise is a cemetery it never feels oppressive, sombre or maudlin. It’s a tranquil corner of Paris, where Oscar Wilde and many others who strove for immortality through their work have, in some way, found it. I look again at the etched reminders of his pilgrim travelers and smile. For Oscar, of course, the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about, so he would have adored these notes of kinship. Wilde’s work is characterized by his overarching humanity, and beneath the surface wit, there lies a tragic wisdom. In one of his most famous short stories, “The Canterville Ghost,” he wrote these words:
Death must be so beautiful. To lie in the soft brown earth, with the grasses waving above one’s head, and listen to silence. To have no yesterday, and no tomorrow. To forget time, to forgive life, to be at peace.
Here in Pere-Lachaise, where the high walls keep the frenzy of Paris at bay, Oscar Wilde has found the peace that eluded him in life.