Feature writing


Adventures in gay history with Oscar Wilde

The Daily Beast

June 11, 2014

There are not many classicists who are also tour organizers: the worlds of Plato and knowing the right rest-stop just outside Reno seem far apart. But Professor Andrew Lear, formerly a lecturer at Harvard, Columbia, and NYU and an art scholar, has also been organizing tours for over twenty years in the U.S., Canada, and Europe, including an 18-day cross country bus tour between New York and San Francisco. He speaks, impressively but also vitally, fluent German, French, and Italian.

Now he has set up a travel company, specializing in tours devoted to gay history, the first of which will—to borrow his company’s name—focus on the life of Oscar Wilde.

The professor’s specialty is the representation of homosexuality in ancient Greek art and literature, he says, but his interest in gay history extends to other key periods, such as fin-de-siècle England, Renaissance Italy, and medieval Japan.

The first tour this October will take its group—no more than 20-strong—from Dublin to London and then Paris. The nine-day tour costs $8500 per person, with a single-person supplement of $1800. This sounds expensive, I say to Lear. He says the price covers everything, including internal flights, breakfast, and one meal a day, though it excludes the long-haul return flights from your home-base. The hotels sound upscale-boutique, rather than mega-glam behemoths. Initial enquiries have come from older travelers, though Lear expects it to be popular with fortysomethings and singles looking to meet others, as well as couples.

The inaugural group of travelers will visit the home where Wilde grew up in Ireland, the hotel in London, the Cadogan, where the playwright was arrested on April 6, 1895, “for committing acts of gross indecency with other male persons,” his tobacconist where an unpaid bill of Wilde’s is still stuck to the wall, and then the Parisian cemetery, Père Lachaise, where his lipstick kiss-covered grave, stands.

Setting up the company “came to me as a lightning bolt last summer,” Lear tells me. “I am a classicist, I have taught the history of sexuality at universities. But I also know how to organize a tour: what’s essential, what works well, and what can go wrong, and how to do things nicely.”

The power and point of Lear’s new company is that, today, many may not know of gay lives and histories long before homosexuality was legalized, long before gay men and women were so evident in popular culture, or their desires visible in the public realm. Yet still gay desires and cultures existed, persisted, and endured.

Lear and his local guides “on the ground” know both the well-known and hidden gay histories of their locales. “We will make the effort to find things, and we will take you to see them, in comfort and style,” Lear promises.

There are already gay history-based walking tours of cities, like in Paris London, and New York. But Lear insists his longer, more detailed journeys are more thorough, experience-rich, and luxurious.

Surely you could visit these places independently without the auspices of a group, I say to Lear. “No, you couldn’t do these things by yourself,” Lear responds firmly. “The tours come with my knowledge, and it’s not so easy on the ground to find and locate all these places.”

Indeed, he says, it’s because of his own personal relationships and negotiations that some of the places, like Wilde’s rooms at Magdalen College, Oxford, will be open to the group. There, Magdalen’s librarian will show the group around, before an Oxford academic holds forth on the history of homosexuality in the late 19th century.

Not everything on the group’s itinerary will be Wilde-related. In Oxford, Lear will relate stories from the lives of figures like W.H. Auden, Lewis Carroll, and T.E. Lawrence. In London, the group will do walking tours of the variously sexy, scandalous, and literary neighborhoods of Soho and Bloomsbury. Well-known British gay writers, with rich knowledge of gay history, like Neil Bartlett and Wilde biographer Neil McKenna will give talks.

I make a personal plea to Lear for the group to visit 25 Noel Road in Islington where a circular, green commemorative plaque outside of a top floor apartment marks the home, between 1960 and his violent death there in 1967, of the playwright Joe Orton. I loved Orton, and when I was coming out in London at age 16, I alighted on his amazing, graphic Diaries, and made a quiet, appreciative pilgrimage to gaze up at the apartment.

The group will also visit the Linley Sambourne house, which wasn’t somewhere Wilde actually lived, as Lear says, but it “speaks so much” to the late 19th-century period, decoratively.

In Dublin, the group will visit the Gate Theater, which was co-founded in 1928 by actor and impresario Micheál Mac Liammóir and his partner, the actor Hilton Edwards. While in Père Lachaise, the group will also visit the graves of such luminaries as Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, and even two late 19th-century male officers who have been buried together.

Lear laughs that one young gay journalist said to an older one on a press tour of the sites that it was “really refreshing to talk about Oscar Wilde rather than Kim and Kanye.” For Lear, “People are so wrapped up with the issues of today that they have less time to track down the various experiences that came behind them. History opens up patterns of thinking about things. We’re so wrapped up in gay history, post-Stonewall, that we forget the many experiences and events and lives before that.”

For 2015, Lear is planning a gay history tour of Italy, “From Caesar to Michelangelo and Beyond,” which will take in Rome, Naples, and Florence, and the year after that to Greece, with stays in Athens and Mycenae. After that, American tours of New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles are planned.

Lear emails me after our conversation talking up the Hotel Scribe in Paris, where the group will stay, eulogizing their house tea-blend with the honey the proprietors harvest on the roof. “But perhaps even more important, the hotel has tons of gay history associations, and there is no way you could find that out, or put it all together, without knowing a fair amount first and then going there to investigate. A few bits: the Jockey Club, dear to Proust, Swann, and Montesquiou/Charlus (to mix history with fiction), was in the hotel (as was the Grand Café, one of the main cafés of late 19th-century Paris, where a movie was projected in public for the first time), and a number of major gay historical figures lived at the hotel at different times, including Josephine Baker and Diaghilev.”

Next, Lear sends me a picture of the lion monument in Chaironeia, in Greece—“a monument to the crack regiment of late Classical Greece, which famously arranged its battle line by lovers/beloved pairs—because of course to the ancient Greeks, such pairings guaranteed maximum courage.”

Professor Lear’s passion is obvious and probably infectious, so I hope they take a little side-turn when they’re in London, and search out Orton’s top-floor apartment in Islington. The green plaque may be modest, while the story behind it—like so much hidden and little-known in gay history—is anything but.