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Oscar Wilde and the Age of the Modern Celebrity in Washington

It turns out Oscar Wilde and Kim Kardashian could have something in common.
Oscar Wilde, left, in a portrait taken on his US tour. The Arlington Hotel, right, where Oscar Wilde had an awkward encounter with novelist Henry James. Photograph of Wilde courtesy of the Library of Congress; Arlington Hotel courtesy of John Deferrari.

Did being famous for being famous—credited to reality stars like Kim Kardashian—actually start in Washington?

On January 24, 1882, at the Arlington Hotel on DC’s Vermont Avenue, an uncomfortable meeting took place between British aesthete Oscar Wilde and novelist Henry James. At the time, Wilde—who had yet to write anything of note—was drawing huge crowds to his lectures on art, and in society he was cutting a lascivious figure in tight velvet coats and lavender gloves. Author David Friedman, who tells the tale in his new book, Wilde in America, says James and his friends disapproved of Wilde. Clover Adams, a Washington socialite, referred to Wilde as a “noodle”—a sly knock on his masculinity. Friedman suspects James went to the Arlington Hotel anyway because “he knew this was a dividing line between the past, when you became famous for what you did, and the new age, in which you could be famous just for existing.” James’s visit, Friedman speculates, was a genuflection to this new mode of celebrity.

It seems a kind of historical revisionism to link Wilde with the likes of the Kardashians, but the hallmarks of his approach are certainly still visible. Wilde cozied up to the right sort of people, only to create a commotion—Friedman compares Wilde’s lectures to comedian Russell Brand’s 2013 appearance on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, when he ripped his interviewers for their shallow questions. Lady Gaga or Ellen DeGeneres would recognize in Adams’s nervousness about Wilde the power of forcing people to face their prejudices.

What Oscar Wilde had that today’s “famous for nothing” may lack is an endgame. After his successful US launch, Wilde leveraged the attention into an enduring literary career as the author of The Importance of Being Earnest, one of the funniest plays in English. Kim Kardashian’s endgame, by contrast, is already—so to speak—behind her.

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