Grave Sightings: Oscar Wilde

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For years, every time we so much as touch a toe out of state, I’ve put cemeteries on our travel itinerary. From garden-like expanses to overgrown boot hills, whether they’re the final resting places of the well-known but not that important or the important but not that well-known, I love them all. After realizing that there are a lot of taphophiles (cemetery and/or tombstone enthusiasts) out there, I’m finally putting my archive of interesting tombstones to good use.

Just because he died 114 years ago doesn’t mean Oscar Wilde’s proclivity for raising eyebrows has diminished.

Eight years after the Irish writer died of cerebral meningitis (another controversy, as some say it was brought on by syphilis), sculptor Jacob Epstein was chosen to carve a monument-esque tombstone out of a 20-ton block of Hopton Wood stone. The figure on the tomb, described as a “demonic flying angel,” displayed an extra large set of genitalia, perhaps to represent the abundant personality of the permanent resident underneath the stone. Or his extra large libido. Either way, the keeper of Père Lachaise Cemetery declared the statue indecent due to the exaggerated size of the stone's stones. The Prefect of the Seine demanded that the angel either be castrated or given a modesty fig leaf, and for a time, the whole thing was concealed by a tarp. The angel was eventually given a bronze, butterfly-shaped codpiece—because that’s certainly not attention-grabbing—which lasted until Aleister Crowley (yes, the Aleister Crowley) snatched the offending butterfly off to protest censorship of the arts:

I detached the butterfly and put it under my waistcoat. The gatekeeper did not notice how portly I had become. When I reached London, I put on evening dress and affixed the butterfly to my own person in the same way as previously to the statue, in the interests of modesty, and then marched into the Cafe Royal, to the delight of the assembled multitude. Epstein himself happened to be there and it was a glorious evening. By the time he had understood my motives, that I was honestly indignant at the outrage to him and determined to uphold the privileges of the artists.

Legend has it that two English ladies were strolling cemetery grounds decades later—1961, to be exact—when they happened upon the brazen tombstone. Offended, they grabbed large rocks and pounded away until the statue was sexless. The severed pieces, it’s said, ended up serving as a paperweight in the Père Lachaise conservation office.

And if a pair of brass tombstone testicles isn’t enough taboo for you, there’s more. For decades, women (and men) who have dropped by Père Lachaise to pay Oscar a visit have covered the stone monument in thousands of lipstick kisses. Though it may seem like a fitting tribute, the grease from the lip prints of so many adoring fans began to erode the stonework. In 2011, much to the chagrin of many fans, a glass partition was built to keep the kisses at bay. Here's what it looked like when I was there in 2002:

Not only is this long before the glass wall was erected, it was also slightly before digital cameras were ubiquitous. I’m hoping the latter explains why I was satisfied with taking such a crappy picture from so far away. At the time, I remember thinking that the kisses were actually part of the tombstone design. 

This is what Wilde's plot looks like today (from a different angle, of course).

Read all the entries in our Grave Sightings series here.

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January 30, 2014 - 1:00pm
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