This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News on June 13, 1937
Mrs. Conover’s Corner: Oscar Wilde in Dayton
Famous Author’s Visit In 1882 and What He Thought Of The City
BY CHARLOTTE REEVE CONOVER
A recent book entitled “Oscar Wilde Discovers America“ contains one chapter which is a delicious bit of Dayton’s past history. It refers to the late ‘70s, at which time the Gilbert and Sullivan operas were poking fun at that coterie of highbrow culturists, led by Oscar Wilde, who enlivened the social and musical world of London with their strutting about in velvet knee breeches, posing with a sunflower in hand, and “uttering platitudes in stained-glass attitudes.”
The most modern of our young set don’t even know what the Oscar Wilde tradition is. Those who know the Gilbert and Sullivan operas know them not for the political and social sarcasms which they exemplified, but only by their gay airs and choruses. Sullivan was the light-opera composer of all time, and Gilbert the librettist whose satire found its musical outlet and always hit the mark.
Today when I, an old timer, sit in a theater and listen to the tuning up of the orchestra, I am always reminded of Gilbert’s stanza:
A squeak’s heard in the orchestra
As the leader draws across
The intestine of the agile cat
The tail of the noble hoss.
It was in 1882 that Oscar Wilde, on a tour of America, came to Dayton under the auspices, I believe, of the art class of Isaac Broome. Cincinnati was then glorifying her Rockwood pottery, Dayton, not to be outdone, had a pottery on Summit. St. Its class was under the direction of Mr. Broome, and the entire feminine world, it seemed, was set to painting chinaware.
In my efforts to locate someone who would refresh my fading memories on this subject, I had a sad experience, not unfamiliar, I’ll vouchsafe, to others of my age. Who were the Dayton women occupied in that day in forwarding our cultural standards? Mrs. J. B. Thresher, dead; Rebecca Strickle, dead; Rebecca Rogers, gone; Belle Edgar, gone; Martha Perrine, gone; Florence Gebhart, gone; Sally Rogers, gone; Carrie Brown, gone; and so on down the list the fatal asterisk appeared beside every name.
The chapter in the book in question dealing with Oscar Wilde in Dayton revealed some amazing things about our city. He came and was taken in charge by the leaders in art and shown our most outstanding enterprises. The record says he was driven to the Soldiers’ Home, which every visitor was obliged to see in those 1880 days. Incidentally, as he crossed the bridge over the Miami river, he approved of the spirit which preserved the Indian nomenclature in so many of our localities.
In viewing the then new Third St. Presbyterian church, he said the stained-glass windows were not up to the mark, and that the pilasters on each side of the Ludlow st. entrance should have been of granite instead of marble.
He was then asked to inspect the Montgomery co. jail which had just recently been completed. The only thing we know about that, however, is that he was driven rapidly away, which possibly indicated his state of mind.
He was interviewed by a “star” reporter who accounted as faithfully as possible Oscar Wilde’s estimates of the artistic spirit in our city. He was asked what he thought of our buildings, our homes, etc.
During the discussion he voiced particularly his disapproval of the fact that in every handsomely appointed hotel bedroom containing irreproachable furniture, rugs and what not, there was also a huge ugly stove with a large pipe stretching toward the ceiling and turning an abrupt corner into the wall.
This will doubtless come as a distinct shock to those of us who in these central heating days of modern building construction have almost forgotten the fact that at one time we depended on a stove to heat each room in our homes.
Mr. Wilde, it appears, gave a lecture at the Victory theater which was well attended. The audience consisted of that group of art-loving people who came to learn as much as possible from his discussion, and the curiosity-mongers who came to gaze at a man who appeared to be very much in need of a hair cut, and was wearing purple velvet knee breeches.
The audience hung with reverential rapture on Mr. Wilde’s pronouncements. They felt that for the time being they were transported to Belgravia, and Belgravia was a good deal farther from Main st. in 1882 than it now is.
There were, however, a few ribald souls who remarked to each other privately that Mr. Wilde’s legs, long and straight and slim, encased in black silk stockings, looked so much like stove-pipes that it was surprising he didn’t control his sarcasm against the latter.
Of those who were in that audience only two are left in Dayton: Mrs. Werthner and Miss Annie Campbell. They alone remember the china-painting days, the sunflower days, the stove-pipe days, the Oscar Wilde days, the Gilbert and Sullivan days.