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PROFILE: Dolly Wilde, Oscar’s Non-Stop Niece!

He may have been a right, chancy rascal, but the late Malcolm McLaren – like all shrewd rogues – had his fingers firmly on the cultural pulse. Over 30 years ago – at the peak of New Romanticism – our seedy shaman produced Bow Wow Wow’s debut album, ‘Go Wild In The Country’, which infamously featured a nude, barely age-legal girl on the sleeve. Was he unconsciously echoing the mad-as-methedrine hi-jinks of Dolly Wilde, the inexplicably obscure niece of Oscar? Who knows, but my money’s on a yes; just like Viv Westwood, his one-time partner, our Malcolm’s mind was a culture vulture personified, a slapdash but encyclopedic reservoir of fine art.

Which brings us, directly, to Miz Dolly Wilde herself, the daughter of Oscar’s unintentionally, ludicrously-named brother, Willie. As financially incompetent as Oscar himself, always spending his last pennies on ferocious, rotgut whisky at the expense of food, Willie may have been ‘one of the finest journalists in London’ according to Oscar biographer Frank Harris, but he stank, big-time, as a lover, husband and father.

Poor Dolly. God knows what abuse she suffered, but even more thoroughly than 1960s, child-killer Mary Bell, Dolly erased every scrap of her upbringing. Even today, with forensic investigative methods, her childhood remains one huge, tantalising blank. All we know for certain is Dolly’s mother, Lily Wilde, had an excellent second marriage, and left Dolly a modest inheritance.

Truly Wilde: The Unsettling Story Of Dolly Wilde, Oscar's Unusual Niece
Truly Wilde: The Unsettling Story Of Dolly Wilde, Oscar’s Unusual Niece

But screw conjecture – let’s chow down on the raw, Sapphic oysters of Dolly’s documented life. Frantically leaving England in 1914, she enlisted as a Red Cross ambulance driver in the First World War trenches. Me, I’d call that a death-wish, but free spirit Dolly obviously wanted more than the suffocating overtures of a sex she couldn’t stand.

So, did she find her juicy-fruits, Scissor Sisters idyll? You bet! See, the Red Cross Corps dripped with frustrated oestrogen, AC/DC chicks who’d dumped clueless, English penetration for the languid eroticisms of muff-diving en masse. Frankly, Dolly adored riding a big, throbbing motor through unpredictable terrain, the perfect metaphor for her own, wayward clitoris.

Naturally, any thought of returning to post-war England sucked big-time. No problem; she had an unlikely, Sapphic saviour, none other than the fabulously wealthy, Paris-based Natalie Barney, the Oz-like, Glinda the Good to cultured dykes worldwide. The daughter of an American industrialist, Natalie, bizarrely, had once met Oscar Wilde in her infancy whilst her family entertained him on his American tour. Of course, it’s almost too tempting to argue he sparked her nascent, incredibly promiscuous future lesbianism, but his example certainly inspired her to create her renowned, queer salon in Paris.

Okay, Natalie was no hot-shakes personally – she was dumpy, frumpy and cursed with a penchant for poxy poetry – but no tres chic dykes alive could resist the comforts of her (conservatively estimated) five-million dollar fortune, a fairy-tale asset in 1920.

So no wonder Barney – a born control freak – set her sights on Dolly. Like all rich nobodies, she thought she could buy mystique, and, addicted, to the cult of Oscar, wanted her very own piece of the legacy. Of course, it didn’t hurt that Dolly – in youth, at least – was staggeringly beautiful, lacking Oscar’s rotten, buck teeth and physical awkwardness. But there was a price for being ensconced in Natalie’s lair of luxury – being expected to be ‘on’, 24-7. Sure, Dolly’s non-stop wit, poeticism and stunning, conversational skills were the wonder of Europe, but they were fuelled by two, eventually lethal vices: ‘Uncle Henry’ – Heroin – and Paraldehyde, a viciously strong, sleeping mixture. In fact, Dolly was so often so exhausted by singing for her supper that she’d blithely shoot up at the supper table, with merely cursory attempts to hide the marriage of her hypodermic and thighs.

Had she inherited Oscar’s blatant death-wish? Probably; like a female, Jimmy Bond, she drove big, fast cars – Bugattis and Cords – with the mania of medivac calls in the trenches, simultaneously terrifying her lovers and getting their panties soaked with sex.

So, how come we’ve barely heard of this hellfire harpy, the Courtney Love of her day, high on smack and literal, tyre-shredding speed?  Well, because, unlike Oscar, she strictly confined her art to her life, to doing, not writing, and her sole legacy is a slim booklet of her lovers’ reminiscences of Dolly compiled by Miss Barney.

Still, no Wilde tale would be complete without a car-crash ending, and Dolly -typically – died a rock star’s death, found dead in a Chelsea hotel, OD’d on smack and 7(!) empty bottles of paraldehyde. Hell, even the doctor performing her autopsy said her ‘innards stank of the chemical’ – a cocktail of ether and offal – but so what? Isn’t it better to burn up than fade away? Unlike Uncle Oscar, who she somehow never met but thoroughly eclipsed in socialite graces, this Wilde died with the accelerator nailed to the floor!

Truly Wilde: The Unsettling Story Of Dolly Wilde, Oscar’s Unusual Niece by Joan Schenkar.

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Lesbian Social in West London pub on 1st August 2024

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