Dolly Wilde – a woman who left behind nothing except vivid memories

I’ve recently finished a fascinating biography. Dorothy Wilde, known as Dolly, was Oscar Wilde’s niece, and although she didn’t match his literary achievements, she had a life every bit as colourful as his, and her story is one of Paris, literary salons, and decadence.

Dolly was born in London just three months after Oscar’s arrest for ‘gross indecency’ in 1895, for which he was eventually jailed. Dolly never met her illustrious uncle but idolised him. In adult life she resembled him in both looks and personality, sometimes even dressing as him. Her father, Willie was an alcoholic with money problems, never having emerged from his brother’s shadow, and died when Dolly was an infant, leaving her mother, stepfather and aunt to raise her.

In 1914, Dolly became an ambulance driver in France during the First World War, an enjoyable phase of her life in which she developed a lifelong love of driving. Here she had her first affair with a woman, Marion Carstairs. When the war was over, Dolly spent much of her time in Paris, becoming a party girl, legendary wit and gifted storyteller, but although many considered her a born writer, she never transferred her talent with words to the written page, apart from her memorable letters (always written on stolen hotel paper). The world of Paris in the twenties was a golden age for women, the age of Chanel, where women began to wear trousers, smoke, and have relationships with other women. It was also an era of decadence, of jazz music, Art Deco and Josephine Baker.

The love of Dolly’s life was Natalie Clifford Barney, an American writer almost twenty years her senior, who hosted the most famed of the Paris literary salons of the twenties and thirties. Among Natalie’s guests were W. Somerset Maugham, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and T. S. Eliot. But Dolly was the most talked about of all; guests were enchanted by her striking beauty and astounding conversational skill; as well as being an entertaining speaker she was a good listener.

Sadly, Dolly inherited not only her uncle’s wit but his susceptibility to tragedy. Her relationship with Natalie Barney was turbulent – both had affairs but Natalie’s were conducted with less sensitivity than Dolly’s – and ultimately caused her more pain than pleasure. Her life was also plagued by addiction, to alcohol and drugs, including cocaine and heroin. Like her father, she was hopeless with money and only ever scraped by financially, often relying on the generosity of her many friends.

In 1939, Dolly was diagnosed with breast cancer but refused conventional treatment, instead seeking alternative therapies. In 1941, when rumours of the impending Nazi invasion of France abounded, she returned to England. She was found dead in her apartment later that year, and the cause of her death was never established: she may have died from the cancer, but a number of empty pill bottles were also found in the apartment. At 45, she was almost exactly the same age as Oscar and Willie when they died.

Most of my Herstory blog posts have been of women who achieved great things. But Dolly’s legacy is a different one. While it’s easy to see hers as a squandered life, she had a great capacity for love and was regarded with affection by everyone who met her. She continues to be talked about today.