cover image Truly Wilde: The Unsettling Story of Dolly Wilde, Oscar's Unusual Niece

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

Joan Schenkar. Basic Books, $30 (400pp) ISBN 978-0-465-08772-3

Dolly Wilde, born the year Oscar Wilde went to prison, bore a striking resemblance to her famous uncle and spent her life both burdened and animated by his legend. She inherited much of his charm, a portion of his wit and none of his genius. Consequently, she left behind little of substance save the fond recollections of her friends and lovers, among them salon hostess Natalie Clifford Barney, New Yorker Paris correspondent Janet Flanner and Russian actress Alla Nazimova, and several bundles of love letters. Such a dearth of achievement leaves a biographer at a considerable disadvantage. The playwright Joan Schenkar, who appears to have fallen as much under Dolly's spell as any of her contemporaries, resolves these difficulties by approaching Dolly's life thematically, inventing and dramatizing in the absence of fact, interpreting what facts there are from a variety of perspectives. Such an approach requires her to ignore chronology and with it whatever impact the larger historical and political context may have had on Dolly's development. What emerges is a flamboyant sketch of that glittering, often frantic, sometimes brilliant society of rich lesbians that flourished between the wars in London and Paris. In this milieu, Dolly seems a kind of lesbian Zelda Fitzgerald, self-destructive, addicted, often foolish and, by the end of her brief life, quite sad. Schenkar strives valiantly to make of Dolly's life a tragic work of art. While she is able to convey Dolly's charm and attractiveness, she is not quite as successful in convincing the reader that her subject is sufficiently consequential to merit a full-length biography. Illus. (Nov. 30)