THE BLOG
10/16/2014 08:19 am ET Updated Dec 16, 2014

How Oscar Wilde Invented Celebrity Culture In America

Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was born today, one hundred and sixty-four years ago, in Dublin. His mother, Jane Elgee Wilde, a poet of some repute in Ireland and no stranger to self-aggrandizement--she claimed, with no evidence, to be descended from Dante--immediately predicted greatness for her second son, just as she had for her first, William Robert Kingsbury Wills Wilde, two years earlier. She'd be wrong about Willie, who became a hack journalist in London with a fondness for whiskey and gin. But she was certainly right about Oscar. Though it hardly needs restating, Wilde would become the greatest comic dramatist in the history of the English theater, the writer of peerlessly witty plays such as The Importance of Being Earnest, Lady Windermere's Fan, and An Ideal Husband - all of which are regularly produced today - as well as the intensely psychological novel The Picture of Doran Gray, a book still in print more than a century after it was first published.

It just might be, however, that Wilde's most enduring legacy isn't literary. It is cultural, in the largest sense of that term. For Oscar Wilde did more than create a body of work that's now in the Western canon. He created an enduring part of the world we all live in.

That part isn't a geographical entity. It is a constellation of values, attitudes, and poses. It is a mind-set where everyone thinks they could be famous and, even more to the point, should be. It is a belief system in which "celebrity," a word that once referred exclusively to persons of achievement--artists, athletes, politicians, and so on, even criminals, who left their mark on history through their deeds--has expanded its meaning to include persons famous merely for being famous, a status won by manipulating the media. It is a worldview where fame isn't the end product of a career but the beginning of one. It is the part of modern life we call celebrity culture.

Wilde called it into existence in 1882 in America, where he engaged in a nearly yearlong speaking tour, a tour de force of showmanship--and, more often than not, showboatmanship--that touched down in thirty states, covered approximately fifteen thousand miles, generated more than five hundred newspaper and magazine articles, earned him more money than he had ever earned in his life, and, when it was over, made him the second-most-famous Briton in America, behind only Queen Victoria. (Not bad for a writer who, at this point in his career, had only written a self-published book of poems and an unproduced play.) This "product launch" was all the more remarkable because Wilde had no training in business and only a little more in public speaking. In an era populated by several of the greatest product marketers in America's history--a list that includes H. J. Heinz, Milton Hershey, and Levi Strauss--Oscar Wilde, whose only product was a self-adoring dandy named Oscar Wilde, may have been the best of them all.

Other Europeans--Dickens and Tocqueville, to name but two--had toured our country before Wilde. But they came to learn about America; Wilde came so America could learn about him. Meeting his audiences in an impossible-to-ignore ensemble--satin breeches, black silk stockings, silver-buckled pumps, and a snug velvet coat with lace trim--Wilde sold himself to the American public as a "Professor of Aesthetics," a title for which he had no authentic certification, in roughly one hundred fifty lectures (most of them on interior decorating) that brought him face to face with farmers, poets, socialites, preachers, factory workers, prospectors, prostitutes, southern belles, Harvard intellectuals, and, if a newspaper account is accurate, a detachment of Texas Rangers who bestowed upon him the rank of colonel.

Traveling by rail, carriage, and, when absolutely necessary, mule, Wilde spoke on tasteful home design to crowds ranging from twenty-five to twenty-five hundred, often embellishing his advice with excerpts from his favorite poems. Maybe it's not surprising some American reporters mocked him as an "ass-thete" and, when other insults failed, as "she." But those rude hacks underestimated their target. Beneath Wilde's delicate persona--the rouge-wearing dandy languidly flinging his hand to his brow as he sang the praises of sconces and embroidered pillows--was a man on a serious mission: to make himself a star, no matter how little he had done (so far) to deserve it.

A stranger in a strange land, Wilde crisscrossed the country from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, at times joined by a valet, business manager, and, according to letters written to friends in London, two secretaries. He sold autographed photos of himself in theater lobbies, at women's clubs, and, on at least one occasion, at an amusement park. He was the featured guest at nearly two hundred parties, where he often heard an orchestra play "Oscar Dear!" ("Oscar dear, Oscar dear, How utterly, flutterly utter you are; Oscar dear, Oscar dear, I think you are awfully wild!"), "The Oscar Wilde Forget Me Not Waltz," and similar ditties composed in his honor. And like most stars, he made a point of socializing with other stars, breakfasting with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in Boston, drinking homemade wine with Walt Whitman in Camden, New Jersey, and dining with Louisa May Alcott, Henry Ward Beecher, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry James, and (one wonders how many people could say this in 1882) both Ulysses S. Grant and Jefferson Davis--though not, in this final instance, at the same time.

No matter whom he drank toasts with, Wilde was clearheaded about his goal, devising a groundbreaking strategy for manufacturing fame--one that is still used by many aspiring celebrities today, whether they know it or not. Decades before Norman Mailer, Wilde knew the value of "advertisements for myself." Decades before Andy Warhol, he saw the beauty in commerce and the importance of image in marketing.

Decades before Kim Kardashian, he grasped that fame could be fabricated in the media. Decades before TMZ or Us Weekly, Oscar Wilde created celebrity culture.

David M. Friedman is the author of Wilde in America: Oscar Wilde and the Invention of Modern Celebrity.