Where does one begin with Dolly Wilde?
She’s a Left Bank star who is remembered via the impressions other people had of her – appearing in memoirs and memories and even in a specially-created tribute book published after her death by her lover Natalie Barney. But apart from her letters, Dolly never fulfilled her potential to be a writer on her own terms. And so it’s her fate to be written by others.
That’s not such a bad thing. Dolly was determined to create her own legend – to be memorialised and immortalised. And she certainly succeeded in that.
Born just three months after her uncle Oscar was arrested, Dolly grew up in poverty with a violently alcoholic father and a pretty but downtrodden mother; the family living with the so-called “shame” of Oscar’s so-called “crimes”. A bright and pretty child with an uncanny resemblance to her uncle (one she would play up to as an adult), Dolly used to dip sugar lumps in her mother’s perfume and eat them.
When World War One broke out, Dolly made a break for independence and became an ambulance driver. Her experience is shared by many young women of the period – an ambivalence between the sheer horror and destruction of war, and the new freedom it allowed women to go to work and escape the confines of Edwardian girlhood. At the Front, Dolly met her early lovers and there’s a charming anecdote in Alice B Toklas’ cookbook where she and Gertrude meet Dolly in Nimes and Dolly gifts them two duck eggs.
After the war, Dolly joined many of lesbian contemporaries moved to Paris and threw herself wholeheartedly into bohemian living. She was famed for her witty conversation, her bons-mots, her party spirit, her love of speed and her beautiful hands. Arriving in Paris she took many lovers, including Janet Flanner, who wrote fondly of her throughout her life.
In 1927, Dolly attended Natalie Barney’s famous salon on Rue Jacob. The two women fell in love and maintained a relationship until Dolly’s death. Their affair was incredibly passionate and long-lasting, but also incredibly painful. Natalie was notoriously unfaithful to her lovers and was also involved in an even more long-term relationship with the artist Romaine Brooks. When Romaine called, then Dolly was pushed aside. It wasn’t a state of affairs that she was used to – nor one she easily accepted.
Witty, beautiful, fun-loving and passionate –yet Dolly’s life was scarred with sadness and horror. Her love of speed and dangerous pleasures moved from fast cars and even faster women to alcoholism and heroin addiction. She attempted suicide on more than one occasion – particularly when relations were rocky between her and Natalie. And although she tried again and again to kick her drug habit, none of her attempts succeeded. Her life grew wilder and wilder, and she became more and more out of control. As well as inheriting Oscar’s wit, she had also inherited her father’s addictive tendencies to self-destruction.
It’s almost impossible to match up the desperately ill Dolly and the legend of her that she so carefully cultivated and performed to the world. The gorgeous, voluptuous woman with her jokes and clever conversation, living side-by-side with the addict who has scars down her arms.
Dolly returned to London when war broke out in France. Shortly afterwards, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Refusing surgery and seeking alternative treatments, she added sleeping pills to her list of addictions. She died aged only 41 – half in bed, half out of it. The coroner was unable to ascertain whether it was cancer or an overdose that killed her.