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Oscar Wilde's Paris tomb made safe from dangerous kisses

AFP · 30 Nov 2011, 14:44

Published: 30 Nov 2011 10:44 GMT+01:00
Updated: 30 Nov 2011 14:44 GMT+01:00

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Oscar Wilde's renovated Paris tomb was unveiled on Wednesday, complete with a new glass barrier to shield the monument to the quintessential dandy from a torrent of admiring kisses.

Kiss upon lipsticked kiss in honour of Wilde, who died penniless aged 46 in a Paris hotel room in 1900, has worn down the elegant tomb in Pere Lachaise cemetery, as grease from tourist lips sinks into the stonework.

A large crowd of journalists and well-wishers turned out for the ceremony, under cold but bright winter sunshine on the tree-lined alleys of the famous burial ground, where fresh flowers were piling up.

The tomb, designed by modernist sculptor Jacob Epstein with a flying Assyrian-style angel, survived almost unscathed until 1985, except for the angel's genitals being hacked off, according to the Irish Cultural Centre.

Then, the expense of cleaning operations to deal with increasing graffiti on the tomb led the descendants of Wilde and of his friend and executor Robert Ross to try, successfully, to get it listed as an historic monument.

The hope was that fines of thousands of euros for defacing the monument would deter fans of the author of "The Importance of Being Earnest."

But in 1999 the graffiti was replaced by a much more worrying phenomenon when someone had the idea of planting a large, lipsticked kiss on the tomb, sparking a craze for Wilde's many admirers visiting Paris.

"The grease base of the lipstick penetrates the stone and long after the colouring pigments have faded, a grease 'shadow' is still visible," the Irish Cultural Centre said in a statement.

The glass should shield the tomb, but one wellwisher had planted a rosy red kiss on a nearby tree.

Wilde's grandson, Merlin Holland, said he would have loved all the fuss.

"It's not a good time for the world in general, with the financial crisis, but at least one country believes in culture and the people of Ireland have come up trumps," he said.

"If my grandfather had been here he would have loved the attention. The attention has always been given over the last 30 years with notes and then lipstick but now art has to triumph over what the French call 'degradation'.

"Inevitably people will try to climb over the glass, but glass is fragile and people will perceive it as such. Maybe one day we can take it down when the memory of kissing Oscar is gone," he said.

Wilde left London after serving two years in prison for homosexuality, a crime in the eyes of Victorian society, and never regained the creative impetus that had made him a hugely popular, if controversial, playwright.

When the disgraced Irishman died of meningitis in a Paris hotel, famously remarking that "My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One of us has got to go," he was initially given a "sixth class burial" outside Paris.

Story continues below…

His friends, in particular his literary executor Ross, managed to annul Wilde's bankruptcy, buy a plot at Pere Lachaise and have Wilde's body transferred to its more dignified and appropriately Gothic surroundings.

Ross's own remains were in 1950 placed inside the tomb, which is a big draw but nevertheless fared better than the nearby much-abused grave of Doors singer Jim Morrison, who died in Paris in 1971 at the age of 27.

A ceremony to unveil the new Wilde tomb on Wednesday, exactly 111 years after his death, was to be attended by Irish and French officials as well as Holland and British actor Rupert Everett.

Everett, who came out as gay in the 1980s, starred in the 2002 film version of "The Importance of Being Earnest".

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