Queerly Departed: How a Search for LGBTQ+ Stories in Laurel Hill Led to Dinner with Oscar Wilde

by Jen Lynch, Laurel Hill Cemetery research intern and tour guide in-training

Voices From Beyond the Grave

q1Should you ever visit Washington, D.C.’s Congressional Cemetery, keep an eye out for a foot stone that reads “Gay is Good.” If you find it, you’ll know you’ve arrived in a section of the cemetery lovingly referred to by staff as “the gay corner,” which boasts many LGBTQ+ activists and veterans among its permanent residents and was founded in 1988 as a protest against the notorious J. Edgar Hoover, who is buried nearby. This particular stone memorializes Frank Kameny, who coined the phrase “Gay is Good” in the 1960s and is known as the father of the modern gay rights movement. Nearby rests Barbara Gittings, who fought for homosexuality to be struck from the American Psychiatric Association’s list of mental illnesses. She shares a gravestone with her partner, Kay Tobin Lahusen, who is still living, which reads, “Gay Pioneers who spoke truth to power… Partners in Life, Married in Our Hearts.”q2

 

 

What does this have to do with Laurel Hill, you ask? Congressional Cemetery’s gay corner represents a modern victory for LGBTQ+ rights; in contrast, about 90% of Laurel Hill’s burials occurred before the 1960s, relegating the stories here to a much earlier chapter of this struggle. Kameny and Gittings purposefully declared their sexual orientation loudly and proudly on their monuments, ensuring their stories and struggles would not be forgotten. These stones make powerful statements as, even today, members of the LGBTQ+ community can face suppression of their identities after death, whether in the form of restrictive cemetery rules, misrepresentation in obituaries, or the choices of disapproving family members. At Laurel Hill, the majority of permanent residents lived during a time when it was not only unsafe but often illegal to openly be a part of the queer community; if any of them identified as queer, they likely wouldn’t have been able to express themselves before or after death. It shouldn’t be surprising then that the closest inscriptions you’ll find to those in Congressional Cemetery are a few monuments with the surname “Gay” in Sections J and W. When time and historical oppression have erased queer voices, what is a researcher to do when searching for departed members of the LGBTQ+ community in Laurel Hill?

The answer is a complicated one. Unfortunately, none of Laurel Hill’s lot folders include notes that proclaim, “By the way, I’m gay!” Confounding matters, the terms that make up the acronym “LGBTQ+” did not even exist yet in their modern definitions, limiting search terms for historic archives and newspapers. This leaves researchers to read between the lines for information about the “queer” community, an encompassing term implying variance from mainstream, hetero-normative society. For instance, an obituary may describe a deceased man as being a “lifelong bachelor.” Census records may show that a deceased woman named her life-long female roommate as the executrix and main beneficiary of her will. While it is tempting to declare such finds as proof, we do not want to misrepresent our permanent residents by labeling them post-mortem with specific terms they might not have identified with, especially when those terms may not have existed during their lifetimes.

We will continue our research, however, to responsibly piece together information about those who did not lead hetero-normative gender or sexual lives; these stories deserve to be told even if they defy clear modern labels. Ironically, the story we did uncover for Pride month highlights the struggle for queer voices to be heard during the Victorian era. It features a permanent resident who not only brought together two of the world’s most celebrated queer authors, but who went on to commission and then censor a famous novel that is now a major part of LGBTQ+ history.

A Publisher, A Play, and Two Poets

Joseph Marshall Stoddart, Jr., born on August 10, 1845, must have made his father proud. Joseph Sr. was known as the Napoleon of Trade thanks to his thriving mercantile career, and his son would grow up to be just as successful. Joseph Jr. didn’t take up the family business though; he was drawn to the literary world from a young age and decided to pursue publishing. These plans came to a temporary pause however during the height of the Civil War. Stoddart joined Company E of the 33rd Regiment, PA Volunteer Infantry, an emergency troop mustered to help win the fight at Gettysburg. Thankfully, he survived the battle and his publishing dreams took shape upon his return home. Stoddart joined the J.B. Lippincott & Co. publishing house and his success only grew from there. He ended up with his own publishing company, J. M. Stoddart & Co., where he published numerous books and musical scores. Ironically, one of the books he published was a memoir of Robert E. Lee, whose troops Stoddart faced in Gettysburg. He also published his own journal, Stoddart’s Review and was the editor of Collier’s Weekly for a time. Stoddart remained a star of the publishing world until his death on February 25, 1921; his legacy remains today thanks to a number of famous works that are still recognized worldwide.

stoddart
Joseph Marshall Stoddart, Jr. now resides in Laurel Hill. You can find him in Section T – Lot 113 with his wife Isabella.

One such publication got him in hot water after it took America by storm in 1878. Stoddart reprinted and sold a new, 21 volume edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica; he had salesmen going door to door across the nation selling subscriptions to the compendium. It turns out Stoddart hadn’t quite gotten permission from the Encyclopædia Britannica’s original publishers, however; though he was taken to court, he escaped unscathed thanks to the more lenient copyright law of the time.

 

q3Despite this legal hiccup, Stoddart was living large by 1882. He had just secured the exclusive rights to publish Gilbert and Sullivan’s popular plays in America and was about to make a tidy profit from their latest offering, a play called Patience. The three men were a little nervous whether the show would be a hit with American audiences though; it mocked the aesthetic movement and its cry of “art for art’s sake,” a very British phenomenon that Yankees might not understand. To prep audiences, the decision was made to send Oscar Wilde, the personification of the aesthetic movement, on a lecture tour to the States. Stoddart was Wilde’s host for a portion of the tour and had planned some publicity stunts to capitalize off of his guest’s visit.

Little did Stoddart know that the result of one of these plans would become the stuff of legend. Knowing that Wilde desired a meeting, Stoddart contacted Walt Whitman, asking the poet if he’d like to attend a reception in Wilde’s honor followed by a very public carriage ride with Wilde around town. Whitman, in poor health, declined and instead had Stoddart and Wilde over to his home in Camden, New Jersey, for homemade elderberry wine. No longer a publicity stunt, but a meeting of the minds, Wilde and Whitman discussed poetry and literature, exchanging pictures of themselves before parting. These two poets, now lauded as some of history’s foremost queer writers, left quite an impression on each other. Whitman recalled Wilde as “a great, big, splendid boy” and Wilde felt that Whitman was “the grandest man [he] had ever seen.”

 “A Golden Evening” – Dinner with Oscar and Arthur

Stoddart was living even larger come 1889. Patience had been a success, plus he scored a new job as the editor for the popular Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, a literary journal that published original works and literary criticism. Adding to this success, his professional connections to Oscar Wilde were about to pay off big time, as Stoddart launched his plan to secure two new novels for the magazine. Step one: have a fancy dinner with Oscar Wilde and Arthur Conan Doyle. On August 30, 1889, the three met in London at the Langham Hotel for dinner, drinks, and deals; Conan Doyle remembered the night in his personal journal as “a golden evening.” Stoddart convinced both authors to write novels for the magazine; Conan produced The Sign of Four, the second Sherlock Holmes novel, and Wilde produced The Picture of Dorian Gray, his first and only novel.

q4
This plaque on the wall of the Langham Hotel, unveiled in 2010, commemorates Joseph M. Stoddart’s meeting with Oscar Wilde and Arthur Conan Doyle.

Why You’ve Probably Never Read the Real Dorian Gray

The shine of the “golden evening” spent dining with Oscar Wilde started to dim for Stoddart the second that The Picture of Dorian Gray hit his desk. After reading it through, Stoddart wrote to his publisher that “in its present condition, there are a number of things an innocent woman would make an exception to.” What was Stoddart so nervous to publish? Wilde’s novel called Dorian Gray’s lovers “mistresses,” a scandalous term at the time, and more shockingly included passages alluding to homosexuality and homosexual desire, including a mention of the fictional book responsible for corrupting Dorian, Le Secret de Raoul. (Spoiler Alert: Raoul’s secret? He’s gay.) While its unclear whether Stoddart took moral offense himself, he sure didn’t think that readers were ready for Wilde’s writing; he and his fellow editors deleted roughly 500 words before publishing The Picture of Dorian Gray in the July 1890 edition of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine.

q6Despite Stoddart’s censorship, The Picture of Dorian Gray was met with outrage and disdain anyway. W.H.Smith, the largest publishing house in England, removed every copy of the July 1890 Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine from book stands, and critics tore it apart with a litany of homophobic remarks like “effeminate,” “unmanly,” and “immoral.” One of the most famous reviews claimed the novel was fit “for none but the outlawed noblemen and perverted telegraph boys,” a reference to the 1889 scandal caused by the discovery of a gay brothel in London.

Wilde must also have been shocked after reading his novel in Lippincott’s. Stoddart hadn’t gotten Wilde’s approval for the edits, nor had he informed him of the changes; though these were common publishing practices at the time, it still must have been quite a surprise. As his novel was met with harsh criticism even after being censored, Wilde decided to make some changes before releasing The Picture of Dorian Gray as a stand-alone book. He got rid of even more of the homoerotic references and added additional characters and chapters, taking the chapter count from 13 in the Lippincott’s version to 20 in the book. Most notably, he added a preface. Though Wilde had given in to the critics with some self-censorship, he tried to reclaim his voice as an artist (and possibly, secretly, as a queer man), writing “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book.” As a jab to his critics, he also wrote “Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault.”

Legacy and Lipstick: Wilde as an Icon

Today, The Picture of Dorian Gray is regarded as an undeniable classic and its author is recognized as not only a great writer, but as a queer icon. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Wilde’s novel continued to affect the events of his life. He met his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, thanks to The Picture of Dorian Gray. Douglas admitted to reading the novel thirteen times and wanted to meet its author; the rest was history. The two carried on an affair despite the fact that Wilde had a wife and two children. He was publicly outed by Douglas’s father, who left a calling card at Wilde’s club which read, “For Oscar Wilde, posing Somdomite [sic].” After Wilde attempted to sue for defamation, he was actually the one that ended up being charged with “indecency,” a coded term for homosexuality. Excerpts from The Picture of Dorian Gray were read aloud to sway the jury, and Wilde was sentenced to two years in jail.

q7After his imprisonment, Wilde refused to censor himself any further. He lived with Douglas for a time and the two went out together in public as a couple, though they were met with discrimination nearly everywhere they went. It is Wilde’s determination to be true to himself that has made him a beloved figure. Visitors have covered his monument in Père Lachaise Cemetery with lipstick kisses for decades. (Important Laurel Hill Note: If you love someone, don’t lipstick kiss their gravestone! It wears the stone away, which is why Père Lachaise now has a “lipstick proof” barrier surrounding Wilde’s tomb for visitors to kiss instead.) Wilde has also inspired future generations in their struggle for LGBTQ+ rights. For instance, in 1967, the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop, a gay and lesbian bookstore opened in New York; the bookstore’s mailing list was instrumental in arranging the first Pride parade after the Stonewall Riots. Similarly, many members of the queer community credit reading Oscar Wilde’s works, especially The Picture of Dorian Gray, with helping them come to terms with their own sexuality. While it may have been Joseph M. Stoddart who commissioned and then censored the novel, it has always been Oscar Wilde’s voice that comes through, even all these years later.

Oh, and were you still wishing you could read the original non-censored version of Dorian Gray? Great news – you can! Harvard University Press got their hands on Wilde’s original manuscript and published it in 2011, titled The Picture of Dorian Gray: An Annotated, Uncensored Edition. Score one more win for queer voices being heard from beyond the grave. Whether you celebrate by reading Wilde’s novel as it was intended, or by letting your own voice be heard, we at Laurel Hill wish you a Happy Pride Month!

 

1 thought on “Queerly Departed: How a Search for LGBTQ+ Stories in Laurel Hill Led to Dinner with Oscar Wilde

  1. Also buried at Laurel Hill Cemetery is Craige Lippincott, who was president of J.B. Lippincott Company at the time The Picture of Dorian Gray was published in Lippincott’s Magazine. His father, Joshua Ballinger Lippincott, the founder of the publishing company, is also buried at Laurel Hill.

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