“This hideous wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. Either it goes, or I do.”
I’d often heard of this iconic deathbed quote of writer/playwright Oscar Wilde, which he so wittily muttered — says the legend — moments before his flame was extinguished in a rundown Paris hotel.
The year was 1900, a time when being gay would ruin a man: one minute the toast of London’s West End, the next a monster locked in a cage, accused of “gross indecency” and crimes against nature. By the time he exiled himself to Paris he was broken, destitute, and estranged from his family.
The hotel still exists on a quiet side street at 13 rue des Beaux-Arts. It’s name is simply “L’Hotel”. It’s far from rundown today, and those wishing to sleep with Wilde’s ghost can rent the room where he died. It’s one of those mythic locations that Paris nerds and bookworms alike hope to one day see with their own eyes.
My chance happened last week, after making friends with an American couple who mentioned they were staying in the author’s room. “Would you like to come up and see it?” they offered.
“Absolutely!” I squealed, less than discreetly. This nerd needed to see that wallpaper.
The room felt warm and welcoming, with large windows flooding the wood-paneled walls and period furniture. A far cry from its 1900 version, surely, but still rife with time-travely goodness.
Even in the throes of disgraceful exile, Wilde couldn’t let go of his penchant for living beyond his means. A set of documents on the wall includes his unpaid hotel bill to the tune of 2,643 francs — around 400€ today, which in 1900 represented a tidy sum.
Details like the cozy encased bathtub made me imagine what went through his mind while having a turn-of-the-century soak. Was he surrounded by candles? Pen and paper? A dark cloud of misery?
A small portrait of Wilde sat on a dresser. Though I’m not familiar with all his novels, I knew enough to wonder if the man in the picture was magically aging whenever our backs were turned…
One surprise was the substantial private terrace facing the back. Surely some of the endless oysters and cocktails he put on his room tab were enjoyed out here.
After saying goodbye to my generous new friends I shut the door behind me and just stood in the corridor for a minute. I smiled and assured myself that today was one of the days that got me a notch closer to the soul of Paris.
Another famous Oscar Wilde quip goes “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” Fear not, Oscar — as long as room #16 stays open, there’s scant risk of such a thing.