Galveston, set like a jewel in a crystal sea, was beautiful. It’s fine beach, its shady avenues of oleander and its delightful sea breezes were something to be enjoyed.
—Oscar Wilde, June 1882
Summer has definitely arrived on the island and, with it, comes throngs of visitors. Gay Galvetraz has again come alive and is filled with folks from all over wanting to experience the biggest and gayest playground in the South. It appears that already the numbers are very high and showing promise of an exceptional summer season. Hotels are booked, restaurants are full, cash registers are ringing in the stores and beaches are full of eye candy.
And the drinks are being served! With our bars up and running, LGBT visitors (or anyone, for that matter), do not have to look too hard for a fun place to hang with the locals and get on “island time.”
The 4th of July came and it was a doozy! Though still recovering from the scourge of Covid, the community enjoyed the festivities along the Seawall. A little fun and craziness was much-needed and appreciated by all. All our bars were full and grinding; everyone found their comfort zone and niche, which was not too difficult given the multiple choices and venues now available.
Since the mid-19th century, Galveston has been a destination for fun seekers, the curious and all forms of hedonists — gay, straight and even some strays. From the famous to infamous, they have continued to arrive on the sandy island looking for adventure, enlightenment and fun. There has always been a draw to the island no matter the time period or mechanism by which they get here: Boats, trains, planes and automobiles have brought thousands to the island over the years.
One of the most interesting visitors was none other than the “Apostle of the Beautiful” himself, Oscar Wilde. In the summer of 1882, Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde, the self-appointed prophet for the Aesthetic Movement, arrived on Galveston Island to deliver a lecture entitled “Decorative Art.”
Having gained great fame as a writer, poet, lecturer, observer of life and critic, the Irish-born, international literary celebrity had embarked on a speaking tour of the United States starting in New York City a few months earlier. Supposedly, as he exited the ship and customs in NYC, he was asked if he had anything to declare. Wilde replied: “I have nothing to declare except my genius.”
Already draped in scandal and gossip, the tour was to be short, lasting perhaps only a few months. However, due to his immense popularity (depending on the sophistication of the area where he spoke), the tour lasted a year. In that year, the 27-year-old, long-haired, velvet-breeched dandy zigzagged across the United States by train, stopping to lecture in all major cities. After the tour, Wilde commented that the train was no real way to see America and he would think a horse to be better.
He was indeed an oddity, one that folks wanted to see for themselves. After all, those “enlightened” had heard about the young artistic rebel and his aesthetic movement, and everyone wanted to be counted among the “enlightened.” No matter where he went, it seemed he was respectfully introduced to the notables and famous in the area: mayors, civic leaders, actors, artists, writers and musicians — some he liked, some he did not. The ladies found him luscious and informative, while most of the men found him a foppish curiosity unlike any they had seen before. This aside, he was well received, if only when face-to-face. But mockery, snobbery and gossip followed at each stop. College boys, in groups, even mocked him by dressing in clothes similar to those he himself wore: colorful knee breeches, stockings, velvet overcoats with a huge sunflower in the lapel, flamboyant scarves and a floppy hat. With his tall stature, wispy features and silver-tipped walking stick, he made for quite a presence.
The infamous Wilde was naturally drawn to Galveston, it being the largest city in Texas at the time and certainly one of noted distinction for its sophistication and superior advancement in the arts, architecture and the “finer things in life.” He stayed at the home belonging to the parents of the later-famous movie producer, King Vidor. The Daily News announced the event and offered a short write-up about Wilde and his literary achievements. Galveston, being very proud of its firsts, would host Wilde in the newly (and first) electrified building on the island, the Electric Pavilion. The structure was very grand and the curious certainly came out to hear Mr. Wilde explains how to make their lives even more beautiful. As always, the crowd contained more women than men, which Wilde had grown accustomed to on his U.S. tour. During his presentation, a very loud group of men continued to heckle Wilde and attempted to drown him out. Ever the man of great ego, Wilde pressed on and completed his presentation. In a later column, the Daily News stated the performance to be very enjoyable with the exception of the new electric lights flickering out at times and “a motley crowd of persons intent upon drowning the voice of the lecturer.” But all in all, it was a success, as were all of his U.S. appearances.
Oscar Wilde left quite a mark and trail across America as he traveled and spoke. For the most part, he was greatly impressed with America and the Americans. Bringing his Aesthetic Movement to “new country” was a lucrative endeavor for Wilde, as well as those backing him. Of his travels in Texas, when asked, he stated there were two great places in the vast state that had profoundly impressed him: Galveston Island and San Antonio. In fact, while in Galveston, the Texas Rangers gathered and made Wilde an honorary Colonel. He found humor in asking old friends back home to address him as Colonel Wilde!
So it is that visitors still come to the island, from the great writer that brought us The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Importance of Being Earnest, to the carload of LGBTQ friends that simply want to get away and sample what gay Galveston has to offer.
Come on down! Oscar did!