10 Career-ending Affairs


Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas

A studio portrait of Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas, 1894 © The British Library/Robana via Getty Images
A studio portrait of Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas, 1894 © The British Library/Robana via Getty Images

Lord Alfred "Bosie" Douglas was the third son of a Marquess, John Douglas of Queensberry. Bosie left Oxford without a degree, but with a huge beef against his father that ended up being the destruction of his great love, Oscar Wilde, whom he met and fell for in 1891 [source: Douglas]. He was always known as a spoiled dandy, dissolute and clever, and over the course of their tumultuous relationship, he leaned pretty heavily on Oscar for money and forgiveness, and always got it.

Their biggest fight came out of a disagreement over Bosie's mistranslation of Wilde's play "Salomé," which he wrote in French. The drama eventually blew up to involve the play's publisher, and even the famous art nouveau illustrator Aubrey Beardsley, whose cantankerous descriptions of the whole problem are still pretty funny: "For one week," he wrote, "The numbers of telegraph and messenger boys who came to the door was simply scandalous."

Eventually, the Marquess had had enough of all this, and wrote Bosie a famous letter excoriating him for failing out of Oxford, avoiding a career, and threatening to cut him off if he didn't shape up. "What a funny little man you are," Bosie responded by telegram, which is pretty awesome, but led to the eventual destruction of both Bosie and his on-again, off-again lover. Dad threatened his son with a thrashing, and even more importantly, with a huge public scandal if he didn't break things off with the famous playwright.

They traded barbs ("I detest you," wrote the son; "You miserable creature," wrote the father) until eventually Bosie's brother -- also involved in a homosexual affair -- died in a suspicious hunting accident [source: Douglas]. Queensberry decided to save Bosie, and thus the family, by going after Wilde directly. He made up weird plans, like throwing fruit during one of Wilde's plays, and left the author creepy notes all over town, including a calling card which insinuated that Wilde was a sodomite.

Against advice from everybody, including George Bernard Shaw himself, Wilde brought libel charges against Queensberry and had him arrested. The accusations of homosexuality were enough to inspire this offensive, in those days: It was a capital crime. But once the defense started tossing out romantic and suggestive letters from Wilde to the Marquess's son, it stopped being about libel and started being a referendum on Wilde's own character -- and eventually, his body of work.

Wilde dropped the suit, but a day later came under arrest for the series of indecency trials and appeals that would end his freedom and his career. While this kind of familial dysfunction -- and the dramatic personalities involved -- may well have brought him down by other means, it's interesting to think that less than 200 years ago, simply leaving around postcards accusing a man of being gay was enough to destroy him. And destroy him, in many ways, it did.