Miles Kington: The strange case of two unlikely companions

The flamboyant Oscar Wilde, the bluff, sporty Conan Doyle - what could they have in common?
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Not just famous writers, like Barrie, Kipling and Jerome K Jerome, but celebrities in the modern sense too. Look at the photos in the book and you will see Conan Doyle pictured with Hollywood stars (Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks) and with the fabulous Harry Houdini. Conan Doyle played cricket against WG Grace (bowled him once), was invited to referee the world heavyweight championship boxing encounter between Jim Jeffries and Jack Johnson (refused because of the racial overtones) and is even seen in a photograph of the 1908 Olympics, rushing up to the tape as marathon runner Pietri Dorando staggers up to the finishing line before being disqualified ...

But I still think the oddest encounter Conan Doyle had was with Oscar Wilde, simply because they were such unlikely companions. The flamboyant, showy Oscar; the bluff, sporty Conan Doyle - what would they have had in common? Well, one thing they shared in 1889 was that, as up-and-coming writers, they were being head-hunted by a visiting American, Joseph Stoddart, the editor of Lippincott's Magazine in Philadelphia. He took them to dinner at the Langham Hotel on 29 August, and must have given them a good meal, because Doyle afterwards gave him "The Sign of Four" and Oscar Wilde gave him The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Doyle was hugely impressed by Wilde. Later, he wrote:

"He towered above us all, and yet had the art of seeming to be interested in all that we could say. He had delicacy of feeling and tact, for the monologue man, however clever, can never really be a gentleman at heart. He took as well as gave, but what he gave was unique ... I should add that never in Wilde's conversation did I observe one trace of coarseness of thought, nor could one at that time associate him with such an idea."

He only met Wilde once again, years later, by which time Wilde had clearly gone downhill. Doyle wrote this time:

"He gave me the impression of being mad. He asked me, I remember, if I had seen some play of his which was running. I answered that I had not. He said, 'Ah, you must go. It is wonderful. It is genius!' All this with the gravest face. Nothing could have been more different from his early gentlemanly instincts. I thought at the time, and still think, that the monstrous development which ruined him was pathological, and that a hospital rather than a police court was the place for its consideration."

The two never met again, and yet that is not the end of their story. In the 1920s, when Conan Doyle was passionate about spiritualism, he was approached by a Mrs Smith, a medium, who claimed to have taken down dictation from the spirit of Oscar Wilde, including whole new plays. One line of dialogue read: "Being dead is the most boring experience in life. That is, if one excepts being married or dining with a schoolmaster."

Conan Doyle was convinced that this was the real thing, even if most of us would have smelt a rat in this sixth-form pastiche, and wrote to Mrs Smith to say:

"I think that the Wilde messages are the most final evidence of continued personality that we have ... If you are in contact you might mention me to him - I knew him - and tell him that if he would honour me by coming through my wife who is an excellent automatic writer, there are some things which I should wish to say."

I think the notion of Conan Doyle saying to a medium, 20 years after Wilde's death, "Do please give him my regards and tell him to get in touch some time" is wonderful, and I am only saddened to have to tell you that Oscar Wilde never did get back to Mrs Doyle.

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