Oscar Wilde’s renovated Paris tomb was unveiled on Wednesday, complete with a new glass barrier to shield the monument to the quintessential dandy’s life from a torrent of admiring kisses.
Kiss upon lipsticked kiss in honor of Wilde, who died penniless aged 46 in a Paris hotel room in 1900, had worn down the elegant tomb in Pere Lachaise cemetery, as grease from tourist lips sank into the stonework.
Wilde’s only grandson Merlin Holland and British actor Rupert Everett accompanied French and Irish officials at the ceremony, held under bright winter sunshine on the tree-lined alleys of the famous burial ground.
The tomb, designed by modernist sculptor Jacob Epstein with a flying Assyrian-style angel, survived almost unscathed until 1985, except for the angel’s notoriously prominent genitals being hacked off.
Then, the expense of cleaning operations to deal with increasing graffiti on the tomb led the descendants of Wilde and of his friend and executor Robert Ross to try, successfully, to get it listed as a historic monument.
The hope was that fines of thousands of euros for defacing the tomb would deter fans of the author of "The Importance of Being Earnest."
But in 1999 the graffiti was replaced by a much more worrying phenomenon when someone had the idea of planting a large, lipsticked kiss on the tomb, sparking a craze for Wilde’s many admirers visiting Paris.
The glass should now shield the tomb, with wellwishers already having planted rosy red kisses on a nearby tree.
Holland, whose grandmother changed the family name to avoid public scorn after Oscar was jailed by a London court for the Victorian "crime" of homosexuality, said he would have loved all the fuss.
"I cannot express in words my gratitude to the Irish government and the people of Ireland for what they’ve done," Holland said.
"The royalties on Oscar Wilde’s works disappeared many many years ago, and there’s no way I could possibly have raised the money to do this myself."
"If my grandfather had been here he would have loved the attention. The attention has always been given over the last 30 years with notes and then lipstick but now art has to triumph over what the French call ‘degradation.’
"Maybe one day we can take it down when the memory of kissing Oscar is gone," he said.
Everett, who came out as gay in the 1980s and starred in the 2002 film version of "The Importance of Being Earnest", described the dandy Irishman as his "patron saint" and "one of the last great vagabonds" of the 19th century.
"I find him very inspiring and touching, not just for his genius, also for his stupidity, in a way. He was a human being, and made mistakes like everyone else," Everett said.
He related Wilde’s trial and how he was caught out trying to explain his attitude to the lips of boys and men before being convicted of homosexuality in 1895 and sentenced to two years prison with hard labor.
"Kisses for Oscar Wilde were not just signs of love, he associated them with danger, even death," said Everett, who has written a screenplay about Wilde’s final years with which he hopes to make a directorial debut next year.
"He has the perfect blend of brilliance and silliness, of pride and humility … from the dress circle to the drains, his life was his greatest work of art and an inspiration to anyone who’s ever felt outcast."
Wilde left London in 1897 after finishing his prison term and never regained the creative impetus that had made him a hugely popular, if controversial, playwright.
As he died of meningitis in a Paris hotel, he famously remarked: "My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One of us has got to go." He was initially given a "sixth class burial" outside Paris.
His friends, in particular his literary executor Ross, managed to annul Wilde’s bankruptcy, buy a plot at Pere Lachaise and have Wilde’s body transferred to its more dignified and appropriately Gothic surroundings.
Ross’s own remains were in 1950 placed inside the tomb, which is a big draw but nevertheless fares better than the nearby much-abused grave of Doors singer Jim Morrison, who died in Paris in 1971 at the age of 27.