The steamship on which Oscar Wilde first sailed to America in 1882 was the Guion passenger liner S.S. Arizona.
It was also the ship which first brought the famous actress Lillie Langtry to America in 1882, and Oscar also returned to Britain aboard the ship from his second visit to America in 1883.
Were it not for shuttling celebrities and providing Oscar with his famously disappointing experience of the Atlantic, the ship would have little significance in the Wilde story, and would probably be undistinguished as a vessel were it not for its otherwise noteworthy historical interest.
Arizona entered service in 1879 working the Liverpool-Queenstown-New York route mainly as an immigrant ship, and soon held prestigious record times for the crossing. As we shall see, in August of her first year a notorious murder took place on board. Not long afterwards, in November, the ship collided head-on with an iceberg en route from New York to Liverpool. Undaunted by this inauspicious start to her career, Arizona continued to ply her trade until being finally laid up in Scotland between 1894-97 and rebuilt with one funnel. She was then briefly employed in the Pacific before being sold to the War Department and used for Army transport.
In 1902, she was acquired by the US Navy for use as a receiving ship at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and recommissioned as Hancock. (picture). She served also as a troopship in the First World War and continued in various duties until she was sold for scrap in May 1926.
The Liverpool and Great Western Steamship Company, known commonly as the Guion Line, was a British passenger service that operated the Liverpool-Queenstown-New York route from 1866 to 1894.
The company was incorporated in Great Britain, but 52% of its capital was from the American firm Williams and Guion, of New York.
Known primarily as an emigrant ship in 1879, the line started commissioning Blue Riband record breakers to compete against Cunard, White Star, and Inman for first class passengers.
The financial troubles of one of the company's major partners in 1884 forced the firm to return its latest record breaker, the Oregon, to her builders and focus again on the immigrant trade. The company suspended sailings in 1894 because of new American restrictions on immigrant traffic.
For Oscar Wilde’s visit the S.S. Arizona departed Liverpool on December 24, 1881 and arrived late on January 2, 1882 where the ship lay at quarantine overnight.
On the morning of January 3rd, the Arizona pulled into its dock. Passengers headed for the customs shed at Castle Garden, which was then the point of entry for visitors to New York and a major receiving station for immigrants prior to the opening of Ellis Island some ten years later.
The ship's master, George Siddons Murray, delivered to the Collector of the Customs of the Collection District of New York the Arizona' s passenger manifest. Among those names was passenger no. 114, Oscar Wilde, gentleman.
Oscar Wilde wrote over 80 articles and reviews for London's Pall Mall Gazette between 1885-90, the editor at that time was W.T. Stead, a friend and supporter of Wilde; Wilde was also acquainted with the American painter F.D. Millet with whom he spent time in New York at receptions and artists clubs. Both of these men were lost their lives aboard the ill-fated R.M.S. Titanic in 1912. It is intriguing to wonder whether Oscar Wilde, had he lived, might have been aboard?
[See Blog article Men of Letters].
We will never know, of course. One thing we do know is that the ship Wilde sailed on to cross the Atlantic, SS Arizona , had its own Titanic moment two years or so before Wilde's crossing in 1882.
On November 7, 1879 on its usual route to Liverpool from New York, Arizona hit an iceberg close to the location where Titanic sank. Also, like Titanic, failures in the ship's look-out provisions contributed to the disaster, and the owner of the line was on board (Stephen Guion, with two of his nieces). But unlike Titanic, Arizona collided head-on with the iceberg and all passengers survived. It has been asserted with some certainty that had Titanic hit the iceberg in this way, rather than a glancing blow, she would also have survived.
Arizona, even with severe damage (picture), remained afloat and was able to turn about and proceed to St. John's where she underwent temporary repairs before returning to Scotland. Guion advertised this near disaster as proof of Arizona's strength.
Blog Article: Men of Letters
One the most celebrated personalities of the late Victorian period was British music hall singer and stage actress, Lillie (aka Lily) Langtry.
She was famous for her many stage productions including She Stoops to Conquer, The Lady of Lyons and As You Like It, and infamous for relationships with members of American high society and the British nobility.
When Mrs. Langtry arrived in New York on October 23rd, 1882, it was also on board the S.S. Arizona.
There to meet her was Oscar Wilde, who was one of several guests aboard the steamer, Laura M. Starin, which had been commissioned by Langtry's US manager, Henry E. Abbey, as a reception party vessel. At daybreak on the day of arrival the Starin, complete with a musical band and an ample spread of food, steamed down the bay from the 23rd Street pier to pull alongside the Arizona.
The first person Mrs. Langtry spoke to over the rail of the ship was Oscar Wilde, whose long hair, fur overcoat and strange hat evoked remarks from the throng.
Later in the day Mrs. Langtry lodged at the Albemarle Hotel in the same suite of rooms occupied by Sarah Bernhardt before her, from where she watched the Park Theatre burn on the day she was to debut there.
The New-York Herald, October 24, 1882, 5