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As an illustration of Wilde's imperturbability at the beginning of his terrible debacle. Max repeated a story told him many years before by Lewis Waller, a matinee idol of the time. Waller was walking down Piccadilly with Allan Aynesworth, another accomplished actor. Both of them knew they might find themselves out of work; Waller was playing Sir Robert Chiltern in An Ideal Husband and Aynesworth Algernon in The Importance of Being Earnest. The Wilde affair could close both plays. The actors were deep in talk about the source of their imminent unemployment when, to their horror, they were hailed cheerily by their disemployer, riding blithely down Piccadilly in a hansom cab. They returned his greeting pallidly, hoping Wilde would ride on, but he didn't. He got out and came up to them. "Have you heard," he inquired, "what that swine Queensberry has had the effrontery to say?" Writhing with embarrassment, they both protested that no rumor of the Marquis's allegation had reached their chaste ears. "Since you haven't heard it, I'll tell you," said Wilde, with the eagerness of a tutor avid to fill in a gap in folklore. "He actually had the effrontery to say" — and he fixed his eye on Waller — "that The Importance of Being Earnest was a better-acted play than An Ideal Husband!" He smiled radiantly, waved, got back into his hansom, and rode off down Piccadilly, leaving his victims gasping.

Max then spoke of his friends Ernest and Ada Leverson. He used to see a lot of them in their large, comfortable London house. Ada Leverson — the Sphinx, she was called — was a staunch friend to everyone who wrote or painted anything. She has survived best, perhaps, as having been the only person in London who would receive Wilde after his return from Reading Gaol. Max said that she deserved credit for this, but that no one ever gave any credit to poor Mr. Leverson, who consented to let Wilde stay in his house. The Sphinx, Max said, cared only about the opinion of the artistic set, but "Mr. Leverson had larger responsibilities. He was a prominent figure in the City and had much more to lose." On the morning of Wilde's return from prison. Max continued, Mrs. Leverson got up very early in order to greet Wilde, who was coming straight from his train to the home of a clergyman named Stewart Headlam. She was in an agony of apprehension — how to greet this broken figure whom she had known, and received in her house, as the most sought-after lion in London. By the time she reached Headlam's house, she was in a panic. Wilde had not yet arrived; the Sphinx stood there wishing she were more sphinxlike. Then Wilde came in. He ran to her, smiling — a schoolboy greeting a pet aunt after a dreary semester — threw his arms around her, and crowed with appreciation, "Sphinx, how marvelous of you to know the right hat to wear at seven o'clock in the morning to meet a friend who has been away! You can't have got up; you must have sat up." Ada had no worries after that. [pp. 84-85]


Beerhman, S. N. Portrait of Max: An Intimate Memoir of Sir Max Beerbohm. New York: Random House, 1960.

Last modified 9 May 2008