“The Picture of Dorian Gray” by Oscar Wilde was required reading for many of us in college and in high school. The gothic tale of decadence and debauchery has never failed to enthrall readers for over one hundred years, but did you know, that there has been rumored to have been a “real life Dorian Gray” and that the story was based upon a short, but intense relationship Oscar Wilde had with a young poet named John Gray?
Born in March 1866, English poet and Catholic priest, John Gray was the eldest of nine children born into a working-class family in London. At fourteen, he was sent to apprentice as a metal worker at the Royal Arsenal in the production of making munitions.
Harboring secret ambitions to better himself, he started taking night classes in art, music, and languages. He joined the civil service in 1992 eventually becoming a librarian in the Foreign Office.
Blessed with incredible beauty, Gray started writing poetry and found himself slowing being immersed in London’s bohemian art scene where he quickly became friends with the poet Oscar Wilde, among others.
Gray first met Wilde in the summer of 1889 at a party in a Soho restaurant where Wilde became immediately infatuated with the young Gray’s beauty and sensuousness. As noted by George Bernard Shaw, Gray was “the most abject of Wilde’s disciples.” In other words, he was part of Wilde’s posse.
So infatuated by Gray, Wilde offered to pay for a book of poetry Gray had written. This book was eventually published in 1893, but at that point the “romance” was over, and Wilde had withdrawn his offer to pay for publication, and Gray was no longer a part of Wilde’s inner group.
Gray was broken and destroyed by this rejection and admitted to considering suicide. However, he soon found solace in the arms of Marc-Andre Raffalovich.
Raffalovich was an extremely rich gay Jewish Russian emigrant who was well known as a patronage of the arts using his resources to publishing books and poems of various artists as well as sponsoring many others.
In addition to their devoted love for each other, both men were deeply religious. Gray converted to Catholicism in 1890 and encouraged Raffalovich to do so also, which he did in 1896. In 1898, Gray embarked upon his dream of priesthood entering Scots College in Rome.
Gray was eventually assigned as the priest to St. Patrick’s church in the poor area of Cowgate in Scotland. Raffalovich followed Gray to Scotland.
Raffalovich wanted more for Gray than simply being a priest in a poor parish and approached the diocese in Edinburgh with the offer to pay for the building of a new church in the wealthy area of Morningside with the understanding that Gray would be appointed as its priest. The church agreed, and St. Peter’s church in Morningside was built.
Now whether Gray was the only influence in the creation of “The Picture of Dorian Gray” is up for debate, but coincidences lean toward this as being highly likely. The conjunction of their first meeting in 1889 while Wilde started writing the novel, as well as the striking similarity in names made the association inevitable. John Gray even signed his name as “Dorian” in personal letters to Wilde.
Initially, published in 1890 in Lippincott Monthly Magazine, “The Picture of Dorian Gray” was then released as a book in 1891. Of note, Dorian Gray was Wilde’s only novel. It was a tale with homo-erotic undertones and was the tale of a beautiful, young man who purchases eternal youth at the expense of his soul.
The book was condemned by the Press at the time as being morally corrupt, perverse, and demanded it not be published.
John Gray was “outed” by the Star newspaper as the original Dorian of the same name, and he threatened to sue for libel imploring Wilde to write a letter denouncing any such association. Wilde agreed, writing a letter to the Daily Telegraph stating that he hardly knew Gray, which was contrary to what was known in private. The Star agreed to an out of court settlement, but the damage was already done.
Both Gray and his family, to this day, deny the association. And there really never will be a definitive answer.