This is the latest installment of Public Streets, a biweekly urban observations series curated by Ellis Avery.
Anyone walking down Manhattan’s Houston Street on January 13 might have had some idea about what to expect upon reaching Lafayette: bouquets, candles, the typical paraphernalia offered in honor of a departed celebrity. Yet just south of the intersection, the crowd assembled before a police barricade blocked any initial attempt to see what lay behind. Visible over the heads of gathered mourners were the customary flowers and candles, but also photographs of David Bowie juxtaposed with photographs of fans made up to look like him. Occasionally, a mourner would cross the barricade and leave a commemorative token. One young woman, wearing a vintage fur coat and with an Aladdin Sane lightning bolt painted across her face, separated from her friends and placed a flower on the pavement. Another group of young women tossed glitter across the rails. “This is like Oscar Wilde’s grave at Père Lachaise,” one mourner said.
Transgressing a barricade, leaving cosmetic residue as a commemorative act: this is the same choreography of celebrity bereavement on display at the Paris resting place of Wilde, another celebrated dandy whom Bowie himself arguably imitated. Previously covered in graffiti and lipstick kisses, Wilde’s grave now sits behind a glass wall designed to protect it from further damage. Yet the wall protects only part of the tomb. As constellations of lipstick imprints decorating the crown of the exposed monument attest, some visitors access Wilde’s stone by climbing the adjacent grave. Others do so by slipping an arm under the glass wall to leave flowers and notes at its base. Despite the partition intended to foil visitors’ desire to come into closer contact with the infamous Aesthete and homosexual martyr, intrepid fans still find ways to transgress that boundary, too.
Even behind the glass wall, the writing and lipstick that were washed off the tomb are so sedimented that traces still remain, including one lipstick imprint visible beneath four lines of verse inscribed on the grave. Taken from Wilde’s “Ballad of Reading Gaol,” it addresses a demographic of his mourners, outcasts and eccentrics:
And alien tears will fill for him
Pity’s long-broken urn
For his mourners will be outcast men,
And outcasts always mourn.
“Alien tears” drove me to Wilde’s grave and the Bowie memorial, and I—and others—continued to shed them after my arrival. At Lafayette, the young woman made up like Aladdin Sane wiped away tears, and at Oscar Wilde’s grave last summer, while reading a note left with a flower, I realized that these tokens had been left by a male couple. In both places, my fellow mourners and I were social aliens. Wilde is mourned by those who live out his legacy of sexual liberalism and cultural eccentricity, while Bowie is mourned by women who transform their faces into canvasses for painted insignia, challenging the demand that their bodies exist for a male gaze. Yet Bowie’s and Wilde’s mourners are also alien to the very men being mourned. The fresh flowers at a Victorian writer’s grave mark the historical distance between Wilde and his 21st-century followers, while it’s unlikely that the famously introverted Bowie ever spoke to any of the young women assembled in front of his apartment.
After all, to be a fan is to love a stranger. As Sharon Marcus has recently argued, to be a celebrity is to be known by far more people than one could know oneself thanks to technologies like print and photography, which promise, while also withholding, virtual access to the celebrated person. To put it another way, to be a celebrity is to provoke the shedding of so many “alien tears.” Yet fans still want physical contact, even if it can only be imperfectly achieved by visiting the site of a corpse or pausing outside a beloved musician’s former home.
The stubborn lipstick remaining on Wilde’s grave makes his fans’ imperfect co-presence with Oscar as permanent as countless undergraduates’ copies of Dorian Gray. As psychoanalysis teaches us, mourners grieve the loss of the part of our identity that we built around the dead whom we knew, not for themselves but through the filtering processes of psychic projection. It makes sense to manifest grief over the long-dead Wilde or unknown Bowie through flamboyant outerwear or glittery makeup if we accept that alienation underwrites all social interactions. Incorporating cultural and sexual misfits like Wilde and Bowie into one’s own identity is a self-strengthening act for the misfit women and courageous men who do so: leaving lipstick or glitter at the memorial for a lost dandy gives back a visible trace of that identification.
After all, Bowie fans often signal their devotion on the surface of their bodies. The mourners wearing glam rock makeup and ‘70s-style coats were only one part of a procession of female Bowie imitators I’ve witnessed over the years: the famous ones like Annie Lennox and Lady Gaga, but also the teenage aesthetes I once knew who sought the look of Ziggy Stardust by cutting their hair into fluorescent red shags and removing their eyebrows. A mural has taken the place of the original memorial at the southeast corner of Lafayette and Houston, but mourners still gather, such as a young woman wearing skinny jeans silkscreened with images of Bowie. And, like the lipstick on Oscar’s grave, glitter still adheres to the sidewalk one month later. Perhaps the bits stuck in the grooves will remain indefinitely, a permanent reminder of devoted fans’ desire to leave a little bit of themselves outside of Bowie’s home.