Lost treasures

On July 11, 1940, a frail elderly man was taken from the Nouvel Hotel, in Paris, to a local hospital. The old man, a foreigner, had neither money nor possessions, apart from one massive trunk. He was admitted into a pauper ward, where he died on July 18.

On July 26, at a hospital expense, his body was placed in the fasse commune of the Paris cemetery of Thias, south of the city. Five years later, when no one had come forward to claim his remains, they were taken to an occuary, a vault for the bones of the dead, but their exact disposition went unrecorded. Nor is there a record of what happened to that massive trunk left in the Nouvel Hotel.
The old man was in fact, Vincent O’Sullivan, one of the most written about authors of the 1890s, a close friend and one time benefactor of Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley, as well as many other famous personalities of the period.

The controversial American writer, Natalie Clifford Barney (1876-1972) who was a close friend of O’Sullivan in his early Paris days, revealed that the great trunk, which he clung to with such determination when he had lost all his other possessions, was filled with manuscripts, letters from Wilde, Beardsley and others. It was, in fact, a veritable literary treasure trove.

The story of Vincent O’Sullivan is one of the great tragic stories of the literary world.
When he is remembered in literary references, O’Sullivan is referred to as English or British. In fact, he was born in New York City on November 28, 1868. His father, Eugene O’Sullivan, was from Co. Kerry and made a small fortune as a coffee broker during the American Civil War. His wife was also from Kerry and they had four sons. Eugene O’Sullivan died in 1893 and Vincent inherited a large sum of money.

Graduating from Columbia School in New York, he arrived in England to study at St. Mary’s College, Oscott, the major seminary of the Catholic Archdiocese of Birmingham. He did not stay long but went on to Exeter College at Oxford University. By 1894 he was contributing poems, stories and essays to the Senate magazine and in 1896 Leonard Smithers published his first book, A Book of Bargains. It was hailed as a milestone of macabre writing, although the Yorkshire Post described it as “offal” and felt the author and publisher should be prosecuted

Oscar Wilde wrote to Smithers: “In what a midnight his soul seems to walk! And what maladies he draws from the moon!”

Wilde and O’Sullivan had already become close friends. According to the historian and critic, Holbrook Jackson, writing in The Eighteen Nineties (1913), Vincent was one of the key authors of the “Nineties Decadence”.

Another close friend was the artist Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898) who did the frontispiece for O’Sullivan’s first book and designed the cover for his second book The house of Sin (1897).
When Oscar Wilde was released from Reading Gaol in May, 1897, it was O’Sullivan who paid for Oscar to travel to Naples.

Wilde stayed with O’Sullivan there and O’Sullivan offered Wilde a degree of financial support to help rebuild his life. Friends of O’Sullivan attested to his strong feelings for anyone who suffered injustice and indignity.

His friendship with Wilde was responsible for editors of the better paying magazines to declare O’Sullivan persona non grata and the “fair weather” literary friends of Wilde also turned their back on him. From then on, O’Sullivan made little out of his writing. he lived in Paris for most of the first decade of the new century. His friend Nancy Barney introduced him to the french editor and writer André Gide (1869-1951), as he wanted someone to help him on a translation of William Blake’s work.

By 1909 due to his generosity and unwise investments, O’Sullivan’s fortune had evaporated. In 1915 he had returned to Brooklyn, New York, and lived with one of his brothers. He developed a professional relationship with another Irish-American, the famous anthologist, Edward J O’Brien, who remained a great devotee of his work, publishing it where possible.

In 1918 the American Government appointed O’Sullivan to serve on a commission to inspect hospitals in France caring for the war-wounded. He set up home in Paris again.

From 1927 his work was being published by the Dublin Magazine, which has been founded in 1923 and edited by Seamus O’Sullivan. Seamus was not related as this was the pseudonym of James Sullivan Starkey (1879-1958), one of the leading and influential figures in the Irish Literary Revival. Over the next 30 years The Dublin Magazine became the most influential literary journals in Ireland. But payment was small and irregular.

By 1931 O’Sullivan was living in Bayonne where, in 1932, he fell from a moving tram and broke his leg in two places. He was not wealthy enough to get good medical attention and the leg healed badly. Seamus O’Sullivan of the Dublin Magazine helped him as much as possible, sending him what funds he could.

From 1934 onwards, increasing poverty overcame him. Friends who knew him when he was solvent now shunned him. In spite of skipping meals and often living off one meal of vegetables a day, O’ Sullivan managed to finish three books.

In 1936, disturbed by the continued attacks on his late friend, O’Sullivan published Aspects of Wilde. He wrote: “I would lift him out of the miasmas which still floats round his name and place him frankly and clearly where he ought to be.” No study of Wilde can be complete without reference to O’Sullivan’s book.

He sent a novel to Pádraic Colum, then working as a reader for publishers. Colum took it to America and promptly lost the manuscript. The third book was a collection of short stories and some of these manuscripts were subsequently lost.

By December, 1937, O’Sullivan had fallen so low that he was in a Salvation Army in Villeparisis. He had a bad fall, reinjured his leg and was taken into hospital. In spring of 1938 he was in another Salvation Army hostel. With each move, he took his large trunk full of papers, manuscripts and books.
An idea of what literary wealth was contained in the trunk was shown when, in desperation to fed himself, he sold a couple of personal letters from Wilde and other famous writers.

In June 1938, he had moved into the Nouvel Hotel, Paris. The American Aid Society tried to help and was arranging his evacuation in June 1940, as the Germans entered Paris. But on July 11, the sick and frail 72-year-old was admitted to hospital for the last time.

Since his death, O’Sullivan has been recognised as one of the best macabre writers of the 1890s. Modern critics have declared at least five of his stories masterpieces. Yet no piece of fiction could conjure the despondency one feels when one thinks of that trunk with its manuscripts and letters from the great literary figures of the day. Did those running the Hotel Nouvel throw out what they considered merely a worthless box of papers after their owner had died?

Or has it managed to survive in a dusty attic or damp basement in Paris awaiting rediscovery?

Courtesy of the Irish Post
December 2003