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 OSullivan, 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 OSullivan 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 OSullivan is one of the great
tragic stories of the literary world.
When he is remembered in literary references, OSullivan
is referred to as English or British. In fact, he was born
in New York City on November 28, 1868. His father, Eugene
OSullivan, 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 OSullivan
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. Marys 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
Wilde and OSullivan 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 OSullivans 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 OSullivan who paid for Oscar to travel
Wilde stayed with OSullivan there and OSullivan
offered Wilde a degree of financial support to help rebuild
his life. Friends of OSullivan 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 OSullivan persona
non grata and the fair weather literary friends
of Wilde also turned their back on him. From then on, OSullivan
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 Blakes work.
By 1909 due to his generosity and unwise investments, OSullivans
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 OBrien, who remained
a great devotee of his work, publishing it where possible.
In 1918 the American Government appointed OSullivan
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 OSullivan.
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 OSullivan 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 OSullivan 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, OSullivan 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 OSullivans 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
By December, 1937, OSullivan 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, OSullivan 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