An Irishman's Diary

Tue, Apr 12, 2011, 01:00

IF EVER you make the effort to see Jacob Epstein’s great winged sphinx which marks the final resting place of Oscar Wilde in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, spare a thought for another writer whose bones rest in an unmarked ossuary in the much-less distinguished Paris cemetery of Thiais.

Vincent O’Sullivan, like his friend Wilde, was born into very comfortable circumstances and like Wilde died in Paris in great penury.

O’Sullivan, 14 years Wilde’s junior, was still handsomely in funds when Oscar Wilde was released from Reading Gaol in 1897 and it was he who paid Wilde’s travel expenses when he settled in Naples where he hoped to escape the trauma and humiliation that followed his trial and imprisonment.

Wilde and O’Sullivan did not, at first, form an easy friendship.

O’Sullivan told Wilde he thought his plays contained too many persons of title. “Would you not permit me the occasional colonial Knight?” Wilde asked the young man, of whom he wrote, “In what a midnight his soul seems to walk!”.

Just one month after Wilde’s release from prison the then 24-year-old Vincent O’Sullivan stood in his family’s impressive town house at 274 Madison Avenue, New York, and in a scene that would not have been out of place in a Henry James novel , watched a large gathering of New York society pay their respects to his family following the death of his father.

Eugene O’Sullivan arrived in America from the Beara Peninsula while still a young boy. By the time of his death in 1897 he had amassed a great fortune through the success of his Wall Street brokerage business.

He was chairman of the New York Coffee Exchange and one of the richest men in New York. He eschewed all attempts to lure him into the world of Irish-American sham-roguery. He used his wealth to support medical schools and other philanthropic ventures. Within a few years of his death his five sons had dissipated his fortune through thoughtless internecine legal disputes that were said at that time to have “enriched a generation of lawyers as yet unborn”. Vincent spent his share of his inheritance living in the best hotels in Europe and supporting a large number of his impecunious literary friends. He flippantly described his penchant for luxurious hotels thus: “There was only one excuse for living in luxurious quarters, and that was to be in debt.” For a great part of his life he lived high on the hog, supported by his inherited wealth and remaining a stranger to any form of financial discomfort.

His friendship with Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley, Ernest Dowson and Arthur Symons placed him at the heart of that period of fin de siècle “Yellow Book” dandyism. But he had too much intellectual integrity to be consumed by the foppishness of that perfumed movement. Wilde speculated about his sexual inclinations and in an effort to find out sent him off on a jaunt to take a look at “a wonderful black panther” of a young man.

Wilde can hardly have been pleased when Vincent later described his intended quarry as “a rather disquieting specimen of London vegetation”.

Vincent O’Sullivan’s real legacy is a body of macabre writing which, though mainly unknown to all but aficionados of the genre, was widely praised in his lifetime. There is also a substantial body of literary criticism buried in the pages of numerous literary magazines. In this he did himself no favours, usually firing from the hip to expose anything he thought slipshod or bogus. Pierre Loti and George Moore were victims of his more sulphurous dismissals. His memoir on Wilde Aspects of Wildeis generally accepted by Wilde scholars as the most perceptive and accurate of contemporary biographies of Wilde.

By 1910, a combination of his unbridled generosity and his total disregard for money combined to find him in very reduced circumstances.

During the period of the first World War he returned to America in the hope of rescuing some of the family fortune. At this time his cousin Capt Gerald O’Sullivan was killed at Gallipoli and awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross. By the end of the war, Vincent was back in Paris as an inspector of hospitals caring for those injured in the war. Despite his lack of funds he was happy to be back in Paris, but by 1930 he had become disillusioned and unimpressed with the city that had become the haunt of the Hemingway generation and their followers.

By the late 1930s he was so impoverished that he was forced to accept handouts from the American Aid Society. He refused to work with André Gide but was grateful for work given him by James Sullivan Starkie at The Dublin Magazine. He gave the most piercingly logical explanation of the saying “no good deed goes unpunished”. “Some cannot be grateful. It sticks in their gullet. The wise don’t expect gratitude.” Of his own earlier generosity to Wilde he wrote “It is not every day one has the chance of relieving the anxiety of a genius and a hero”.

As the Nazis marched on Paris in the summer of 1940 an attempt to evacuate O’Sullivan failed and he died in the early days of the occupation on July 18th. His body was sent to a pauper’s grave; his only remaining chattel, a trunk containing letters from Wilde and many other literary giants disappeared, like its owner, without trace.