Patrick Leigh Fermor : Noble Encounters between Budapest and Transylvania

Hungarian Review

19 July 2018

Gordon McKechnie
“… he has (…) also given us, through personal and often tragic histories, poignant insights into the enormous social changes that Hungary underwent in the middle years of the twentieth century.”

A Review of Michael O’Sullivan’s New Book*

In December 1933, Patrick Leigh Fermor, then 18, set out from Hook of Holland to walk to Constantinople. It was the first year of Nazi power in Germany, and the last days of the old romantic era there and in the former Habsburg realms of Mitteleuropa, an era that had not quite been swept away by the First World War. Of course, the Second World War – and, for many of the countries that Paddy travelled through, the subsequent dark years of Communism – did sweep the old order away. Since then the landscapes that Paddy tramped through, and the populations he met, have undergone the further, and not-always benign, influence of the ubiquitous automobile, instant global communications, hordes of tourists, a camera in every pocket, the spread of English as the modern lingua franca, and cheap clothing made in distant sweatshops. The old aristocratic way of life that Patrick Leigh Fermor, also known PLF to his numerous friends, saw in its dying days, and nowhere more clearly than in Hungary and Transylvania, vanished not long after his “Great Trudge”.

PLF’s first volume describing his journey – A Time of Gifts – was published in 1977. It became an instant classic among travel books. In painterly and sometimes almost absurdly lyrical language, A Time of Gifts told of his travels through the winter landscapes of the Netherlands, Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia, and took him as far as the bridge across the Danube at Esztergom on Holy Saturday 1934, at the beginning of a magical spring and summer spent in Hungary and Transylvania. We had to wait until 1986 for Between the Woods and the Water recounting those Hungarian days. The third volume of the trilogy, The Broken Road, was pulled together from Paddy’s notes by Artemis Cooper (his biographer) and Colin Thubron (a fellow travel writer) after PLF’s death in 2011 at the age of 96. It appeared in 2013.

As PLF wrote in his introduction to Between the Woods and the Water, he had set out “meaning to mix only with chance acquaintances, but almost imperceptibly by the time I got to Hungary and Transylvania I found myself having a much easier time of it than I had expected or planned: ambling along on borrowed horses, drifting from one country house to another, often staying for weeks under patient and perhaps long-suffering but always hospitable roofs”.

Sometimes in his books, PLF tells us what became of the people he met on his 1930s walk across Europe. Fritz Spengel, son of the proprietors of the almost medieval Red Ox in Heidelberg “was killed in Norway (where the first battalion of my own regiment at the time was heavily engaged) and buried at Trondheim in 1940, six years after we met”. The Jewish, Proust-reading Baron Fülöp (Pips) von Schey de Koromla left his country house in Slovakia “when things began to go wrong in Austria and Czechoslovakia”, settled at Ascona on Lake Maggiore, and died in 1957 in Normandy at the home of his daughter, Alix, who had married into the French branch of the Rothschild family. But now, for a more comprehensive view, we have Patrick Leigh Fermor: Noble Encounters between Budapest and Transylvania.

In his very enjoyable book, Michael O’Sullivan follows PLF from the moment he was standing on that Danube bridge, with a letter of introduction to the mayor of Esztergom in his pocket, to Budapest, across the Alföld (the Great Hungarian Plain) and the Bánát region, and into Transylvania. On this part of his journey PLF was the guest of the aristocracy of the land. Mr O’Sullivan tells us who PLF’s hosts were, what they did when not entertaining Paddy, what their noble antecedents were, and what became of them (and of the houses in which PLF stayed) in the years that followed. In doing this he has not only portrayed the aristocratic world that PLF encountered in 1934, but also given us, through personal and often tragic histories, poignant insights into the enormous social changes that Hungary underwent in the middle years of the twentieth century. The pictures of people and of houses, with which the book is liberally populated, give a welcome extra layer of richness to Mr O’Sullivan’s account.

Reading Patrick Leigh Fermor: Noble Encounters between Budapest and Transylvania, I was struck again by just how remarkable it was that a scruffy English teenager was able to gain such privileged access to the people he met and who hosted him on this leg of his journey. In Budapest, PLF stayed at 15 Úri utca (the “street of the Lords”) in the Vár (Castle District).

Within a decade of Leigh Fermor’s arrival, this historic place would face near obliteration. The Vár became one of the sites of the Axis’ last stand during the Siege of Budapest in 1945 and paid a heavy price for the role. When Leigh Fermor arrived in 1934 the Vár still contained the residential palaces, or palota in Hungarian, of the old noble and gentry families.

PLF’s hosts here were Tibor and Berta von Berg. “They were strapped for cash like so many post-Trianon Hungarian aristocrats.” Berta von Berg spoke excellent English which “made her the ideal guide for the young Englishman during his first encounters with Budapest society”.

It was from this hospitable house that Leigh Fermor was taken on a twelve- day social spree which gave him further connections to some of the people who passed him on to their aristocratic friends. These were the people whose country houses were dotted along his route as he made his way through the Great Hungarian Plain, the Bánát and Transylvania and progressed in the direction of Constantinople.

Not only did PLF enjoy the whirl of Budapest society, the famous Arizona nightclub, and the city’s other fleshpots during his twelve days there, he (whose formal education had ended when he was expelled from school at the age of 16) took full advantage of access to some of the finest libraries in Budapest to further his interrupted education. Extraordinary as it now seems, PLF was taken under the wing of Count Pál Peleki de Szék, “one of the most interesting and controversial of Hungary’s contemporary political figures”, three times the country’s foreign minister and twice its prime minister, though these roles are mentioned only in passing in PLF’s account in Between the Woods and the Water. Mr O’Sullivan tells us more.

The first thing he observed about the von Berg’s house was that there were books everywhere. At the Teleki palace he found himself in a scholar’s heaven. Pál Teleki was one of Budapest’s greatest bibliophiles. When times were financially tough, it was said that he would make great sacrifices to purchase books… This bibliophile passion is easily understood when we consider that his ancestor, Count Sámuel Teleki, founded in 1802 one of the greatest private libraries in Central Europe.

As well as books, the art and beautiful women of Budapest also attracted PLF. In the company of a well-connected art student – Annamária Miskolczy, “one of the Budapest beauties he met during the round of parties he attended” – he was able to visit the homes of “two of the city’s wealthiest residents, and its greatest private art collectors. The two houses contained between them some of the most important paintings held in private hands anywhere in Europe. The Hungarian aristocracy had a well-established reputation throughout Europe as serious art patrons.”

At the home of Baron Mór Lipót Herzog von Csete, Annamária and PLF saw “the greatest private collection of works by El Greco outside of the Prado”. At the villa of Baron Herzog’s brother-in-law, Baron Ferenc Hatvany, they would have stood together in front of Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du monde (now in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris). In Between the Woods and the Water, the only Courbet that PLF mentions having seen in Budapest is of “a remarkable and untypical wrestling match” (now in the Budapest Museum of Fine Arts).

PLF’s Budapest host, Tibor von Berg, “was a military man of considerable distinction… a highly decorated veteran of the Great War in which he had been a cavalry officer”. PLF had a fascination with all things military and this surfaces frequently in his encounters on his journey. Equally interesting is the fact that Tibor von Berg had made a journey on horseback from Budapest to Constantinople in 1926. Although not mentioned in Between the Woods and the Water, it surely would have formed part of their conversations. It was Tibor von Berg who, after testing PLF’s riding skills, arranged the loan of the horse – Malek – on which PLF crossed the Great Hungarian Plain.

The houses where PLF stayed while crossing the Alföld and the Bánát are in ruins today or else have been transformed to house local institutions. Mr O’Sullivan charts their fate, accompanied by pictures then and now. One example will have to suffice here.

In 1942 János von Meran was called up and served in the Royal Hungarian Army on the Subcarpathian front. In 1944 he was taken prisoner by the Red Army. In his absence and as the front approached in late 1944, his family fled Körösladány for another property the von Merans owned in western Hungary. Two faithful retainers, a valet and a gardener, were left in charge of the house. Despite their best efforts, they were unable to prevent the building from being looted […]

On 7 October 1944, a Soviet army command took over most of the house, the rest being used as a field hospital. It was throughout this time that the library of 32,000 volumes was dispersed and disappeared. Most of the rare leather bindings were used as boot-mending material and the pages of ancient tomes as lavatory paper. The Soviets left the building on 29 October 1945. An inventory of the contents of the house taken a few months later was only half a page long. Almost everything – paintings, silver, furniture, the priceless family archive, and all decorative elements – had disappeared. A writing table used by Leigh Fermor in the library was one of the few objects to survive.

Countess von Meran and her children returned to their former home in December 1945. They were assigned three rooms in their own house by the National Aid Agency which had previously settled sixteen indigent (or perhaps politically well-connected) families in the building. Empty rooms were used as a granary. Dismantled Biedermeier doors were employed to transport agricultural produce into the building.

In June 1946, the von Merans’ house was handed over to the local Agricultural Cooperative. Then as a result of some bureaucratic whim it was taken away from them and given to the Ministry of Education. It was at this point that the von Merans were dispossessed of their remaining three rooms and told to move to a room in the former estate manager’s house.

In the summer of 1948, after an absence of four years, Count János von Meran returned from Soviet captivity in Georgia. Three years later, in 1951, his old house was given a new function as a local school – a function it still performs today.

No doubt the German and Soviet armies did most of the destruction and looting – and then locals and the new authorities pillaged what remained. Historians reliably estimate that some 90 per cent of Hungary’s moveable art objects perished or disappeared in the course of the Second World War. This includes, of course, not only the furnishings of aristocratic residences, but those of middle class homes as well.

In Mr O’ Sullivan’s pages we watch again the game of bicycle polo at Count József Károly Ferenc Mária Wenckheim’s castle, after which PLF found himself dining with a Habsburg Archduke. We visit the agriculturalist Baron Kálmán von Konopy, whom PLF felicitously describes as having “a touch of Evensong about him”; Count Jenő Teleki, a first cousin to Pál Teleki and who spoke English with a broad Scots accent; the anti-Nazi Hungarian diplomat Baron Gábor Apor de Altorja; and his brother who, as Bishop of Győr, was “a fearless protester against the persecution of Hungarian Jews” and who died “protecting a group of women who were hiding in his residence when Soviet soldiers entered and attempted to rape the women. Bishop Apor intervened but one of them turned his gun on him and shot him at close range.” Bishop Vilmos Apor was beatified by Pope John Paul II in Saint Peter’s Square on 9 November 1997.

And, of course, we meet again “István” and “Angéla”, who lived on adjacent estates just inside Transylvania proper. István – Elemér von Klobusiczky – became PLF’s closest Hungarian friend and with Angéla – Xenia Csernovits de Mácsa et Kisoroszi, a recently married “ravishing twenty-five-year-old beauty” – he had a passionate affair during his days in that part of Romania. In Chapter 6 of Between the Woods and the Water, PLF, Angéla and István make a furtive car tour through the heartlands of Transylvania that brought forth some of PLF’s most evocative writing. We now know, thanks to one of the 400 or so letters PLF wrote to Rudi Fischer (see ed. Adam Sisman, Dashing for the Post: The Letters of Patrick Leigh Fermor, London [John Murray], 2016, p.361), that this chapter is wholly fictional, or, as Mr O’Sullivan puts it, “imperfectly matched to the actual facts”. PLF only first visited those parts of Transylvania in 1982. Some have even questioned the authenticity of his affair with Xenia Csernovits.

Xenia Csernovits’ antecedents were particularly exotic. As Mr O’Sullivan puts it, ”[b]y now he [PLF] was a consummate connoisseur of the nobility and must have entered a state of genealogical fugue when he discovered his new girlfriend’s lineage”. On her father’s side Xenia could trace her ancestry to a Serbian noble who had risen up against the Turks. Through her mother she was descended from “the Dukes of Mingrelia, Lord High Stewards of Georgia, Governors of Orbeti and Kaeni and hereditary Dukes since 1184 of the dynasty of Samegrelo, an independent principality until it fell to Imperial Russia in 1803”.

“Once Hungary had become a post-war Soviet satellite state”, Mr O’Sullivan writes, “Xenia’s life was altered in a way that was unimaginable in 1934.” As a class enemy she was sent to work in the rice fields on the Great Plain. Then she was put to work in a Budapest textile factory and later became an ironer at a cooperative. In 1969, after a blazing row and years of tension, she unintentionally strangled to death the woman with whom she had been sharing “a squalid little flat”, and spent two years in prison for manslaughter. She kept in touch intermittently with PLF by letter until she died in the late 1980s.

While PLF was spending as much time as he could entwined with Xenia, he was staying with Elemér von Klobusiczky on his family estate at Guraszáda, just to the east of the Csernovits’ estate at Zám. Unlike those in Hungary, Romania’s post-Communist restitution laws have been generous and a number of aristocratic families have reclaimed their old properties – as previously described in these pages (see Gergely Szilvay, “The Restoration of the Transylvanian Hungarian Aristocrats”, Hungarian Review, Volume IX, No. 3, May 2018, pp. 74–84). The house at Guraszáda, however, remains unclaimed, and today it “stands close to collapse but not totally beyond saving if something is done within the next year or so”.

PLF’s charm was legendary. But a question that continues to niggle after reading Between the Woods and the Water is: how could a nineteen-year-old English boy, however affable he may have been, have arrived with worn hobnail boots on his feet and a rucksack on his back and infiltrate the upper echelons of Hungarian society quite as successfully as he did? As a telling part of the answer, Mr O’Sullivan points to PLF’s mother’s story, with which PLF had grown up and which he no doubt used to his advantage as he crossed the old Habsburg realms, of descent from a noble Irish family – the Viscounts Taafe, a family with deep connections to the Habsburg army and aristocracy since the time of the Battle of Vienna in 1689.

The family connection to the noble house of Taafe may have been a matter of considerable fabrication by his mother, but it went down rather well in the castles of Hungary and Transylvania, where such a lineage made him very welcome. It required a great deal more than charm and good looks to breach the ha-has of the Hungarian nobility, even in the straitened economic times in which they were living in 1934. In fact, it was just this claim to Taafe blood, according to Rudi Fischer, his Budapest mentor, which opened many castle doors to him on his journey.

Admirers of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s exuberant trilogy, some of the twentieth century’s finest travel writing, owe a debt of gratitude to Michael O’Sullivan and to the research he has undertaken that enables us to travel once again with Paddy from Budapest to Transylvania.

* Patrick Leigh Fermor: Noble Encounters Between Budapest and Transylvania, CEU Press, Budapest 2018.

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Martin Gilbert Budapest, Communist Secret Service, Hungary.

Big fish: how the Hungarian security services tried to land Martin Gilbert
The Budapest authorities fought hard to recruit the historian – but who was really working for whom?

A black-and-white photograph taken in 1961 shows two men walking through the doorway of a Budapest hotel. An Englishman and his guide are heading out for a day in the city. The man on the left is Martin Gilbert, who later became an eminent historian, biographer of Winston Churchill and member of the Chilcot inquiry panel on the Iraq war. His companion is an agent of the Hungarian state security service.

The picture is one of many in the service’s archives documenting a visit that Gilbert made to Budapest in 1961 when he was invited there as a guest of the government, which was attempting to recruit him to work as a communist spy. The attempt failed and yet for some reason Gilbert, who dedicated his life to discovering and confronting the past, never spoke about it.

Martin Gilbert was an undergraduate at Magdalen College, Oxford, when he first came to the attention of Hungarian intelligence. “His general way of thinking and behaviour are characterised by being contrary to anything conventional,” noted Ödön Kallós, an undercover agent reporting under the code name “Barabás”. Gilbert was interested in the eastern bloc: he had visited Bulgaria, and had travelled through Poland in 1959 with Richard Gott, the Guardian journalist later alleged to have been a KGB “agent of influence” (a claim Gott denies). Their trip led them to co-write a study of pre-war British foreign policy, The Appeasers, described by the Hungarian intelligence service as “politically very useful”.

London was a major centre for the Hungarian spy trade during the cold war. Its residentura, or clandestine spying station, was established in 1950. The Hungarians considered Gilbert prize recruitment material and spared no expense in wooing him. In the Budapest archives, the files on most candidates for recruitment run to roughly 200 pages. There are 701 pages on Gilbert, spread over five volumes. An initial plan was sketched in February 1960 but first contact was not made until October that year, by which time Gilbert had been given a code name of his own, “Pártos”, which roughly translates as “biased” or “partisan”. The next meeting took place a month later at the luxurious Simpson’s-in-the-Strand in London. Gilbert was given lunch by László Nagy, an agent whose true identity has never been confirmed.

They met again in February 1961. Gilbert explained that he had organised campaigns for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. In the eyes of the Hungarians, this placed him in an ideal position to destabilise British politics. The timing was right: Gilbert was invited to Budapest.

He arrived on 9 September 1961 and for two weeks was exposed to the best that communism could provide. When he announced that he wanted to see Verdi’s Traviata at the opera house, tickets were quickly arranged. On one of his first evenings, he was taken by his handler, Comrade Major Peter Szikla, to Fisherman’s Bastion to enjoy views of the city at night and to dinner on Hármashatár Mountain. “As a result of good food and drink his mood became quite relaxed,” Szikla wrote in his report. “He said he hated the government ruling England. He said his years of military service turned him against the system, because there he experienced the reactionary, class-based policies that are primary characteristics of that imperialistic country.”

The language seems carefully crafted, aimed to provide his new friends with exactly what they wanted. Gilbert told Szikla that he had inherited his political views from his father, a Welsh miner. In reality, Gilbert’s father was a middle-class jeweller based in Hatton Garden, London, who had sent his son to Highgate School – facts that Hungarian intelligence might have been expected to know.

Yet it wasn’t all high living in Budapest. Gilbert made the inevitable trip to meet foundry workers in a new town named after Stalin, describing the place as a “beautiful paradise for workers”. But exposure to the communist dream did not stop him complaining about lazy waiters and a lack of loo paper at the Hotel Astoria.

Gilbert sent 36 postcards and nine letters while in Budapest. One was teasingly addressed “to the Hungarian censors”. He complained about the checking of his correspondence. A subsequent analysis of his post concluded: “His expressed opinions are not always honest. His statement that he is a communist is not true.” But the intelligence services did not give up, proposing to exploit him as a “social contact” rather than a full agent.

The next rendezvous was arranged for the Café de Cluny in Paris but Gilbert didn’t turn up. Though there were further meetings with László Nagy in London, a proposal to invite him to Czechoslovakia came to nothing. A series of defections shook the confidence of Hungarian intelligence. In November 1964 the file on Gilbert was closed for good.

It would have been clear to Gilbert that he was being groomed by the Hungarians. So was he working as an agent for British intelligence ? Had he contrived his far-left views to give himself credibility? Or was it simply an adventure for an ambitious young man who was at first flattered to have attracted the Hungarians’ attention and then saw no harm in accepting their lavish hospitality? In the eyes of Hungarian state security Gilbert returned home a safe bet for recruitment – but how did he remember that time? There is no mention of the trip in his published writings. He never spoke about it in public and did not respond to emailed inquiries before he died on 3 February. It seems that one of Britain’s leading historians of the 20th century chose to forget a significant part of his own history.

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Patrick Leigh Fermor, Budapest, fate of former girlfriend

The best dreams of an ancient lineage are often had on beds of straw. This is the thought that engages me as I stand outside the house where Patrick Leigh Fermor’s former girlfriend strangled her flatmate in 1969. This end of Budapest’s Pannonia Street is more chipped and faded in appearance than the more prosperous commercial stretch further south which is guarded by the elegant facade of the Vigzinhaus – the city’s Comedy Theatre. This neighbourhood of the XIII district called the Újlipótváros or New Leopoldstown was still a very new part of the city when Leigh Fermor first came to Budapest in 1934. It soon established itself as home to the literary and artistic set and also formed part of the residential area favoured by some of Budapest’s Jewish community. Today part of that Jewish community is again reestablishing itself here according to recent census information.
Standing outside 48 Pannonia Street, I am trying to imagine it as Xenia Cszernovits knew it when she moved here in 1957, so soon after the
revolution which tried to end Soviet rule in Hungary. I am trying also to imagine how this woman of distinguished lineage, born into a family of landed gentry in 1909, coped with the ‘class enemy’ status imposed on her by Communism and how she coped too with being sent to work as a labourer in a textile factory.

Xenia Csernovits de Mácsa et Kisoroszi was a ravishing dark-haired beauty. She was the daughter of a Transylvanian land owner from Zam, Mihály Czernovits de Mácsa et Kisoroszi. The family was of Serbian origin. Xenia married Gábor Betegh de Csíktusnád, scion of an old Transylvanian noble family, while still in her early twenties but at the time she met Leigh Fermor in 1934 the marriage was going through a turbulent phase. It later appears to have settled down again because they had a daughter two years after Xenia’s tryst with Leigh Fermor.

Xenia’s niece by marriage, Stefania Betegh, doubts that the affair with Xenia ever happened. She has no particular reason to defend Xenia’s honour. She was not, after all, a blood relative. There is also the issue of the confused manner in which Leigh Fermor attempts to disguise, and yet not disguise, Xenia’s identity in Between the Woods and the Water. At one point in the narrative he gives her full name, the location of her family house at Zam and enough detail for us to know exactly who she is. Then he disguises her as ‘Angela’ and even adds a footnote about the need to ‘alter names’ having already made her one of the most identifiable characters in the book. She seems not to have been bothered by this and when, in her seventy sixth year, she read a translation of the book in Hungarian by her relative, Miklos Vajda, she wrote to PLF to say how much she had enjoyed it.
Leigh Fermor’s attraction for women and his success as a seducer are well known. The balance of probability, in the seduction stakes, most likely rests with his success with Xenia. It was one of the last happy periods of her life. Miklos Vajda, recalls her as a free spirit and ‘a woman with something of the exotic gypsy in her looks and nature’. Men found her irresistible and the regular absence of her husband on business trips meant that she had frequent liaisons with various male admirers, amongst whom Leigh Fermor is the best known. Once Hungary had become a postwar Soviet satellite state, her life was altered in a way that was unimaginable in 1934. As a ‘class enemy’, she was sent to do menial work as a house painter and later in a textile factory in Budapest. She ended her days in a squalid little basement flat which she moved to after she strangled her flatmate in Pannonia Street on 20 December 1969.

copyright : Michael O’Sullivan

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W H Auden Austria Kirchstetten Vienna

MICHAEL O’SULLIVAN writes about a 30 year fascination with W.H. Auden in ‘Silence Turned Into Objects : W. H. Auden in Kirchstetten, edited by Ricarda Denzer and Prof Monika Seidl and published by Literature Edition Niederosterreich.

An Honoured Guest

(In Memoriam Stella Musulin)

“Fresh addenda are published every day.”

“Not everything about Wystan Auden was very appetising, his private life was a mess. But he was kind, generous and unpretentious, and personally I was devoted to him. [He was] an amazing mixture of awe-inspiring talent, high scholarship, wretchedness and squalor”.
In those few words, his friend, the writer Stella Musulin, sums up the essence of the man.
So central has he become to my life that there now never appears to have been a time that it could possibly have been otherwise. He has become, for me over the past thirty years, a talismanic touchstone. My conversation has become so peppered with quotes from the work and about the life, that I am frequently asked to say when I first met him. I was still at school in Ireland when he died in 1973. His niece married an Irishman and the poet’s great-niece was at university with me, however Auden, the great peregrinus, visitor to nearly thirty countries, never set foot in Ireland.

I was first made aware, by my English teacher and early mentor T.F. Lane, that it was Yeats and not Ireland who featured in Auden’s poetry. “Ireland has her madness and her weather still” is the nearest we come to an Audenesque Hiberno travelogue. Later I discovered that he enjoyed telling of how immensely proud he was of having written a poem in a complex Gaelic meter.

He was, of course, an influence on modern Irish poets, including Patrick Kavanagh, Seamus Heaney and Derek Mahon. He appears as a terse footnote in Finnegans Wake in which Joyce was, I rather like to think, either acknowledging the young poet’s Nordic roots when he wrote ‘I bolt that thor. Auden’, or perhaps he was merely displaying, yet again, his extraordinary knowledge of ancient myths and may have been referring to the Norse god Odin. Auden had certainly read Finnegans Wake soon after its publication and, like Evelyn Waugh, was not especially taken by it. However it did have a limited influence on aspects of The Age of Anxiety. He had a brief youthful flirtation with the mystical verse of Yeats’ friend George Russell (AE) and rather brilliantly described Oscar Wilde as “a phoney prophet but a serious playboy”. And there, with those flimsy associations, ends the possibility of any more substantial Auden links with Ireland.

My own link to Auden and his world began at Trinity College Dublin, when I chose him as the subject of my postgraduate work in the English Department. Charles Osborne’s biography, the first full-length biography of Auden, had just been published and serialised in The Observer. I recall reading the first extract on a wet Irish Sunday in March 1980 in my rooms in a college quad called Botany Bay. I was fascinated by the details of a life which were largely unknown to me and I found them an absolute revelation, if not indeed something of a sensation. That book, however, was soon to be eclipsed by the biography which Humphrey Carpenter, was about to publish.

“Burn my letters” Auden exhorted his friends through the medium of his Estate. His literary executors were instructed to place advertisements in newspapers requesting such action. Fortunately few of his friends obeyed his command and most of those who were contacted by Humphrey Carpenter gave him access to their correspondence with Auden.

Throughout his life he railed on and on about his abhorrence of the idea of someone writing his biography. ‘A writer is a maker, not a man of action’ was the oft repeated mantra. To read a man’s personal letters after his death, he claimed, was as impertinent as reading them while he was still alive. In this, as in so much else, he was a mass of contradictions. While waiting in his tutor’s rooms at Oxford he casually picked up letters from his desk and began reading them. When his newly appointed tutor, Nevill Coghill arrived Auden told him that a page from a particular letter was missing and asked him where it might be found. So, while not wishing other people to be tourists in his life, Auden had no difficulty making occasional visits to the lives of others.

A letter from me to Humphrey Carpenter brought a most courteous, if slightly guarded reply. I had been given a research award to look at Auden’s papers and related material at Oxford, and thought it a good idea to contact his biographer who lived in the city. We arranged to meet at a public house much frequented by Oxford students. After a few ice-breaking drinks my youthful enthusiasm for Auden seemed to strike a chord with Humphrey and he invited me home to lunch with his wife and family. Only after much convivial banter did I realise, to my absolute surprise, that the real purpose of the invitation was to show me the vast quantity of material he had amassed during the course of his research for the Auden biography. To my even greater surprise, when I was leaving he handed me a large box containing much of that material saying “this should help you with your research”. I then moved through a sweltering Oxford, with this weighty gift, quietly in awe of my generous benefactor and thinking how lucky Auden was to have had such a man as the chronicler of his life. It was the beginning of one of many friendships which were initiated through my burgeoning Auden obsession and which brought me into the direct path of many of his friends.

It was also an old friendship, coupled with some new ones that brought me to Austria and towards a more tangible connection to Auden’s Austrian life. In 1982 the Irish scholar and writer Patrick Healy introduced me to the American artist Timothy Hennessy, who was in the process of organising a major exhibition of his work in Paris as a tribute to James Joyce, as part of the centenary celebrations of Joyce’s birth. A central part of that exhibition was Patrick Healy’s reading of the complete text of Finnegans Wake, and on the sidelines of that event I met the then Vienna based linguist and translator Lise Rosenbaum. It was she who told me of the existence in Vienna of The International Auden Society, founded by Peter Muller of the Bundesdenkmal Amt together with the author Karlheinz Roschitz.

A letter to Peter Muller brought a reply inviting me to stay with him in Vienna and within a week of arriving was born the idea of an exhibition and symposium to mark the 10th anniversary of Auden’s death, which fell the next year.
Muller was an extraordinary man and though he travelled extensively in the rarefied world of both the Austrian intellectual and aristocratic set, he never lost touch with his roots in a small village in Lower Austria. He possessed a charm and self-assurance which left him equally at ease in a castle or in a cottage. I remember him bringing me to see the blood-stained uniform of the murdered Archduke Franz Ferdinand when this relic of Sarajevo was being inspected by his office. For a moment we were alone with the glass lid lifted. We looked at each other and at the uniform and then he suddenly said “Go on touch it, touch all that terrible history”.

He brought me on many a pilgrimage to places and to people associated with Auden’s Austrian life. As Auden was but ten years dead there were many people in Austria who remembered him and Peter Muller knew all of them.

But none would have as much influence on me personally or on my understanding of her friend W.H. Auden as an exceptionally intelligent woman called Stella Musulin. She was born Stella Lloyd-Philipps to an old family of landed gentry in the ancient Dale Castle in Pembrokeshire. Her marriage into the Austrian aristocracy brought with it the moniker Baroness Stella Musulin von Gomirje, but she wrote extensively, cleverly and with piercing insight on a polyglottal range of subjects as plain Stella Musulin.

“She was very close to Auden”, Peter Muller told me as we arrived in the courtyard of Schloss Fridau at Obergrafendorf some few kilometres from Auden’s house at Kirchstetten. The castle, a ghostly presence in the distance, had been occupied by the Russians at the end of World War II and left in a completely uninhabitable state. The family had moved to the adjacent courtyard to rooms made elegant by unpretentious good taste.
Later, when I was introduced to some of them, I realised that the list of names of the extended family members was like reading entries in the Almanach de Gotha of people who had been significant figures in the glory days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Stella’s father-in-law had helped write the ultimatum to Serbia in 1914 and her husband Janko Musulin was an important figure in the resistance to the Nazi occupation of Austria. But for now I was meeting a woman who, in Peter Muller’s conspiratorial whisper, had been “very close to Auden”.

The quadrangular configuration of this Austrian rural Eden had the feel of a small Oxbridge college. In the wing which we now entered, a staircase led to a long corridor, at the end of which lay the set of rooms occupied by Stella Musulin. The door to these rooms was open in welcome and there stood this delicate, almost fragile woman with a ready, courteous and friendly welcome. While Muller engaged in the courtly ritual of “kuss die Hand Frau Baronin” — “I kiss your hand Baroness” — I was aware of her looking at me as if to take an initial reading of the cut of my jib. I learned later that such a reading was at one time a natural instinctive reflex, for she had been an operative in British Intelligence during World War II. Once, when asked if she thought someone had been a spy, she replied “I am sure he was, there was something about the back of his neck.”

She spoke in perfectly accentless German to Muller and when she switched to English her voice was that of the English upper-class RP which for generations defined a whole class. Debrett’s records her as directly descended from a 9th century Welsh king, and though her upbringing was in that part of Wales known as ‘Little England’ she proudly laid claim to her Celtic ancestry but never engaged in any form of tiresome nationalistic jingoism. Over tea, as the conversation and my endless questions turned to Auden, I understood at once why he would have liked her.

She was the author of two important books on Austrian history: Vienna in the Age of Metternich and Austria: People and Landscape. Auden wrote the Introduction to the later. So here was a formidable, well-stocked mind and one which I later greatly benefited from exposure to as we became friends. Her essay on her own friendship with Auden has been published in Auden Studies so I will restrict myself here to some details that are not published therein.

She met Auden soon after he bought the Kirchstetten house in 1957. Correspondence between them from the period shows that they had settled in, almost immediately, to an easy friendship. Notes passed to and fro setting dates for lunches at Kirchstetten or at Fridau. So comfortable had the friendship become that before one luncheon at Fridau, Auden insisted that she come down to the courtyard to look at his VW car. He then showed her a hole in the bodywork of the car, which he proudly announced to be “a bullet-hole”. Auden was in the habit of giving his car on loan when he was away from Kirchstetten, and on the last occasion he did so it was stolen and used in a robbery. He was immensely proud of the latest addition to the many dents which were the result of less dramatic uses of his car. His driving skills were the subject of much good-natured humour in and around the Kirchstetten hinterland. Someone once explained his tendency to ignore a red traffic signal by saying that he was possessed of such supreme self-confidence that when he came to a traffic light he expected it to be green!

Auden came to rely on Stella’s impeccable German for translations of things such as speeches he had to deliver on official occasions in Austria. He was also in the habit of sending her drafts of his poems in his letters to her. This is something he reserved for close friends whose opinion he valued. It began when he was an undergraduate, often sending his drafts to Christopher Isherwood and Stephen Spender and he continued the practice throughout his writing life.

To illustrate Auden’s personality, Stella told the story of a lunch party at Fridau at which her young son Marko was also present. Advising the boy that a famous poet was coming to lunch and no doubt also advising best behaviour, she was surprised that her son’s curiosity led him to ask Auden what exactly a poet does? She then recalled how this colossus of English poetry sat and explained in terms that a young boy could understand, exactly what a poet does. This she felt was the mark of true genius and of Auden’s great humanity.

Auden also came to rely on Stella in the more intimate area of his personal relationship with Chester Kallman. Keeping Chester in purdah was an impossible task. He was, Stella recalled, “addicted to promiscuity”. When Kallman sometimes disappeared into the miasma of homosexual bars in Vienna for long periods, Auden occasionally telephoned Stella, who had a pied-a-terre in the city, to seek her help in finding him. She recalled once finding herself searching the seedy bars of the Linke Wien Zeile late at night for the straying Kallman. Apparently her gentle admonishment “now Chester time to go home” always worked and she would then return the prodigal to Kirchstetten, and to Auden, the next day. She felt that it cannot have been easy for Chester to live in the shadow of this genius whose life was lived to a rigid, sacrosanct and almost inviolable timetable. She developed a certain sympathy for Kallman’s role, which was seen by less sympathetic observers as second fiddle to the great man and by those completely lacking in sympathy and understanding as that of a sponger. She remarked on the importance of Auden’s role in Kallman’s life too when she recalled that after Auden’s death Chester had “lost his signpost in life” and began to disintegrate rapidly. A home movie made by a neighbour shortly after Auden’s death shows Chester in company at the dining table in Kirchstetten. He looked a complete shadow of his former robust image. Here now was a broken man, adrift and lost like the lighthouse of Portus. Stella was always willing to give him credit for the role he played in Auden’s life and ready to point out that he too made sacrifices, not least amongst them a certain loss of dignity which came from being financed by Auden for most of his life. Stella Musulin described Chester as “a Dorian Grey figure, sparkling and damned, hero and victim, immature and over-ripe, sensitive and heartless, a man capable of loving and being loved”.
Stella’s final role in Auden’s life was, for her, the saddest. She was driving back to Fridau from Linz on the 29th of September 1973 when the news of Auden’s death was announced on the car radio. With tears streaming down her face and in considerable shock, she drove straight to Kirchstetten where she found a somewhat chaotic scene at the house. Chester, tranquilised but still in a distressed state, finally and in absolute frustration and grief, asked Stella to take control of the funeral arrangements because it seemed to him, a non-practicing Jew that he was about to be forced to accept some sort of overblown state funeral for Auden in Kirchstetten. So Stella’s final act for her old friend was to use her diplomatic skills to ensure that the burghers of Kirchstetten and the grieving Chester, came to an amicable agreement about the nature of the send-off for the village’s most honoured guest.

Austria, his final resting place, his adopted homeland and arguably the place where he was happiest during his lifetime, continues to be the country where Auden is most honoured. It was in honouring Auden’s memory that I came to enjoy my own first meaningful role in the Audenworld and one that, happily and fortuitously, brought me into contact with some of his friends and family.
The catalyst in those years for all things celebratory in relation to Auden in Austria was Peter Muller. While staying with him at his flat in the Schlosselgasse in Vienna in 1983, a moment which I can only best describe as high ‘camparama’, gave rise to Muller’s notion that I should organise an exhibition and symposium to mark the 10th anniversary of Auden’s death, which fell in September of that year. He was showing me a crystal wine flagon and glasses from his collection which were once part of a suite made for the Empress Maria Theresa and at that moment he said “Let’s fill these up with wine and toast the idea of the Auden exhibition”. I like to think that such high camp style would have amused Auden, who was not adverse to the odd incursion into the world of high camp himself.

Once the heady intoxication of the wine from Maria Theresa’s wine accoutrements had worn off next day, I was faced with the reality of honouring a commitment to Peter Muller — who took such matters most seriously — to give Vienna the most significant ever public celebration of Auden’s life and work. Vienna was accustomed to hosting impressive arts events and I quite soon realised that what was expected was something on the grand scale. Within a week Muller had arranged a meeting with the director of the Niederosterreich Gesellschaft fur Kunst und Kultur, Dr Eugen Scherer. This organisation was the cultural arm of the Lower Austrian government and they had under their control one of Vienna’s premier public arts spaces, a gallery in the Kunstlerhaus, which was within a biscuit throw of some of Vienna’s major cultural icons — the Konserthus, the Musikverein, the Secession and the State Opera House. Eugen Scherer was immediately taken by the idea and almost instantly guaranteed the not inconsiderable funding it would take to assemble the celebration of Auden on the scale that we now had in mind.

In principle we all agreed that the event could not be a dry academic affair and it would have to be attractive to a wide parish, not just to Auden enthusiasts. A strong visual element was essential; there would be music, film, commissioned artworks, audio works and of course the Auden texts in their many and varied forms. In tandem with all this it was agreed that a symposium of Auden scholars would deliver a day of papers in the gallery, and from that a book of essays later appeared.

Looking at the scale of what was involved it was also agreed that the event would not happen until 1984, thereby missing the actual date of the 10th anniversary of Auden’s death by a few months. But what emerged as the process of organising the event went ahead was the massive global goodwill that there was towards Auden and the way in which a veritable cornucopia of the world’s most important literary and artistic institutions were willing to weigh in behind an unknown but enthusiastic young scholar from Trinity College Dublin in the most trusting and helpful manner. That was truly and deeply touching. The acknowledgements in the catalogue which accompanied the event are a ‘Who’s Who’ of that world.

As always with such events, the cast of personalities which emerged lent itself to some great anecdotal lore. As the event got under way, Vienna played host to many of them. Stephen Spender arrived from London along with Auden’s biographer Humphrey Carpenter. They were billeted at The Bristol Hotel — then a rather grand but elegantly chipped and faded establishment. By this time Spender was Poet Laureate and sported a knighthood, under which moniker he was registered at the hotel. It caused hilarious moments at the reception desk where he was always addressed as ‘Sir Spender’, making him sound like something altogether different to any passing English speaker. Chaperoning him around Vienna was a delightful task. He knew the city quite well from his period living there in the1930s. 1984 was the time of the coal miners’ strike in England and news of its progress was his abiding obsession. In those pre-internet days we did our best to keep him updated.

Raymond Adlam of the British Council in Vienna — a man of immense charm and erudition, a much-travelled Council officer and straight from the pages of an Olivia Manning novel — did much to keep the ever-increasing group of distinguished guests entertained. We organised a dinner for Spender in Auden’s favourite Vienna restaurant, the Ilona Stuberl, an unpretentious Hungarian bistro on Braunerstrasse in the inner city which Auden liked because it had something of pre-1956 Budapest about it. Amongst the guests was the young artist Mary P. O’Connor, then working with Eduardo Paolozzi. Her massive and highly charged images of Auden’s face — “that wedding cake left out in the rain” — had been commissioned for the exhibition and Spender very much admired them. The poet had never seen a Swatch watch and was fascinated by the one the artist was wearing, especially because it had a rotating image of Mickey Mouse.

Another guest was Paul O’Grady, a brilliant Irish-American scholar whose work on Catholics in the reign of Henry VIII also interested Spender. Snatches of the conversation floated up the table, with O’Grady delivering this sentence in support of some point about Auden’s Christianity: “I think Auden would agree that a melange of incoherent prejudices is very far removed from a firm Catholic theology, anti-papal or otherwise”. One could see how such a man could get him around to talking about his relationship with Auden. What emerged was Spender’s extraordinary revelation that “Auden loved me but he never really liked me”. That provided much fuel for post-dinner speculation as the guests, including Caroline Delval whose organisational and acute literary skills did much to make the exhibition a success, wandered off into the Vienna night. Later in a nearby bar Paul O’Grady and I gave full vent to our musings on what England’s Poet Laureate could possibly have meant. We came to the same conclusion, that Auden indeed loved him but what he didn’t like about him was his abandoning his early flirtation with homosexuality or the fact that Auden had intended Spender to be the novelist of the ‘Auden generation’ but he had disregarded that advice and ploughed on with poetry.

By a happy coincidence Auden’s old friend Leonard Bernstein was in Vienna conducting the Philharmonic, and when he got to hear about the exhibition he asked for a guided tour. He ambled over from the Musikverein one afternoon, with his assistant Aaron Stern and spent an hour going through the exhibits in great detail and giving many piercing insights as he went. When he came to a photograph of Auden and Chester, he stopped in his tracks and said “that photo tells you all you need to know about that relationship; there is Auden looking at Chester and Chester is looking at the camera”. I sat him down to view a BBC documentary on Auden in which the closing sequence is footage of Auden’s funeral. The Kirchstetten Village Brass Band is playing some sombre dirge but the director chose to play as the soundtrack under the footage, a full orchestral version of Siegfried’s Funeral March. Auden had requested this to be played at his funeral and Chester had played it on the gramophone in the Kirchstetten house. Auden said he wanted “Siegfried’s Funeral March and not a dry eye in the house”. He got his request. But now looking away from the television screen in the Kunstlerhaus, Bernstein looked up and said: “Wow, not bad for a local village band!” He recalled then that one of his own early orchestral works, ‘The Age of Anxiety’, was inspired by Auden’s poem of the same name. He recited memoriter, September 1st 1939, while puffing with great dramatic effect on an untipped cigarette. He recalled, too, Auden’s love of opera and the poet’s many librettos composed with Chester Kallman.

Soon after the Vienna exhibition I travelled to Athens to meet Alan Ansen, who first met Auden in New York when he attended his Shakespeare lectures and became briefly, in 1948-9, Auden’s unpaid amanuensis. Ansen was educated at Harvard, where he took a first in classics. He had led a somewhat bohemian but scholarly life, enabled by an inheritance from an elderly aunt. He resolved never to take paid employment during his lifetime — a resolution he fulfilled with consummate skill and not a little judicious financial husbandry.

I was aware that Auden held his intellect in high esteem and also had high regard for his poetry. He acknowledges Ansen’s help with The Age of Anxiety and the Portable Greek Reader. Ansen was a sort of muse figure to the Beat Generation and is the model for Rollo Greb in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and for AJ in William Burrough’s Naked Lunch. Indeed he is credited with having typed the manuscript of naked lunch in Tangier.

He was in his sixties when I met him and during the time I spent with him I could still see traces of how Kerouac described Rollo Greb:

He had more books than I’ve ever seen in all my life — two libraries, two rooms loaded from floor to ceiling around all four walls and such books as the Apocryphal Something-or-Other in ten volumes. He played Verdi operas and pantomimed them in his pyjamas with a great rip down the back. He didn’t give a damn about anything. He is a great scholar who goes reeling down the New York waterfront with original seventeenth-century musical manuscripts under his arm, shouting. He crawls like a big spider through the streets. His excitement blew out of his eyes in stabs of fiendish light. He rolled his neck in spastic ecstasy. He could hardly get a word out he was so excited with life.

The library came with him from Long Island to Venice to Athens. He pointed out a chair that Chester Kallman gave him which came from Auden’s house in Kirchstetten. “What should be done with this after I die” he asked me, more as a rhetorical question than one needing testamentary advice, for he was soon on to other subjects.

Over a glasses of warm Cinzano Rosso he told me, with a touching, genuine sadness in face and voice, of Chester’s last days in Athens. Tales of his drinking Ouzo from early morning, tales of his being robbed by Athenian rough trade, tales of insufferable loneliness drowned in a vat of drink. He had, Ansen said, “lost his criterion when Wystan died”. He then recited some lines Chester had written about Auden’s death:

Wystan is gone: a gift of fertile years
And now of emptiness: I found him dead
Turning icy blue on a hotel bed…
I shared his work and like as best I could
For both of us, often impatiently.
So it was; let it be.

He was pleased with the catalogue of the Vienna exhibition I brought for him and glad, he said, that Auden’s adopted homeland remembered and honoured him.

What emerged from the Vienna exhibition and the international coverage it received was above all a sense that Auden’s legend lived on far beyond the borders of Austria, but there was also this all-pervasive sense that Austria had claimed him as one of her own and a feeling too that he would have been greatly pleased to be so claimed by the people he lived and died amongst.

Master of nuance and scruple,
Pray for me and for all writers living or dead;
Because there are many whose works
Are in better taste than their lives;
Because there is no end
To the vanity of our calling: make intercession
For the treason of all clerks.


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Marrakesh Now


The Irish Times – Wednesday, April 27, 2011
A fabled city defaced by stag parties and a property bubble

MARRAKESH LETTER: Visitors to this Moroccan city 10 years ago would hardly recognise the place today, writes MICHAEL O’SULLIVAN

THE MOSQUE of the Booksellers is surely one of the most poetic names ever given to a place of worship. The Koutoubia mosque in Marrakesh takes its name from the sellers of manuscripts who once plied their trade in the shadow of its ancient walls.

This iconic symbol of the former imperial capital prompted a Lebanese friend who has known the city for more than a quarter of a century to share his thoughts on more recent Moroccan history.

“As an Irishman,” he said, “you may well be offended by what I am about to say. But I have always believed that the founder of modern Morocco had much in common with Oliver Cromwell.” He went on to suggest that Moulay Ismail and Cromwell were both “men in a hurry, and as a result have been seriously misrepresented in history as bloodthirsty tyrants”.

All of this was by way of answer to a series of questions about the recent pro-democracy protests in Marrakesh – that saw widespread looting but no bloodshed – and about a city and a society in a state of flux.

“The Irish have played no small part in changing the very nature of this city,” my friend said.

“Your Mr O’Leary and his Ryanair have brought hoards of English stag party tourists here. And now, as a result, we have Zara on the Boulevard and Sushi in the Medina.”

We began to walk from the Kasbah to that part of Marrakesh known as Gueliz. This is the French town, or ville moderne, built so that the colonial seat of power was separate from the area known as the native quarter. It was a device used throughout Morocco during the period of the French protectorate from 1912 until independence in 1956, not so that the raj might set itself apart, in the manner of the arrogant memsahibs in India, but rather that the distinct identity of the medieval Moroccan medinas might not be destroyed. This was the handiwork of the first French resident-general, Hubert Lyautey. Sensitive, shrewd and unashamedly gay, Lyautey was described by Edith Wharton as possessing “a sympathetic understanding of the native prejudices, and a real affection for the native character”.

On reaching Boulevard Mohammed V, my friend’s ire was raised again as he demanded that I “behold the destruction of Lyautey’s perfectly planned town”. The evidence is indeed incontrovertible. It is now a hideous amalgam of unplanned structures and incongruous shopping malls; temples of globalised commercial activity containing all the trendy brand names which until recently were only to be found in the souks of Marrakesh as rather well-made counterfeits.

“We too have had our Irish property bubble,” my friend informed me. “This travesty is the result. And furthermore, in the ancient medina, there are now 300 riads for sale. These traditional houses were titivated by foreigners and now they want to abandon them because the property bubble has burst.”

Turning to the political situation, he suggested that the young educated middle class is on the verge of following the example of neighbouring Maghreb states into bloody revolution.

“There was always a huge gap between rich and poor here,” he said, “but now that gap has expanded to include a new, young, educated, IT-savvy class. If serious constitutional change is not put in place there will be blood on the streets here before the end of the year.”

Walking back towards the well-known La Mamounia Hotel, the theme of the lecture switched to colonialism and some choice criticism of Sir Winston Churchill, who made Marrakesh and La Mamounia his painting retreat in the 1940s.

“Europeans have never really understood the Arab mind,” was how this next intermezzo began. “How therefore could they possibly understand what is essentially the Berber mind of this country? In the 19th century it was better understood by a few women travellers than it has been by any of the dope-smoking wealthy fashionistas who moved here in the 1960s.”

Writing in 1966, Gavin Maxwell, who had a profound understanding of Morocco, said of Marrakesh that “nothing has changed in this city for a thousand years”. Within the last five years so profound a change has been wrought on Marrakesh that visitors of 10 years ago would hardly recognise it today. Unesco’s best efforts to preserve elements of the city have resulted only in theme-park orientalism. If my Lebanese oracle is correct, it will take a mighty cultural revolution to restore Marrakesh to anything approaching its former glory.

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The Irish Times – Tuesday, April 12, 2011
An Irishman’s Diary

Oscar Wilde’s grave in Paris: Vincent O’Sullivan paid his travel expenses when he settled in Naples hoping to escape the trauma and humiliation after his trial and imprisonment.
Michael OSullivan

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 Wilde is 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.

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Debo Devonshire

“Never marry a Mitford!” was the slogan emblazoned on a tee-shirt owned by Andrew Cavendish, 11th Duke of Devonshire, but worn only within the walls of his demesne. It was, of course, an in-house joke. When that unlikely piece of kit was worn at Chatsworth, he had been happily married for many years to Deborah Vivien Freeman Mitford, the sixth and last of the Mitford sisters. Her recently published memoir ‘Wait for Me!’ is far from being a model of opaque discretion and reveals much about the Mitford connections to Ireland.

She has been known since childhood to family and friends as ‘Debo’. That sobriquet was part of the language constructed by the Mitford girls for their private world, much as Christopher Isherwood and Edward Upward constructed the private language of the ‘Mortemere’ stories for their private world. Private language was a very thirties upper-class thing.

So too was the habit of dynastic labelling; ‘the Guinness Girls’, the ‘Mitford Sisters’. Large portions of rainforests have been offered up in the quest to chronicle the lives of the Milfords. And now comes this autobiography from the last living, and sometimes mistakenly perceived as the least literary, of the Mitford girls.

Debo Devonshire’s reticence to rush into print is understandable when one considers the formidable literary output of her sisters. It is all the more welcome, therefore, because at the age of 90, it comes when she has had time to reflect on nearly a century of personal and public life.

She spent much of that life overshadowed by the reputations of her more controversial sisters, especially Unity and Diana. Unity was a scatter-brained Nazi sympathizer who worshiped Hitler and who, because of the family’s connection to Churchill, was taken up by the Furher. He gave her a flat in Munich which had been confiscated from a young Jewish couple. Her Nazi Party badge and signed photograph of Hitler were her most prized possessions. She left instructions for these treasured icons to be buried with her when she attempted suicide after war was declared between England and Germany.

There are several Mitford connections to Ireland. Diana Mitford was the mother of Desmond Guinness, the founder of the Irish Georgian Society. Her first marriage to Bryan Guinness, (2nd Baron Moyne), ended in divorce after she fell in love with the fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley. It was an enduring love but it saw her socially ostracised and caused her to be imprisoned during the Second World War. The Mosleys moved to Ireland in the early 1950s and lived in the rather grandly named Bishop’s Palace at Clonfert and when that was consumed in a great nocturnal blaze, they moved to a house near Fermoy. They moved largely in the world of Anglo-Ireland but there was much sympathy for Mosley among the plain people of Ireland because he had long been a supporter of Irish independence and hailed Michael Collins as a brilliant leader.

There are many other Mitford connections to Ireland. Clementine Lady Beit, wife of Sir Alfred Beit and chatelaine of Russborough, County Wicklow, was a Mitford and a cousin of the famous six. This does not save her from being described in these memoirs as someone ‘who struck up a close friendship with an SS officer (an episode in her life that was conveniently forgotten after her marriage to Alfred Beit).’ The legendary youthful meanness of the very rich Alfred Beit is not overlooked either. The Dowager Duchess tells us Beit is remembered for asking a companion with whom he was on holiday: ‘Will you buy the newspaper? I don’t want to break into another sixpence’.

Another Mitford sister, Pam, also moved to Ireland with her husband Derek Jackson. They lived at Tullamaine Castle in Country Tipperary where they entertained the racing set and held point-to-points across their land.

However the most abiding connection between the Duchess and Ireland is Lismore Castle in County Waterford. The house has been in the Duke’s family since 1753. It was, as Patrick Leigh Fermor observed, ‘built by King John, lived in by Sir Walter Raleigh and plumed by Adele Astaire’. Fred Astaire’s sister married, Lord Charles Cavendish, the uncle of Debo’s husband. Charles Cavendish was a handsome and charming man by all accounts but a hopeless alcoholic and when the couple lived at Lismore the butler, who ignoring doctors’ orders used to slip him whiskey disguised as tea in a china mug.

Fred Astaire was a regular visitor to Lismore while his sister was in residence and is still remembered in the town. Prince Charles has been a house guest along with Camilla Parker-Bowles before she became Duchess of Cornwall. But it is the endearing portraits of the engaging eccentrics remembered in this book that makes it special.

There is the lumbering figure of Clodagh Ansen who was utterly oblivious to the fact that the man sitting next to her at dinner, Hubert de Givenchy, was one of the most famous fashion designers in the world. She liked to do her gardening at night by the headlights of an old battered car and when the battery failed she wore a miner’s lamp on her head. Her mother wrote two volumes of autobiography rather brilliantly titled ‘Book’ and ‘Another Book’.

The splendidly named Horace Holroyd-Smyth was a neighbour at Ballynatry where he used the billiards table for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The remains of each meal still on the table as the next one arrived. He drove to grand country house dinners on a battered old tractor dressed in a dinner jacket. When the hunting season ended he entertained himself by playing the recorded sounds of a hunting horn on a gramophone.

Fishing on the Blackwater played a big part in the life of Lismore Castle. There were famous gillies like Billy Flynn who once brought a salmon up to the record weight of 30lbs by stuffing its mouth with plumb pudding. When the faithful old retainer lay dying in hospital the Duchess visited him and he asked her if she thought would be fishing in heaven?

One of the most hilarious fishing anecdotes relates to
Debo’s father-in-law. He was fond of tying his own fishing flies and used to pinch bits of feathers from ladies hats and to test his handiwork he submerged himself in the bath and had his butler wave the flies over his head to behold from the underwater perspective what the fish were going to be baited with!

Very little of what was happening in Irish life escaped the keen Mitford eye for detail. In a letter from Lismore to the travel writer Paddy Leigh Fermor the Duchess observed ‘the Irish Times has got a new trick of saving everything by reprinting several pages of itself of 50 years ago and except for a bit about Lindberg and an inflammatory speech of W. Churchill’s, its very hard to tell where those pages end and 1978 begins.’

For nearly a century the Mitford girls have come to represent glamour, wit, intelligence, privilege. They were sometimes controversial but never boring. Three of them chose to live in Ireland. The last of the line has now put us under the microscope of memoir from which we emerge with flying colours.

WAIT FOR ME! Memoirs of the Youngest Mitford Sister
By Deborah Devonshire is published by John Murray at £20stg.

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