By Kathleen Dixon Donnelly
I want to tell you about an amazing man.
While doing my academic research on early 20th century writers, an interesting fringe character kept popping up. Like Woody Allen’s Zelig he appeared in biographies, letters and group photos with Matisse, Picasso, Ezra Pound, James Joyce. Who was this guy?
Recently I researched the 1913 New York Armory Show for my book about the writers, “Such Friends.” There was John Quinn again, buying art in Paris, organizing the first exhibition of international modern art in America, writing to Joseph Conrad and other struggling writers.
Curious, I read the only biography of Quinn, B. L. Reid’s The Man from New York: John Quinn & His Friends, and discovered it is really awful—poorly written, badly organized. Worst of all, it makes this fascinating man boring.
Here is the Quinn I discovered:
Born in 1870, he was the son of an Irish immigrant baker. He grew up in middle-class Fostoria, OH, and attended the University of Michigan. When a family friend was appointed US Treasury Secretary, Quinn went to work for him in Washington, DC. Holding down a full-time government job, he attended Georgetown University law school at night.
After earning an advanced degree in international relations from Harvard (not bad for a shanty-Irish baker’s son), Quinn moved to New York City, his home for the rest of his life. He predictably worked on high-profile corporate cases for a large firm. Just after 1900, his mother and two sisters died within a few months of each other, and he began to explore his Irish roots. On his first trip to Ireland, at a Galway feis, he met Lady Augusta Gregory and other friends of William Butler Yeats. While helping this group establish the Abbey Theatre, he started his own New York law firm in 1906.
His practice was supported by lucrative corporate retainers, and he became associated with Tammany Hall. When his candidate didn’t get the 1912 Democratic Party nomination, he became disgusted with politics (go figure). He turned his energies to the arts.
During the first decades of the 20th century Quinn managed to: help organize the Armory Show; fight to eliminate tariffs on contemporary art; bail out the Abbey players, arrested for performing Playboy of the Western World in Philadelphia; have many affairs, including one with Lady Gregory, support Yeats’ father in New York by buying his paintings; support Joyce in Paris by buying his manuscripts; argue the original obscenity case against the banning of Ulysses excerpts; carry on detailed correspondences with most of the cultural luminaries of the time; and amass an incredible collection of modern art. All before his death from cancer at the age of 54.
The only other book about him is a catalogue from the Hirshorn Museum’s memorial exhibit in 1978. The most fascinating tidbits are found in the footnotes. Quinn’s “assistant,” “companion,” and “devoted friend” was Mrs. Jeanne Robert Foster, who, for the last six years of his life helped him on his European collecting trips, while remaining married to the wealthy Matlock Foster. This just gets better and better.
After his death, his art collection, all 2000 pieces, was sold off among museums and collectors. His voluminous correspondence was donated to the New York Public Library, including the original manuscript of T S Eliot’s The Wasteland.
When I gave my presentation about the Armory Show to a group of art collectors, I tried to communicate to them Quinn’s enthusiasm for supporting artists as well as art.
Read more about all the groups by clicking on the pages or categories to the right. Check out the blog about what they were doing 100 years ago this month, or the daily postings to find out what happened on this date. For annotated reading lists about your favorite authors, leave a comment or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.