‘Such Friends’:  John Quinn and me

Some of you are familiar with my near-obsession with John Quinn (1870-1924), the Irish-American art collector [to put it mildly] who appeared Zelig-like in all my research into early 20th century writers’ salons [Cf. ‘I want to tell you about an amazing man,’ on the right].

Last summer, on my trip to the States, I spent a tax-deductible day with the helpful staff at the New York Public Library, going through his papers. And thanks to my wonderful brother, Patrick J. Donnelly, we spent a whole day driving around Ohio where Quinn was born and grew up.

I owe it to all those who helped me, and to John Quinn, to finally embark on my long-planned work on his life and his role in the birth of modernism.

For the past 15 months in this blog I’ve been chronicling ‘my writers’ with stories of what they were doing before and during their times as ‘such friends’ hanging out together in living rooms and cafes in Ireland, England, France and America. My original plan was to keep going and tell the stories of what happened to them after their time in these groups. Let me know if you are heartbroken that those blogs are now on hold.

Instead, I am going to chronicle my search for Quinn. I could just write and self-publish a standard biography of him on Amazon. But—why? He’s an interesting guy, but there is a bigger picture.

Quinn was both an observer of and participant in the Irish Literary Renaissance, the Armory Show and the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses. He was in Dublin, London, Paris and New York when the salons were happening. What a point of view!

And, even more important, he supported the arts and the artists. In unusually creative ways. I think we can learn a lot from him that would help today’s W B Yeats, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein and Dorothy Parker. And Joyce.

Come with me on my journey. John Quinn and me. We are ‘such friends.’

johnquinn

John Quinn      1870-1924

 

 

 

In Tiffin, Ohio, 145 years ago, on April 24, 1870…

…John Quinn was born, the first son of two Irish immigrants. He grew up in middle-class Fostoria, Ohio, and went to the University of Michigan. While working full-time in a government job in Washington, DC, he went to Georgetown University law school at night. After receiving his law degree, he earned an advanced degree in international relations from Harvard. Not bad for the son of a shanty-Irish baker.

Quinn then moved to New York City, which was to be his home for the rest of his life, so he was there when the Algonquin Round Table wits were in the newspapers every day. He predictably landed a job with a major New York law firm and worked on high profile corporate cases. During a two-year period there were quite a few deaths in his family—parents, sisters, etc.—and he began to explore his Irish roots by going back to ‘the old sod.’ While attending a Gaelic language festival in the west of Ireland, he met Lady Augusta Gregory and other friends of W B Yeats involved in the Irish Literary Renaissance. While helping them found the Abbey Theatre, he started his own law firm in 1906.

John Quinn, 1870-1924

John Quinn, 1870-1924

Quinn became involved in New York’s Tammany Hall politics, but when his candidate didn’t get the nomination at the 1912 Democratic Party convention, he became disgusted with the whole system (go figure). After that he turned his considerable energies to art and literature.

During the first two decades of the 20th century he managed to:

  • Help organize the Armory Show, securing paintings from Roger Fry’s Second Post-Impressionist Exhibit in London, and Leo and Gertrude Stein’s collection at 27 rue de Fleurus in Paris,
  • Fight Congress to have the tariff on contemporary art changed,
  • Bail out the Abbey Theatre after they were arrested for performing The Playboy of the Western World in Philadelphia,
  • Have an affair with Lady Gregory and a number of other much younger women,
  • Support Yeats’ father in New York City by buying his paintings,
  • Argue the original case to have excerpts of Ulysses published in the United States,
  • Support James Joyce in Paris by buying his manuscripts of Ulysses as he wrote them,
  • Fund the transatlantic review where Ernest Hemingway worked when he first came to Paris, and
  • Amass an incredible collection of modern art, stashed around his Manhattan apartment, focused primarily on European painters and sculptors.

During that time he kept up a detailed correspondence with all of the above as well as Ezra Pound, Joseph Conrad, Augustus John and other cultural luminaries of the early 20th century. When I did my research, Quinn kept popping up, Zelig-like, in photos such as this one:

James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Ford Madox Ford, and John Quinn in Paris

James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Ford Madox Ford, and John Quinn in Paris

Quite a guy. I get tired just thinking about all he accomplished.

Quinn died of intestinal cancer at the age of 54, and, having no heirs, willed that his art collection be sold off and dispersed among museums and collectors around the world. And it was.

This summer I’m planning to visit the States—including Ohio, where he grew up, and New York City, where his papers are. And [you read it here first], on this date, five years from now, 2020, his 150th birthday, I plan to publish an autobiography of this amazing man.

So happy birthday, John Quinn!