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Saturday, 29 October 2005

Cruising with O'Brien

My first encounter with Dr. Conor Cruise O'Brien was at NYU when I was a callow reporter at The Washington Square Journal, the University's undergraduate daily. With a circulation at the time -- the late 1960s -- of more than 35,000, it was one of largest dailies in New York City -- in fact, if I recall correctly, the third or fourth largest daily during a newspaper strike of the period. It was during this time that I became the paper's editor. I digress.

I was assigned to interview Dr. O'Brien, who had recently been appointed by President James Hester as Professor of Quelquechose, and the appointment had all the earmarks of quite an academic coup for NYU -- still struggling then to raise itself to the first rung of national universities. I met Dr. O'Brien in his domocile, a penthouse suite atop a highrise on the northeast side of Washington Square. I don't remember what was said. Of course, I had no clue who he was -- a diplomat, historian, academic. It all got mixed up. I do remember something about this complexion: His facial skin was milky white, covering a light network of spider veins under what seemed like a sprinkling of talc. A true Irish complexion, I thought. (I was to see this again when I met, years later, Senator Patrick Moynihan). I left my session with the venerable Dr. O'Brien unscathed, able to tell the tale, which I did in newspaper form the next day. I'm still looking for the article. (I have it around here somewhere!) In other words, Dr. O'Brien let me off gently.

Flash forward.... 1996. London.

By happenstance, I had joined a group devoted to Dr. Samuel Johnson and his philogistic good works. One of the first meetings I attended was held at the Vestry House in Westminster, during which Dr. O'Brien, now living at home in Dublin, was the main speaker. It was at this meeting that I met Howard Fitzpatrick and Laurie Graham. Both were Johnson fans, as well. So much so that they had consructed a papier mache statute of the Great Man, which joined them periodically a table. A female friend of theirs from Richmond (Surrey) also attended the meeting and, coincidentally, this woman was also a friend of Gill. Therein lies how we met through this introduction. I knew there something interesting about Howard, besides his background, of course. He was first person I had ever heard use the word 'manuensis' correctly in general conversation. Laurie was equally notable as accomplished journalist.

Back to Dr. O'Brien. After as brief service at the Cathedral at Johnson's burial site, we retired to a nearby Italian restaurant. (Since closed). I chatted briefly and amiably with Dr. O'Brien, even recalling our first meeting in New York City. Of course, he remembered, he said. Again, he let me off gently. -- Richard Carreño

Conor Cruise O'Brien