As the Irish poet and Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney wrote of The Hidden Pope, the final work of his late friend Darcy O’Brien: “The book is tenor and cantor, a caravel of sweetness and sorrows, lovely proof of what Wilfred Owen called ‘the eternal reciprocity of tears’ … The narrative leads deep into so much that is essential and atrocious in the history of the age … it is one of the great stories of the century told by the right storyteller.”
The Darcy O’Brien Endowed Chair at The University of Tulsa honors and celebrates the life of a writer, scholar, teacher and friend.
Although a chronological overview of O’Brien’s life would most likely open with his Hollywood childhood, it seems appropriate to begin at the end, with the publication of O’Brien’s last and perhaps greatest work, The Hidden Pope, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. The book provides an account of the lifelong friendship between Pope John Paul II and Jerzy Kluger, a Jewish man who grew up with the future pontiff in the small Polish village of Wadowice.
Of all O’Brien’s books, and there were many, The Hidden Pope captures with profound simplicity and grace one of the archetypal themes of the 20th century — the forging of understanding and respect across cultural and religious lines.
That this heroic theme unfolds through the story of a small-town boyhood friendship is classic O’Brien. He was, after all, a writer who kept his radar in search of real people. Perhaps this is why O’Brien, while inspired to examine a subject as lofty as ecumenical goodwill, also found himself at home in prisons and police stations interviewing the accused and their accusers.
Darcy O’Brien was born in Los Angeles, the son of actors George O’Brien and Marguerite Churchill. Despite the glamour of a childhood immersed in the star-studded milieu of Hollywood, O’Brien chose to pursue the life of a scholar — and he went east to receive his formal training.
An outstanding student, he earned a bachelor’s degree with cum laude honors from Princeton University, and then spent a year at Cambridge University as a Fulbright Scholar. Upon his return to the United States, O’Brien moved back to the West, earning a master’s degree and doctorate from the University of California at Berkeley.
With such impressive academic credentials, it is not surprising that O’Brien’s first published work was scholarly, The Conscience of James Joyce (1968). Despite his later success as both a novelist and nonfiction writer, O’Brien retained a strong foothold in the academic world. He published two additional scholarly works, W.R. Rodgers (1971) and Patrick Kavanaugh (1975), plus a continuous stream of articles and essays.
In addition, the list of academic fellowships O’Brien received is long and distinguished: a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, a Fulbright Fellowship, a Mellon Foundation Fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship.
O’Brien’s first work of fiction, A Way of Life, Like Any Other (1977), won the Ernest Hemingway Award for Best First Novel. In it, O’Brien called upon his Hollywood childhood to craft the bittersweet story of a young boy growing up in a silver screen dream world that inevitably tarnishes. As the novelist Thomas Flanagan said of the book: “I would pay hard cash, silver dollars on the barrelhead as the cowboy star father would have put it, to have written that first page of Darcy’s first novel … ”
O’Brien went on to write three more novels, Moment By Moment (1978), The Silver Spooner (1981) and Margaret in Hollywood (1991). Alongside these works of fiction, O’Brien also began to explore another literary form, one that brought him into a world far less idyllic than that of make-believe and the movies.
In 1981, O’Brien’s roommate from his undergraduate days at Princeton, Ronald George, served as the judge in a famous murder trial involving two men known as the Hillside Stranglers. O’Brien became fascinated with the case and began research for Two of a Kind: The Hillside Stranglers (1985). The book was destined to become a best seller, an NBC television film, and a standard text in criminology and psychology courses still studied today.
Now-retired Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of California, Ronald George acknowledges that while he introduced O’Brien to a “life of crime,” it was O’Brien who introduced him to something far greater. As the Chief Justice wrote in a tribute to O’Brien in 1998: “I can say without exaggeration that I credit Darcy with as much of my intellectual awakening and ultimate education — and with the continuing interests that I have today — as I do my college alma mater.”
The ability to inspire intellectual curiosity made O’Brien as powerful in the classroom as he was passionate about his art. His courses at Pomona College and The University of Tulsa were always popular, always full and always alive with intellectual rigor and more than a touch of irreverence — the legendary wit and originality that made him a favorite with students. O’Brien, both in person and on the printed page, had a genius for making his subject matter come alive.
He brought to his teaching, as to his writing, an ability to empathize with others and distill details into their luminous essence. O’Brien also possessed an unusually wide range of affinities and interests, writing on topics as diverse as a child’s coming-of-age and the criminal mind. There is little doubt that he was as comfortable evoking sentimentality as he was entering the mind of a serial killer.
O’Brien’s first success in crime writing led to three more nonfiction books: Murder in Little Egypt (1989), which was nominated for the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Non-Fiction Crime Book; A Dark and Bloody Ground (1993); and Power to Hurt (1996), which won the Edgar Allan Poe Award and was cited as the authoritative background for a case heard by the U.S. Supreme Court that same year.
In these works, O’Brien explored the complex theme of good vs. evil, capturing that universal duel in prose that was as lyrical as it was foreboding. O’Brien had an eye for telling detail, an ear for the subtle nuance — and a natural born ability to reveal the psychological underpinnings of his characters.
As both artist and academic, O’Brien was an active and contributing member of many professional organizations including the Authors Guild of America, P.E.N. New York City Center, Mystery Writers of America and Screen Writers Guild. He served on the editorial boards of the James Joyce Quarterly and the American Irish Historical Society. He also gave back to the literary community that so richly rewarded him, serving as a member of the nominating jury in fiction for the 1998 Pulitzer Prize.
In 1999, O’Brien was posthumously awarded the Religious Communicators Council’s Wilbur Award for The Hidden Pope. O’Brien’s wife, Suzanne, and daughter, Molly, accepted the interfaith award for promoting religious tolerance and values in a special ceremony at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.
A 1997 inductee into the Oklahoma Writers Hall of Fame, O’Brien also was honored by the state when Gov. Frank Keating proclaimed May 7, 1998, as Darcy O’Brien Day.
In a career marked by the publication of 11 highly regarded books of fiction and nonfiction, O’Brien published a staggering number of articles, essays and reviews in publications including The New York Times, New York Magazine, The Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker, the Irish Times and the James Joyce Quarterly.
O’Brien’s credentials also included dozens of professional presentations as both critic and creative writer, technical consulting for the film adaptation of his own books and the cinematic projects of others, serving on many master’s degree and doctoral committees at TU, and public outreach through lectures, workshops and readings.
It seems fitting here to share the words of the Irish poet Richard Murphy, who invokes the name of a fellow countryman in describing O’Brien’s penchant for a good scoop and an even better story: “Like Seamus Heaney, Darcy always kept his ear and feet close to the ground.”
Indeed, with the creation of the Darcy O’Brien Endowed Chair at The University of Tulsa, it is our intention to honor O’Brien’s legacy by selecting as distinguished visitors those kindred spirits who likewise find their muse “close to the ground.”