A Local Life: Irvin Leigh Matus, 69, penniless Shakespeare scholar who lived by his own design

Irvin Matus, an independent Shakespeare scholar was homeless for a time while he was doing his research.
Irvin Matus, an independent Shakespeare scholar was homeless for a time while he was doing his research. (The Washington Post)
By Matt Schudel Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 5, 2011; 9:03 PM

Ever since arriving in Washington in 1985, Irvin Matus seemed to survive on little more than charm, wit and the kindness of friends and strangers.

He seldom had a paying job - mostly out of stubborn pride - choosing instead to spend the past 25 years as an independent scholar of the life and works of William Shakespeare. He showed up each day at the Library of Congress or Folger Shakespeare Library to conduct his research, then slipped away in the evening to cadge food from Capitol Hill cocktail receptions, striding in as if he were a congressman.

He lived in dozens of places as an itinerant housesitter and became known as something of a "man who came to dinner."

"Invite him to stay the night," a fellow Shakespeare scholar told The Washington Post last week, "and he might still be in your home a month later."

Mr. Matus (pronounced MAH-tuss) traveled to England to explore the places Shakespeare knew, dug through archives and published two well-received books, but any similarities to other scholars ended there.

He was not affiliated with a university and had no academic credentials beyond a high school diploma. In 1988, just as he was putting the final touches on his first book, "Shakespeare: The Living Record," Mr. Matus ran out of borrowed couches.

For several months, he spent his nights sleeping at a construction site behind the Library of Congress. In the morning, he would slip into the library, wash up, shave and comb his luxuriant head of hair, then go back to his research. Whenever people asked where he was living, he said, "the Hill."

Two months after Mr. Matus died Jan. 5 of a stroke at his apartment in Silver Spring at 69, people who knew him are still puzzling over how a brilliant man whose scholarship was recognized around the world came to lead such an unconventional life, often just one step from destitution.

Without holding a full-time job, Mr. Matus cobbled together his own makeshift career, and made his life as memorable as that of any character upon the stage.

He wrote magazine articles for Harper's and the Atlantic and went on to publish in 1994 a second book, "Shakespeare, in Fact," which has come to be recognized as a near-definitive refutation of the argument that the works of Shakespeare were written by someone other than the historical Bard of Avon.

"He distinguished himself by his passion for Shakespeare, his deep respect for the historical record, and his devotion to research," Gail Kern Paster, director of the Folger Shakespeare Library, wrote in an e-mail to The Washington Post. "His book, 'Shakespeare, in Fact,' was recognized as a reliable, trustworthy, and authoritative source for what we know for sure about Shakespeare."

Mr. Matus appeared on panels across the country and was more than willing to charge into battle over the "authorship question," defending Shakespeare from his modern-day doubters. He struck up friendships with many leading Shakespeare experts, including Samuel Schoenbaum of the University of Maryland.

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