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

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.

"My husband thought he was a good scholar," Schoenbaum's widow, Marilyn, said last week of Mr. Matus. "But he was a really odd duck."

'A sheer cold anger'

Irv Matus was an easy guy to like: He was clean and meticulous, a good cook and could talk about anything - often at stupefying length. He got to know the guards and homeless people of Capitol Hill as easily as the lettered scholars he met in the libraries.

"He was the friendliest guy you could want to meet," said Thomas Mann, a Library of Congress reference librarian who often had lunch with Mr. Matus.

But over time, his personality would grate on some. When he housesat for people, he would rearrange their kitchens. Researchers at the Folger began to duck behind stacks of books when they saw him coming because they knew that if they stopped to say hello, Mr. Matus would still be talking an hour later.

Sometimes he washed dishes at restaurants in exchange for a meal - and at least once got into an argument because he thought he had done enough work for two meals, not just one.

"He was very affable," Marilyn Schoenbaum recalled, "but then after you got to know him, his compulsiveness would come out and drive people crazy."

In 1989, a Washington Post reporter asked Mr. Matus how he managed to preserve his dignity while living so close to the edge.

"A sheer cold anger," he said. "That's what got me through it. People will take a dog in from the street but they won't help another human being."

Eventually, the homeless Shakespeare scholar found a subsidized apartment in Southwest Washington, where he lived for many years. He clipped coupons from secondhand newspapers and bought groceries with food stamps.

He took occasional jobs delivering documents and as a telephone solicitor, but he never lasted more than a few months. He tried to become a freelance researcher but found few takers.

He admitted to a "quirky hypersensitivity" compounded by a sense that he never received the recognition he deserved. Friends knew not to call between 7:30 and 8 p.m., when Mr. Matus would watch "Jeopardy" and, as he once told The Post, "win my usual $30,000 or $40,000."

Whether from inner confidence or an oversized chip on his shoulder, he steadfastly refused to conform to the standards of the workaday world.

"Get a 9-to-5 job?" he mused when asked by People magazine in 1989. "No way. When you have a mind like mine, such a wonderful mind, well, to have it virtually imprisoned in the boring, trivial and mundane would be torture."

'You blocks, you stones'

Irvin Leigh Matus was born July 25, 1941, in Brooklyn, N.Y. He enjoyed the theater - his father ran a Western Union office in Times Square - but he didn't care for Shakespeare early in life. Instead, he adored the Brooklyn Dodgers. At age 9, he named the family dog after Dodger centerfielder Duke Snider, who died a week ago.

He had a younger brother, Paul, but during childhood was closer to his first cousin, Stephen J. Solarz, who served as a Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1975 to 1993.

As a teen, Mr. Matus was a friend of rock-and-roll deejay Alan Freed and became an aficionado of rhythm-and-blues music. After graduating from Brooklyn's Erasmus Hall High School in 1958, Mr. Matus studied commercial art at the Pratt Institute in New York before dropping out after one semester.

He was walking down a street one day in 1959, he later recalled, gazing at the blank faces around him, when a line came unbidden to his mind: "You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things!"

It was a line from the first act of "Julius Caesar."

Mr. Matus went on to serve in the Army and ran a short-lived business with his brother, selling model trains and doing research on mass transit. But he found himself drawn more and more to Shakespeare. He worked intermittently, but his chief occupation was an unpaid student of Shakespeare.

"For him, Shakespeare was an avenue of insight into life," said Mann, of the Library of Congress. "It wasn't an academic exercise."

With money from the sale of a house on Long Island, N.Y., Mr. Matus made two extended trips to England in 1985. When he returned, he settled in Washington and devoted his life to Shakespeare. He received a $2,500 grant, which enabled him to buy a computer.

He was particularly interested in the "authorship question," which is to Shakespeare scholars what creationism is to biologists: a persistent fixation of amateurs that no one trained in the field takes seriously.

In short, many people believe that the historical William Shakespeare, who was the son of a glovemaker from Stratford-upon-Avon and had a meager education, simply wasn't sophisticated enough to write the plays credited to him. More than 50 names have been put forward as the "real" Shakespeare, with the most commonly cited candidate being Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford.

Mr. Matus made it his duty to do battle with the people who have come to be known as the Oxfordians. In defending the historical Shakespeare of Stratford, he studied account books, playbills, letters, royal records and every other documentary scrap he could find.

When Oxfordians argued that there was no evidence that Shakespeare attended school, Mr. Matus went to Stratford and looked through old enrollment ledgers. He found that no records were kept at all until more than 200 years after Shakespeare's death in 1616.

"Evidently," Mr. Matus wrote in the Atlantic in 1991, with a sly sense of personal vindication, "there may be more to both scholarship and literary genius than a formal education."

He had three brief appointments as a visiting scholar at colleges, but he always returned to his spartan life in Washington. He toyed with the idea of writing a biography of Shakespeare, but he could not get a grant for the project.

"He said he wasn't going to do it until someone paid him," Mann recalled.

For the past eight years, Mr. Matus lived in an apartment at a Silver Spring retirement community. He spent his time working on his Shakespeare Web site, willyshakes.com, and writing a history of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Last November, he had a minor stroke and was at George Washington University Hospital the same time his cousin, the congressman, was dying of esophageal cancer. Mr. Matus told his brother that shortly before Solarz died on Nov. 29, he kissed his unconscious cousin on the forehead. Paul Matus of Babylon, N.Y., is his brother's sole survivor.

Mr. Matus continued to visit the Library of Congress two or three times a week until last year. When Metro fares went up, he could afford to make only one trip a week.

"He was living that close to the bone," Mann said. "But he did every day what he wanted to do."

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