J. W. N. Sullivan is an ever-present figure in Mansfield's letters from mid-1917 onwards, but he has been consistently overlooked by her biographers. She had distinctly mixed feelings about him, and it seems his behaviour, at times, could be boorish, but that hardly explains why Sullivan seems to have been so conscientiously ignored by commentators on Mansfield's life and work. According to Jeffrey Meyers, for example, whose source is Sydney Schiff (also known as ‘Stephen Hudson’), Mansfield:
resented Murry's friendship with the chain-smoking Sullivan [… and] criticised his lack of sensibility, which she considered far more important. ‘A queer fish, a true Bohemian’, she told […] Schiff. ‘He has written a Life of Beethoven and a book about Einstein. He likes beer, a lot of it […] Sullivan has brains but no intuition, no sensibility. I like him but he sets my teeth on edge.’
As recalled by Schiff, Mansfield's assessment of Sullivan continued:
‘He eats oranges and bananas and aims the peel and the skins at the fireplace. When he turns up I always start by liking his society and end by longing for him to go because of his antipathetic habits. I hate myself for this, but I can't help it.’
However, although it appears that Sullivan did have a gargantuan thirst for beer and a tendency to fling orange peel into the Villa Isola Bella's fireplace, Mansfield cannot have made these precise remarks to Schiff, as Sullivan's Beethoven: His Spiritual Development did not appear until 1927 and he did not publish ‘a book about Einstein’ before Mansfield's death in 1923.
Mansfield's alleged comments are certainly consistent with what she (and others) said about Sullivan elsewhere, but they are also characteristic of the imprecise hearsay that has attached itself to his name. Charismatic to some, rebarbative to others, few in his lifetime thought Sullivan was a bit-part non-entity and neither should we. But he does not even rate a mention in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, never mind his own entry, and for this reason alone we need a more reliable profile of the man. He may have played only a supporting role in Mansfield's story, but he was undoubtedly one of her closer acquaintances and he may well have cherished hopes of a more intimate relationship.