This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005
Patrick Peter (Pat) Sullivan (1885-1933), cartoonist and animated film producer, was born on 22 February 1885 at Ivy Street, Paddington, second son of Patrick Sullivan, a cab proprietor from Ireland, and his Sydney-born wife Margaret, née Hayes. Young Pat was educated by the Marist Brothers at St Benedict's School, Chippendale, and St Mary's Cathedral Boys' High School, Woolloomooloo. His father thought that the boy's early interest in drawing was unlikely to make him a living. Pat worked as a gatekeeper at Toohey's brewery, Surry Hills, and reputedly attended classes at the Art Society of New South Wales.
Sullivan contributed occasional cartoons and illustrations to the Worker and the Gadfly (as 'P. O'Sullivan') before sailing to London in 1909 to further his ambitions. He worked for a time on the comic strip 'Ally Sloper' but, his earnings meagre, tried music-hall work, failed as a motion picture exhibitor and was reduced to being an animal handler in trans-Atlantic ships. Reaching New York by early 1910, he boxed for prize money.
In 1911 Sullivan obtained a position with a successful cartoonist William Marriner of the McClure newspaper syndicate, creating his own short-lived comic strips, 'Willing Waldo' and 'Old Pop Perkins'. On Marriner's death in October 1914, Sullivan joined the pioneering and successful film animation studio run by Raoul Barre. Although laid off after nine months because of unsatisfactory work, Sullivan managed to open his own animated cartoon studio and won contracts for advertising and entertainment shorts. By 1916 his studio staff were turning out films under his name. He adapted a Marriner 'Sambo' strip as a 'Sammy Johnsin' animated cartoon and produced Charlie Chaplin film cartoons. About this time he hired Otto Messmer, a talented comic-strip artist.
In 1917 Sullivan was convicted of the rape of a 14-year-old girl. While he was on bail he married Marjorie Gallagher on 21 May in the municipal building, Manhattan; she wrote to the Justice Department pleading for leniency. During nine months in gaol Sullivan practised his cartooning on postcards and envelopes sent to his lawyer.
Upon release, Sullivan revived his studio and was re-joined by Messmer. Sullivan widely asserted that he and his wife had invented a black cat as a film character, featured in his short animated films The Tail of Thomas Kat (1917) and Feline Follies (1919). Nearly fifty years later, however, Messmer claimed that it was he who had devised the cat. Descended from 'Sammy Johnsin' and drawn with Chaplinesque humour, the cat had become 'Felix' by the fourth film, changing from a four-legged to a two-legged character. Under the title 'Pat Sullivan's Felix the Cat', contracts were secured to provide a cartoon a month to cinemas. A change of distributor in 1921 saw Felix in 60 per cent of cinemas in North America.
Felix cartoons were aimed at adults, incorporating skits on cubism and flappers. The films—and from 1923 the published comic strips—spread to Europe and in 1924, when the Sullivans toured England, Felix was so famous that entrepreneurs were producing pirated dolls and toys. Sullivan managed to obtain a share of the royalties. An up-and-coming animator, Walt Disney, copied Felix with a character named Julius. Forced to withdraw, Disney created a new character, Mickey Mouse, which soon put a dent in Sullivan's business.
Sullivan had quietly visited Australia in 1920. On another trip to Sydney with his wife in December 1925 he was given a civic reception at which T. D. Mutch, minister for education, revealed that he and the cartoonist had roomed together when boys. Sullivan also came back to Sydney briefly in 1927. Felix cartoons were still exhibiting well between 1926 and 1928, when Disney released his first 'talkie' Mickey Mouse cartoon. By 1931 Disney productions had eclipsed Felix, but Sullivan stuck with his one and only successful formula. Chronic alcoholism probably prevented him from matching Disney's inventiveness, and the dubbing of sound onto silent Felix cartoons proved decidedly second-rate.
In March 1932 Marjorie fell to her death from the Sullivans' second-floor apartment in New York. She had lived in an increasingly strained marriage. Sullivan suffered from syphilis and his mental faculties declined. He died of pneumonia and alcoholism on 15 February 1933 in Sharman Square Hospital, New York, and was buried in Cathedral cemetery, Scranton, Pennsylvania. The cartoon character continued as a print comic strip and after World War II in children's picture books, always billed as 'Pat Sullivan's Felix the Cat', a title continued by Sullivan's nephew, also Patrick Sullivan.
John Young, 'Sullivan, Patrick Peter (Pat) (1885–1933)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/sullivan-patrick-peter-pat-13209/text23915, published in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 30 July 2014.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005