My great-uncle Alfred Hollis was in his early forties when he died; he was a bachelor and had never worked. According to my aunt he was always dressed beautifully, quite beyond his means. In the only photograph I have of him he is sporting a rakishly angled, wide-brimmed hat with a feather in its band, a high stiff collar, a waistcoat and long jacket. He is leaning his hip elegantly against his stick and holds a cigarette in his left hand. Parkland stretches behind him. He has written on the picture: ‘the one and only ... I took this fifteen years ago.’
In the winter of 1938-39 Alfred visited the South of France with his sister Amelia and her husband Albert Emery, my maternal grandparents. Amelia wrote in her diary in January 1939 that they were ‘nicely settled in a charming hotel on the promenade of Cap Martin ... the beautiful blue sea under my window and oranges and lemons growing along the streets’. She described the distractions of the resort, in particular the casinos, and her ‘great difficulty’ in stopping ‘my husband in trying to break the bank’. Alfred may also have enjoyed the nightlife, but his main aim must have been to improve his health, or perhaps just to die in a pleasant place. He had spent much of his adult life in Ware Park Sanitorium in Hertfordshire. Nine of his siblings had died of TB, in infancy or childhood. Now he seemed likely to follow; he was already so weak that, to his great chagrin, he had to wear a leather and steel surgical corset.
I have been told different stories about his death. My mother maintained that he died in a sanitorium near Menton to which he had been admitted when his condition unexpectedly worsened. My aunt, on the other hand, remembers being told that, coming down for dinner, my grandmother found her brother sitting in an armchair in the hotel lounge with a martini in his hand, a small drop of blood on his closed lips the only indication of death. Amelia and Albert stayed on to arrange the funeral and burial in the hilltop cemetery of Roquebrune, above Menton. They chose a grave plot the lease on which, according to the usual practice in France, had to be renewed after ten years.
W.B. Yeats died in Cap Martin on the same day. His family chose the same sort of plot and the two men were buried alongside each other and their graves marked by plain white marble slabs bearing just their names and dates. Family photographs show both graves strewn with wreaths and flowers and Alfred’s headstone has an ornate wire frame fixed behind it, covered with more flowers. Amelia and Albert were the only mourners at Alfred’s funeral on 30 January 1939. According to the Paris correspondent of the Times, those at Yeats’s graveside included ‘Mrs Yeats, Mr Dermod O’Brien, the President of the Royal Hibernian Academy of Arts, and Lady Gerald Wellesley, the poetess’.
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