NEW YORK — Stephen Joyce, a grandson and last surviving direct descendant of James Joyce and the formidably rigid gatekeeper of that Irish author’s coveted literary estate, died Jan. 23 on Île de Ré, an island resort on the west coast of France. He was 87.
President Michael Higgins of Ireland, confirming the death in a statement, said Mr. Joyce had been “deeply committed to what he saw was the special duty to defend the legacy of the Joyce family in literary and personal terms,” although Higgins allowed that it was “not a task carried out in harmonious circumstances at all times.”
Stephen Joyce gleefully maintained an iron grip on his grandfather’s printed works, unpublished manuscripts, letters, and other material, although his hold loosened somewhat on the 70th anniversary of James Joyce’s death, when most copyrights on his masterpieces “Ulysses” and “Finnegans Wake” expired. He said he was safeguarding the materials’ literary integrity and defending them from critics and biographers, whom he likened to “rats and lice” that “should be exterminated.”
“I am not only protecting and preserving the purity of my grandfather’s work but also what remains of the much-abused privacy of the Joyce family,” he told The New Yorker in 2006.
With most legal constraints lifted and the material controlled by Stephen Joyce now part of his estate, its fate uncertain, the most likely immediate impact of his grandson’s death will be the freeing of aggrieved scholars to ventilate, without fear of retribution, about how Mr. Joyce had thwarted their research for decades.
“I think now there will be more open reflection on the role Stephen Joyce played in impeding so many projects,” Anne Fogarty, director of the James Joyce Research Centre at University College Dublin, wrote in an e-mail. “He saw himself as gatekeeper but was very often quite obstructive.”
Mr. Joyce’s penchant for privacy was inherited. James Joyce had meticulously vetted his own official biographer and dismissed prospective profilers as “biografiends.”
His litigious grandson went well beyond that, though, suppressing publication and performances of copyrighted material, barring access to many private papers and even expunging others.
In 1988, he stunned Joyce scholars by revealing that he had destroyed about 1,000 letters he had received from his Aunt Lucia, James Joyce’s daughter, who spent decades in mental institutions; even more, he said, he had discarded correspondence that she had received from Irish expatriate playwright Samuel Beckett, Joyce’s onetime secretary, with whom Lucia had fallen in love.
“No one was going to set their eyes on them and re-psychoanalyze my poor aunt,” Joyce said at the time. “She went through enough of that when she was alive.”
Echoing questions posed by other families besieged by biographers, he asked: “Where do you draw the line? Do you have any right to privacy?” He went one step further, though, adding: “What are people going to do to stop me?”
Stephen James Joyce was born Feb. 15, 1932, in Paris. To celebrate Stephen’s birth and to mourn his own father’s recent death, James Joyce composed the poem “Ecce Puer,” literally translated as “Behold the Young Boy.”
It included this passage:
Calm in his cradle
The living lies.
May love and mercy
Unclose his eyes!
Young life is breathed
On the glass;
The world that was not
Comes to pass.