Who Was the Real Leopold Bloom?

Yes. Only a foreigner would do. The Jews were foreigners in Dublin at that time. There was no hostility towards them. But contempt, the contempt that people always show towards the unknown. –James Joyce

This post is a part of an occasional series on the real people behind the characters in Ulysses.

Where to begin piecing together the jigsaw puzzle of Leopold Bloom’s inception? Like most of the characters in the Joycean canon, Bloom was inspired by real people and events from Joyce’s life. Unlike a character like Buck Mulligan, however, there is no single, definitive inspiration for Bloom. Such a literary puzzle leaves the curious amongst us to hunt down clues and tidbits.

Let’s start by considering Blooms’ defining characteristics.

Leopold Bloom lives in a house on 7 Eccles St. on Dublin’s north side. He works as an ad canvasser for the Freeman’s Journal, a nationalist newspaper. He has an unfaithful wife, a maturing teen daughter, and a son who died in infancy. He loves organ meats. He’s ethnically Hungarian on his father’s side. He’s tepidly Jewish. He has a moustache. He’s awkward and nebbish on the outside but insightful and witty in his internal monologue. He’s our Dubliner-Everyman-Odysseus, the consummate outsider living in his hometown. 

Finding a single person in Joyce’s life that meets all these prerequisites is difficult. Instead, one begins to realize that Bloom is actually a Frankenstein’s monster of moustachioed Jewish men that Joyce knew throughout his life. The list I’ve compiled is by no means comprehensive, but I have tried to include the major inspirations for these definitive qualities of Leopold Bloom. The sum total of their parts is a truly singular, Hellenic-Hebraic-Hibernian hero.

A sketch of Bloom by James Joyce

Bloom’s Appearance

John Martin Harvey

Let’s start with visual inspirations. Hugh Kenner points out that, though Bloom is a bit retiring or feminine in his manner, he actually has many of the qualities of a Homeric He-man like Odysseus. He’s taller than average, has a bit of wealth, an “exalted dwelling place” (Eccles St. was the highest ground in Dublin in 1904), a beautiful wife, a sharp wit, and is a looker to boot. Twice in the text of Ulysses, Bloom is likened to a famously handsome person. 

In “Nausicaa,” Gerty MacDowell compares Bloom, seen at a distance on Sandymount Strand, to popular British stage actor John Martin Harvey:

She could see at once by his dark eyes and his pale intellectual face that he was a foreigner, the image of the photo she had of Martin Harvey, the matinee idol, only for the moustache which she preferred…

During her soliloquy in “Penelope,” Molly Bloom recalls how handsome her husband was when they first met: 

 …I dont wonder in the least because he was very handsome at that time trying to look like lord Byron I said I liked though he was too beautiful for a man …

 “Trying to look like”? I guess Molly doesn’t think Leopold quite achieved the effect of the famously beautiful, libertinous Romantic poet Lord Byron. 

George Gordon Noel Byron, 6th Baron Byron by Richard Westall
Holbrook Jackson, 1913

Sylvia Beach of Shakespeare & Co. recalled a story from working with James Joyce on the initial publication of Ulysses. He asked her to request a photograph from writer George Holbrook Jackson because he looked the way Joyce imagined Leopold Bloom to look. Upon receiving the photograph in the mail, Joyce was disappointed because this photo didn’t look nearly as much like Bloom as the one he remembered.




The photo of Holbrook Jackson that disappointed James Joyce

Alfred Hunter

It’s widely believed that the inspiration for Leopold Bloom came from an encounter Joyce had as a young man in Dublin. One night, drunk out of his mind, Joyce got into an altercation with another man in Stephen’s Green. Joyce was knocked to the ground during the dust-up but then helped up by a kindly, older Jewish man, similar to the meeting of Stephen and Bloom in “Circe.” Find this kindly Jewish man, and you’ve got your real-life Mr. Bloom. 

The man in the story is often identified as Alfred Hunter, a Dublin Jew in the Joyce family’s social circle who was widely rumored to be a cuckold. Joyce wrote to his brother Stanislaus in 1906 saying he’s like to write a story called “Ulysses” about  a man fitting Hunter’s description. He asked both Stanislaus and his aunt Josephine Murray for details on a Jewish Dubliner called Hunter as Ulysses took shape. The Freeman’s Journal records James Joyce, his father, brother, and Alfred Hunter in attendance at the 1904 funeral of Matthew Kane, dramatized in Ulysses as the funeral of Paddy Dignam.

Some details of Hunter’s biography do match Leopold Bloom – he was an ad canvasser born in 1866 (same as Bloom). His wife was called Marian (close enough to Marion). However, Hunter was a Presbyterian born in Co. Down. The jury’s out on whether or not Marian was unfaithful. 

There’s not much hard evidence that Hunter was in Stephen’s Green that night. We know the altercation took place and that Joyce was knocked to the ground because he wrote about it in letters and in his Trieste Notebook. Joyce’s recollections of the incident tended to focus on the fact that his friend Vincent Cosgrave (Lynch in Ulysses) watched the fight go down and did nothing to help Joyce. From the Trieste Notebook:

His hands are usually in his trousers’ pockets. They were in his trousers’ pockets when I was knocked down on S. Stephen’s Green. 

Indeed, Lynch abandons Stephen when he is knocked down in Nighttown. Joyce clearly took this moment of betrayal very personally and never forgave Cosgrave (who would go on to betray Joyce in worse ways).

John F. Byrne

7 Eccles St. was once the residence of John Francis Byrne, a close friend of Joyce’s when they were at Belvedere College, as well as the inspiration for Stephen’s friend Cranly in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The two had a falling out (which we discussed at length here), but when Joyce visited Dublin in 1909, the two estranged friends reconnected and, as you do, painted the town red. At the end of the night, Byrne realized that he had forgotten his key and had to access the house through an unlocked side door before letting his companion in the front. This exact scenario plays out in “Ithaca” when Bloom brings Stephen home to the same address, at the same time of night. Byrne was even the same height (5 feet, 9 ½ inches) and weight (11 stone, 4 lbs.) as Bloom in 1909.

Ettore Schmitz (Italo Svevo)

Ettore Schmitz (Italo Svevo)

Italian culture had an enormous influence on Joyce as a youth, in the form of figures like Aquinas, Vico, Dante, Bruno, etc. He made Trieste, Italy his home after leaving Dublin in 1904. Joyce spoke Italian, wrote in Italian and gave both of his children Italian names. It’s fitting that the artistic inspiration for Bloom should also be Italian. 

Ettore Schmitz had wanted to be an author and published two novels under the pseudonym “Italo Svevo.” As Schmitz’s novels languished in obscurity, he saw the writing on the wall and got a day job instead, working for the father of his wife Livia selling paint for ships. Schmitz  fatefully hired a young Irishman to tutor him in English to help in his new role in the company. When Schmitz met Joyce in 1906, he was 45, and despite their age gap, he and Joyce became fast friends. 

Joyce, in a characteristic display of chutzpah, used his unpublished short stories as instructional tools. As such, Ettore and Livia were two of the first people to read his early draft of “The Dead.” In return, Schmitz presented Joyce with his two novels, impressing the young Artist with his skill. Joyce was struggling through a bout of writer’s block, so he leant Schmitz the first three chapters of what would become Portrait. Schmitz wrote a lengthy critique of the work-in-progress that helped break Joyce out of his funk. 

Apart from mutual flattery, Schmitz and Joyce had a lot in common. They were both known for their wit and talent for languages. Joyce was a heavy drinker, Schmitz a heavy smoker, and both were always just on the verge of quitting. They were both (at that time) unsuccessful writers who couldn’t afford to quit their day job.

Unlike a lot of Joyce’s friendships, Schmitz proved to be a loyal and supportive friend. Joyce stayed in touch with Schmitz after his family fled Trieste during World War I, and it was Schmitz who sent Joyce the notes for the later chapters of Ulysses that he’d had to leave behind. Joyce finished Ulysses in Zurich with a framed photograph of Schmitz on his desk. After Ulysses was published, Joyce became something of a literary celebrity. He used his newfound clout to help Schmitz publish his third novel, Zeno’s Conscience. This time, with the endorsement of Joyce, Schmitz’s writing finally took off, winning critical praise and respect. This did create one more similarity between the two friends – both were now writers who were ignored in their home cities while being widely read in Paris and other European cities. They remained close friends until Schmitz’s sudden death in 1928.

Joyce and Schmitz’s friendship was a major influence on the shape of Ulysses. More than just picking him up from the dust after a drinken fracas, Schmitz elevated Joyce creatively. Joyce honored Schmitz in the way that he cursed many of his old Dublin confidantes – he put him into his writing. Schmitz and Bloom have a similar sense of humor and irony. Bloom’s name was changed from Virag, just as Schmitz changed to Svevo. The age difference between Stephen and Bloom is roughly similar to that of Joyce and Schmitz. He was Jewish, too, of course, and like Bloom, not terribly observant. He even shared Bloom’s love of organ meats. Joyce used Schmitz as his main source for questions on Jewish culture and folklore that would later make its way into Ulysses, to the point that Schmitz once jokingly asked Stanislaus, “Tell me some secrets about Irishmen. Your brother has been asking so many questions about Jews that I want to get my own back.”

Most importantly, Joyce and Schmitz were a support to one another artistically. Without Schmitz, there might be no Ulysses, and there would definitely be no Zeno’s Conscience without James Joyce. Stanislaus said, “… it may not be too far-fetched to see in the person of Bloom, Svevo’s maturer, objective, peaceable temper reacting upon the younger writer’s more fiery mettle.” 


Teodoro Mayer

While Schmitz played a major role in inspiring Joyce to develop the character of Leopold Bloom, he lacks one thing: Hungarian roots. Joyce was asked in 1914 why his protagonist was Hungarian, to which Joyce replied, “Because he was.” 


While Joyce lived in Trieste, he wrote nine articles for Il Piccolo della Sera, the city’s main daily newspaper.  Il Piccolo was founded and published by Teodoro Mayer, the moustachioed son of a Hungarian peddler. Mayer is the likely inspiration for Bloom’s Hungarian origin, though there are many inspirations for his moustache.

Leopoldo Popper

The name “Leopold Bloom” is thought to be inspired by Joyce’s friendship with Jewish businessman Leopoldo Popper while living in Trieste. Born in Bohemia, Popper emigrated to Trieste in the 1880’s and founded a freight company with his friend Adolf Blum.  Popper’s daughter, Amalia, was an English student of Joyce’s who would go on to translate Dubliners into Italian

Joyce’s relationship with Amalia is shadowed by rumors that Joyce was infatuated with her during the time he taught her. It’s believed that she is not only an inspiration for Molly Bloom, but also the subject of “Giacomo Joyce,” a posthumously published short story in which Joyce describes his affection for a beautiful Mediterranean woman. Amalia’s husband strenuously denied any resemblance to his wife in any of Joyce’s writing. Amalia was never able to speak for herself as many of these rumors surfaced near the end of her life, and her husband refused to let Richard Ellmann speak to her when he requested an interview. Amalia was quite interesting and complex in her own right, and you can read more about her story here

Altman the Saltman

Albert Altman

So here we hit a bit of a speed bump – why is Bloom so thoroughly based on people Joyce knew in Trieste when the rest of Ulysses’ cast of characters are clearly based on Dubliners? Scholars have been pondering this question for decades, but in 2017, a civil servant named Vincent Altman O’Connor proposed a possible solution. In a short but potent article in History Ireland, O’Connor outlined why his ancestor, Albert Altman, is the Dublin source for Leopold Bloom. 

Albert Altman and his brother Mendal were prominent salt merchants in Dublin, hence the nickname in the heading of this section. The Altman brothers’ biography is littered with details connecting them to the Joyce family and Ulysses.  Their salty success allowed them to purchase a nice home at 11 Usher’s Island, just a few doors down from 15 Usher’s Island, the house owned by James Joyce’s aunt and the setting for his short story “The Dead.” Mendal once shared a house with Joe Hynes, who appears as a character in Ulysses and “Ivy Day in the Committee Room.” Mendal’s daughters were named Cissy and Edy, like the girls on Sandymount Strand in “Nausicaa.” The Altmans supported the temperance movement alongside a comrade called Dignam, just like the man who died from alcoholism in Ulysses. Their father Moritz died of suicide by poisoning, like Bloom’s father. Albert had a wife, a daughter (Mimi), and a son (Bertie) who died in infancy, a family situation identical to Bloom’s. Albert was living in Ballsbridge at the time of his death in 1903, so his funeral cortege would have followed a route to Glasnevin Cemetery almost identical to Dignam’s, where he is buried a stone’s throw from Matthew Kane, Joyce’s inspiration for Paddy Dignam. 

On June 16, 1904, Young Joyce was staying at the home of his friends, the Cousins, near Sandymount Strand. It’s believed that Joyce took a romantic interest in Altman’s daughter, Mimi, who was living next door. According to family rumors, she didn’t return his affections, leading to speculation that Emma Clery in Portrait was based on her. Mimi sang in the choir at Star of the Sea Church in Sandymount, where Joyce was once offered the position as tenor by Canon O’Hanlon. In “Nausicaa,” Bloom observes Cissy Caffrey and Edy Boardman on Sandymount Strand while Canon O’Hanlon celebrates the Benediction of Temperance retreat in Star of the Sea Church. 

There’s a line in “Cyclops” that makes the bold political assertion that “it was Bloom gave the ideas for Sinn Fein to Griffith.” “Griffith” is Arthur Griffith, founder of the Irish nationalist political party Sinn Féin. In early 20th century Dublin, most Irish Jews were pro-Empire due to the anti-semitic beliefs held by many Irish nationalists, including people like Griffith and Oliver St. John Gogarty. Bloom’s political influences in Ulysses include figures like Charles Stewart Parnell, Michael Davitt and James Stephens, so we know that he is a rare Jewish Irish nationalist, a passion he shared with Albert Altman, nicknamed “the Jewish Fenian.” 

Altman knew members of the Invincibles, the nationalist group responsible for the Phoenix Park murders, well enough to be cited at their trial, a historical event interwoven with the story of Ulysses.  As for giving Griffith and the idea for Sinn Féin, Altman wrote a manifesto in the 1890’s that sounded similar to what Sinn Féin would become, but Altman’s nephew Emanuel later said that his uncle was distressed by Griffith’s anti-semitism and played no part in the political party’s founding. Despite this, Griffith endorsed Albert Altman in the 1902 Dublin municipal elections. John Joyce canvassed for Altman in the same year. In the 1970’s, Hugh Kenner ran across a rumor that Griffith had “a Jewish advisor-ghost writer,” but Kenner was unable to identify him. If Altman was truly the inspiration for Bloom, the comment about Bloom’s connection to Sinn Féin would seem to go from metaphorical to literal. 

It has long been believed that Joyce didn’t know any Jews before he moved to the Continent, and therefore Bloom had to be based on people Joyce met after he left Dublin. This belief plays into the stereotype repeated by Mr Deasy at the end of “Nestor” – that there were no Jews in Ireland. It seems impossible that Joyce was unaware of Albert Altman. There are too many details in Ulysses taken from Altman’s life to be mere coincidence. Additionally, Joyce’s father knew the Altmans and supported their political cause. Altman, though obscure now, was a major political figure in Dublin in the early 20th century. In 1903, he uncovered a major political scandal involving the Lord Mayor M’Coy. It was a major controversy, exacerbated by Altman’s death under mysterious circumstances that same year (the official report said he died of diabetes, but rumors of misdeeds persisted until the 1960’s). It would have been impossible to be alive and politically aware in Dublin in those years and not at least hear rumors about Albert Altman. 

Why has this story not come to light sooner? Ulysses went unremarked upon by the Altmans until the 1960’s when someone suggested Emanuel should sue for libel since this obscene novel clearly contained details about his family. Any association with Leopold and Molly Bloom, whose every sexual predilection is explored in detail (not to mention the adultery), would be a black stain on the reputation of any Dublin family. In fact, in that same decade, Ruben J Dodd, who is portrayed unflatteringly by Joyce, won a suit against a BBC broadcast of excerpts from Ulysses. Emanuel had no interest in Joyce’s “smutty book,” and so the story passed into family lore. There is so much more to the story than what I’ve summarized here. It is well worth your time to read O’Connor’s full article.


The Artist Himself

James Joyce, 1915

Joyce’s immature Artist self haunts the pages of Ulysses in the form of Stephen Dedalus, but there’s an argument to be made that Joyce is also Leopold Bloom. After all, Joyce did sport a pretty sweet moustache.

Richard Ellmann, in his biography of Joyce, rattles off a list of similarities between Joyce and Bloom – they both borrowed books from Capel Street Library, they both loved the poetry of Byron, they both fretted about adultery while not being totally faithful themselves, the Joyces and the Blooms employed a charwoman named Mrs Fleming, the Joyces and the Blooms employed a midwife called Mrs. Thornton, etc. Ellmann comments that while none of these details are totally unique, it’s their accumulation that matters. I think this could be true of any of the men listed above (with the exception of Altman). 

Stanley Price wrote in The Irish Times that James Joyce needed no stand-in to create an Everyman for Dublin. While he relied on people like Schmitz as a “Jewish Google” to bring some accuracy to his portrayal, he had a writer’s imagination and could create a character on his own without basing it on Schmitz or anyone else. While I agree that Joyce certainly could do this, he didn’t often do it in practice. The Dublin of Dedalus and Bloom isn’t a perfect simulacrum of the Dublin of Joyce, but Joyce’s most prominent inspiration was his own biography. Having said that, there are so many swirling influences that come together to make Leopold Bloom that it does make him unusual amongst the denizens of Ulysses. All his quirks swirl together to gestate and merge in one place: the mind of the Artist.

If Bloom is a mature Joyce, then he is the representation of someone who gets things done. He has a (somewhat) stable home base and income source, necessary prerequisites for an artistic life. Bloom has some vague dreams of putting pen to paper, such as when he thinks about writing something for the Titbits at the end of “Calypso.” However, the benefit of writing a story for Bloom would be money rather than creative satisfaction. His mature practicality stifles his potential for artistic expression. Stephen, on the other hand, is so impractical he can barely survive. His living and financial situations are precarious at best, and he has no meaningful social support to speak of. He does have access to unfettered creativity, allowing him to get lost in his thoughts along Sandymount Strand in “Proteus.” Though he possesses the raw material, he is his own biggest impediment when it comes to actually doing something outside himself. Thinking cool thoughts is all well and good, but it’s only the beginning of an artist’s journey. 

The meeting, then, between Joyce’s two aspects, young and mature, consubstantial father and son, has the potential to become an intellectual and creative powerhouse. It may be just in the emotional and moral support of a true friend, but look what happened when Joyce and Schmitz got together. Young Stephen is a bit of a hot-headed loose cannon, but with the guidance of a mature counterpart, he could focus his talent and create meaningful work. The meeting of Stephen and Bloom, then, is Joyce talking to himself, in the process learning to become a fully-formed human and Artist with a capital A.

Further Reading: 

Ellmann, R. (1959). James Joyce. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kenner, H. (1987). Ulysses. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?id=Ajlz5rzPBOkC&lpg=PP1&pg=PA19#v=onepage&q&f=false 

Killeen, T. (2008, Jun 16). The original Bloom unmasked. The Irish Times. Retrieved from https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/the-original-bloom-unmasked-1.1267804 

Lasdun, J. (2002, Aug 23). Saving Svevo. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/books/2002/aug/24/featuresreviews.guardianreview25

Levi, J. (2001, Dec 20). A new look at the Italian who inspired ‘Ulysses.’ The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2001-dec-20-lv-books20-story.html

Mahaffey, V. (1995). Fascism and Silence: The Coded History of Amalia Popper. James Joyce Quarterly, 32(3/4), 501-522. Retrieved February 11, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/25473659 

McNally, F. (2017, May 18). Budding Bloom – An Irishman’s Diary about Altman the Saltman, plausible role model for Joyce’s most famous character. The Irish Times. Retrieved from https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/budding-bloom-an-irishman-s-diary-about-altman-the-saltman-plausible-role-model-for-joyce-s-most-famous-character-1.3086650 

O’Connor, V. (2017). ‘ALTMAN THE SALTMAN’, LEOPOLD BLOOM AND JAMES JOYCE. History Ireland, 25(3), 30-33. Retrieved February 17, 2020, from https://www.historyireland.com/volume-25/issue-3-mayjune-2017/altman-saltman-leopold-bloom-james-joyce/ 

Price, S. (2016, Sep 7). James Joyce and Italo Svevo: the story of a friendship. The Irish Times. Retrieved from https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/james-joyce-and-italo-svevo-the-story-of-a-friendship-1.2781454

Rintoul, M.C. (1993). Dictionary of real people and places in fiction. New York: Routledge. Retrieved from https://tinyurl.com/s53ly3h 

Staley, T. (1964). The Search for Leopold Bloom: James Joyce and Italo Svevo. James Joyce Quarterly, 1(4), 59-63. Retrieved February 11, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/25486462 

Portrait of Lord Byron: https://www.bl.uk/people/lord-byron 

Photograph of Holbrook Jackson: https://digital.lib.buffalo.edu/items/show/9326 



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3 thoughts on “Who Was the Real Leopold Bloom?

  1. Great piece! You’ve done an amazing job of rounding up all the usual suspects, and some of the more unusual ones, too.

    Like many I’d bought the well-known Alfred Hunter story hook line and sinker, until Terence Killeen put doubt in my mind. Really it was Hugh Kenner, having a go at Richard Ellmann (are you keeping up?), but basically, as Killeen points out, there’s only third hand Dublin gossip to substantiate this Dublin ‘fact.’ Here’s Killeen’s excellent piece, which is well worth reading: https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/the-original-bloom-unmasked-1.1267804. In fact, anything Killeen has to say on Joyce is always worthy of consideration.


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