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I think many Australians would readily associate this name with Felix the Cat, the silent film era cartoon. One of the most recognisable cartoon characters in film history, he was the first animated character to become popular enough to attract a cinema audience.
Felix the Cat was created by Sydney-born Pat O’Sullivan, who arrived in the United States in 1910 and began working as a cartoonist. By 1916, he had opened his own cartoon studio, and around 1917 he created Felix the Cat, inspired by a cat his wife Marjorie brought into the office. Under contract to provide one cartoon a month to cinemas, by 1921 Felix was in sixty percent of North American cinemas.
Pat O’Sullivan was fiercely protective of his creation, successfully gained royalties from pirated merchandise, and took action when Walt Disney made a Felix carbon-copy called Julius. Unfortunately for Felix, Disney then went on to create a certain Mickey Mouse, who starred in early talkie Steamboat Willie in 1928. This spelled the beginning of the end for Felix, and by 1931 it was obvious that Walt Disney was going to be the big success story of cartooning.
After Pat O’Sullivan’s death in 1933, his lead animator Otto Messmer took credit for the creation of Felix. Messmer’s claim is still accepted in the United States, even though O’Sullivan was acknowledged as Felix’s creator during his lifetime. Australian film curators have pointed out that it is O’Sullivan’s handwriting on the early Felix sketches, and that kittens in an early film are given Australian accents, saying ‘lo, Mum! ‘lo Ma!
The cartoon cat that Felix was based on was called Thomas or Tom (a fairly obviously cat-related name), but Pat O’Sullivan changed his name to Felix. Apparently this was after the Australian boxer Peter Felix, who was born in the West Indies, and won the heavyweight title in the 1890s – he often wore black and was a flashy dresser. Pat had seen Peter Felix in his last big fight in 1908, shortly before he left Australia. O’Sullivan had a strong interest in boxing, and when he first arrived in New York he himself boxed for prize money.
The name Felix was a very Australian choice, because in 1836 Scottish explorer Thomas Mitchell called the lush pastureland of western Victoria Australia Felix, meaning “happy Australia, fortunate Australia”. In 1845 English travel writer Richard Howitt’s lively Impressions of Australia Felix was published, and in 1849 the Australia Felix magazine was founded.
After the colony was named Victoria in 1850, the name Australia Felix gradually dropped out of use. However, 19th century Victorian politician Jonas Australia Felix Levien provides an example of it being used as a name, and he wasn’t born until the 1870s. (I have also found someone named Australia Felix Drake in historical records).
Despite all these Australian references, I can’t help wondering if Pat O’Sullivan was also thinking of Felis, the scientific name for the cat genus, from the Latin word feles, meaning “cat”.
Pat O’Sullivan gave Felix a lucky name, and the cat brought Pat luck and success. He did not have a very happy end to his life though. His marriage became increasingly strained (it probably got off to a rocky start, as they wed while he was on bail for raping a teenage girl; he was subsequently imprisoned for 9 months), and Marjorie fell to her death from their second floor apartment in 1932. O’Sullivan’s mental faculties deteriorated due to syphilis, and he died of alcoholism a year after his wife’s death.
Felix is a Latin name meaning “lucky, fortunate”. It was first given as a nickname to the 1st century BC Roman general and statesman Lucius Cornelius Sulla, a free translation of the Greek nickname he acquired during his military campaigns – Epaphroditos, meaning “beloved of Aphrodite”.
Whether the goddess Aphrodite was taking care of him or not, Sulla was very successful, holding the position of consul twice, and being awarded the Grass Crown, the rarest and most prestigious Roman military honour, given only to those whose actions saved an entire legion or the whole army. Like Alexander the Great, he achieved many of his victories before his thirtieth birthday, and provided the model for later Roman leaders to gain power by force.
After him, the nickname became a common one for Roman leaders to take, and several emperors adopted it as a title. The Roman procurator Marcus Antonius Felix is mentioned in the New Testament, although not in a positive way – he imprisoned Saint Paul.
Felix was a favourite name amongst early Christians, as the name can imply being in the favour of God, or blessed by God. There are masses of saints named Felix, including quite a few martyrs, and three popes with the name. Saint Felix of Burgundy was sent as a missionary to East Anglia in the 7th century, and there are several churches dedicated to him in Yorkshire and East Anglia. The village of Felixkirk in Yorkshire is named after him, and so might be Felixstowe in Suffolk.
Although more common in Continental Europe, Felix has been in use as an English name since the Middle Ages, in honour of these various saints. It is particularly associated with East Anglia and south-eastern England in general, showing the legacy of Felix of Burgundy.
Felix was #172 in the 1900s, and left the charts in the 1920s (Felix the Cat didn’t do it any good). It returned in the 1980s at #396 and climbed steadily; it’s been on and off the Top 100 since 2011. Currently it is #89 nationally, #86 in New South Wales, #78 in Victoria, #36 in Tasmania, and #54 in the Australian Capital Territory. It was one of the fastest-rising names in Tasmania and Victoria last year, and one of the nationally fastest-rising names of 2013.
In the US, Felix is #267 and rising steeply, while the UK has a similar popularity to Australia, at #91 and rising. Felix is #66 in New Zealand and fairly stable – the highest popularity of any English-speaking country. Felix is well used in Western Europe and Scandinavia, and is most popular in Austria at #4.
Handsome, intelligent, and upbeat, Felix is a name with an irresistibly positive meaning and strong Australian associations. Once seen as rather hipster, this retro name is growing in popularity, and fittingly it’s rather a favourite in the state of Victoria.