The Godfather: Peter Corris on Hazel Rowley
Tomorrow, 1 March 2014, is the third anniversary of the death of Hazel Rowley, who died of a cerebral haemorrhage in New York (where she had moved a few years before), at the age of 59. She was born in England but came to Australia as an eight-year-old and was educated at Adelaide University. She taught for some years at Deakin University in Victoria and the first of her four books was an acclaimed biography of Australian writer Christina Stead.
I met her once when she was keeping company with science-fiction writer Damien Broderick, who was a university friend of Jean’s and later of us both. She was tall and good-looking, rather quiet, and one of those people you were careful to avoid saying dumb things to. Her early death was a great loss to Australian and American letters.
Not engaged by the novels of Christina Stead and not familiar with the work of Richard Wright, I haven’t read her two biographies, but I have read her two very fine ‘relationship’ studies – Tête-à-Tête: The Tumultuous Lives and Loves of Simone de Beauvoir & Jean-Paul Sartre (2006) and Franklin and Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage (2011).
In both books Rowley achieves a remarkable and effective objectivity in dealing with people it is rather hard to emphathise with fully.
Admirable for their intelligence, talent and their resistance to authority, Sartre and de Beauvoir were egotistical self-promoters. The pact they made – that their relationship was ‘essential’ while others they had were ‘contingent’ – gave them both an enviable freedom, but caused great unhappiness to many of the people they associated with.
Sartre’s generosity with money, time and help were matched only by his driving ambition. After a slow start he made it, becoming world-famous as the voice of existentialism. De Beauvoir’s emergence from his shadow with books such as The Second Sex (1949) and The Mandarins (1954) was a triumph.
Sartre suffered agonies of guilt over the lies and deceptions he practised to keep multiple love affairs going simultaneously, and de Beauvoir’s steely resolve to hold to the pact damaged several of her relationships and had her often, in Rowley’s phrase, ‘dissolving into tears’.
But they undeniably forged a style, and a legend, which make fascinating reading. Rowley’s massive research, tracing their lives almost day by day, sits lightly, and she is capable of acute insight such as her assessment of de Beauvoir, after having interviewed her, that ‘She couldn’t untangle the reality of her life from the myth.’
The cousins Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt lived privileged, affluent lives from the cradle to the grave. Their democratic bent (in both the political and general sense) and humanitarianism are appealing; their personalities are less so.
Franklin was a top order wheeler-dealer, an ultimate political pragmatist who was willing to put one good cause (civil rights) on hold and appease southern reactionaries to achieve another (the New Deal). His courage in coping with his disability (he was crippled by polio at the age of 39) is not in question, but he made enormous demands on his staffers, mostly women who were besotted by him – an attitude he encouraged.
Eleanor, a monument of good works, was a puritan, critical of her loose-living sons, aloof when it suited her and embarrassingly gushing at other times. Reading between the lines, she appears to have been, perhaps unconsciously, something of a cock-teaser – and whatever is the Sapphic equivalent.
But the Roosevelts were at the centre of vital events for a very long time and Rowley’s account of the complexity of their lives and their relationship is compelling from beginning to end.
There is no knowing what Hazel Rowley would have written next had she lived. Perhaps a novel, perhaps a film script; she could certainly construct a scene and handle dialogue. But if she had continued with what she had already done so well, it would have been interesting to see what she could have made of, say, Scott and Zelda, Hemingway and Gelhorn, or JFK and Jackie.