A FEW years ago, the New Zealand biographer Michael King told an audience at the National Library about the perils of writing biographies and the discretion that has to be used when writing about the private lives of public figures. King had just published a biography of the Nobel Prize-nominated author Janet Frame, who was then still alive.
King admitted that he had screened from public scrutiny various episodes in Frame's life that might have caused her to be hurt. For the time being, he said, they would be kept buried in a biscuit tin at the bottom of his garden. Now both Frame and King are dead and the contents of the metaphorical biscuit tin may never be revealed.
Most biographers have such biscuit tins in which they keep unpublished notes about their subjects, whether because publication would cause needless hurt or because the veracity of the information cannot be confirmed. Of course, there are some people who argue that the private life of a public figure is not a proper subject for biography. But this is nonsense.
Understanding the actions and motivations of a public figure requires biographers to explore the private landscape, so that they can feel confident of being able to see the world through the eyes of their subjects. Those writers who don't do so end up creating a cardboard cut-out figure that is difficult to recognise as human. This is true whether the subject is a novelist, such as Frame, or a politician.
Prime minister Ben Chifley was reported to have spent many hours stoking his backyard incinerator with his private papers and disparaged the idea of a biographer wanting to write his life. It was not the false humility of an engine driver who had risen to be prime minister. There were important aspects of his life that Chifley was keen to conceal from public gaze, that a biographer would almost inevitably reveal.
Despite his careful planning, there were some things that could not be concealed. When Chifley was stricken with his second heart attack, he was in his bedroom in Canberra's Hotel Kurrajong. Keeping him company was his secretary, Phyllis Donnelly, whose presence naturally gave rise to rumours about the pair being long-time lovers. The truth was more complex than that.
One of my most confronting experiences as a biographer occurred when I was rummaging through the drawers of a dresser in Chifley's cottage. Sliding out of a large envelope came the X-ray of Elizabeth Chifley's twisted spine, which shows dramatically the scoliosis that had blighted her life from an early age and which forced her at times to wear a corrective brace on her upper body. The chronic pain of his wife's condition may provide part of the explanation for Chifley seeking solace in the arms of another woman.
When I raised the question with Chifley's old campaign manager in a Bathurst nursing home, he was most emphatic that it was not Phyllis Donnelly but her older sister, Nell, who was the real love of Chifley's life. The subsequent disclosure in my biography of Chifley's complex private life caused outraged denials from a section of his extended family. Yet his long-term relationship with Nell Donnelly should not be a cause of shame, nor should it detract from Chifley's considerable reputation. In the difficult circumstances and with the social constraints of small-town life, he did what he could to be true to both the women in his life.
The family of wartime prime minister John Curtin had been similarly sensitive about disclosures of his private life. His addiction to alcohol had tormented him throughout his adult life and was widely known. So, too, were his regular descents into depression. Yet the family was anxious that the general public should not be made aware of them, even to the extent of threatening legal action against an early biographer.
Attitudes towards alcoholism and depression had changed by the time that I embarked on my biography of Curtin in the late 1990s. When I visited Curtin's bungalow in Perth's beachside suburb of Cottesloe, the house was being maintained by his daughter, Elsie. Perhaps because of the dementia from which she was beginning to suffer, there was no attempt by Elsie to conceal the emotional and psychological problems with which her father wrestled.
Curtin almost certainly suffered from bipolar disorder, probably inherited from his father. But it was not just his bipolar disorder that impelled him to drink. There is considerable evidence that there was a darker secret that Curtin nursed all his life. Although I refrained from revealing my suspicions in the biography, I did admit to several audiences that I believed Curtin had probably been sexually abused as a teenager by a Catholic priest. There is some evidence for this.
When Curtin lay dying in the prime minister's Lodge in Canberra in 1945, the Catholic monsignor for the capital came calling, apparently hoping that Curtin would make a deathbed return to the church. But the monsignor was turned away at the door by Curtin's Presbyterian wife, also Elsie. The adamant refusal to admit the monsignor suggested a deeper motivation than simple sectarianism on the part of his wife. It seemed more likely that his wife was privy to an episode in Curtin's early life that would make the admission of the monsignor impossible.
Throughout his adult life, Curtin had steadfastly refused even to step inside a Catholic church. When invited to the Catholic weddings of close friends, he would decline to attend the ceremonies. He just could not bring himself to do it.
The origins of his refusal probably date back to his time as a young lad in the Victorian country town of Charlton, when Curtin had been an altar boy at the local Catholic church. One of his duties was to help the priest with his robes before the service. The parish history notes that the priest had "a commanding presence and strong personality". Was he the priest who abused Curtin and turned him against the church?
At this distance in time, we cannot know for certain. But the evidence suggests that Curtin had a profound psychological aversion to the church of his birth rather than simply a rational reaction against religion. During my research, I only came across one reference to Curtin entering a church of any sort as an adult. It occurred in 1942 when he attended the rededication of a historic Presbyterian church in Canberra. Expecting just to be in the congregation, Curtin was taken aback when called upon to speak. The minister later recalled that Curtin was "shivering among the presence of church people".
An earlier wartime prime minister, Andrew Fisher, would have had no such reservations about speaking in a church. The former Scottish coal miner, who rose to become prime minister and commit Australia to World War I, had been a Presbyterian Sunday school teacher in Queensland before turning to politics. During three separate terms, he did more than any other prime minister to create a sense of Australian nationhood.
There is a long list of practical achievements to his credit, from creating the Royal Australian Navy to laying the foundation stone of Canberra and constructing the transcontinental railway. He also ignored the nervous opposition of his colleagues and established the Commonwealth Bank, as well as inaugurating Australia's currency and penny postage stamps.
Despite being one of our longest-serving prime ministers and presiding over the landings at Gallipoli, his story remains largely unknown. After two of Fisher's previous biographers had died before completing their work, I was anxious that my own attempt was done expeditiously. The task seemed straightforward. But there were some twists and turns to the story that I had not anticipated.
I discovered that Fisher was also instrumental in promoting an Australian sensibility through his relationship with influential Australian artists of the Heidelberg School. I was surprised to discover that he would often escape from his political burdens and the pressures of his crowded family life to spend time in an artist's studio in Carlton.
The most disconcerting discovery, though, was made among Fisher's papers at the National Library. Fisher had been a keen photographer and had even installed a darkroom in the cellar of his rather rundown Melbourne mansion so that he could do his own developing.
Amid all the family photos there was a small, washed-out photograph of a naked man posing aboard a sailing boat. Suddenly, my carefully constructed image of Fisher threatened to come undone. What was the significance of this isolated piece of late-Victorian erotica among Fisher's papers? How was I to deal with it and where was it likely to lead? What would Michael King have done? Buried it in his symbolic biscuit tin, perhaps?
I was conscious that Fisher's papers had been left behind in his Melbourne mansion in 1915 when Fisher and his family went to live in London. His brother-in-law, a keen sailor, lived in the house until Fisher returned and took all his belongings back to London. There the papers remained long after Fisher's death from dementia in 1928. There was no telling how the photograph had come to be among Fisher's personal papers. So, as far as Fisher's biography was concerned, I would leave the photograph in the biscuit tin.
It would be easy to hold nothing back from a biography; to report every rumour and bring every piece of material to the attention of the reader. But the biographer has a duty of discretion when delving into the private life of the subject, even when that person is long dead, and also has a responsibility to the readers to sift carefully through the surviving evidence, discarding the irrelevant and the malicious and dismissing the false trails that are meant to mislead.
After researching three biographies, my particular biscuit tin has become rather full.
Sydney Morning Herald, 18 October 2008