In the Melbourne Age on 13 October 2001 Michael King reflected on the writing of biographies and wondered whether, in the case of modern examples of the genre, there was any meaningful distinction to be drawn between public and private lives. King did not say as much, but he seemed to be suggesting that there should be some limits to where a biographer should go. It is a question that every biographer has to face. And I suppose writers of autobiographies too, where no subject now seems screened off from public revelation.
In the case of my biography of Australia’s wartime prime minister John Curtin, I seem to recall being principally interested in the public life and had no sense at the beginning that I would be investigating in any depth the private man. That changed as soon as I began looking into his childhood. The police records, which had been kept from his official biographer, Lloyd Ross, exposed Curtin’s father as having suffered a burden of shame after being disgraced as a police constable: while on his rounds in Port Melbourne he fondled a female shop assistant. It was as a result of that incident that he was sent to Creswick, where the future prime minister was born. It was no idyllic rural childhood for Curtin, living with an irascible father who was now suffering from syphilis.
After that discovery, one thing led to another. Instead of writing a traditional, top-heavy‚ political biography that rushed through the early life and largely ignored the private and emotional side, I found myself being drawn into writing a more balanced life that sought to explore and, if possible, explain some of the emotional and psychological troubles that clearly beset him as prime minister. I wanted to get to grips with the whole person‚ and deal seriously with all sixty-five years of his life, rather than just the final four when he was prime minister.
I would now urge all biographers to mimic the genealogists and go to the basic sources, such as death certificates, birth certificates, marriage certificates, wills, probate, and employment records. Collect them all. It is costly and time-consuming but they almost invariably turn up unexpected gems or raise new questions to be explored. Yet Australian political biographers seem often to ignore them, preferring to write a cursory account of childhood and family life based on oral accounts that are sometimes unreliable. Curtin’s five previous biographers had not done this basic trawling and had consequently portrayed Curtin’s father as an upright rural policeman with no problems more troubling than rheumatism. The ‘rheumatism’ was almost certainly syphilis.
From the police records alone, it became obvious that I would have to deal in some depth with Curtin’s childhood, not just for its own sake, but for the light it could throw on his subsequent troubled existence. While there was certainly more than an element of triumph about Curtin’s life, there was also more than an element of tragedy. That tragedy was evidenced by his alcoholism, his bouts of serious depression, his rejection of catholicism, his problematic relationship with his parents, and later, I believe, with his wife and his son.
With the experience of writing the Curtin biography, I began work on his successor, Ben Chifley, determined from the start to encapsulate the public and private dimensions of his life, so that readers would have some sense of what he was like at both the cabinet table and the kitchen table. I was interested in what drove him into politics, the principles he lived by and the extent to which he was able to achieve his political aims. I was also interested in Chifley’s public image, the way it was created and the extent to which it accorded with the private reality of his life. More broadly, I was interested in the question of how far any political leaders can shape their times and how far they are simply swept along by forces beyond their control.
As with Curtin, it meant starting with Chifley’s childhood. I needed to get to grips with the grandfather to whose Limekilns farm he was sent by his parents at the age of five. Chifley remained there until he was fourteen, with his parents and two younger brothers living just out of easy contact distance at Bathurst. One can imagine the trauma this would have caused young Chifley. To reconstruct that childhood in the absence of any memoir by him I searched through the records of the Education Department, the Land Titles Office, the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages and the Probate Office. I also walked over the farm that Chifley worked on as a child and inspected the crumbling school in which he received his rudimentary education. Fortunately, there were also the memories of Chifley’s childhood friends that were gathered fifty years ago by his only other biographer, Fin Crisp. Of course, it is the private adult life where most of the problems lie for the biographer.
There were obvious sensitivities to be faced in dealing with leaders who have become Labor icons and, in the case of Curtin, a national icon. The Labor Party obviously has some interest in seeing that its former leaders are not traduced or shown to have feet of clay. Some may have felt that the Curtin biography did just that by examining Curtin’s alcoholism, his manic depression and his relationship with his wife and with other women. Indeed, Paul Kelly was so shocked by the revelations that he wrote an article in the Australian of 26 January 2000 headlined ‘Wartime leader was no hero’. Kelly’s reaction, however, seems to have been an isolated one. Most readers seem to believe, as I do, that Curtin’s selfless and at times inspirational war leadership, while wrestling with these problems, invested him with certain heroic qualities.
Paul Kelly may react similarly to the Chifley biography, which reveals certain aspects of Chifley’s political and personal life that he may find disillusioning. There was Chifley’s playing of the race card to get into parliament in 1928, with his demonisation of so-called dagoes‚ after having lost an apparently unwinnable election in 1925. There was the contrast between Chifley’s austere image and his penchant for powerful American cars and tailor-made clothes. There was the contradiction between Chifley’s call for low interest rates and his charging of very high interest rates during the 1930s when he lent money on mortgages. It may have been the exposure of this by NSW Labor leader Jack Lang, rather than the coal strike or bank nationalisation or petrol rationing, that was responsible for Chifley’s losing the 1949 election. And there was his relationship with other women while ostensibly remaining true to his wife. As in Curtin’s case, the woman who seems to have been the real love of Chifley’s life has hitherto been absent from the history books. She was neither the wife he married against the wishes of his family and friends nor the woman in whose arms he would finally die.
Nevertheless, there was much in Chifley’s life that bordered on the heroic. For example, he displayed principled opposition to conscription in the First World War and his stand in the great strike of 1917 nearly cost him his job as an engine driver. He rebuilt the engine drivers’ union and helped transform it into a federal organisation. His loyalty to the constitutional processes of the Labor Party caused him to be expelled from his union and from the State Labor Party. He conducted a lonely fight during the 1930s against the autocratic politics of Jack Lang, when Lang set himself in opposition to the federal party. He gave crucial support to Curtin during the war, with Chifley providing as treasurer both practical and emotional support to his close friend and colleague. He was passionately nationalistic, staunchly opposed to state governments and single-mindedly determined to augment the powers and responsibilities of the Commonwealth government. Seemingly devoid of personal ambition, Chifley devoted himself to the cause of his union, his party and his country and, when called upon to do so, took over the leadership of the nation at a most vital time. Later, as opposition leader, he resisted Menzies’ attempts to ban the Communist Party and institute a witch-hunt against his fellow Australians. It was probably his finest hour.
How does a biographer get the balance right between these triumphant public achievements and the sometimes messy details of politicians’ private lives? Previous biographers of Curtin and Chifley wrestled with this problem and resolved it in different ways. Curtin’s official biographer, Lloyd Ross, had considerable difficulty with the Curtin family when he mentioned Curtin’s alcoholism in a series of newspaper articles in the mid-1950s, about twenty-two years prior to the appearance of his biography. The articles prompted Curtin’s widow, Elsie, to withdraw her previous cooperation with Ross and to burn some of the remaining letters between herself and her husband, presumably selecting for the fire those that related to his lifelong struggle with the bottle. There may also have been some relating to his close relationship with the female manager of the Hotel Kurrajong, Isobel Southwell. The Curtin family even threatened legal action against Ross. That may have been why he waited until Elsie died before finally publishing his biography in 1977, with the previously graphic descriptions of Curtin’s alcoholism considerably toned down. Two other biographers of Curtin were more circumspect and wrote largely uncritical portrayals of their subject. One was simply titled John Curtin: Saviour of Australia.
In the case of Chifley, L.F. Crisp’s study (Ben Chifley: A Political Biography, 1961) was the only serious biography of him published in the fifty years after his death. Crisp was assisted in his work by having been close to Chifley politically, professionally and personally. Indeed, Crisp once declared that he regarded Chifley as a father. This closeness was obviously helpful to Crisp in portraying a sympathetic picture of Chifley. But it also had its problems. As Crisp assured one correspondent, his fondness for Chifley meant that he would not write anything that would harm Chifley’s memory. Crisp was particularly discreet about Chifley’s relationship with Phyllis Donnelly, the woman who acted as his private secretary. She rates just two brief mentions in the book, yet she was by his side for nearly a quarter of a century. He could hardly keep her out altogether, when it was in her presence that Chifley died. But there is no mention at all of Phyllis’s sister, Nell, to whom Chifley seems to have been engaged as a young man and with whom he conducted a long-term relationship in Bathurst up until his death. Indeed, it is possible that Chifley was with Nell when he suffered his first heart attack in 1950.
What limits did I set myself as I went in search of the remaining records and rummaged through the drawers of the dresser and other cupboards in Chifley’s Bathurst cottage? As a biographer, I tried to answer the questions that might legitimately occupy the mind of the reader. Because Chifley’s public image hinged on his apparently devoted relationship with his wife, Elizabeth, and on their austere life together in their humble cottage in South Bathurst, the detail of that domestic existence was a matter of legitimate interest to the reader, and hence to the biographer. The fact that Chifley died late at night in his hotel room in the company of his secretary also raised questions that needed to be answered and yet had been largely avoided until now.
I had to confront the concerns of some members of Chifley’s family who were naturally protective of his reputation and reluctant to talk even about the nature of his wife’s chronic illness. Indeed, the whole town of Bathurst has a considerable investment in the received public memory of Chifley. I hasten to add that the received memory is largely correct in its outline and in much of the detail. Nevertheless, some people will be upset by some of the detail revealed in my biography of Chifley. Indeed, I expect every biography will upset some of those who were close to the subject. The best that a biographer can do is to write with some sensitivity to these concerns while keeping in mind the higher purpose of getting the history right, out of justice to the readers and, indeed, to the subject of the book.