Once upon a time there was a Tory grandee who owned a house on the Costa Brava. Venturing forth to an art gallery one day, who should he meet but a hippy. The hippy was a beautiful young lady, rather thin but very clean, and she was known to her friends as Shoe. Shoe had wandered in many lands, pursued various trades and callings, sampled most of the religions of the earth and most of its banned substances. Sometimes Shoe sold lavender bags, or performed as an acrobat. Sometimes she was seen looking in dustbins. Sometimes she visited Salvador Dali.
Jonathan Guinness – for it was he – found the hippy attractive, and carefully tested her out: not by offering a glass slipper, but by mentioning that his mother had been married to Oswald Mosley. Being a simple girl from the North of England, and knowing better than to meddle in the affairs of the quality, Shoe didn’t react. The merchant banker was pleased. ‘Shoe’s whole charm, for me, depended on her being non-political.’ After he returned to London, he wrote letters to the girl. They met again, and soon she had three bouncing babies.
Then in 1986 the tabloids turned up the story: the former chairman of the Monday Club had a second family by a woman not his wife. They weighed in with the usual moral outrage. Guinness was unabashed. Now that the existence of his mistress was an open secret, he felt free to write a book about her. He thought she had led an interesting life, which he saw as a novelist might see it, with ‘shape, unity and progression’. He felt that he could not treat Shoe as if she were a figment of his imagination. But an ordinary biography would not capture the flavour of her adventures as she had told them to him, and so, he says, he decided to impersonate her: he would tell the story ‘in the way Shoe might tell it, if she could write. From now on,’ he asserts, ‘I am Susan Mary Taylor, born in Oldham, Lancashire, on 26 July 1944.’
While the author has explained, in his foreword, what he means to do, nothing quite prepares one for the shock of the switch into the first person and it is only when the switch occurs that one becomes conscious of the oddness, not to say impertinence of the venture. The most diverting part of the book is the description of Shoe’s childhood in Oldham, an unlovely textile town which, like Wigan, may have been built expressly to be the butt of jokes. There is much of the flavour of Oldham life in this first chapter. Shoe’s grandfather, it seems, was stoned to death by little boys. Her father, when courting her mother, placed a Valentine’s Day token under the lid of her piano. It was a sheep’s heart on a saucer, transfixed by a skewer. ‘After that they started to go out together.’ Oldham people are not quite like others, and to Mr Guinness, Shoe’s stories of early life must have been most alarming: it is to his credit that the tenor of his prose never falters, nor does his imaginative sympathy fail. Shoe’s father was a butcher, but not one of the horrible kind: ‘Even the animals who came to be killed seemed to see him as a friend and master.’ Is it possible that the author can enter not only into the feelings of his mistress but into the emotions of a cow or a pig? And if he can, with what sort of book will he astound us next?
Shoe was an active child, it seems: her mother consulted a doctor to know if she had St Vitus’s Dance. When she did fall into childish reverie, it was broken by cries of ‘Our Susan! This dripping wants rendering!’ Her family were prosperous by local standards, but she could not hope for much cultural stimulation: ‘Although the Theatre Royal, Oldham, was just down the road, we never went there. We were too busy making sausages.’
She left school just before her 15th birthday. She thought of taking up nursing, perhaps hoping her slaughterhouse experience would stand her in good stead; she had a way with an entrail. But she was not a success, so apprenticed herself to a hairdresser. Already a certain wildness of temperament was evident; she threw herself into the local disco scene with a Jewish boyfriend called Walter. When she was 19 her father set her up in a salon, but she was discontented, and wished she were Julie Andrews. ‘I liked the way she strode around the Alpine meadows in flowing nun’s robes.’ Together with her elder sister Wynson (‘Give me a shampoo and set; I’m coming with you’), she set off for Austria. Or that at least is how Mr Guinness tells it.
In Austria, working as a domestic and hanging out with drifters and ski bums, she was introduced to the delights of opiate cough mixture, and began her search for altered states, expanded consciousness and occasional oblivion. Yet earlier, there had been another, more fateful encounter with a patent medicine. At the house of a friend, Shoe had spotted a tin of Andrew’s Liver Salts. The slogan ‘For Inner Cleanliness’ seemed to her to have a metaphysical dimension. She liked the taste, too. Soon, her lover tells us, she became ‘what modern writers describe as a laxative abuser’. By the time she met Guinness she had suffered for many years from bulimia: after ingesting vast amounts of food she would purge, herself or make herself vomit. There can be few people who have thrown up in quite so many quarters of the globe, and Guinness never spares us details. Yet her copious vomiting is Shoe’s only real distinction. Her ‘odyssey’ confirms one in the opinion that while the Sixties may have been exciting times to live through, they are hellish dull to read about.
Shoe hitch-hiked through Europe, Asia Minor, North Africa. She was gang-raped in Morocco; she was in Holloway twice for drugs offences. She had a nest-egg from her hair-dressing days, but when she was really down and out – and once when she had a tapeworm, and needed ‘to get seen to’ – she would go home to Oldham. Then after a few days fretting she would be off again in search of ‘alternative people’. Somehow she was never quite where the action was. She failed to become a model, and lasted for only a few days in the cast of Hair. She landed a job as tea-girl at Apple, the Beatles’ company, but ‘Ringo was the only one I had any sort of conversation with.’ (He asked her if she were Yugoslavian. She said that she was not.) The Beatles did not like her tea, and soon sacked her.
And the inner quest continued: here a swami, there a swami, a pick n’ mix spirituality which bred no tranquillity, no insight. As the story goes on – drugs, ashrams, vomiting – one does not discern the pattern that the author says might have made a novel. Shoe never learns; Shoe is never disillusioned. Could any human being fail so totally to develop natural caution and healthy cynicism, or is it that the Guinness technique is flawed? He has made Shoe look inwards at herself, but never outwards at other people. As a result, she appears both stupid and self-centred, and the most disagreeable attribute he gives her is a perverse puritanism: she has contempt for the normal pleasures of food and drink, a contempt for the chattering and sociable members of her own sex. Penelope Betjeman is kind to her, but ‘far too fond of sugar in every form. I used to tell her that her sweet tooth was making her overweight.’ One can only guess at the wondering delight with which this intelligence was received.
She had visited Cadaques on the Costa Brava several times, and the democratic style of the time and place enabled her to mix with the wealthier inhabitants. She was 33 when she met Guinness and felt (according to Guinness) ‘that this man wanted me as I’d never been wanted before.’ He made her feel like ‘the goddess Venus’. Could a merchant banker succeed where the world’s great religions had failed? Apparently. Shoe’s self-esteem rocketed. She hastened to have plastic surgery and get herself some new teeth. Her natural ones had fallen out, rotted away by her stomach acids.
We hope that the end of the book will bring us a picture of Jonathan seen by Shoe seen by Jonathan. Surely that is the natural culmination of this tricky exercise? But their liaison is barely described: instead ‘Shoe’ tells us of ‘her’ three pregnancies, and witters on about fashions in obstetrics. Guinness’s wife is mentioned once, in passing. The photograph on the back of the book shows three lovable moppets at play, their parents crouching by them, the author, looking like an amiable low comedian, and his subject, looking trim, elderly and tense. She wears a pair of very conservative court shoes: even her calves have taken on an establishment air. How was the transformation managed? Despite the bogus self-exposure, we shall never know. This is the trouble with a chronicle of the living. The subject sneaks off, turns into something else entirely, and leaves the biographer, who is too preoccupied to notice the defection, writing busily about himself.
Peter Feibleman followed his mistress Lillian Hellman, notebook in hand, to her dying breath – although, he tells us, ‘I didn’t need notes to remember my conversations with Lillian, I would have needed shock treatment to forget them.’ They were both writers, both Jews, both Southerners: but when they became lovers, in 1963, Peter was 28 and Lillian in her early fifties. They had first met when he was ten years old and she visited his family house in New Orleans. She was at the height of her fame as a playwright and woman of conscience, but these early years – of her Broadway success, her stormy life with Dashiell Hammett, her courage before the Un-American Activities Committee – are passed over quickly. This is not a biography of Hellman, but a memoir of decline and decay, on the one hand, self-satisfaction on the other. Feibleman’s prose is like the old sofa where a pampered cat rubs his neck; you can hear the purring between the lines. He has written screenplays, and a handful of novels. When he describes a seascape, one thinks immediately of those framed prints they used to sell in Boots Cash Chemist.
Hellman, that ‘bombastic, opinionated, dazzling, enraging, funny, peevish, bawdy’ woman, left him with a mass of material. ‘I have notes that were pushed under my door, notes left on tables and countertops, piles of letters ... her voice on 16 hours of tape ... memos and commands and demands and complaints and telegrams.’ When they became involved he was struggling with his own work, and Lilly tried to help him as Hammett had helped her. At this time she feared her plays were being forgotten, and she decided to write her memoirs and become ‘a self-propelled American folk-heroine’.
Feibleman gave her, by his own account, some good advice. He told her that other people, not herself, should record her heroism during the McCarthy years. ‘You can’t be the heroine of your own life ... Not in America.’ But Lillian went ahead, antagonising Mary McCarthy, Martha Gellhorn and other members of what Lillian called dismissively ‘the ladies club’, who felt their own activities put in the shade by her self-promotion. Mary McCarthy said: ‘Every word she writes is a lie, including “and” and “the”.’
Hellman believed, Feibleman explains, that she could not write novels, and that she had to find her own semi-fictional form. This was what she did when she wrote her memoirs, and she was amazed when the film Julia, which was based on an episode from Pentimento, took her confabulations at face value. Jane Fonda played Hellman, and Vanessa Redgrave played the friend whom she helped to combat the Nazis in pre-war Vienna. In some way it seems disingenuous of her fellow writers to assail Hellman about this episode: they should know that writers’ memories are different from other people’s. Yet one can appreciate their chagrin as Lillian basked in the admiration of the impressionable generation who protested against the Vietnam War. She was a heroine all over again, and had stolen everyone’s thunder. She had, too, the right salty epigrammatic touch to make her a Sixties crowd-pleaser. Asked to ‘endorse’ gay liberation, she drawled: ‘the forms of fucking need no endorsement from me.’
The domestic round chez Hellman-Feibleman is not attractive. She grew jealous, this old woman who talked to herself, and who looked, said a clever journalist, as if she had fallen off Mount Rushmore; she set a private detective onto freewheeling Peter. It is claimed that she had a sense of humour: when instances are given, what we are shown is something ruthless, simple-minded and destructive; Peter has always the upper hand, because he is a young man and she is the sort of woman who likes young men. Still, they keep up the badinage; some of it is on tape, and reproduced here in playlet form. They have their exits and their entrances, and their smart-rueful-bitter cues. At best, they sound as if they are in a Neil Simon comedy. At worst, they sound as if they are in hell.
When Lillian was old and blind, when her lungs and her arteries were worn out and she was delivered into the hands of doctors, she believed that she was being tormented by a foul-smelling stranger called ‘Mr Fini’. After her death, attacks on her reputation multiplied. William Wright’s 1986 biography was hostile, and no wonder: Lilly had denied him help, forbidden her friends to speak to him, and so precipitated him into the arms of her enemies, who were many and energetic. Feibleman might have given her side of the story: at first glance, that is what he has set out to do. He sounds sincere: yet he describes how Lilly taught him to be as cynical as herself. His reproduction of her late, blind, pathetic scrawls, and his catalogue of the infirmities and indignities of old age, are unlikely to enhance her reputation. But beyond this, he has done what Hellman’s detractors have not entirely managed: he has convinced the reader that she was not just insincere but stupid. She could not tell left from right. She thought ‘guano’ was a small African country. She did not know which side of her body her heart was on. So, if she could not tell left from right, does it matter whether she was a Stalinist? Or a liar? If she was so ignorant, does anything she said matter at all? The old debates are dead, murdered by a loving hand; this is the fondest hatchet-job you will ever see.