Picking a Subject: Part Four
Becoming Jill Craigie's De-authorized Biographer
Selections from A Private Life of Michael Foot
On December 19, 1999, in the old dial-up modem days, I slowly loaded the morning New York Times. In the obituary section, a headline caught my attention: “Jill Craigie, 85, Film Director and Devoted British Socialist.” The first paragraph noted that she “became one of Britain’s first successful female film directors and whose half-century marriage to the Labor Party leader Michael Foot put her at the heart of the country’s leftist politics.” The second paragraph mentioned her three most important films, Out of Chaos, perhaps the first documentary on modern art, The Way We Live, about the rebuilding of Plymouth after the war, and Blue Scar, a feature film with documentary elements that explored the life of a Welsh mining village. The last paragraph mentioned her birth in Derbyshire to a Scottish father, killed in World War I, and to a Russian emigre mother. It was an unhappy marriage, the couple divorced, and Craigie “by her own estimation” had a “wretched childhood.”
It had been nearly five years since I had last seen Jill and her husband, Michael in their Hampstead home. Then we had talked in a cozy sitting room surrounded by books but also lovely furnishings. I had come to discuss Rebecca West, the subject of my biography, and Jill was not only telling me about the writer and woman she befriended and grew to love, she was producing Rebecca’s first scrapbook of articles, the ones West wrote just after she had abandoned her family name, Cicily Fairfield. “Look,” Jill said, pointing to Rebecca’s own handwriting announcing, “Rebecca West born on 11 December 1912.”
The Times obituary told me I had found my next biographical subject. After a heady and stormy three years of working on Susan Sontag, I yearned for a world elsewhere—away from New York City. Indeed, the Sontag biography signaled my farewell to New York since midway through it I had moved to Cape May County, New Jersey. But before I got too excited, I called my London agents, Rivers Scott and Gloria Ferris to sound them out about a Craigie biography. I knew from the start that her life would not sell in this country. No one knew her, and my American agent was not able to sell a biography of her husband, even though Michael Foot had been leader of the Labour Party and a considerable literary figure as well. Gloria and Rivers thought I could secure a decent advance and put me in touch with Michael Foot’s biographer, Mervyn Jones, who told me he thought Michael would be very enthusiastic about a biography of his wife. So I wrote to Michael proposing the biography, and he called me two weeks later, and in high spirits declared, “You are the one to do it! Jill would have approved!” The rest fell into place quickly: Aurum Press, publisher of my Martha Gellhorn biography, offered the same terms for To Be a Woman: The Life of Jill Craigie. The next step was to visit Michael and establish certain ground rules for the biography.
So in March, 2000, I was greeted at the door of 66 Pilgrim’s Lane by a still grieving but also heartened Michael Foot. I knew that both Jill and Michael had liked my biography of Rebecca West, but just how much quite astounded me. I had kept them apprized of my progress on the book, sending them chapters for their comments. Jill could be exceptionally critical, especially on the subject of feminism, and I worried that she would find my chapters on Rebecca’s early years as a radical feminist wanting. But her praise was more than gratifying. Michael later touted my book in his biography of H. G. Wells, one of Rebecca’s lovers.
Biographers are often made to feel like supplicants. But Michael’s first phone call was a wooing, making me feel that as the biographer of Rebecca West I was conferring an honor on Jill. He provided me not just with unfettered access to Jill’s study. I was to live with him whenever I was in London. Even better, he announced, “It's your book.” I told him I didn’t like the term authorized biographer, which sounded to me like the term for a hired hand. “Authorized biographies. Absolute balls,” Michael declared.
I was to go about the house as if it were my own. I could rifle through every drawer, cupboard, room and receptacle. I slept on a sofa bed in Michael’s library. Each night before retiring, I would go through a shelf or pile of books (his only filing system) filled with letters and reviews and notes. Every night brought a new revelation. A few letters from Mary Welsh, Hemingway’s fourth wife, whom Michael had known in the war, were tucked into Hemingway books. In a debunking biography of Michael’s hero, Aneurin Bevan, founder of the National Heath Service, I read Michael’s comment on the flyleaf, which began “read with rising anger . . .”
I often thought of Boswell and Johnson during my stays with Michael Foot. In Michael’s company, I was very much a Boswell, keen to get the great man to talk. I recorded everything, compiling a hundred hours of Michael reminiscing about himself and Jill and nearly another hundred of others commenting on the couple. Scholars estimate that Boswell spent something like 400 days in Samuel Johnson’s company. Over a period of three years and ten trips to England, I lived for something like 100 days with Michael. Boswell knew Johnson much longer (more than 20 years), but he did not live with his subject and see him throughout the entire course of a day and night. I was with Michael from breakfast to lunch to drinks and dinner and usually more talk right up until bedtime. I watched the cycle of Michael’s days and became a part of them, sometimes locking up the house at night or taking messages when he was away for part of a day—and once having to rush down the stairs of his Hampstead house and into the street to pick up him where he tripped and fell.
Michael wanted my biography of Jill to do what she could not do for herself. Like the subjects of Daughters of Dissent, her never completed epic about the struggle for female suffrage, Jill saw herself as a dissident fighting for recognition. Michael had an aching need to show the world what Jill had not been able to display herself, much as a remorseful Thomas Carlyle had done for his late wife Jane by sanctioning James Anthony Froude’s biography, which included a rather grim portrayal of the Carlyle marriage. H. G. Wells, inconsolable over his unfaithfulness, had done the job himself in a book about his Jane after she died. These men relied on women to perform in what Martha Gellhorn liked to call “the kitchen of life," and wanted to perform some act of restitution.
By the time I completed Jill Craigie’s biography three years later, I had discovered the Times obituary had been wrong on three counts: Jill was born in 1911, not 1914, in London, not Derbyshire, and her father did not die in World War I but lived until 1963. Getting the facts straight, though, was the least of it. By the time I was through with Jill's biography, Michael Foot was through with me.
In June 2000, during my first stay at Pilgrim’s Lane, I announced: “Tomorrow I’m going to see Bill MacQuitty.” Michael responded: “He knew Jill before I did. He was the producer of her films and a wonderful friend to her and to us. I hope he is in as full possession of his faculties as I am,” Michael said, laughing. MacQuitty was 95 and Michael 87. I asked him if he had read MacQuitty’s memoir, A Life to Remember, which included passages about Jill. “I haven’t, really,” Michael admitted. I would continue to be surprised at how little Michael knew about Jill apart from what she herself had told him. She had been able, in fact, to fashion an image of herself for him that he could not bring himself to contest, even when I began to present him with evidence that Jill had sometimes misrepresented her life. When I mentioned that Jill had a brief career as an actress, Michael responded, “I didn’t know that. She never told that to me.” In 1937, she appeared in a film, Makeup, written by her second husband, Jeffrey Dell. They had also collaborated on a successful stage play. “I see,” Michael said, seeming to muse over this new information. “I never met Jeffrey Dell. Jill said he was very clever.” That seemed to sum up all Michael knew about the man—or cared to know. Michael was not the kind of spouse to concern himself with his wife’s former life. “Jill didn’t talk much about Jeffrey Dell.”
I had settled into a cozy stay at Pilgrim’s Lane. Only later would I begin to see that by providing me with so much access and comfort, Michael was buffering the biography. I don’t mean that he made some sort of calculation that I would be indebted because of his generosity. It was simply in Michael’s nature, I believe, to extend his liberality, which easily segued into his thinking I would produce a biography in the same spirit of amity that characterized our jolly talks together.
On this first stay, I resumed interviewing Julie Hamilton, Jill’s only child by her first marriage to Claude Begbie-Clench. Julie was outspoken to the point of indiscretion. In other words, she was a biographer’s dream. She was fond of Michael but sharply critical of his treatment of her mother. She’d come over to Pilgrim’s Lane for drinks, and to plan their September trip to Dubrovnik, a reunion of sorts with all of the friends Jill and Michael had made in their yearly holidays there. Invited to join them, I couldn’t resist, hoping to see another side of Jill and Michael away from the environs of Hampstead.
In September 2000, Julie told me that the first week of Michael’s Dubrovnik stay (I arrived at the beginning of their second week there) several of his London friends had flown over as part of his commemoration of Jill in the city she loved. The wife of Bob Edwards (an intimate of Michael’s who edited the far-left Tribune after Michael left the job) told Julie that Michael was one of the most selfish men she had ever met. It seemed a shocking statement to me at the time; Michael was so affable and so obviously engaged with other people. But as I realized later, in Jill he found a collaborator who might complain from time to time, but who never seriously challenged his own vision of himself or of the world he had a right to rule.
By making no explicit demands of Jill (for example, “You must give up your career”), by seeming not to interfere in crucial decisions (should she abort the child she had conceived by him before they were married?) Michael effectively placed the burden of decision on her. She was the one who had to choose—over and over again. Michael could just be himself. This is the free ride men so often enjoy in their marriages.
The trouble I had headed for was masked in a lot of banter. Over drinks one night—this was about two years into my work on Jill—Julie began talking about how dreadfully Michael dressed, much to Jill’s dismay. “I don’t think she worried about that at all,” Michael said quietly. “She did,” Julie corrected him. “She was,” I said. “It’s in her diary.” “She was very concerned,” Julie continued, “at how you appeared in public.” “Ah,” he said in exasperation. “She used to enlist my help in the early days,” Julie said: “Go and tell him to change his shoes.” Michael interrupted, “That’s a lot of balls.” I laughed. “What Julie says is absolute balls,” Michael reiterated. “You knew one Jill, and I knew another,” Julie retorted. It was all very funny at the time—and not so funny later on when Julie’s Jill made her appearance in my book. “I wonder if you’ll recognize her [Jill] from Carl’s book?” Julie asked Michael. I laughed again. “It will be really interesting,” Julie remarked slyly. Michael did not reply. I thought then—and am even surer now—that Julie had a much better grasp of the dynamics of Jill’s biography than Michael did. He really could not see outside of his relationship with Jill.
After listening to the back and forth between Julie and Michael, I said: “I now realize how I’m going to write this biography. It will be in two columns: one for you and one for Julie. It’s going to be a two-column biography.” Julie laughed and Michael said, “That’s quite a good idea.” Indicating Julie, Michael said, “Sometimes she’s got good ideas, but . . . “ “Only when they agree with you,” Julie filled in the gap. “Sometimes you’re absolutely cracked. You know that, don’t you?” Michael asked her. “And are you ever cracked?” Julie asked him. “Yes,” he responded. “As long as we agree,” Julie laughed.
Just how fixed Michael was in his beliefs came home to me when I told him I had finally secured a copy of Jill’s birth certificate. I had delayed doing it, not supposing it would tell me that much. Michael, born in 1913, always thought he was two years older than Jill, so I broke it to him:
Carl: She was born in 1911.
Carl: 1911, Michael.
Carl: Yea, the birth certificate is there.
Carl: It is. It’s in the public record. 1911. I’ll show you Friday. I’m getting a copy Friday. I looked it up. It’s there in the book.
There was quite a long pause, during which Michael cleared his throat. “I’m amazed,” he said. “Family Records Centre,” I told him. “Well, they made a mistake.” “No, Michael.” My tone was rather like the sort a parent might use with a recalcitrant child who knows better. “It’s a recorded birth certificate,” I said, almost laughing now. “It’s also on her death certificate.” We would have to have a lot of records that were inaccurate. “Well,” he said grudgingly:
Carl: No, it’s 1911.
Michael: I really don’t . . . I’m amazed. It was on her last passport. It was wrong.
Carl: I found three of Jill’s passports, and they all say 1911.
Michael: Do they?
I reiterated all the evidence. “Good heavens,” he whispered. Didn’t matter. A day later he was insisting on 1914.
In April 2003, I sent Michael a draft of the biography. Matter that initially seemed problematic like my delving into his affairs with other women did not especially trouble him, although what I discovered was startling enough and will be detailed in my memoir, A Private Life of Michael Foot. What angered Michael was my portrait of his marriage, especially the idea that in some ways he had stood in the way of Jill’s completing her masterpiece, Daughters of Dissent.
My biography contained several explanations of why Jill could not finish her book: She was intimidated by new scholarship that drove her constantly to revise what she had already written; she was concerned about the growing ranks of feminist scholars and other historians who would review her work; she was a one-book author who treated the suffragist history as her baby; she was as committed to Michael and her marriage, to her home and family, as she was to her book. Then there was her involvement in making Two Hours From London, her passionate documentary about the siege of Dubrovnik.
The one obstacle Michael could not accept was himself. Jill complained about him to Julie, and to close female friends, family, and acquaintances—all of whom I had interviewed. She wanted him out of the house because he kept interrupting her writing. He believed in her project, no doubt, but he never was able to grasp what even those who were fond of him could see: He was selfish, perhaps unconsciously so as he was bred by a mother who always put her boys first. Like Carlyle, Michael (albeit in a less peremptory manner) expected his wife’s constant attendance. Of course, Jill used Michael as an excuse, and it can always be said that writers tend to blame their blockages on others, rather than face their own inability to get on with their projects. I did not make Michael the main source of Jill’s problem, but rather portrayed him as part of a complex of factors that inhibited her. Also, I presented Jill’s point of view as filtered through Julie and others. And my insistence on that approach enraged him, although at this juncture he still managed to control his temper.
Michael sputtered as he summoned his defense. I listened for a long while. The thought occurred to me later that he never seriously considered what kind of conditions might have spurred Jill on. Writing came easily to Michael. What Jill needed was for Michael to say, “Look here, you have two chapters left. Why don’t you go off to wherever you like and get them done?” Jill might well have objected that she could not cart her archive somewhere else. “Well, then,” he could have said, “I propose to go off for a month to Jamaica to visit my nephew Oliver.” But he did not like to leave home. When Jill told him, during an affair that almost broke up their marriage, that he should leave Pilgrim’s Lane, Michael’s first thought was for his books. How could he live without them? Jill had reported as much in a letter to Julie. Michael wanted all the comforts of home, and as many people close to him noted, it was Jill who made the sacrifices. That was Jill’s choice, to be sure, but Michael could nonetheless have tried taking Jill out of her rut by breaking the pattern of a domestic life that suited him but got in the way of her book. Jill still might not have taken Michael up on such a proposal, but it interested me that he never made the offer. It never occurred to him to do so. I know as much because this is a subject we spoke about many, many times. It shocked Michael that I could not simply present his point of view. All other perspectives, especially Julie’s, were not only wrong, they had no place in the biography.
When I first met Jill in 1994, she told me she had only two chapters left to write. She said she was stuck. “So how do we go about unsticking you?” Michael could have asked. That was the crucial year. Michael had been retired for two years. Surely it was Jill’s turn? I never put this case so baldly in Jill’s biography, and in the first draft I was not as clear as I should been concerning Michael’s general encouragement of her book project. That aspect I would amend, but my amendment would not be enough to appease Michael. He believed I had betrayed him.
Jill’s own conflicting emotions, her anger at Michael for never putting her first came out as she was dying. Her anger did not mean she no longer loved this great man; on the contrary, her anger resulted from disappointment that such a great and generous man had such a flaw. As she lay dying, he was certainly putting her first, but for Jill his effort came too late. This bitter truth was hard to bear. I don’t think Michael ever confronted it, and I confess I did not have the courage to do what he could not. In retrospect, I feel rather like James Anthony Froude, who held back the knowledge of Carlyle’s impotence and let the world know only in the posthumous publication of My Relations with Carlyle. A close reader of Froude’s biography can detect a passage where he hints at Carlyle’s impotence, and a perceptive reader of To Be a Woman could, I believe, sense my feeling that for all their loving companionship Michael failed Jill in a fundamental way. But to have been as explicit as I am here would have brought the house of Foot down upon me, I have no doubt. Michael did not believe in censorship, so I have no right to suggest he would have suppressed my biography, but I also have no doubt that a campaign would have been waged against me by his surrogates. And I did not want to end like Froude, who spent a good deal of his remaining life defending himself against the charges of Carlyle’s family and friends.
I did not tape the last face-to-face meeting about the biography. Going in I knew how fraught it would be, and somehow I thought the tape recorder would add to the tension. Instead, as soon as I arrived at Philadelphia airport, I asked my wife, Lisa Paddock, to drive home so that I could recount into my tape recorder how I had seen Michael unravel. Reflecting on the scene, I said:
I don’t think he harbors anger exactly. Julie was getting back from Italy and she called: “Should I come and get you to go over photographs?” I said, “Well, I can’t do that because Jenny is coming over and we’re going to talk about the book.” She said, “Maybe I should be there.” I said, “I think it’s in my interest and yours that you are.” I didn’t say this to Michael. I wanted to avoid sitting down with him and Jenny and then having to go to Julie and have to explain it all again. “This is what they don’t like.” I thought, “I’ll be damned if I’m going to run back and forth between contending parties. Just let them have it all out around the table.” So Julie came, and Michael started reading this one passage where Julie says to me, “Have you even seen Michael’s anger? It can be really frightening. Jill was frightened of his anger.” That’s when he went ballistic. “This is outrageous. Leave the house!” Julie just sat there, kept her composure. She said quietly, “I just said she was . . .” “SHE WASN’T AFRAID OF MY ANGER. WE NEVER HAD ANY QUARREL!” He went on and on in a rage. Jenny kept saying, “Maybe I should go. Maybe I should go.” I just sat there, and then I said, “Michael, Ursula Owen described how frightening your anger could be.” Well, that was somehow a different matter, he indicated. The thing that really offended me was that at one point he was in such a rage he said, “THIS IS COMING OUT!” I wanted to say to him, “Michael, I thought this was my book.” Well, it is coming out because Julie said to Michael, “Well, if you feel that strongly about it, take it out.” She didn’t take back what she said. I didn’t see why she should. It took him about two days to calm down.
On my last night at Pilgrim’s Lane, Michael asked me to call him when I got home. He had no particular purpose in mind other than to be sure I got home safely. I think it was his effort to smooth things over. I didn’t call him, but he phoned me, and we had a short, awkward conversation. We spoke only one other time, when he called to say he was upset about the upcoming Daily Mail serialization of my biography. He hated the tabloid, calling it “The Forger’s Gazette.” I told Michael I had no authority to stop the serialization, and I would not profit a penny from its publication. I had told the publisher that Michael would be upset, but the publisher could not resist the £10,000 payment the Mail offered. I was square with Michael: I did not object to the publisher’s decision.
We never spoke again.
 All of my recordings are available in my archive at McFarlin Library, The University of Tulsa. The archive also includes the full, unedited version of this book (close to 200,000 words, as well as several revised drafts).
Books mentioned in this column:
A Life to Remember by Willian MacQuitty (Quartet Books, 1991)
My Relations with Carlyle by James Anthony Froude (Longmans, 1903)
To Be a Woman: The Life of Jill Craigie by Carl Rollyson (Aurum Press, 2005)
Carl Rollyson is Professor of Journalism at Baruch College, The City University of New York. He reviews biographies regularly for The Wall Street Journal, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and other newspapers and periodicals. Carl is the author of a dozen biographies, including Marilyn Monroe: A Life of the Actress, Rebecca West: A Modern Sibyl, and with his wife, Lisa Paddock, Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon. His studies of biography include: A Higher Form of Cannibalism: Adventures in the Art and Politics of Biography and Biography: A User's Guide. More about Carl and his work can be found at his website. He is currently completing a biography of Dana Andrews and beginning work on a biography of Sylvia Plath. When not writing, he is playing with his three Scotties. Contact Carl.