Joanna Murray-Smith is an acclaimed Australian playwright, screenwriter, and novelist. Her most famous play, Honour, launched in Melbourne in 1995, went on to be performed in over three dozen countries, including Broadway and London’s West End.
On Thursday, 6 September 2018, Joanna gave the following speech to launch my memoir A Letter From Paris into the world. I’m honoured to share her words…
This story begins with an email to Louisa Deasey from a woman called Coralie, writing from Paris. Coralie explains to Louisa that in the apartment of Michelle Chome, her recently deceased grandmother, she had found a stack of letters written in 1949. These letters had been written to Michelle’s parents in France whilst working as an au pair in London and they contained very fond reminiscences of an Australian man called Denison Deasey, whom she befriended on a London train. Was Louisa related? Coralie asks.
Denison Deasey is not an easy name to forget, a name that elicits a swoon, even without an image. Swashbuckler? Movie star? Irish poet? The euphonic vowels, the alliteration — it’s an interesting, romantic name. For Louisa, Denison Deasey was a father she barely knew. He died in 1984, just before her seventh birthday. And out of the blue, through Coralie’s email, Louisa is drawn into the vast, sprawling map of her father’s life, a life that traverses continents, wars and social movements, wives, children, famous artists. A father she barely remembered and whose mysterious life and reputation had shadowed her into adulthood.
One of the most interesting aspects of Louisa’s voice as author is her huge sensitivity — an artist’s sensitivity — to the nuances of how others describe her father. It is a sensitivity of someone profoundly emotionally connected to the subject, but unqualified to argue against the assessments of others. In his absence and in her mother’s silence and in the huge archival gaps about his peripatetic life, Louisa had no armoury to defend her father, or to redefine him in her own words or thoughts. He was a collection of scattered anecdotes and photographs and she had been, for most of her life, at the mercy of the words of strangers. She had no voice.
A Letter from Paris is her antidote. It is not just a beautifully written forensic search for a father, but an at times desperate and emotionally volatile search for a personal anchor to the world. Throughout the book, history becomes the key to her present. Uncovering history, through encounters with strangers, library attendants, French provincial cultural attaches, cross continental correspondents, actual relatives and new found family, even a charming wealthy art-buyer in Sloane Square who casually refers to 48 million dollar Klimt paintings at auction, Louisa assembles the past into a hugely entertaining reveal of Denison’s life: not just the places he went, the women he married, and what he wrote, but what was important to him: his spirit, his soul, his dreams. And through the book, it is not just Denison who emerges from myth to become real, but Louisa herself.
The story of Denison Deasey is the story of a dashing maverick, a man of fascinating, almost exhausting contradictions: the well to do son of a vicar, with a profound distrust of upper class pretentions, a gentleman and a habitue of bohemian life in both Australia and France, a sometimes reckless spender and patron of other artists yet also renter of poverty-line garrets and sufferer of post-war rationing, an erudite reader and writer, a soldier capable of both cavalierly signing up for highly dangerous military roles and a man capable of going frequently AWOL in both the army and life, lover of wine, women, and song, an Irish/Australian larrikin in a life-long love affair with the civility and sophistication of Paris, a hugely convivial raconteur and yet at times a curiously lonely figure. All this and a playful if often absent father, and a man with a deep sense of justice and an abiding belief in authenticity.
The book is a banishing of the ghost of a father, carelessly characterised by some as a failure (as he also frequently described himself) or a dilettante, who squandered money and failed to finish anything he started, in love with life but unable to excavate it in any conventionally constructive way. Louisa notes a casually dismissive reference to him: ‘What Geelong Grammar–educated man drives taxis?’
The story that follows Coralie’s email from Paris about her grandmother’s infatuation with this Australian ‘Deasey’ is an at times astonishing story of coincidence and global connections. The more that Louisa finds out about her father, the stronger the case for nature over nurture, as Louisa discovers so many unrealised invisible bequests her father made to her through his passions and personality. Pieces of the Louisa’s childhood puzzle and that of her brother, Dec, and sister, Ayala, become filled in — from the story of their names through to choices and affinities in all three of them clearly linked to Denison’s own.
These discovered connections between Louisa and her father evolve into a simultaneous filling-in of both father and daughter: a habit of journal writing and fascination with letters and correspondence, an infatuation with romance, a vulnerability to the charms of bohemia and a natural affinity with outsiders, longings for freedom, a tenderness for family, an interest in history and historical bonds and the discovery of mentors who drew out the creativity of both father and daughter. These things and more they shared, and as the pages turn and the adventure continues, more and more similarities spill out. Most clearly, to me at least, is a connection that is hard to articulate, a kindred sense of undefinable yearning. For what exactly, I’m not sure. An interesting life, perhaps. Connection to humanity. An acute sensitivity to beauty. A desire for meaning. Something almost spiritual and slightly lonely. When Louisa writes of one of her father’s predicaments, this time in 1954, it sounds very much like Louisa’s in 2016: ‘the eternal juggle of money, time, chance, love, and place …’
On the second page of chapter one is my father, Stephen’s, description of him as being ‘caught up somewhere between the Celtic twilight, the South of France and Ayer’s Rock’.
I knew of Louisa’s story when she first contacted our family to ask my sister and brother and I if we had any recollections of him, as a family friend of our parents, Nita and Stephen Murray-Smith. I had grown up with his name looming large and I had a misty and untrustworthy image in my head of what he looked like, but nothing more. I felt sad that we had nothing of note to offer Louisa, although she was grateful to have Stephen’s contribution to the obituary of Denison and there were some family photos my sister, Cleeve, showed her.
Dad, like Denison, was Church of England raised, schooled at Geelong Grammar, where his radical and rebellious destiny was preordained in a distinction between himself and that conservative, affluent environment. Like Denison, Dad was a reader, thinker, and writer. Both were Commandoes, both with a kind of well born, slightly old-fashioned chivalry, but both profoundly intolerant of snobbery, pretention, and the conservative closed-mindedness of their backgrounds. Both left Australia after the war for Europe, in my father’s case after eloping with my mother, both spent their lives dedicated to writing, modernism, history, engagement with the wider world and things that matter. Both loved people and stories. Both were, I think, complicated men with emotional colours that exceeded the control of their intellectual brilliance. And they were friends.
The words in the obituary were typical of Dad’s writing style, robust and generous but without cliché and I suspected, on reading them, that these qualities were particularly in evidence because they were Denison’s own. I read the obit, rightly or wrongly, as Dad’s desire to capture Denison as he would have liked to have been captured, but I think Geoff Dutton and Robert Southey might deserve attribution. ‘A brilliant, coruscating companion and leader … that buried heart of his which really believed in decency, justice, and love … He would not be twisted, not by external forces, at any rate. And of course he paid for it … he retained the capacity to be an honest man. I shall think of him always as the handsome, devil may care rake with the sports car and too much money — money which he liked, but which he disposed of, because it too got in the way of truth …’
Our house in Mt Eliza was always full of people and as I said at our mother’s memorial, my brother and sister, ten years older than me and longer situated in our parents’ bohemian period, would wake on Sunday mornings excited to discover who had slept the night on the living room floor. I suspect that Denison was one of those guests and certainly, his melodious name was frequently summoned at Ti Tree Lane and as I recall, with a slight quality of derring-do.
Although I expected to discover Denison in Louisa’s book — which I knew had taken her from Melbourne’s State Library to tiny villages in France — I didn’t expect it to reach beyond their personal story into my own, as a reader. I liked Denison immediately … both through the hazy sense of the affection my parents displayed in summoning his name, through to his reported rebelliousness at Geelong Grammar where, quote: ‘He endured constant attention from the school board for initiating cultural trips to the theatre’.
And yet the skill with which Louisa writes allowed her story to infect me with thoughts about my own history, my own father. This was less about their connection and more about sharing the sense of living in a less interesting time than our parents: our world easier, smaller in scope, without war or deprivation and without the fascination of a world connected more by face to face interaction than technology. The dinners. The drunken house parties. A world small enough where one Australian could meet the only other Australian they knew in Paris, by chance on the street. That, and perhaps being the youngest child, the one who spent the least time with our fathers.
But there are also the questions we all might have about who our parents were before we existed. Those of us with children know to what degree children change you and your life. So there is a mystery at the core of all our identities to do with who we are made from, what we did to them and how, who they were outside the prism of our subjective view and even after their death, how they reappear in us: a phrase, a gesture, a fleeting expression, an attempt to pass on to our children some cultural reference that was important enough to our parents to pass on to us. When I say to my kids: You’ve never heard of Woody Guthrie? Or Breughel? Or Jesse Owens? I hear my mother in my voice. They are in us in often inexplicable detail and I felt infected by Louisa’s intent to make the inexplicable known, felt, understood.
Louisa’s book transcends the revelation of a father and the revelation of a daughter to ask bigger questions about identity, history, and the human desire to tell — or at least know — our own story. Congratulations Louisa on setting out on the quest and fulfilling it with such determination, creative intelligence, and insight.