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literary culture

The tale tellers: why Muriel Spark fell out with Shirley Hazzard

When Muriel Spark met Shirley Hazzard, in the early 1960s, both were rising stars at The New Yorker. Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was published almost in full just weeks after Hazzard’s first submission, a short story, had been plucked out of the slush pile in April of 1961.

Spark, a Scot, was a newcomer to New York, and had been invited to work there by The New Yorker. Hazzard, an Australian, had spent ten unhappy years as a junior secretary at the United Nations. In her early forties, Spark was a decade older than Hazzard, yet they bonded and wrote to each other regularly. Despite being two of the best stylists in English of their era, they often wrote like teenage besties.

In January of 1963, Muriel introduced Shirley to Francis Steegmuller, a veteran writer at The New Yorker and wealthy widower who was then starting work on a biography of Jean Cocteau.

Shirley published at least ten stories in the The New Yorker before Knopf brought out her first collection, Cliffs of Fall, in 1963. It might as well have been called Ends of Affairs, because all but one were two-handers about partings. They represented a woman’s voice on the theme that Cheever and Updike were specialising in. They were also all in the same key, very knowing for someone barely out of her twenties. Very New Yorker. Very readable.

In 1963 Shirley set her cap at Francis Steegmuller. This was not a parting, but the beginning of a marriage that lasted until his death, in 1994.

*

Shirley wrote to Muriel from Siena on March 27. 1963:

I had your dear letter (ta, love), which urged me to travel with Francis and his pa. I have not really described to you the objections hovering in my mind when I said that I hesitated because I was afraid of being hurt. It was perhaps rather that? Francis behaved oddly towards me, with a sort of detachment that did not at all fit with the fact that he wanted to see me constantly. He asked me if I would come to Spain with him, after his father left Europe for NY,—but asked me in the middle of a dinner party at his house obviously feeling that this had no implications that might prevent its being said before other people.

Mu darling, you know that for me being in love is infinitely more important than making love, but see no reason why the two should be mutually exclusive. In all these weeks of being with me Francis has never so much as held my hand. It seemed to me somehow grotesque to go, with a man whom I found attractive, on an idyllic journey where ne’er a sweet word was to be spoken. Could see myself coming home with a nervous breakdown.

Anyway, three days before he left we had dinner; I had said I would postpone my trip to Italy, as Elena seemed a bit better. We said goodnight (shook hands!) and I hoped he would have a good trip with his pa… Next day, a letter special delivery, very charming, pretending to be anonymous, telling me that FS had been involved with another woman when he met me, felt he had committed himself to her, did not know how he could extricate himself—the point being that he would rather have SH. Could I advise?

 I naturally thought this explained all the odd behaviour—then issued a delightful little anonymous correspondence, special delivery letters arriving twice a day, all very gay and full of promise. He telephoned me several times in rather a state, still wanted me to come but made clear that I did so on my own responsibility as he felt he could not give up this other girl at present. I said I could not do that, but would be glad to come under diff. circumstances … He sent me a beautiful orange-tree (‘a message’)—would not see me but kept writing and telephoning up to the moment of departure… But how could I go under those conditions?

Anyway, then letters from Europe, very affectionate, still hoping for my arrival. The day my mother left, 22nd, I had a letter from Francis—same thing—, and a letter from Italy saying that Elena desperately ill, would I come … So I put my Ma on the boat and cabled Siena that I was coming immediately, cabled Francis (who had left Rome for Venice en route Paris) that I was going for a few days to Siena and could meet him in Paris. Arranged to fly from NY Saturday evening 23rd.

Morning of 23rd—cable from Francis, had decided all impossible, must have only literary friendship. (Imagine my state—received this cable when I was full of sweet thoughts—ghastly.) So I came here, heavy-hearted, last Monday. Since then three letters from Francis, in total confusion, and this morning a telephone call from Paris that he may travel back on the plane with me (I go back to NY next Saturday … Francis’ letters, of this week, are all to the effect that he has been reading my work and has been terrified by it—full of deep feeling about Love, heavy demands in relations with men (he of course puts it more graciously).

He says: ‘The thoughts that led to this (decision not to see me here) are too long to write, but I will tell them to you some day. They are all bound up with your writing, which is so much more part of you than is the case with most writers …’ And so on. He says that he is ‘just emerging from a vale of tears’ and cannot take on someone with large-scale emotions … This was followed by entreaties for my company, present plans, addresses if I stay in Europe, date of return, please write immediately, etc … And now the news that he may get on my plane when it stops at Paris en route NY next Saturday.

Also on telephone today he said he had some ailment (unmentionable) that required going to hospital for tests today, didn’t know if it was nothing or something serious … I am completely in the dark, and now too exhausted with false hopes, and the dashing of them, to think more. I felt I could love Francis—it was not at all my intention to inundate him with hysterical appeals for undying affection. I think he does not know what he wants —– there is now no mention of other woman. Just great fright at being committed to me, plus apparently suicidal-compulsion to be so. In one of his letters this week he says that if we had gone to Spain ‘just now’ he would not have been able to have other than a ‘spiritual’ relation with me. Does that have some physical implication? – God knows.

I hope God does know what He is doing in this, because I am damned sure no one else does… Feel terrified about sweet letters written by me to Francis before he took fright… Talk of deep feelings in stories has me now so inhibited that I dare not mention I have feelings at all. What’s going on here? ‘… Fuck these men and their crazy ideas.’

On 3 April Shirley told Muriel that Francis and his father did board the plane in Paris and she sat between them to New York.

Francis in a State—not knowing whether he was at Austerlitz or Waterloo. More about his apprehensions (my deep feelings, etc.) and told me that this other woman is his mistress, although they apparently have a fairly unromantic attachment (We Leave Each Other Free….). Then he said he ‘could not sleep with two women at once’ and that was why he had asked me to go to Spain, since that would have eliminated the simultaneous nature of the affair. I said I found that a bit academic, and what would have happened after we left Spain? Well, we would have had to see.

Three weeks later, on 24 April 1963, Shirley wrote to Muriel:

Lovey—Greatly heartened, dearest Mu, by your dear let, full of feelers and understanders as always … Plato, of course, has completely disappeared from the scene … Everything has been changing so fast that God knows where Francis and I will be with one another a week from now, but things are at present Vastly Improved. Also, I understand him much better—he is, though very determined in many ways, extremely shy in others and doesn’t have an over-supply of intuition in dealing with women. All this rather nice and refreshing after the hermaphrodite group one has become so accustomed to (I too had thought of your suggestion that he might be ambiguous, but no, it isn’t at all like that). We see each other every day, etc., and he is obviously very fond of me. I think he finds it hard to believe, after this long grief for his wife, that he can get deeply involved with someone else, and I can let that take its time if things go on like this between us. He still sees (though heaven knows when!) his other girl, but I think he is trying to extricate himself so I don’t press the matter for the present.

Eleven months after they had been introduced by Muriel, Shirley and Francis were married. There is a happy correspondence between the three of them through the next fifteen years in the cache of fifty-seven letters, mostly from Shirley, recently sold to the National Library of Australia. But they rarely connected in the 1980s, even though they were all resident in Italy for at least parts of the year. Muriel ignored the phone calls from ‘the Steegs’ from the not-inexpensive Hassler Hotel in Rome as they travelled to Naples and Capri, even when she was resident in Rome and Tuscany. She was an international celebrity and seemed to have dropped them, although both Shirley and Francis were winning major prizes and were very active on the literary circuit. Or perhaps because of that.

*

When Shirley Hazzard responded to an advertisement in the Times Literary Supplement in August 1993 requesting information for a biography of Muriel Spark, she well knew she was touching pitch, or at least lighting a touchpaper.

Martin Stannard, Emeritus Professor of Modern English Literature at the University of Leicester in the UK, recalled in a telephone interview with me in September 2021:

I saw Shirley Hazzard several times in New York. I first met her in Naples where she and Francis Steegmuller rented a flat every year for a few months during the summer.

I had put an ad in the TLS saying I had been appointed Muriel’s biographer, and asking for letters. In response to this, Shirley contacted me. I and my family were staying in Southern Italy, and took the train up to Naples where we were met by a chauffeur who drove us to their place. It was an impressive villa with huge iron gates, set in parkland and overlooking the sea. Shirley was willing to talk and had a pile of letters from Muriel. Muriel always promised to show me Shirley’s side of the correspondence but she never did.

Stannard wrote in 2014 that

Shirley was happy for me to photocopy it but Muriel for reasons of her own, was not. At first she was quite properly protective of Shirley’s privacy. When I explained that Shirley did not, in this respect, care about her privacy, it made no difference.

In late 2020 those letters from Shirley Hazzard to Muriel Spark were sold to the National Library of Australia by Spark’s executor, Penelope Jardine.

He told me in 2021:

Over the following years Shirley used to ring me up on a fairly regular basis from New York, inviting me to have ‘pow-wows’. At the first meeting she did have a glitter of mischief in her eye. She wasn’t indiscreet but she obviously knew things she was thinking she could say if she wanted to. … [I thought] Shirley was extremely fond of Muriel in New York but later found the relationship more difficult. Reading between the lines of Muriel’s letters I think Shirley must have said something in the early days of her friendship with Francis along the lines that he didn’t appear to be committed to marriage. In those letters Muriel seemed like Nancy Hawkins in her much later novel A Far Cry From Kensington, dispensing witty and worldly advice.

The letters caused a rift, or what Stannard calls ‘The Crisis’ in Muriel’s relations with her biographer.

In 2014 Stannard recalled that, during his first meeting with Shirley and Frances, the name Leo Coleman came up. There was a letter from him that Shirley showed to Stannard as they sat in her garden in Naples. Hazzard did not challenge this recollection when it was published, in 2014. Even in her early eighties she was still engaging in New York literary life, which was occasionally focussed on her own opus. Nor did she challenge the statement that in 1973 Muriel had hired Coleman as a houseman on Francis’ recommendation.

Stannard told me:

I acted very stupidly in mentioning to Muriel the letter from Leo Coleman that Shirley and Francis had passed on to me. I was going through her Rome card index with Muriel. This had acted as an address book when she had lived there. I came across Leo Coleman’s name. ‘Didn’t you sack him?’ I asked her. (I never met the man himself but this is what he had reported to Francis.). Coleman, as a beautiful young Black man twenty years earlier, had been photographed by Cocteau. He was still in and around the fringes of the Rome artistic world.

But by the time Muriel met him he was on his uppers, gone to fat. Francis had secured him a job as a houseman in Muriel’s Lungotevere flat. It was a self-effacing, funny letter, an apology to Francis and Shirley for having messed up after they had got him the job. Muriel was furious with Shirley for showing me the letter.

It was A Moment, and caused a rift between us. For some time Muriel didn’t want to be interviewed by me except by fax.

Muriel was irate at the description of her imperious manner during the firing, and at the fact that Shirley and Francis had discussed the matter with Stannard.

In his Cocteau: A Biography (1970), Steegmuller quotes Cocteau saying in reference to photographs taken by Philippe Halsman: ‘when the pictures were developed I saw myself flying, my feet to the ceiling, holding out my hand toward Leo Coleman in the nude.’ Coleman, Steegmuller tells us was ‘the young Negro dancer who had been appearing in Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Medium.’ In later editions of Steegmuller’s biography of Cocteau, Coleman appears on the cover.

*

Francis died in October 1994, aged eighty-eight. Muriel didn’t write to Shirley until fourteen months later—and then the typewritten letter doesn’t mention Francis’s death or Shirley’s loss, but focuses on the fact that Martin Stannard had been shown the letter from Leo Coleman.

It took Shirley five months to reply. In May 1996, she stated:

Our acquaintance with Leo began in the year before you settled in Rome, when Francis was starting to write on Cocteau. Leo was introduced by—I think—Menotti, or perhaps Bill Weaver. He and Francis might lunch together when we passed through Rome, Leo relating Cocteau’s Spoleto ventures. The Cocteau material was soon exhausted; but we liked Leo—I would meet him once in a while in that time—and Francis, like others, undertook to subsidise some of Leo’s small, crucial debts of rent arrears or telephone.

Shirley maintained:

Leo wrote us once in a while over a few years. I’m not sure that we knew he was employed by you until he told us, in one of those letters, that he’d been dismissed for chronic unpunctuality. I imagine that he felt we might learn of his dismissal, and he wanted to account for it. It was a very Leo-like, self-deprecating and rueful recounting, humorous about his own vagaries. It was not the letter of a ‘disgruntled servant’.

She had forgotten her letter to Muriel of 22 September 1973—twenty-three years earlier—where she wrote: ’How terrific that Leo is at hand—he is v.v. nice; and please may we relay great greetings to him.’ Also stating that ‘Francis did not ‘show’ Martin Stannard any letter from Leo’ without conceding that she herself had done so.

But the friendship was over. In a sort of codicil to the letters sold to the National Library of Australia is a typewritten note about Coleman—’Muriel thought he had been Steegmuller’s ‘boy’ or had known him biblically in Paris and that Leo Coleman was asking Steegmuller for money.’

Muriel died in 2006 and Shirley in 2016.

 

I wish to thank the National Library of Australia and the Estate of Shirley Hazzard for permission to publish excerpts from the material in Correspondence of Shirley Hazzard, Muriel Spark and Francis Steegmuller, 1963-1996, NLA MS 10560.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Sue Rabbitt Roff’s articles on twentieth century settler-colonial-imperial cultural transmissions have been published in Meanjin, Overland, The Independent, The Conversation, Pearls & Irritations and CNN. They are collated at www.rabbittreview.com where Part I of her revisionist history The Making of the British H bomb in Australia: from the Monte Bellos to the 1956 Olympics was published last month.

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