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Brett Whiteley - The Bio Wars

FOUR YEARS AFTER Brett Whiteley's solitary death at 53 from an accidental methadone overdose in a motel room, the everlasting war over his life, loves and talent intensifies today with the publication of a long-awaited but much-disputed unauthorised biography of the controversial painter.


Among many sensational revelations in the book, Margot Hilton and actor-writer Graeme Blundell detail for the first time the role of the singer and poet Michael Driscoll, who became the lover of Whiteley's wife, Wendy. Until his death, Whiteley talked of the pain of watching her dress as she went off to meet Driscoll, his close friend. Whiteley's addiction to alcohol paved the way for heroin, the authors claim, "but it was Wendy's affair with Driscoll that opened the floodgate". The genesis and aftermath of the affair is described in exclusive extracts from Whiteley: An Unauthorised Life in today's issue of The Australian magazine.

Aptly enough, the story behind the Kitty Kellyish book is a book in itself. The writing of it has been a four-year saga of love affairs and broken relationships, of feuds and frustrations, of friendships broken, of legal threats and publishers wars.

In keeping with what some call the Whiteley curse - a high personal attrition rate for those who become entangled in matters Whiteley - Hilton and Blundell's marriage ended. She is now involved with Wendy Whiteley's ex-lover, Driscoll; he is "in a very settled relationship" with The Australian's travel writer, Susan Kurosawa. Hilton and Blundell's relationship is said to be "strained", although Hilton recently told her publishers, Pan Macmillan, that she and Blundell are "united in art and life". Friends say, however, that Kurosawa is known in certain circles as the "heiress" and the "Maharani of Petershamabad" - a reference to her work, looks and the suburb where she lives. 
 

The Whiteley family fought to prevent the book being written. They refused to cooperate with the authors, cast doubts on their suitability, questioned the publishers' motives, prohibited use of the painter's archival material, including interviews and written words, and campaigned to persuade Whiteley's friends not to assist the research. So much so that many, agitated at what they saw as a Whiteley-washing of reality by self-appointed "Guardians of the Sacred Flame", sought out Hilton and Blundell to give their stories.

For Pan Macmillan publishing director James Fraser, a 25-year veteran of the trade, publishing the book was "fraught with more than usual difficulties, from the emotional to the physical. Never before have I encountered anything like this experience or one that has touched so many issues."

Such is publishing competitiveness in Australia today that Macmillan began discussing a putative Whiteley biography the day his death was announced. A meeting in Melbourne under then publisher Hilary McPhee canvassed possible authors. Journalist Janet Hawley was approached, but quickly declined. McPhee then commissioned Hilton and Blundell. Shortly after, a hand-written letter from the painter's daughter, Arkie Whiteley, informed the publishers that she held copyright on "all reproductions of my father's works, all his writings and any taped interviews of him". She pointed out the family's tendency to litigation (some wags around town in fact now refer to Wendy Whiteley as the "Widow of Opportunity") and warned that if Macmillan proceeded without her approval, it would be an "amoral" act that would result in nothing but a "trashy" biography undertaken solely for "money-making purposes".

By the end of the year, insiders say, letters were being circulated  stating that Hilton and Blundell were "unqualified and inappropriate for writing a biographic work". Whiteley friends tell of impassioned telephone calls from Wendy Whiteley warning that the book was against her wishes and that anyone who cooperated was no "friend of Brett's".

Blundell and Hilton had had a 15-year partnership and two children when Hilton first interviewed Driscoll in October 92. A charismatic but reclusive man (and, say colleagues, wholly unprepared for the flak his revelations may bring), Driscoll's status among the arts in-group of ageing hell-raisers verges on the mythological. As with Neil Cassady in the Beat generation of Kerouac and friends, he was legendised for his sex appeal and encyclopaedic knowledge, and commonly touted as the talent most likely. Like Cassady, his impact has been dissipated by a greater talent to exceed. 

 By 1993, Hilary McPhee was making trips to Sydney to discuss the work and had inadvertantly been forced into a marriage counselling role. By 1994, Blundell and Hilton had separated acrimoniously and put their house on the market. That same year, Blundell delivered a manuscript which included Hilton's research. The couple were no longer speaking, however, and when Blundell employed The Australian's literary editor Barry Oakley and art critic Joanna Mendelssohn as editors, Hilton was infuriated. She threatened litigation before delivering five "very well crafted" chapters to the publishers. Heated exchanges between Picador publisher Nikki Christer and Hilton resulted in an agreement that the latter would rework Blundell's manuscript. 

 Publication was scheduled for mid-1995 and early last year the revised manuscript was delivered for copyediting. When Macmillan's lawyer Peter Bartlett read it for defamation, however, he began recommending significant changes; many arguments had to be fought twice because the authors were now deeply estranged. A further complication arose when through a misunderstanding, all acknowledgements of quotes and quoted material had been removed from the text. This necessitated substantial re-sourcing of quotes and material - some of it 20 years old - by the authors.

After the Demidenko plagiarism dispute erupted, Macmillan became highly anxious at the state of the manuscript. Accusations and counter accusations flew between the authors, and attempts at round-table settlements erupted into vitriolic slanging matches. At this stage, the exasperated publishers threatened to scuttle the whole project. The authors, mainly Hilton, then began another rewrite and publication was rescheduled for November. In September, however, a court ruling against Murdoch Books' reissuing Sandra McGrath's 1979 book on Whitleley, an extensive source for the Hilton-Blundell work, caused another rescheduling to 1996.

 In February this year, Whiteley's sister, Frannie Hopkirk, who had read and made proof-page amendments to Hilton and Blundell's Unauthorised Life in mid-1995, suddenly withdrew her support and requested that all information she had supplied be withdrawn. Hopkirk is now the author of Brett, which is scheduled for publication on June 21 by Random House. The rights to this book were auctioned in July 1995. Hopkirk's withdrawal necessitated yet another rewrite, and Blundell and Hilton were obliged to revisit all their interviewed contributors to obtain written approval of their statements.

The race to publish a Whiteley book first has been intense, and costly. Several contenders have retired hurt, notably Angus & Robertson (after an attempted 1992 paperback reprint was banned) and Murdoch Books. Still to come is the "official" family biography, and Brett Whiteley's mistress Janice Spencer is thought to have all but completed her own memoirs. Two other undercover Whiteley projects are also rumoured to be almost under covers.

Initially, Macmillan had a two-year jump on the market, but the turmoil over their project allowed Random House to emerge as probable winners. Once it was known in bookselling circles that Hopkirk's book was slated for release, Macmillan put their operation on fast-forward to hit the shelves today. Such was their market paranoia, however, that few - including the authors - knew the absolute date.

 James Fraser is unapologetic: "It's war, pure and simple, out there. No one's taking prisoners. Positioning and marketing have never been more aggressive - it's being fought in the scramble to sign up new authors, in the extent of cheque-book recruitment, in the jostling for retail space in bookshops. It's nakedly in your face." At stake is prestige and, most importantly, profit. This particular Whiteley joust is over a potential million-dollar turnover, when hardback and paperback sales and flow-ons are taken into account. While the quality of the respective works has some bearing on how the pool is divvied up, the publishers believe publicity and marketing of the products ultimately determine market share. That may be - but one thing is absolutely certain: the saga of Brett Whiteley is still far from over. 


This article appeared first in The Weekend Australian. Copyright (c) Murray Waldren 1996


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