Obituary: Gael Elton Mayo
Tuesday 20 October 1992
IT IS not often that one is lucky enough in one's eighties to make a really close new friend. Gael Elton Mayo was nearly 20 years younger than me and yet her genius for friendship was such that I never felt the gap between us; only the privilege of knowing such a rare spirit.
I almost wrote 'disembodied spirit', when remembering the circumstances in which I first met her. Alastair Forbes, the writer, called me one day from Switzerland to say that an old friend of his was in the Marsden Hospital and, since I lived in Chelsea, would I pay her a visit?
I had no idea what to expect, and the first sight of golden-haired Gael, with every inch of her face covered in bandages, left only one kind of action possible: to break through the barrier of tubes and pills and medicines straight into instant friendship. Gael's many friends will testify to her unique gift. 'She had no hate,' says Lord Goodman, 'and a great many loves.' How sensible of her not to waste the precious years of an ebbing life in hatred. Anyone who is interested in her philosophy should read her last book, published only a month before she died, Living With Beelzebub (Quartet, pounds 12.95). The facial cancer 'spook', as Gael called him, could only be dealt with by defiance. After reading this book I could not help feeling that the greatest of human assets is courage.
Because of this courage, Gael was able to develop a whole host of talents: as a model, painter, singer, songwriter, travel writer, novelist, biographer and autobiographer. She was also trained in Paris by Cartier-Bresson and the Magnum photographers. The vitality of her painting came as a great surprise. Visiting her one day in a house she had taken in Ripe, East Sussex, I found it dazzlingly decorated with an apparently French collection of landscapes in oils. They were all by Gael.
Her third husband, the Comte de Chamberet, whose romantic chateau in the Jura she restored, was the father of her younger daughter. She had an elder daughter by her second husband and a son by her first husband, a Russian emigre. Her dash from Nazi-occupied France with her newborn baby at the beginning of the war - she was 17 - makes one of the great escape stories of our day. She called it The Mad Mosaic, and part of the seeming 'madness' was to discover that she had cancer when she reached Madrid. She sent the spook packing - at least for a time.
Her father was Elton Mayo, the distinguished industrial psychologist, who was living in Australia when Gael was born, but took her as a child to the United States and Europe. There is the possibility that Professor Mayo's pioneering researches had more effect on his daughter's imagination than would appear likely when her devotion to the arts is recalled. Yet her striking novel Undertow (1989) turned out to be the unforgettable story of deprived city life, based on Gael's own researches into what used to be called the Borstal system.
With her sister, she returned to her great-grandfather's home in Queensland quite recently and wrote a moving travel article. From a practical point of view she was far too frail to undertake such a gruelling task but, given her courage, it was worth it for the satisfaction it gave to the land of her birth. Two of the last parties that Gael was able to attend were her own birthday party given by Lord Goodman and the party for her new book. Donald Trelford has called her an 'invincible beauty', and that phrase, with its dual emphasis, is just what she was. You forgot her fragility in her strength. Even in her latter years she made a consummate hostess, egging on her guests to prodigies of anecdote and argument. If she had lived she would have concentrated her powers on fiction, to our great enjoyment.
As it was, she had the good fortune - after 25 years fighting Beelzebub - to spend the last weeks at home with her daughter Georgia, a publisher, laughing over the delightful art of blurb-writing for other people's books.
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