Obituary: Penelope Gilliatt
Friday 14 May 1993
PENELOPE GILLIATT was a woman of letters, a woman of wit and warmth, and a woman of outstanding red-headedness, writes Betty Comden.
I remember her and her hair coming at me during a movie opening party in New York in the late Sixties, and how special she made me feel by telling me how much she liked what my partner Adolph Green and I had written for the stage and for the screen. She, this perceptive and knowledgeable critic, who had alternated with Kenneth Tynan on the Observer, covering movies and the theatre, she who admired Harry Langdon, and Jean Renoir, and Samuel Beckett, also admired us. How I wish that Kenneth Tynan were here to write about her now. She wrote stunningly about 'movies'. She never seemed to be writing about Film with a capital 'F' or even 'PH'. At first I was in awe of her, she who could converse fluently in Latin and Middle English, she who not only owned a harpsichord, but could play it. Somehow our friendship
She and my husband Steven Kyle adored each other and with her reserved and whimsically funny and charming little girl Nolan, she would visit us at the country houses we used to rent in one Hampton or another. And there were many dinners in town, at our house, or at hers, first in a West Side brownstone and later at her Central Park West apartment. She was a great cook. Weekends she would arrive in the country, but weekend or not, and disregarding the demarcations between day and night she seemed always to be writing. She was often dressed in orange which was great with her hair, or red which was not but still looked terrific, and she carried a small case for clothes and a huge monstrously heavy leather bag crammed with books; books she was reading, and leather-bound smallish notebooks in which she wrote with pen, covering page upon page with small flowing script. The books which she sent us, with inscriptions to both, fill up a large shelf. I seem to have two copies of Unholy Fools (1975), her collected movie reviews and profiles written for the New Yorker, and two copies of one of her novels, Nobody's Business (1972). Her writing in both the anthology and the novel is clear, economical, beautifully balanced and filled with insight and sometimes quirky, trenchant observations. On Jean Renoir, of whom she also wrote a complete biography:
The sight of his own gestures as he was talking made me remember one of those fugitive shots which can break through his films so piercingly - a shot in his 1939 picture La Regle du Jeu of the plump character played by Renoir himself, the fortunate, poignant stooge, who has just idly let loose the fact that he would have loved to be a conductor. In a shot late at night, on the terrace steps of a grand country house, he can be seen for a second from the back in an image of the clown sobered, conducting the invisible house party inside to the beat of some imagined musical triumph. His big shoulders droop like the withers of a black pig rooting in the dark. Recently, after I had spent some time with Renoir, it struck me that the character perhaps embodies a little of the way he thinks of himself, and that this great, great master of the cinema, who has an amplitude of spirit beyond our thanks, actually sees himself as a buffoon.
An elegant writer.
She preferred Buster Keaton to Charlie Chaplin, which almost led me to challenge her to a duel, but it never came to that. After her beautiful award-winning film Sunday, Bloody Sunday she tried very hard to get another one floated based on her short story 'Fred and Arthur'. It kept almost happening, and then not, a source of great disappointment to her. The story is included in What's It Like Out? (1968) and is about an oddly paired vaudeville team, one of whom started out on stage as a tiny tot being tossed about like a football by his vaudeville team parents in much the same fashion as Buster Keaton.
Her years at the New Yorker were filled with hard work, fun, mishap, and an abiding friendship with the editor William Shawn. She told me that once a story she had handed in came to her from one of the checkers with a curious note on it. The New Yorker's checkers were famous for their attention to the minutest detail and fanatic protectiveness of the New Yorker's standards akin to guarding the Grail. In her story a husband and wife are in bed and the husband says something like - the checkers will get me for this - 'Dear, let's go downstairs and have some toad-in- the-hole?' All English readers will know that to be a savoury pudding. The checker wrote in the margin, 'A bit racy for New Yorker, what?'
Although Penelope lived in America for many years and loved it, she never relinquished her intrinsic Englishness. A truck remained a 'lorry', she never called, she 'rang up' and in response to a remark she liked she was apt to reward the originator with 'you clever sausage'.
What a glowing further career she might have had, and what beautiful, inventive, never-to-be-written pages this cleverest of all sausages might have produced we will never know. When she was forced out of denial about the blight that ruined her life, and made gallant attempts at recovery, they never worked. It is hard to picture her joining anything resembling an AA group and 'sharing' with others whom she undoubtedly viewed compassionately, but objectively, more as possible subjects to write about rather than fellow sufferers. I can just hear her saying with a smile crinkling the corners of her candid brown eyes, 'Chaps ought be able to pull themselves together on their own, oughtn't they?' Yes, they ought, but it doesn't often work that way. Most tragically, it did not for her.
Penelope Gilliatt was an original. She enriched my life. She was my dear friend and I shall never forget her.
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