Obituary: Penelope Gilliatt

Penelope Ann Douglass Conner, writer: born London 25 March 1932; married 1954 Roger Gilliatt (died 1991; marriage dissolved), 1963 John Osborne (one daughter; marriage dissolved 1968); died London 9 May 1993.

PENELOPE GILLIATT's tiny foot, shod in a silken old-fashioned shoe with a perilously high heel, planted on the throbbing metal plate of a New York City firetruck. 'Can I help?' she says to the fireman, impeccably polite. The fireman nods. 'Take your foot off my truck.' That's what she cheerfully told her hosts to explain being late. And to shape a story which seemed to have been improvised between her hosts' apartment and the corner. Not that there wasn't a fire. We could hear sirens, whistles, shouts. Primarily she was noting down a fragment, as it were in a commonplace book, her many stories and novels being studded with such precious savings.

When I first glimpsed her, in London in the Sixties, I was struck as everyone was - if also a little daunted - by her chic good looks, celebrated friends and rapid-fire talk. I became further acquainted with her in that limbo of being very good friends with people, principally Siriol Hugh-Jones, her predecessor as features editor of Vogue, who as it were knew her 'only too well' and judged her rather too harshly, I fear. The locations of our acquaintanceships were interval bars at theatres on opening nights, occasional parties at the Donald Ogden Stewarts', at Clive Goodwin's, among numerous clever and talkative folk such as Jonathan Miller, George Devine and of course Kenneth Tynan. I regret not having known her in what I understand were the happy first days of her marriage to John Osborne when their daughter Nolan was born and they all lived grandly in Chester Square, Belgravia. Neither did I know her when in about 1968 she came to New York and started to write about movies for the New Yorker.

When I did come to know her well, in New York in the Seventies, I was impressed, and stayed so, by her loyalty and (to use one of her favourite words) festivity. And by a mind occupied, always and deeply, with a poetry of daily living - chores, romantic adventures, dogs, children, pettiness, heartbreak. This diurnal music shows in her five novels, most successfully in The Cutting Edge (1979), I believe. It shows better in her stories and best in Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971), the serio-comic screenplay she wrote for and with John Schlesinger, which got her an Academy Award nomination. Her style is Mozartian, dandyish, light, never to insist. The great thing about her work, all of it, and about her life, too, is the moving gravity of her feeling for levity.

She wrote for me in Grand Street from 1981 to 1989, about Northumberland, Claud Cockburn, Polish movies, Muriel Spark. I published 'And Again', a story filled with small memories like the one of the fireman, and 'The Nuisance', that most uncharacteristically savage of her works. It was pure pleasure to work beside her on one of her pieces. She had a librettist's understanding of why, where, when and how changes had to be made. In an essay in Grand Street on Lorenzo Da Ponte, she quoted these lines from Auden's 'Anthem for St Cecilia's Day' which I grieve to find apt today:

In a garden shady this holy lady

With reverent cadence and subtle psalm

Like a black swan as death came on

Poured forth her song in perfect calm.

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: One of the world's leading suppliers and manuf...

Recruitment Genius: Multiple Apprentices Required

£6240 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Apprentices are required to join a privat...

Sauce Recruitment: HR Manager

£40000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: This is an exciting opportunity for a HR...

Ashdown Group: Interim HR Manager - 3 Month FTC - Henley-on-Thames

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established organisation oper...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee