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)

ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

COO / Chief Operating Officer

£80 - 100k + Bonus: Guru Careers: A COO / Chief Operating Officer is needed to...

HR Manager - Kent - £45,000

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Manager / Training Manager (L&D /...

HR Manager - Edgware, London - £45,000

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - Edgware, Lon...

HR Manager - London - £40,000 + bonus

£32000 - £40000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager (Generalist) -Old...

Day In a Page

Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits