Obituary: Penelope Gilliatt
Friday 14 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.
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