Obituary: Sally Belfrage

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The Independent Online
Sally Mary Caroline Belfrage, writer: born Hollywood, California 4 October 1936; married 1965 Bernard Pomerance (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1983); died London 14 March 1994.

IN 1955, we were all more or less on the lam. My husband Bob and I arrived in London using revoked American passports; our friend Cedric Belfrage had just been deported from the United States to his native England as a subversive alien. America was going through the convulsions of McCarthyism. Cedric, a long-time US resident and editor of a left-wing national weekly published in New York, had fallen afoul of the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Birds of a feather, Bob and I often visited the Belfrage household in London. As we sat plotting the overthrow of the US government by force and violence - or, more accurately, discussing what London plays might be worth seeing - a stunningly beautiful creature would dash into the sitting-room, give her Dad a kiss, and be off quick as a wink to a party. This was 19- year-old Sally, long of leg, blonde of hair, blue of eye.

We were in London again when Sally, then aged 21, once more darted into view. She was writing A Room in Moscow. A vivid memory: Cedric told us, 'Sally has got no idea what it takes to be a writer. She's too damn popular, out every night until Lord knows what hour, and then of course she sleeps until noon. I keep explaining to her that she'll never get the book done that way, one has to be disciplined to write . . .'

A year or so later the book was published to great critical acclaim in England and the United States. Sally was feted everywhere, brought by her publisher to New York for interviews. I remember reading an article in Reynolds News - I think that was it - in which the writer interviewed father and daughter. He thought that the daughter had surpassed her paternal mentor.

Sally, who adored her father, might have disputed that. But to me, the writer did have a point, as evidenced in her next book. In 1964 she joined the intrepid band of civil-rights volunteers from all over America to make the dangerous journey into Mississippi as part of a bold, and ultimately historic, challenge to the most murderously racist state in America.

Out of this brave effort at least a dozen worthy books emerged. Of these, only Sally's Freedom Summer (1965) has the authentic ring of an enduring classic.

Leafing through it today, I still feel the chills and thrills of first reading, as each character springs alive from the page. In a typical Sally-ism, she describes fear as 'a condition, like heat or night or blue eyes. You had to arrange your fear as a parallel element in the day and night, to exist beside it and to function without its interference.'

Over the years, Bob and I got to know Sally Belfrage better and better - first as a contemporary of my daughter Constancia Romilly, when they would wheel their respective babies in prams around New York together, and later as an indispensable London friend whose welcome was always unalloyed joy.

My last letter from Sally came just a few weeks before she died. We'd been corresponding about the possibility of a book tour for her forthcoming autobiography, UnAmerican Activities. She had been diagnosed some months before with incurable cancer, but 'What the hell?' was her attitude.

Well - I can just see her wowing them with this on the chat shows.

It just so happens that Un-American Activities is the best, the most profound and the most amusing account ever written by a former Red Diaper Baby. Stay tuned for reviews this August.

(Photograph omitted)

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