Greer savages `dung beetle' biographer

An unauthorised look at the feminist's life has inflamed the privacy row

An Unauthorised biography of Germaine Greer has provoked a furious attack from the feminist, who has denounced the Australian journalist who wrote it as a "parasite". It has also rekindled a fiery debate about the invasion of famous people's privacy.

Even before the publication in Australia this week of Greer: Untamed Shrew, its subject has described Christine Wallace, the book's author, as a "dung beetle", "intestinal flora" and a "wretched bloody woman". And already, some fellow feminists have sprung to Ms Greer's defence, likening Ms Wallace to a paparazzo hounding Diana, Princess of Wales. The Greer biography is due to be published in Britain next year.

Ms Wallace spent four years researching her book, which traces Ms Greer's childhood in Melbourne, her postgraduate years at Cambridge and her life as an celebrity after the publication 27 years ago of The Female Eunuch, the ground-breaking book about women's liberation.

When she wrote to Ms Greer asking for co-operation, Ms Wallace received the sort of reply that would have turned many an author pale and made them question whether it was worth going on. Ms Greer later instructed her friends and family not to speak to Ms Wallace, and warned that she would have the author "kneecapped" if she approached her mother, Peggy Greer, in Melbourne.

Ms Wallace yesterday told the Sydney Morning Herald, which ran extracts from her book last week: "I was completely devastated. It was very damaging to me and to the project."

But go on she did. At the base of Ms Greer's response was the unspoken question: who is Christine Wallace, and what right does she have to dissect my life? At 37, Ms Wallace is a generation younger than Ms Greer, 58. She is a finance journalist who lives in Canberra. She justified her project on grounds that Ms Greer is one of the two most famous Australians to stride the world stage. The other, Rupert Murdoch, has been the subject of several biographies, all unauthorised.

Many people obeyed Ms Greer's orders and closed ranks against Ms Wallace, but some did not. Among the latter was Peggy Greer, who appears to have ignored her daughter's wishes (the same way Mr Murdoch's mother, Dame Elisabeth, ignored his some years ago). Ms Wallace has disguised her informants and, from the slabs of text released so far, it is not always clear whether she is relying on fresh information or on interviews already published with Ms Greer and others.

Predictably, Australian newspapers have chosen to extract the most racy sections, dealing with Ms Greer's early life as a sexual liberationist. There is an account of her, in her "search for a beddable Englishman", struggling on a cricket ground under the moonlight with the host of a dinner party after the other guests had gone. "She lost a pounds 15 earring and bawled him out for lack of loyalty to the cricket club, leaving him smoothing the ravaged wicket remorsefully," Ms Wallace writes.

As queen of the London counter-culture in the Sixties, Ms Greer met Tom Wolfe, the American writer. He found her "unforgettable, [with] the most outrageous mouth I had ever heard on a woman". Ms Wallace writes: "As their dinner together proceeded at a restaurant on the King's Road, Germaine got bored and set fire to her hair. Two waiters ran over and flapped furiously at the flames with napkins, while Greer sat with a sublime smile on her face."

Ms Wallace maintains she was more interested in Ms Greer's intellectual roots than her sexual adventures, and that her book as a whole reflects this.

She is not the only Australian writer recently to resurrect Ms Greer's early life. A more sassy portrait of the undergraduate Germaine Greer at the University of Melbourne in the late Fifties has emerged in Screw Loose, a memoir by another Australian journalist, Peter Blazey, published posthumously last month.

Blazey recalled how Ms Greer's uninhibited acting performances in student revues turned her into a campus celebrity: "Tall, loose-limbed and good- humoured, she strode around the campus, aware that she was much talked about. Wild rumour swirled behind her like a nimbus. She wore the smile of someone preparing to quit Melbourne forever. We male virgins gossiped about her, as nuns might giggle over the visit of Madonna Ciccone to their nunnery. In 1959, she was a walking one-woman sexual revolution."

When Ms Greer made a sexually provocative remark to Frank Knopfelmacher, a conservative right-wing academic and commentator, he replied: "Ah, Miss Greer, you are so unconventional - in such a conventional way." Blazey wrote: "Germaine laughed at this elegant put-down. In those days, she didn't mind being sent up."

These days, it is a different story. Ms Wallace's book has yet to be assessed for what light, if any, it throws on Germaine Greer the feminist, polemicist and thinker. The book's titbits about her personal life are unlikely to advance an image that already exists of Germaine the fearless non-conformist, whose shocking behaviour 30 years ago looks somewhat tame today.

But that is not the point, according to Susan Mitchell, an Australian feminist writer, who last week attacked Ms Wallace for invading Ms Greer's privacy. "Should we not ask just who is the victim here?" said Ms Mitchell. "The unwilling Greer or the self-righteous Wallace? It is painful enough for the subject who willingly agrees to be interviewed and then feels betrayed, but how much more painful when someone with whom you feel no empathy, and with whom you have no wish to speak, assumes the moral right to interpret your life and make money out of it."

That question no doubt will be asked again when Ms Greer herself returns to her home city in a fortnight to give a keynote address on "Sex, Angst and the Millennium" at the Melbourne Writers' Festival. People are waiting to see whether she slams the book or treats it with lofty disdain. Ms Wallace, it seems, is resigned to the latter.

"I do not want a public fight with Germaine Greer," she told the Sydney Morning Herald. "I've had Germaine in my head for nearly four years. As admirable and fascinating as she is, that's really been enough."

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