October 2010

Encounters

Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

Patrick White & Sidney Nolan

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz
Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

Patrick White detested Fort Lauderdale, Florida. A mangrove swamp on a road leading from nowhere to nowhere, he called it. The insects were a pest, the television was rubbish and the climate made him feel like a beachcomber. Only the avocados made it tolerable. Then up bowled Sid Nolan in a gas-guzzling red Chevrolet station wagon with white-wall tyres, bringing with him a new cover design for a reprint of The Aunt’s Story.

It was August 1958 and the 41-year-old Nolan was making a long road trip around America, along with his wife, Cynthia, and teenage daughter, Jinx. His Ned Kelly show in London the previous year had made his reputation as a major painter; his American trip was happening courtesy of a generous Harkness Fellowship and his career was going places.

White, whose demanding breakthrough novel Voss was winning international praise, had come to Florida on a family visit to Manoly Lascaris’ Americanised sister and her ex-marine husband. Farmed out to compliant neighbours in a nearby orange grove, he felt he was going quite mad, “what with the atmosphere of steamy Southern ignorance”.

Sidney Nolan and Patrick White met for the first time under a big tree with long pendulous beans in what was an unpromising beginning to a relationship of great subsequent importance to both. Sid, “flickering on and off in a kind of ectoplasmic code”, thought White a “rather gaunt man”. And the book cover was all wrong. Nolan had illustrated the wrong character. “Damn it!” said White. “That’s not the woman.”

For two days, they drove and talked, talked and drove, through a flat Florida landscape of gas stations, hamburger joints, concrete wigwams and girlie shows. Sid was an Irish charmer, full of praise for Voss. White mumbled back, grateful. He admired Nolan’s work and, notwithstanding the cover art muck-up, the novelist and the painter became friends. But it was Cynthia, “steel to Sid’s elastic”, who won White’s deeper affection.

The Nolans continued north to New York. White and Lascaris returned to Australia. Over the next 20 years there were many more meetings and more book covers. When White won the 1973 Nobel Prize for Literature, he didn’t fancy the long trip to Sweden so Nolan attended on his behalf.

But three years later, on the night Sid rang to tell him that Cynthia had committed suicide, White drew a line through the friendship. And when Nolan re-married with “the ashes … scarcely cold”, he didn’t mince his words. Nolan replied with a painting of White beside a dog’s arse. These events, widely reported, went unremarked in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

Shane Maloney is a writer and the author of the award-winning Murray Whelan series of crime novels. His 'Encounters', illustrated by Chris Grosz, have been published in a collection, Australian Encounters.

Chris Grosz is a book illustrator, painter and political cartoonist. He has illustrated newspapers and magazines such as the Age, the Bulletin and Time.

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