Less than the bare facts, Jane Tolerton

Freda Stark: Her Extraordinary Life
Dianne Haworth and Diane Miller
HarperCollins, $39.95,
ISBN 1 86950 352 X

The dramatic moment of Freda Stark: Her Extraordinary Life comes at the end of the second chapter when Thelma, Freda’s friend and lover, dies of Veronal poisoning – either an overdose or an overdosing by her husband Eric Mareo.

Mareo’s court case forms the pivot of the book. Naturally. This was a major case of the day and Freda was a major witness. And connection with the case is the one thing many potential readers will have some knowledge of when they pick up the book. (Others might have seen her dance, sometimes nude and painted in gold, at the Civic Theatre during World War 2.)

But in the lead-up to and discussion of the case, Freda gets lost. It’s just as well if you do know there’s going to be a death and a trial. Otherwise you’d wonder why we know so much about Mareo and Thelma compared with what we know of Freda. There are a couple of pages on Mareo’s birth and name, for example, but practically nothing on the relationship between Freda and Thelma.

The only indication of love, physical or otherwise, between the two women is the description of an incident in which Freda and Thelma left a party attended by all three: “An hour later Mareo stormed into Tenterden Avenue, drunk and in a furious temper. He burst into the bedroom where Thelma and Freda were in bed and roared, ‘You bitch. You’ve insulted me in public. Here I was looking for my wife and making a bloody fool of myself.’”

My point is not that one would think being in bed with another woman more worthy of mention by a husband than that his wife left a party without telling him, but that so far the authors have given no indication to the reader that there was anything other than a friendship going on between the two women.

It is only in the next chapter, during discussion of the court case, that we find out that “Bisexuality was prevalent in their circle” and that “Freda knew first-hand there was a sexual relationship between husband and wife because she often shared their bed.” (Mareo had told the police he and Thelma had made a “non-intercourse pact” before they married.)

And it is only 20 pages on that we learn that “Thelma was her great love”, mentioned in passing during discussion of Freda’s emotional state later. All of these bits of knowledge are necessary for the reader to feel the full import of Thelma’s death.

The story of Thelma and Mareo is fascinating in itself. But this is Freda’s book. Their story should be told in terms of hers, rather than the other way round. The spotlight should be on Freda. She should walk onto the stage, page, paragraph first, as often as possible.

Yet time and again she is denied the opportunity. Here’s a classic example: “But while many New Zealand girls sulked and felt flat following the departure of the American troops (‘We were bored stiff,’ said Freda) they were not alone in experiencing a mood of anti-climax.” Why is Freda, our heroine, in brackets? It’s her experience we’re interested in, after all. She should be leading the paragraph.

Freda emerges as less than the “extraordinary” character we are promised. Throughout the book, as in the case of her relationship with Thelma, the information is there – it’s just in the wrong place. The 20 pages of court case material at the back of the book could have been woven into the narrative. We could also have learnt about her meeting with Harold Robinson in 1941 (and the way she sent him letters and goodies during the rest of the war), instead of being presented with a somewhat emotionally blank wartime Freda and a retrospective look at the start of this relationship. It may be a tidier way to apportion information, from the authors’ point of view, but it robs the reader of a sense of being told a story.

This tendency to put information in a strange order is further accentuated towards the end of the book. Freda married Harold Robinson (also a New Zealander, also gay and also a dancer), and the couple lived in England. Freda returned to New Zealand in 1970; she was divorced from Robinson in 1973, though they remained close friends.

The “media release” that accompanied my review copy says that on her return to New Zealand Freda became “a passionate supporter of the arts, a hero of the gay community and a familiar figure in her beloved Ponsonby”. Her support of the arts is scarcely covered beyond a comment that she “adored music, ballet, theatre, parties and reading – especially biographies about exceptional women and those in show business”. Her place as a hero of the gay community is noted, though there’s no mention of homosexual law reform. Ponsonby and her life there are given a line or two, one of which is to say that she was leaving the suburb for a rest-home.

There is actually quite a lot of detail given about her later life in Auckland. But instead of being woven into a narrative, this detail is provided by eight people, in great chunks of text under their names. This is a lazy way of presenting the information, which disrupts any narrative thread. Having eight people say someone was extraordinary is no substitute for taking the material they’ve offered and constructing a portrait. It’s the old “show, don’t tell” rule, broken with a vengeance.

If you’re going to write a book with a subtitle “Her Extraordinary Life”, you have to set out to prove it. You have to build up a case – outline who Freda was and what she did, background her actions and put them in perspective, so that we can see for ourselves the extent to which she was “extra-” compared to the “ordinary” of her day.

The format chosen may be partly to blame. It’s certainly a good format for all the wonderful photographs (including several full-page ones which show that Freda had extraordinarily fine breasts), and the book is beautifully produced; but it’s not a page-turning, story-telling format.

The source material was obviously a problem too. Freda died only last year. But there doesn’t seem to have been much in the way of in-depth interviews with her. Quotes from newspaper and magazine features over the years are a poor second-best.

For all this, I’m convinced. Freda was obviously an extraordinary person. But the book, in not using the available material to build a profile doesn’t do her justice. Freda could, and should, have electrified the reader as much as she did those wartime Civic Theatre audiences.


Jane Tolerton is a free-lance writer.


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Posted in Biography, Non-fiction, Review
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