Obituary — Christine Cole Catley

Christine Cole Catley


Dame Christine Cole Catley, who died in August aged 88, was indisputably one of New Zealand publishing’s most widely admired and loved personalities.

She came to publishing via editing work with AH & AW Reed, setting up her imprint with her second husband Doug Catley in 1973. For many years they were sequestered in the Marlborough Sounds, moving to Devonport in 2000. Cape Catley’s output has been prodigious and wide-ranging, from Archibald Baxter’s epic We Will Not Cease to Michael King’s Tread Softly essays; the list includes social issues, memoir, humour, novels and poetry.

As Frank Sargeson’s literary executor Chris midwifed several books about him. Sargeson left his estate to Chris, urging her to sell his bach and splash out on a cruise. Instead she set up the Frank Sargeson Trust to preserve his frail fibrolite landmark as a literary museum, and to support writers through the Buddle Finlay Sargeson Fellowship.

She also initiated and was an early trustee of the Michael King Writers’ Centre; indeed, few publishers have been a better tutor and friend of writers, or launched as many careers. “Nothing was a trouble to Chris; she was adept at addressing every challenge,” says Judith Dell Panny who, like many of her authors, enjoyed Chris’s hospitality. “Her spacious home was a gathering place for people from throughout the country. Her warmth, vitality and joyous sense of humour, I will remember and find again in her writing.” Long-time friends Graeme Lay and Kevin Ireland were summoned mysteriously by Chris one evening in July, handed a glass of wine, then told simply that she had cancer and had a very short time to live. “We raised glasses to a bloody fine life and joked for the rest of the evening,” says Kevin. “Great style, don’t you think?”

Peter Dorn, printer of many of her books, found her lack of an us-and-them attitude refreshing: “She had no class barriers – she was as comfortable in the factory lunchroom as she was at Government House. She was warm and forthcoming, and I always felt uplifted after dealing with her.”

Chris’s radical streak was seen as early as 1945 when she was openly a solo mother, and later when she crossed swords with Prime Minister Muldoon, leading to her sacking from the Broadcasting Council. Community concerns were always prominent in her publishing list, as in her life. She co-founded the Parents’ Centre educational movement for pregnant women and their husbands, influencing hospital procedures and raising awareness of the emotional aspects of childbirth, mother-infant bonding and fathers’ roles. Her publishing achievements came after a stellar career in journalism, here and overseas, culminating with her instigation of New Zealand’s first full-time training course for journalists, and active promotion of equality for women in that profession.

Chris Cole Catley’s keenly awaited memoir was near completion when she died. The title of her monumental work on astronomer Beatrice Tinsley would have served well for a biography of Chris herself: Bright Star.

Roger Steele

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