Shirley Smith: An Examined Life
Victoria University Press, $40.00,
In Wellington, it is difficult to find a lawyer, judge, or even a member of the Mongrel Mob of a certain age, who does not have a Shirley Smith story. The stories are good and bad. Many are insignificant, but they offer insight into her character. I was told about her understandable hostility to a junior lawyer, who was sent to the Smith house in Brooklyn to retrieve and organise some of her husband Bill Sutch’s papers. Smith stuck to her like lichen each day for a fortnight while she did her job and never offered her a cup of tea. I was told that Smith struck up conversations with people she did not know, who had come to visit their own relatives at the rest home in which she lived at the end of her life. One of these people told me about her delight at meeting a friendly, highly intelligent old lady, who said she studied the classics at Oxford University. Those who attended her funeral at St Andrew’s still talk about the powerful haka that echoed up and down the Terrace.
The willingness of people to reminisce about Smith is remarkable. Similar stories have enriched this biography. A large amount of written material has also contributed. She did not throw much away. She was a prolific correspondent. She left behind published and unpublished memoirs, articles, legal submissions, diaries and travel journals. Family, friends and colleagues have also left vast amounts of rich source material. All of this would not have made Sarah Gaitanos’s job easier. Quite the opposite, in fact. Smith was a complex, hyper-intelligent, socially aware person. The author has managed to weave contemporaneous and after-the-fact accounts of the different strands of Smith’s life into a balanced, straight-down-the-line chronology that is a model of what a biography should be. There is no filling in of gaps with surmise or speculation. This is a biography built of well-sourced facts, and those facts tell a ripping yarn.
If anyone has a claim to practically being born a Communist, Smith does. This is all the more remarkable because she was born into a conservative Presbyterian family in 1916. Gaitanos has managed to trace Smith’s leftish leanings back to her days at Nga Tawa Diocesan School (itself an odd choice for a Presbyterian girl). Her teacher, a Miss McCall, nominated Smith as the candidate for the Communist Party in the school’s annual mock elections. This was in an era when it was hard to find a volunteer to stand for the Labour Party, let alone the Communist Party. Her history teacher discreetly showed her pamphlets about Stalin’s first Five-Year Plan so that she could give a good stump speech. Smith imagined how such a plan could help her farming relatives in Waikato. She later wrote to Hugo Manson that these experiences “hooked” her on Marxism. I’m not sure what this says about the teachers at Nga Tawa, but Smith said it was “what I’d been waiting to hear all my life”.
Until the failed Hungarian uprising, Smith was never shy about disclosing her empathy with the Soviet Union, or her membership of the Communist Party. Even then, she remained politically left-wing for the rest of her life. Her political views easily translated into compassion for the disadvantaged and the vulnerable. Her legal training gave her the ability to advocate on their behalf.
One of the great themes of Smith’s life was her quest to be recognised as Shirley Smith, a person in her own right, not as High Court Justice Sir David Smith’s daughter, or Dr Bill Sutch’s wife. Even though she was the first married woman in New Zealand to keep her own name, and was the first woman to be appointed to a law faculty in New Zealand (the Victoria University of Wellingon Law Faculty where she taught constitutional law to Mike Bungay, later her husband’s executor), this quest was hindered in the early days by the social norms of the time and places she lived, and by the very people from whom she sought recognition.
One of these people was her father. There is no doubt that she adored him. In one letter she writes of her constant worry about letting him down. In 1935, he encouraged her to study Classics at Oxford instead of law because he felt that law would expose her to a side of life that was too sordid for a woman to see. She eventually enrolled in law at Victoria University College in 1952 without telling anyone. Despite his earlier resistance, her father supported her studies. He was also supportive of her practice of law, although he did not much like her work for members of the Mongrel Mob who were facing criminal charges.
Another of these people was her husband. Her relationship to Sutch tracks a similar trajectory. She had had several crushes and relationships before meeting him, including a shipboard romance with the Fourth Officer of the ship that took her to Oxford. She described the Fourth Officer as “a MAN” and “the best officer so far”. Her relationship with Sutch, however, was much more complex. When they met in 1940, she wrote later that “this was the man for me”. There is no doubt that she adored him and the intellectual excitement he provided. But, after they were married, he expected her to cook and clean. She said he sometimes made her feel like wallpaper. His antiquated and gendered beliefs were at odds with the more politically progressive views he conveyed in public. He seemed to believe that he would never do anything wrong. This surprising absence of self-doubt led to errors in judgement that affected his career and home life, and Smith’s life.
After he died, Smith learned that he had not been entirely honest with her about many things. She discovered from letters he wrote to his mother that he did not walk across the Soviet Union. This walk had become something of an urban legend he did nothing to dispel. She also discovered that he had purchased land and membership in a club in the Bahamas without telling her. He kept his finances private. While Sutch preferred not to tell Smith about many aspects of his life, she was the opposite. She did not often confront him about the state of their marriage, but she was frank about it in her letters to her daughter.
Gaitanos’s telling of Smith’s story shines a more accurate light on their marriage. There is a touching scene at the end of the book. Smith had Alzheimer’s disease at the end of her life. When she was shown a picture of Sutch in one of her family photograph albums, she asked: “Who is that handsome man?” This leaves no doubt in my mind that through the ups and downs of their marriage, their relationship was built on a solid foundation of love.
This leads to another great theme of Smith’s life. Was there an alternative between silence and telling the whole truth? Could as much be achieved if only part of the truth was told? She wrestled with this question, not just in respect of her relationship with Sutch. Reading all of Ibsen’s plays in 1945 did not answer it for her. She knew that to tell the whole truth, or at least the truth as she perceived it, often hurt those about whom a perceived truth was told. Smith’s son-in-law Keith Ovenden suffered through her expressed dislike of him early in his relationship with her daughter Helen (in the long run, she came to like him). On the other hand, she knew that not to tell the whole truth would create an inauthentic picture through omission. When she was asked in 1978 to write about her time at the Auckland University College Classics Department in the 1940s, Smith hesitated. She was asked to exercise discretion, which meant she was being asked to create an incomplete picture of how things were. For this reason, her instinct was to say nothing, but she eventually came around and in 1979 wrote at length the whole story about the fraught politics of the department in those days. When all is said and done, and perhaps with one exception, the book leaves the impression that Smith decided there was no alternative between silence and telling the whole truth. In the end, she chose to tell anyone who would listen the whole truth. This was a brave course of action that would not necessarily endear her to those at whom her truth was directed.
The one exception was Sutch. This biography could be criticised for spending too much time on Sutch, his trial and its aftermath. I do not share this criticism for two reasons. First, it is not possible to write about a subject without also writing about the people who influenced the subject. Readers may quibble about the amount of space devoted to Sutch, but his influence has to be addressed. It is difficult to get around the fact that his influence, directly on Smith’s life, and indirectly through his own participation in public life, was enormous. Second, Sutch’s actions and beliefs are directly relevant to the two great themes of Smith’s life: her quest to be known for her own contributions to the law, and her intellectual pursuit of the whole truth. Sutch’s life provides something of a counterpoint to these ideas.
Indeed, it is on the subject of how much Smith knew about the facts leading to Sutch’s trial for espionage that Gaitanos writes most carefully and skilfully. In the course of relating the family’s shift from New York to New Zealand in 1950, she writes: “In 2014 evidence emerged in the newly opened Mitrokhin Archive in Cambridge, England, that Dr Sutch was recruited to the Soviet intelligence service in 1950.” This sentence has the force of a slash across page 192. It is abrupt. There is no introduction. There is only the juxtaposition of two accurately stated facts. Gaitanos does not come to a conclusion as to how much Smith knew, and she has gone as far as her sources permit. Gaitanos does, however, write about the emotional toll the trial had on Smith, and the steps she took to protect Sutch’s reputation after he died.
This biography states the facts of Smith’s life. The facts describe the life of an intensely interesting person with a keen intellect who used that intellect for good. Smith achieved recognition on her own terms, partly because she outlived those with whom she was always associated, but primarily as a result of her own significant achievements. She was well ahead of her time in providing access to justice to those for whom access had previously been difficult if not impossible. These achievements would not have been possible without her rigorous search for “the whole truth” and her ability to fearlessly speak the whole truth to power. We have all benefited from her legacy of a fairer and more accessible justice system.
The subtitle of the book is “An Examined Life”. It is not “A Life Examined”. Gaitanos has let Smith examine her own life in these pages. That is what makes this book so satisfying.
Bill Hastings is a District Court Judge and Co-convenor of the Wellington Special Circumstances Court.