Keith Ovenden remembers his father-in-law Bill Sutch, arrested on suspicion of spying, and ponders whether a tragic love story was behind his fall from grace
Bill’s last year, the end of his journey, was a catastrophe. In the spring of 1974 he was arrested and charged with an offence under the Official Secrets Act, specifically, of holding clandestine meetings with a recently arrived member of the Russian Embassy called Dimitri Razgovorov, the presumption — and it was only ever that — being that he was passing secrets to him. He came to trial in the High Court in February of 1975. He was acquitted, but over the ensuing autumn and winter months he was the target, not to say victim, of a press campaign orchestrated by the weekly newspaper, Truth.
It was widely believed that Bill’s death at the end of September 1975 was hastened by the pressure of this public humiliation … In essence, he had lost his place in society, or at any rate been reassigned to another altogether different and malign one.
At a supper hosted by his younger brother Ted and his wife, Judy, at their home in Eastbourne, Bill apologised to the family for his foolish behaviour. It was a poignant moment as we sat drenched in late summer evening sun in their beautiful garden.
He gave the impression of being somehow lost, not abstracted by thought, but empty of it, as if adrift. It made him harder to understand when he talked, as though he was not connected to the subject matter in hand.
Shirley reported to Helen that his appetite had diminished; he no longer wanted or enjoyed his favourite dishes that she prepared. He developed constant diarrhoea and Shirley took to giving him food that she had processed in a blender. He spent more time in bed. By mid-winter he was suffering from hives. Shirley told us that she urged him to see a doctor, but he refused, apparently preferring to soldier on. By early September he was so obviously unwell that he finally consented to take medical advice. In the middle of the month he was admitted to Wellington Hospital, subjected to a broad range of tests and after some delay, because its advanced state was puzzling to the specialist, diagnosed with terminal liver cancer.
The autopsy showed that he also had cancer of the bowel, which was perforated: it was probably this that had metastasised to the liver. He had been sick for three or four years. He died just two weeks after the diagnosis. It was a remarkable feat of endurance, to have carried himself as he did for all that time.
No wonder there had been tense occasions at the dinner table. The man was mortally sick and his mind was elsewhere. But where exactly?
His sister Shirley was lesbian. The evidence existed in dozens of letters from her young friends of teachers’ training college and university days between 1938 and 1945. She appeared to have discovered her sexual orientation some time in the mid- to late 1930s. Her papers include many letters from a number of young women with whom she was clearly intimate, and which are touching, funny, exuberant as well as secretive and sometimes sad. She wrote poetry, spoke in the university debating society, studied history under Beaglehole and Freddie Wood, psychology under Professor W. H. Gould.
These papers flew in the face of the family narrative, maintained throughout her life, that sister Shirley was conventionally heterosexual in orientation, but had been unlucky in love, particularly regarding one young man with whom she had formed a close relationship during a brief spell at University College London in the mid-1940s.
One might say that brother and sister had shared Mary Redmer as a lover
Then another bundle of letters came into my hand. These were written from New York by a woman called Mary Josephson. Her husband was a professor of philosophy at Columbia University and at some point held a visiting professorship at the University of Sussex in England. They had a son. From the internal evidence of the letters, scraps of references picked up elsewhere, never mentally filed but never forgotten either, it became apparent that Mary Josephson was the same person as Mary Redmer, a young woman who had worked, on secondment from a federal government department, for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration in Europe at the same time as Bill in 1946. This was before his appointment to the UN in New York. He had then known her again in the United States, where she returned to work for a while in Washington. They had clearly become lovers. From her side of the correspondence — and we have none of his — it was the seminal relationship of their emotional lives, pivotal in its effects on all his subsequent years.
I have tried hard, since making this discovery, to interpret, from behaviour, syntax and reference, the state of Bill’s mind and feelings about this situation. We knew that he was torn about his professional future at the end of his UN appointment in 1950: whether to stay on in New York, where he had been encouraged to apply for several different appointments in the UN administration, to look for a position in Europe or to return to New Zealand. Shirley was adamant for return and he eventually acquiesced. I think now that Shirley may have guessed the truth about Mary Redmer then, and had fought hard, with typical determination, to retain him. Shirley believed that her role in getting him to return to New Zealand was decisive, but she was perhaps rather too emphatic in her belief.
The whole question of what Bill was to do in 1950 is complex and deeply nuanced. There is correspondence with friends in New Zealand who urged him not to return, that there would be nothing for him here. I think his personal feelings about responsibility towards his daughter, loyalty to his wife — which he undoubtedly felt — and deep commitment to his homeland were at odds with other emotions. It is hard to think of Bill as a sentimental man, but in one letter to a friend written in 1946 he says how much he yearns for ‘the mountains behind Nelson’ and even ‘the wind on the corner of Waterloo Quay’. There is enough evidence to suggest that this conflict in him, for all the physical and social attractions of his homeland versus the temptations of freedom and a bigger career in the outside world, never ceased.
It remains, of course, a common enough dichotomy among his compatriots to this day: whether to stay or to go, to come home or to commit abroad. The role of Mary Redmer in this mental and emotional tussle was, in my interpretation, central to the ‘stay away permanently’ position. They seem never to have stopped writing to each other, though he must have destroyed her letters –– Did she keep his? Where are they now? –– and they continued to dream, though fantasise is probably the better word, and probably more so on her side than his, about being together again.
I think that Bill filled the void in his life that was Mary, as representative of overseas adventure and success, by immersing himself in his work. That vast outpouring of research and writing, the frequent lectures, the relentless travel to any corner of New Zealand to speak on any aspect of the country’s development, all this owed something to her absent presence in his mental life, and his constant, restless attempts, through displacement activity, to free himself from it. These activities may, for all I know, have included brief relationships with other women, and he may also have seen Mary again, possibly on the few occasions when he was outside New Zealand, though he went abroad, and only on official business, very rarely between 1950 and his death. Most poignant of all, there is one letter from Mary to sister Shirley towards the end of the series in which she refers to Bill having promised to leave and go to her, I suspect in 1966. He certainly never did so.
In the early spring of 1968 Bill had a heart attack. Now that I am in my seventies, already nine years older than Bill when he died, I find it easy to imagine how he might have carried this forsaken love through most of the second half of his life, the daily waking dream of an alternative, a commitment dishonoured, a fulfilling physical relationship abandoned. I had seen it in other men. Even inside my own family in England. How much tension can a man of this sort endure?
If Bill destroyed her letters to him, how are we to know even this much? The answer is in the letters kept by sister Shirley. And they emphasise uncertainty in a way that might have wrecked anyone’s fragile emotional world. Mary’s letters clearly indicate that she was bisexual and that she had had a love affair with sister Shirley in 1948 when the latter was in the United States, thanks to a grant from director of education Clarence Beeby, to research educational arrangements for disadvantaged children. Mary’s letters to sister Shirley are quite clear about this, as they are about her relationship with Bill.
Using, perhaps, the cold, unimaginative eye of a journalist, one might say that brother and sister had shared Mary Redmer as a lover. But human relations are not so cold. The warmth, not to say intensity, of Mary’s feelings for Bill don’t seep, they pour from these letters. She was a woman of warmth, passion and intellect. It would be impossible not to recognise the importance that he held for her.
In the context of all that happened around that dinner table in the early 1970s, I believe that at some stage, perhaps in the course of heated discussion about my marriage to Helen, Shirley had shown her brother the letters. This was how he learned of his sister’s lesbianism. This was how he learned of Mary’s love for her, his own sister. And worst of all, this is how he learned of Mary’s death, probably, as a letter from her husband suggests, by suicide. Suicide brought on by despair allied to depressive illness? And was this despair, in the end, prompted by Bill’s failure to come to her? Perhaps he had written to say as much.
I think now that everything that happened to Bill in his last decade, from the loss in 1965 of his self-defining role as secretary of Industries and Commerce through to his death in 1975, was the culmination of this matter in his secret other life, a life he never confided, so far as I know, to anyone, but of which his sister had long since known. In such destructive circumstances, worthy of a modern Thomas Hardy, a man might decide that he didn’t really care very much about anything any more. Knowledge of Bill’s physical and mental condition in his final years brought into even sharper focus the cruelty of what was inflicted on him, by the SIS and its allies in various parts of the law and the public services, by much of the press and — let’s be clear — by the Russian Embassy. But then these people knew no more than I did and were perhaps also ignorant of their own limitations.
I had no wish then to make Bill out a tragic figure. I have my own view of what might constitute betrayal. But we each have a duty to try to understand behaviour and not condemn it simply because it isn’t ours, or doesn’t conform to some pre-ordained assumption about what is and is not superior in human conduct. There is paradox and ambiguity in everyone. Certainly I feel now a more intense sorrow for Shirley. Helen’s feelings about these discoveries, and my feelings for her as a result, I pass over in silence.
Extracted from Bill & Shirley: A memoir by Keith Ovenden (Massey University Press, $35), available in bookstores nationwide