Mixed Blessings (2005)

My father, in the village of Quarto Miglio, on the outskirts of Rome, 1968

The pope is dead.

His body could be seen through a door left ajar at the side of the church. Dressed in pontifical vestments, it had been laid upon a simple wooden litter in the centre of the nave. The familiar bald head, nested in a small white lace pillow, was covered by a white silk zuchetto or skullcap, and over a white lace alb, a crimson mozzetta trimmed with white ermine at the collar covered the torso. A pallium, a band of white lamb’s wool decorated with six small crosses that signified the Pope’s authority, was draped over the shoulders. It framed an elaborate crucifix attached to a gold chain around the neck.

From where I was standing, I could only see the upper half of the body, illuminated by a warm, almost ethereal beam of light. The rest of the church was crisscrossed with shadows of varying density. It was hard to make out anything else inside.

I was twelve years old. This was not the first corpse I had seen but the sombre tableau was the last thing I had expected. Over breakfast that morning, my father had asked me if I’d like to come with him to view the church’s sixteenth-century frescoes, and as we didn’t often have time together, I was quick to say yes.

My father stepped into the dim chapel. The smooth leather soles of his loafers scuffed the floor like the stroke of wire brushes across a snare drum, echoing faintly.

“Morris! How are you?”

The deep American voice made me jump. The Pope had opened his eyes. He had raised his head from the lace pillow to gaze at us, his wax-like face creased by a smile.

“Very well,” my father replied. “And you?”

I followed my father through the door. The Pope was not alone. At the end of the litter, sitting on a canvas chair with her long legs crossed, a young woman was massaging the Pope’s crimson-stockinged feet with delicate, manicured fingers. Dark-haired, olive-skinned, dressed in a pair of tight, black capri pants and a white, short-sleeved, tapered blouse that stopped just short of her waist, she looked like a young Sophia Loren. There were others: spectral figures shuffling along narrow planks supported by scaffolding above the altar. As my eyes got used to the lack of light, I could see one of them tracing a fine charcoal outline of a male nude on an unfinished mural.

“I feel like that guy waiting for Michelangelo to finish,” the Pope said.

“Pope Julius the Second?” my father asked.

“No. I think it was Rex Harrison. You know, in that film with Charlton Heston…”

“The Agony and the Ecstasy,” the young woman prompted him. Her Italian accent inflated all the vowels.

“Yeah,” the Pope said. He pointed to the figures on the scaffolding. “He should have had these guys. It’s taken them about a week so far. How long did it take Michelangelo?”

There was a loud, metallic clunk followed by the agitated buzz of a high-voltage electric current. Suddenly, the shadows dissolved in a flood of bright tungsten light to reveal that we were standing not in a real church but a cavernous sound stage in the process of being transformed into the Sistine Chapel. Renditions of frescoes by Perugino, Botticelli, Rosselli, Pinturicchio, Ghirlandaio and Signorelli had been painted with ordinary emulsion on plywood forming the walls and behind the faux-marble altar, the upper half of Michelangelo’s The Last Judgement was nearing completion. The dimensions of the set were similar to the chapel’s — I had visited the real thing a few times before — but the roof was missing. Instead, several metres above the high plywood walls, the ceiling was flat and black.

There was the clatter of approaching footsteps and the dissonant clamour of several voices talking at once in both English and Italian. A disparate group — gaffers, riggers, wardrobe mistresses, make-up artists, costumed extras, stand-ins and production assistants — streamed into the room and, like actors in a play, began rehearsing their individual responsibilities in the scene that would be performed there later today.

The Pope sighed, and with a little effort, pushed himself up from the litter. “Gotta get back to work,” he muttered.

“We’ll leave you to it,” my father said. It was only then that he remembered I was there. “Oh, let me introduce you. Son, this is Anthony Quinn.”

The famous actor extended his left hand towards me, palm downwards. “I am Pope Kiril,” he said. For an awkward moment, I thought he expected me to bow and kiss the gold-plated replica of the papal Ring of the Fisherman that he wore, as tradition demanded, on his fourth finger. Instead, I gripped his hand and shook it.

“Sometimes it’s hard to let go of a character,” my father explained to me later, “especially when it’s the Pope.” He meant it as a joke about actors, of course, but there was also a grain of truth in it about himself.

The pope is dead. Of the millions of words my father, Morris West, wrote — in 32 fiction and non-fiction books, five screenplays and five plays (all of them produced), as well as hundreds of radio dramas, television scripts, essays, speeches and letters — those four probably had the most profound impact on his life and the life of his family. They made up the first sentence of his most famous novel, The Shoes of the Fisherman, published just weeks before the death of Pope John XXIII on June 3, 1963.

The novel was not my father’s first critical or commercial success: that was a non-fiction book, Children of the Sun, a portrait of the scugnizzi, Naples’ impoverished street kids, and Padre Borelli, the priest who worked among them, published in 1957. Two years later, sales of his novel, The Devil’s Advocate, exceeded even the most optimistic expectations for a bestseller: it won both the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the Royal Society of Literature’s Heinemann Award. Still, the response to The Shoes of the Fisherman was even bigger: with its Cold War background and its premise of a young Eastern European cardinal being elected Pope, it resonated with the apocalyptic edginess of the times. The Cuban missile crisis had brought the world to the brink of a nuclear war nine months before and, in England, 70,000 people had just marched from Aldermaston to London to protest the proliferation of nuclear weapons. The Vietnam War was escalating: in protest, a Buddhist monk, Thich Quang Duc, sat cross-legged in a Saigon street and set fire to himself in front of a group of United States photographers and television cameramen. The US Supreme Court would soon ban prayer and recitation of the Bible in public schools, and Martin Luther King would declare, “I have a dream” to a massive gathering of African-Americans from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. Within six months of the burial of Pope John, the US’s first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, would be assassinated by one or more gunmen as he rode in an open-topped limousine past the Texas School Book Depository in Dealey Plaza, Dallas.

The success of The Shoes of the Fisherman in that tumultuous year took my father away from me.

It was not so much the physical separation. I had grown used to the long absences of both my parents during the past half a decade. They often travelled together to the US and Europe to support the promotion of a book or attend the opening night of one of my father’s plays or to negotiate a lucrative scriptwriting offer — the last had taken them to Los Angeles for three months, leaving my younger brother and me in the care of my maternal grandparents — and it was not hard even for an adolescent to work out that their relationship revolved around each other, that there was this tacit pact between them to put my father’s ambitions first. The conventional topography of parental attachment did not apply.

What made my father’s absences hard was the unsettling awareness of his existence in a public realm that was unconnected to the existence I shared with him. A few months after the publication of The Shoes of the Fisherman, I was sent to board at a convent school in rural New South Wales, and although every student was compelled to write a letter to his parents once a week, visits were limited to just one weekend a month. What I knew of my father’s doings came less from my mother and him than from newspaper clippings that one of the nuns would pass on to me or from a minute or two of footage in the black and white Movietone newsreels that preceded the main feature at Saturday night film screenings in the school’s auditorium. When, often, my grandmother would turn up instead of my parents for the monthly visit, she’d bring copies of American magazines such as Look or Life in which my parents’ other world — the one in which they lived most of the time, without me — was laid out in several glossy pages of photographs: here was my mother in a shimmering frock outside a Broadway theatre at night, her smile as incandescent as the billboard above her that spelt my father’s name in lights; here was my father, a former Christian Brother, sitting cross-legged among meditating Buddhists on the floor of a gilded temple in Bangkok; here were my parents strolling an ancient, cobbled lane in Kyoto as cherry trees shed blossoms on them like confetti.

Over time, I stopped thinking of the man in the newsreels, newspapers and magazines as my father. He looked like him, but more and more he was like an actor playing a role, a character that wasn’t real — at least not to me. Sometimes I recognised a familiar turn of phrase or a gesture but it was not specific enough to recall a real life memory of him, a memory that existed outside of all the media coverage. My relationship with him was the same as everyone else’s: I was part of his audience.

Occasionally, I was given a brief walk-on part in one of his performances. When he returned to Sydney after yet another promotional tour of North America, where The Shoes of the Fisherman was at the top of The New York Times fiction bestseller list, my mother took my younger brother and me to meet him at the airport. As we waited outside the opaque glass doors that separated the baggage claim and customs area from the arrivals lounge, a television-news camera crew — this was in the days when they still shot on 16mm film — and a couple of newspaper photographers joined us.

“When he comes through that door, mate, why don’t you run up to him?” the cameraman asked me. “Give him a big hug, then come back towards us holding his hand.”

A few minutes later, my father appeared and I did as I was instructed. Without prompting, my father smiled towards the cameras as we walked.

“Bugger! I had a hair in the gate,” the news cameraman said. “Umm, would you two mind if we shoot that sequence again?”

It’ll look better in the edit.” The American producer, George Englund, used to say this to my father whenever they viewed the rushes of each day’s shoot together in the preview theatre at Cinecitta, the film studios just outside Rome. The theatre was small and dim and the smell of stale cigarette smoke and spilled champagne clung to the worn velvet seating.

It was inevitable that someone would turn the book into a film. When Warner Brothers bought the rights toThe Shoes of the Fisherman, they saw it as yet another big-budget costume drama, albeit in a contemporary context, with plenty of scope for the large-scale visual set pieces that appealed to audiences of the day, not to mention the sort of scenery-chewing theatrics that offered actors a shot at an Academy Award nomination. As my parents, my younger brothers, Paul and Michael, my younger sister, Melanie, and I set sail for Italy from Sydney aboard the P&O liner Oriana in late 1965, there were already rumours in the Hollywood “trades” of a stellar cast that would eventually include Anthony Quinn, Laurence Olivier, Vittorio De Sica and John Gielgud. No one envied the 45-year-old Englishman, Michael Anderson, whose credits included films such as1984, Around the World in Eighty Days, All the Fine Young Cannibals and The Quiller Memorandum, when he was named director.

My father was listed as one of three screenwriters on the credits for The Shoes of the Fisherman but his role always seemed to change during the course of what was a notoriously troubled production. Whatever it was meant to be, he was happy at first just to have a reason to take us all to Italy. Since his first visit there in the 1950s, when he lived with my mother and me in the village of Sorrento, just south of Naples, he had regarded the country as “home”. It was the closest that I ever came to having a home, too.

It didn’t bring me any closer to my father. The disconnect between his public and private personae was so marked for me by then that understanding what he was really about was like trying to decipher some arcane cryptogram without knowing the key.

Living in Rome in the mid-1960s amplified the sense of unreality. Fellini’s La Dolce Vita had been released six years before but the decadence and self-indulgence it portrayed still persisted, both in reality and in the public imagination. For tourists, the Trevi Fountain no longer evoked a young, elfin Audrey Hepburn as the runaway princess in Roman Holiday, throwing a coin into its waters to make an innocent wish. Now it was a stoned Anita Ekberg, a twisted sorceress in a low-cut gown, its black velvet split to her thighs, leaning into the sculpted marble to shower under a foaming waterfall before wading into a lubricious embrace with Marcello Mastroianni. The city’s real dolce vita might have soured a little, but it still made money for gossip writers and paparazzi covering the old European and American money, the new Middle Eastern money and the Hollywood celebrity– none more famous than Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, who lived in a villa on the outskirts of the city during the filming of Franco Zeffirelli’s 1967 version of The Taming of the Shrew — that still found its way to Rome in between party seasons in other parts of the world.

We lived in a modest pink villa, La Villa Rosa, with half a hectare of lawn and a swimming pool. It was one of eight villas within a large walled enclave on a road that ran from the 2,000-year-old black flagstones of the Appian Way to the village of Quarto Miglio, exactly four miles from the ancient walls of the city. For a time, our next-door neighbour was Peter Brook, the theatre director, and among those occupying the other villas were the film director Franco Zeffirelli, the actor Peter Sellers and his then girlfriend, the actress Britt Ekland, and Her Imperial Highness the Princess Soraya, the divorced second wife of the Shah of Iran, who kept live penguins around her swimming pool.

On summer weekends, my parents hosted an open house that was, depending on who turned up, part pool party, part Australian barbecue, part salon and part production conference. The mix of people was always eclectic: lots of actors (John Mills and David Niven became close friends), producers and directors, as well as artists and writers– many of them famous, like the painter Jeffrey Smart and the waspishly erudite Gore Vidal, but just as many not, or not yet (a still unknown Robert Hughes borrowed $50 from my father and never got around to repaying it). There were the mega-rich– Mellons, Vanderbilts, Guggenheims and Firestones — and royalty such as Frederica, the deposed Queen of Greece, not to mention various mad Italian princes whose realms and principalities had disappeared centuries ago. And there were theologians, philosophers, Vatican powerbrokers and priests, the last easy to recognise because they always ignored the strict protocol that required them to wear dog collars and basic black within the Holy City and favoured garishly coloured Hawaiian shirts.

My father presided over it all like a sixteenth-century cardinal. He ensured that glasses were filled and deftly guided conversation into those areas in which he could show off his own scholarship, inside knowledge or personal connections while pretending close attention to what everyone else had to say. He was rarely argumentative, but he was happy to let others be, as long as it was entertaining and inoffensive to everyone present. He was gracious with bores and wallflowers, but they were invited less often.

“Why is that man walking around in circles talking to himself?” my younger brother asked me at one party.

“He’s an actor,” I told him. “He’s learning his lines.” It was Laurence Olivier.

“Why does he have to do it in our garden?”

I shrugged. “Father says they’re not very bright.”

“You’re very lucky to have Morris as your father,” I would be told often by guests. I learned to be patient with them: after all they weren’t really talking about my father, they were talking about the other Morris West, the public figure, the man who worked the crowd. That man was gregarious, charming, kind and entertaining but what he had in common with my father was little more than a name, an address and an occupation. My father was less accessible. He liked to keep to himself. All of us children had to be very quiet whenever he was around: writers were always working, my mother would remind us, even if they weren’t sitting at a desk.

We had been living in Rome for about a year when my father told me that I was not his eldest son. I was thirteen years old and the sudden news broke over me so hard that it felt like I might drown in its undertow. I couldn’t breathe. I still don’t know whether it was the shock of being told that one of the few certainties I had held throughout my young life was false, or that the frail screen on which my father’s other existence was projected — a metaphor that enabled me to imagine that the existence he shared with me was real and the other wasn’t — had been torn to reveal that behind it lurked a dark reality that had to do neither with his fame nor me yet another existence, this one obscured by old secrets — or worse, lies.

“What’s his name?” I asked.

“Julian,” my father said. “You also have an older half-sister called Elizabeth.”

The idea that there were two siblings was too much for me to deal with at that moment so I focused on the one that undermined my grip on my sanity — and trust in my father — the most.

“So when will I get to meet him?” I asked.

“Tonight. He’s coming with his wife to stay with us for a while.”

“Tonight.”

“Yes. In a few hours.”

“It didn’t occur to you to tell me about this sooner? Like, a lot sooner?”

“I’m telling you now. Anyway, it’s a decision that your mother and I made together a very long time ago.”

I had always known that my father had been married before. I had known, too, that his life before meeting my mother was uncomfortable for him to talk about. He had referred to his own father, Charles, just twice in my life and then only in passing. He never mentioned my grandmother’s name and I still don’t know it. He definitely never mentioned his other children. In all his press profiles, in his book-jacket biographies, in his entry in Who’s Who, I was noted without qualification as his eldest child.

Many years later, I asked my older brother and sister what they had felt about it. In many ways, the three of us had shared the same emotional duality. Our father and the renowned author who shared his name were different people to us. The three of us had been separated from our father at a very young age and had spent much of the rest of our lives trying to make sense of the inconsistencies and contradictions between the man we knew and the man we saw (in their case, from a distance) in public. Unlike me, they found it harder to deal with the exercise of his fame, because they had been edited out of it completely. Like the rest of the children from his second marriage, I had been allowed to make an occasional appearance, if only as a footnote in a biographical entry, or in the background of a couple of seconds of news footage, but my older brother and sister were never mentioned. For a long time, they hadn’t existed.

I was angry and resentful towards my older brother as soon as I heard about him and it took a long time for us to reconcile, let alone to be able to accept that we had common ground. We are still wary of each other, perhaps because we have much of our father in us, but the qualities, and faults, we inherited are very different: for instance, Julian has his good looks, his social ease and his erudition. I have his analytical abilities, his inclination to solitude and his ruthlessness. We both have some of the emotional waywardness of our grandfather — in my case, it’s full-blown.

My older sister, Elizabeth, who followed in our father’s footsteps more closely than any of the siblings, becoming a nun and making a mark in academia and as a writer on religious history and theology, understands both Julian and me and is an important emotional bridge between us. Our conversations are still coloured by moments of deep curiosity: for me about our father’s life before he met my mother; for her about the life that came after, the life she got to share with him only after he had returned, at age 64, to Australia.

When our father died in October, 1999, I wanted to feel a sense of relief, a dissipation of the burden of the past. Instead, I ended up grieving — as did, I suspect, my older brother and sister, not so much for the man himself as for the chance lost for a little clarity on both sides. If we had never really understood how and why our father made some of the choices he did, he had never understood — or accepted — how they had affected us.

Maybe this is telling: for my older brother and I, Rome was the city in which we had been happiest. It was also the city in which we came closest to seeing the true nature of our father, at his best and worst. Neither of us has returned there since his death.

© C.C. O’Hanlon 2005

First published in Griffith Review, Australia, 2005, and included in A Revealed Life: Australian Writers And Their Journeys In Memoir (published by ABC Books)