How does a biographer balance telling the truth with storytelling

Frank Moorhouse, in an October 1975 talk at Wollongong University, discussed his first film project, Between Wars, for which he had undertaken archival research. This process would shape Frank Moorhouse’s work.

The “Edith Trilogy” would culminate with the League of Nations, a precursor to the United Nations, from the 1920s into the 1940s. Canberra was then established as the “Capital” of our nation in the 1950s.

Frank spoke in Wollongong about balancing “the historical component” with “the narrative elements.” In his notes, Frank wrote: “When facts and legend conflict print the legend.”

I’ve been working on Frank Moorhouse’s two-volume biographical work since 2015. It has required a lot of research in archives and history.

But biography is an area of history. When the legend is at odds with the facts, a biographer should print the facts. It isn’t easy to separate fact from myth when dealing with a complex figure such as Frank Moorhouse.

Frank Moorhouse in his Ewenton Street Studio, circa 1970s.

I was initially hesitant to take on this project because I knew I had not really thought about how biographies were written, despite having read many literary bios. I had taken for granted some aspects of the writing process, which involved complex and time-consuming reconstructions.

Consider, for instance, creating a simple timeline. I began by assembling a basic timeline of Frank’s career from public sources. I found over 2,000 articles that referenced Frank and included public statements made by or about Frank. Interviews, reviews, and reports were available on the various activities Frank was involved with.

Frank gave me 30 pages of curriculum vitae. Over the years, he had written several pieces of his memoir. I was able to determine the scope of my project.

I began to work through Frank’s archive. It was my initial intention to combine the general outline that I had compiled with the detailed contents of Frank’s archive. This would be a call-and-response method of organizing the archival materials.

This was a blunder and embarrassingly naive.

The archive was increasingly in conflict with my outline as well as the public sources. It was necessary to do additional research in order to confirm otherwise simple facts or sequences of events. Two seemingly insignificant moments forced me to reconsider everything.

Read more: Bringing Edith Home: Frank Moorhouse’s Cold Light

‘I speak for Whitlam at the Opera House’

Frank edited Days of Wine and Rage in 1980, an anthology of 1970s stories. The first section begins with a reference to Gough Whilam’s dismissal from office on November 11, 1975. The second part is an excerpt from Death Of the Lucky Country by Donald Horne, a 1976 book that describes the dismissal as well as the federal election held on December 13, 1975.

Frank’s first piece is entitled “I speak for Whitlam in the Opera House.” Frank describes a lunchtime protest that was held at the Sydney Opera House, with 3,000 inside and 8,000 outside. Frank fell asleep immediately at the Journalists’ Club afterward due to “the suppressed stress of it all.”

Gough Whitlam during a political rally in Australia. His tee-shirted supporters listen as he speaks from a stage littered with streamers. Keystone/Getty Images

This anecdote was included in my biography to illustrate Frank’s character. He was very shy, prone to anxiety, and suffered from what he called “verbal ineptitude,” especially when speaking to an auditorium. Frank was a very shy person, but despite this, he forced him to speak publicly at his own expense.

What’s the problem? Frank’s letter to his ex-wife in June 1974, 18 months before Whitlam was dismissed, is the only evidence that corroborated this incident. The Opera House did not host a rally after Whitlam’s dismissal. However, there was a launch of the Labor campaign there prior to the December 1975 elections.

There was a similar rally during the week before the 1974 federal elections, which Labor won. Frank wrote to his ex-wife about this event a month earlier. This anecdote is true, but its context and, more importantly, when the event occurred in Frank’s life are different.

Read more: Jenny Hocking: why my battle for access to the ‘Palace letters’ should matter to all Australians.

Nude sunbathing and copyright

It made me rethink a second, trivial story about a copyright case Frank had been involved in. In September 1973, an excerpt from Frank’s book was photocopied in the University of New South Wales library without his consent.

Frank met David Catterns, Peter Banki, and the Copyright Council for the first time in October 1973. They engineered the violation to present a case in court, arguing copyright holders should receive payment for their work that was copied and used.

The case was heard between April and May 1974. Moorhouse and Angus & Robertson Pty. Ltd. v. University of New South Wales formed part of a larger strategic plan that led to the creation of the Copyright Agency Ltd.. This non-profit organization collects licensing fees from copyright material users and distributes them to rights holders.

The only source of information was court transcripts and documents. I wanted to bring Frank’s personality into the proceedings.

Frank spoke about the case in the 1990s. Frank once told anecdotes about how he read a copyrighted book while reading naked in his backyard with a female friend. His heart suddenly started pounding.

“My god, intellectual properties are the essence of existence,” I said to my friend in the garden. Intellectual property is key to understanding”.

He then explains the three different approaches to intellectual property – collective rights and moral and economic rights.

This anecdote could have been placed in late 1973 or 1974. Frank places it explicitly as “a day around the Moorhouse v University of NSW.”

In another version, Frank names the title of the book that he read on this day as Copyright and International Relations, by M.M. Boguslavsky. This book was edited by David Catterns and published by the Copyright Council in Australia in 1979, six years after it began, and four years after August 1975’s High Court judgement.

Perhaps Frank has the book backward? Perhaps. This forced me to look back at 1979. In October, I came across a mention of a friend who was sunbathing naked on Ewenton Street. Frank attended the Copyright Council’s symposium on moral rights the following month. Peter Banki, David Catterns were the speakers. Frank received a copy in advance of the talks – either with or without the Boguslavsky text.

Frank’s references to moral rights, and his expansive statement that “Intellectual Property is the key of all understanding”, are more in line with that event from 1979 than the copyright case that occurred years earlier. This case was intentionally narrowed to the one legal question of “authorisation”.

This anecdote is not a good one, or at least it’s not a valid point of entry in the case of 1973-74. I left it out of the biography because, when legends conflict with facts, print the facts even if they are dry.

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