Almanac Memoir: Knowing Hazel

 

Hazel Rowley at Hyde Park in New York State, with the Hudson River behind her. The photograph was taken in 2010 by Lucia Guimaraes. [Used with permission.]

 

Knowing Hazel
in remembrance of Dr Hazel Rowley (1951-2011)

 

Dr Hazel Rowley was a British-born Australian writer, internationally renowned for her biographies of authors Christina Stead and Richard Wright, as well as non-fiction works about iconic twentieth century couples Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, and Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. Upon her death in Manhattan in March 2011, Rowley was the subject of an extensive obituary in the New York Times, a clear indication of her standing in the world literary community.

 

My piece about Hazel, though, focuses upon the person I knew, rather than the writer.

 

 

The tips of Hazel’s long slender fingers lightly touched the inside of my leg, near the ankle, while we were in the audience of Verdi’s Requiem at Melbourne’s Victorian Arts Centre. I was fortunate, in that I could often get free double passes to high culture events, because at the time, in the early 1990s, I co-presented an Arts radio show in nearby Geelong. Hazel was occasionally the recipient of the extra ticket.

 

She didn’t want me to sit the way I was sitting – with one leg crossed over the other – as I might accidentally hit the elderly man in front of me in the back of the head with my right foot when I changed position.

 

She was always doing things like that with those graceful hands of hers. Gestures were often both sensual and a warning.

 

‘Here’s a tin of beer,’ she once said to me (the term ‘can’ apparently unknown to her), holding it carefully in her right hand, as if it was a Ming vase or valuable objet d’art.

 

‘Don’t drop it,’ was one unspoken message. ‘Don’t drink it too quickly’ – another.

 

‘Sit down over there on the couch and be careful with it,’ she continued. ‘Amuse yourself while I get changed,’ she said, pointing to the Age newspaper on the coffee table. She was ten years older than me, and often gave ‘instructions’ like this. (I didn’t mind – she fascinated me.) At the time of which I’m writing, she was a lecturer at Deakin Uni in Geelong, and I was a postgrad at the University of Melbourne.

 

While she was away in the next room, however, slipping out of her day clothes (that particular night we were going to an opera, Cosi fan Tutte, and we’d met beforehand at her flat in St Kilda), I confess my mind wasn’t on the newspaper, though I did glance at the sports pages. Instead, I was picturing her, separated by one thin wall, slender and semi-naked, looking into the wardrobe for something to wear. Yes, I yearned to take our relationship to the, er, bedroom.

 

One time, she cooked dinner for us before we went out. She made an excellent Chinese stir fry. On a couple of occasions, she bought me gelati in Fitzroy Street, near where she lived, to conclude the evening.

 

At another time, we were laughing and talking animatedly in her car. She was the driver and I the navigator. We became hopelessly lost in outer suburban Melbourne. The Melways street directory she provided was of no use.

 

Repeatedly and playfully, she slapped me on the hand and arm for leading her astray, often speaking in amusing flourishes of French. We eventually found our destination. She was relieved: the forms arrived at the solicitor’s on time; something to do with her flat, or a house she was planning to buy – I can’t quite recall.

 

I remember feeling surprise at the sting when her bare hand struck mine.

 

Another time, she snuck up behind me in Deakin University’s main library. I was leaning on a high table, staring at a computer screen, searching for a book on Charlotte Brontë, the subject of my M.A. thesis.

 

With blatant, impulsive affection, she planted her right hand firmly on my behind. There was a proprietorial air in that gesture. It caught me by complete surprise in my absent-minded state.

 

I turned around, to see her smiling.

 

‘Don’t stick your bum out like that,’ she said, in her clipped, precise, sweetly reedy voice, her face close to mine.

 

Unfortunately, as I remember, she didn’t feel my buttock, only the wallet in my back pocket. I felt she regretted its presence there, too.

 

…………………………………………………….

 

When, inevitably, I made my ‘advance’ (I did it very politely), she rejected me. There may have someone else on the scene, I believe, though I didn’t know that then.

 

About six months later, I tapped on her office door at Deakin Uni. We’d exchanged a couple of brief letters after her rejection. Peering in, I saw her looking up from her desk, a little surprised, wearing a sleeveless white calico top, and maybe a dress – I can’t remember the lower half, possibly because this was obscured by the desk. I said something like, ‘I’m sorry if I went too far.’

 

‘Oh – you behaved OK,’ she said. It seemed as if she felt some regret at what didn’t happen between us. I’m not sure. Perhaps she thought it was unfortunate that our friendship was no longer active.

 

That was the last time I saw Hazel, around 1993. At various times since then, I’d intended to contact her, to renew our personal connection. She was an utterly singular person, one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met. In looks, she reminded me of a Virginia Woolf approaching middle-age (and Hazel loved all things Bloomsbury), or perhaps a pre-Raphaelite model, such as Jane Morris. She looked considerably more striking in person than in most of her photos.

 

Her untimely death in New York in 2011 came as a sudden, sad shock.

 

……………………….

 

Even now, I recall those graceful hands of hers, her long, slender concert pianist’s fingers, those rare times they touched me…

 

In some respects, at bottom, Hazel was elusive, not easy to know well. She told me that she particularly loathed one commonly-used expression, when people said, ‘I’ll catch you later.’ Whenever they said that to her, ‘You won’t catch me’ was Hazel’s usual response, often said with emphasis.

 

Oh wonderful Hazel!

 

 

(originally written circa 1993; additions and alterations, 2023)

 

 

 

Read more from Kevin Densley HERE

 

Kevin Densley’s latest poetry collection, Please Feed the Macaws…I’m Feeling Too Indolent, is available HERE

 

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About

Kevin Densley is a graduate of both Deakin University and The University of Melbourne. He has taught writing and literature in numerous Victorian universities and TAFES. He is a poet and writer-in-general. His fifth book-length poetry collection, Please Feed the Macaws ... I'm Feeling Too Indolent, was published in late 2023 by Ginninderra Press. He is also the co-author of ten play collections for young people, as well as a multi Green Room Award nominated play, Last Chance Gas, which was published by Currency Press. Other writing includes screenplays for educational films.

Comments

  1. Colin Ritchie says

    Love Hazel’s writing KD, wonderful tribute for a wonderful woman who left us too early.

  2. Barry Milton Nicholls says

    What a terrific piece of writing Kevin.
    Franklin and Eleanor is masterful.
    What a loss to the literary community her passing was.

  3. Kevin Densley says

    Thank you Colin and Barry. I’m so pleased you liked this short memoir piece about Hazel – she certainly was an extraordinary, memorable woman.

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