Reviewing The Review – An Open Letter to Monash University’s Brian McFarlane regarding his review of Australia’s Sweetheart, as published by Fairfax

Dear Mr McFarlane,

Re: your review of Australia’s Sweetheart, which appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age newspapers and online in a slightly corrected form..

Your review falsely characterises me as a writer who is careless with the facts. What I find incredible is that you do so—as I will demonstrate—by repeatedly misrepresenting my book and committing to print your own factual errors. As I earn my living as a professional writer relied upon to present accurate information, I consider this may constitute reputational damage.

Here’s my review of your review.

In the last sentence of Australia’s Sweetheart, the author refers to his book as a “biography”. In the following “sources” section, he describes it as “a work of creative non-fiction”.

I do both of those things. I’m not sure why “sources” is in quotation marks. To imply it isn’t really deserving of such a title? Or is it a single-word quotation of the text? I ask because you use quotation marks in a curious way later in the review and much else that you write suggests you’re disparaging the idea that my book has “sources”.

But can it really be both? I know the latter is now a fashionable descriptor though am never quite sure what it implies, apart from authors’ taking on a few ascertainable facts and then playing as fast and loose with them as suits their purposes.

So this is the only thing you’re sure of when it comes to creative non-fiction? The widely recognised definition is that creative non-fiction is the literary genre that uses fictional techniques—scene setting, dialogue, etc—to tell a true story. Practitioners include the likes of Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion and Gay Talese. They were, I guess, “fashionable” half a century or more ago when they pioneered the form. Creative non-fiction is the stock-in-trade of publications such as The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and Esquire. I have no doubt you know all of this.

… a few ascertainable facts and then playing as fast and loose with them as suits their purposes.

Is this what you’re suggesting I’ve done? I think any reasonable reader would conclude that this is your meaning.

Let’s work out what you mean by “few”. There are two definitions of the word. The first is that it’s a small number, perhaps two or three—four at a stretch. The second definition of “few” is that it’s a smaller number than expected. Obviously my book has more than two or three or even four facts. You refer to many more than that in your review. So it must mean you found fewer sources than you expected. My select bibliography lists more than 60 books that were central to the research and writing of Australia’s Sweetheart. In my sources section, I list where I found other information. Just in case you missed it:

Sources

Then there are the many interviews I did with Mary’s family members here in Australia, in the United States and the United Kingdom, along with consulting expert authors whose specialties ranged from the Matson ocean liners of the 1930s and Bodyline to Ronald Reagan and Ann Dvorak.

As for me perhaps:

… playing as fast and loose with them as suits their purposes.

As you well know, in my sources section, I carefully explained what I knew and what I didn’t know about Mary’s story:

Explanation

After reading its 400 pages, I wonder still in what sense is it “amazing”?

I welcome the question. Your review is accompanied by a photo of Mary Maguire with Ronald Reagan, her co-star in Sergeant Murphy and, briefly, her lover, and, you may remember, future president of the United States of America. Is it amazing that an Australian teenager should have made this connection with him so early in his career and that their mutual friend and Warner Bros. star Jane Bryan was later instrumental in him entering Republican politics? I guess whether this is amazing or not depends on who you are—and whether you’ve actually read my book closely. But there’s much more in Australia’s Sweetheart—and, again, you include some of this in your review.

Here’s a quick but by no means exhaustive reminder: Mary was born during the Spanish Flu, grew up in Melbourne in the Roaring 20s, had a sporting celebrity father and a shrewd businesswoman mother; she appeared, aged 13, in Diggers in Blighty, one of Australia’s earliest talkies; she spent her adolescence in Brisbane where, through her parents’ glittering hotel the Belle Vue, she knew everyone from Douglas Jardine, Don Bradman and Charles Kingsford Smith to Gladys Moncrieff, Jocelyn Howarth and Billy Hughes; she made her second film, Charles Chauvel’s Heritage at age 15, and then co-starred opposite Hollywood heartthrob Charles Farrell in her third film, The Flying Doctor, at age 16; then she landed a contract at Warner Bros. at 17, receiving $500 per week—the same pay as Olivia de Havilland. She befriended luminaries such as Bette Davis, Marion Davies, William Randolph Hearst, Howard Hughes and Joseph Schenck and her career at Warner Bros. might have been different if not for bad luck with casting and her bad health. Despite her youth, Mary defected to 20th Century Fox, moved to England, married a fascist agitator who was interned without trial during the Battle of Britain and the Blitz, both of which she experienced first-hand while coping with tuberculosis and pregnancy. Amazing? I think so. You don’t. That is, of course, fine.

She was never a “Hollywood star” (except in the pages of Australian newspapers)…

What you don’t acknowledge is that Mary was also referred to as a Hollywood star in hundreds of American newspapers and magazines. She had star billing in Warner Bros. and 20th Century Fox films and was featured on posters and in advertisements around the world. I’ve cited internal Warner Bros. documents outlining their hopes for her and the numerous lists of rising stars on which she appeared in 1937-38. It’s true that she wasn’t a major star and that her career was short, but I haven’t claimed otherwise while you’ve omitted entire chapters of my book that are inconvenient to your argument.

… and, if she has been “forgotten”, this may be because there wasn’t much to remember.

The use of quote marks here is puzzling. Has she been forgotten or not? You can’t seem to decide. It seems obvious that she has been forgotten as this is the first book about her. As for the reason you give, are you saying her life wasn’t worth remembering? Or her career? Or both? As a Melbourne academic wrote to me over the weekend: “It’s a tedious and outdated argument about how women’s lives aren’t important enough to be discussed.” This is a subject I will return to in relation to your work.

To be fair, Michael Adams generally makes for “a good read” as he charts Maguire’s family life… [Update: 23 Feb — I noted, with satisfaction and thanks, that this phrase has been removed from the online and SMH print version, now reading as: an entertaining read. Not condescending quote marks.]
“Thank you” for these kind words, though the use of quote marks around “a good read” leads me to think this is a backhanded compliment.

These early chapters are perhaps the best in the book, with the author not only setting the family in place but also quite vividly evoking the social and cultural climate of Australia of the time, with royal visits, the advent of talkies, the Bodyline scandal, and more.

This is genuinely very nice. Thank you. Yet it’s intriguing that what impresses you—the royal visits, the advent of the talkies, the Bodyline scandal—are male-centred events and achievements in a book that’s about a woman.

Adams’ book begins with his imagining her farewelled by an adoring crowd as she leaves Sydney on a ship headed for Hollywood…

The prologue is based on sources, not plucked from thin air as you imply. The description of Mary’s attire, expressions and gestures comes from multiple photos of the send-off on 19 August 1936. The departure process of the Mariposa is based on newspaper reports and consultation with the world’s leading expert on the Matson liners. There were 2000 people present, though I noted that not all—or even most—were there for her. That I’m referring to an actual reported event should be perfectly clear by reference to the presence of representatives of three Sydney newspapers. I actually left out a fourth—Everyones [correct spelling], the film trade magazine—because I thought I’d be wearing my research too heavily. Clearly not heavily enough.

… having been described in the newspapers as “The most famous girl in Australia”. If this were indeed so, one can only reflect on the poignant fleetingness of fame.

The “poignant fleetingness of fame” is indeed the major theme of the book. The back book jacket describes it as a “cautionary tale about the promises and pitfalls of celebrity”. I’m glad you identified the theme, even if you failed to acknowledge that this is what Australia’s Sweetheart is quite consciously all about.

Does “if this were indeed so” question her fame or whether that’s how it was reported? A newspaper reporter for the Launceston Examiner asked Mary how it felt to be the “most famous girl in Australia”. I quote from the article at length on pages 101-102—and this is but one of hundreds of sourced quotes in the book. Further, her status as “the most famous girl in Australia” was before she made The Flying Doctor, which only made her more famous eight months later when she left for Hollywood.

Mary, still Peggy, won a talent quest for the role of Biddy O’Shea in Chauvel’s historical epic of bush life in early Australia.

In your original version—as printed in the Fairfax newspapers—you tut-tut at me for mistaking the name of the Biddy character as Biddy O’Connor. This was your mistake. O’Connor was the initial name of the character. It’s not like it was in big, bold print at the start of a chapter, with a dated newspaper source directly below. Oh, hang on, here’s how chapter eight opens:

Biddy

Here’s page 64, where I explain that the character name changed.

Name change.jpg

Further, did you not read the lengthy, closely sourced explanation of how Peggy didn’t actually win the competition, with the whole thing a publicity ruse for Charles Chauvel? In the book I detail how I reached this conclusion through comparison of numerous newspaper articles containing conflicting information, recollections from Elsa Chauvel’s memoir and a 1935 interview in which Peggy let slip how it actually happened. I quoted all the sources used. You appear to have missed them—and the entire point.

To the shooting of Heritage and what you call a “disruptive on-set accident”: I must concede this is an “interesting” way to describe an electrician sustaining what would prove fatal injuries right in front of Peggy.

This was pretty demanding for a 15-year-old, but, after a disruptive on-set accident that threatened the film’s future, the newspaper coverage, according to the author, “confirmed the show couldn’t go on without her because she was now a movie star”. What? Even before the film was finished, let alone released?

Again, I welcome the question, no matter how condescending. Here’s page 57, quoting how Brisbane’s Telegraph reported her casting:

Star at 15.jpg

Here’s where I note why the show couldn’t go on without her once Charles Chauvel had shot the film’s biggest scene.

Big scene.jpg

Here’s how I relate what happened after the accident.

Stardom.jpg

So, yes, I think there is a strong argument that Australia’s most famous director casting Peggy in the biggest movie ever produced in Australia and the newspapers all saying she was a star could lead her — and the general public — to think she was a star… even before the film was finished.

Here’s the passage where I describe how even usually cynical Smith’s Weekly became swept up:

Smiths.jpgThese chapters—and subsequent ones about her early days in Hollywood—describe how producers used publicity blitzes to make young actors into stars before their films were released. Again, it’s a major theme of the book.

Your sentence—

There were two more locally made films before she took off for the northern hemisphere where she would spend the rest of her life.

—is factually incorrect. But, as we’ll see, numbers aren’t your strong point. So, to be clear, after Heritage, Peggy adopted the name Mary Maguire and made one more film locally: 1936’s The Flying Doctor. Her first film was Diggers In Blighty. Her second film was Heritage. That makes The Flying Doctor her third film.

In your original version you wrote:

She somehow later acquired the support of the Hearst press and one of his papers named her “a definite find for Hollywood”.

This was corrected in the online version to remove “somehow”, though the correction wasn’t noted. Your use of “somehow” implies either I don’t know, don’t care or that it’s a mystery. Here’s how that introduction came about—page 158:

Marion connection

… she made four films in Hollywood…

Four films? That’s what you wrote. Again: those pesky numbers. As even a skim read of my book would show, Mary made five Hollywood films – That Man’s Here Again, Confession, Alcatraz Island and Sergeant Murphy (all for Warner Bros.) and Mysterious Mr. Moto (20th Century Fox). Five.

… of which all but one – Confession (1937) in which she had a supporting role – was a “B” movie: that is, the short film before the interval when you went out for ice-cream and chocolates.

How—and why—did you conflate a “B” movie with a “short film”? Here’s the definition of a “short film”, from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences: “An original motion picture that has a running time of 40 minutes or less, including all credits”.

But—as we both know—short films are almost always shorter than 40 minutes. Here, for instance, is a quote from an academic book about a celebrated British director’s controversial foray into the short-film form:

“Similarly, Lindsay Anderson’s celebrated Ford-sponsored portrait of Covent Garden market, Every Day Except Christmas (1957), was praised for its photography, but criticised on the grounds of repetition and length, which, at forty minutes, broke the conventions for the commercial short film.”

If the quote feels familiar, it’s because it’s from a 2009 book called The British ‘B’ Film, co-authored by you with Steve Chibnall.

Then there’s this explanation of how B features and shorts were programmed differently because they were different formats:

“Audiences typically expected a ‘double bill’, with a main feature and a supporting film, which might be designated either a co-feature or a second feature according to the lavishness of its casting and budget. If a major film ran to over two hours, say, it was likely to be supported by ‘shorts’ (often designated ‘selected featurettes’) rather than by another feature…”

That’s you, writing in Screen, Volume 51, Issue Three, October 2010.

In your book The British ‘B’ Film—I note you didn’t call it The British Shorts, which, actually, would have been pretty funny—you list some of your favourite Bs, including The Late Edwina Black (duration: 78 minutes), Private Information (65 minutes) and The Man Who Liked Funerals (60 minutes).

Here are the running times of Mary’s four Hollywood B films: That Man’s Here Again (58 minutes); Alcatraz Island (63 minutes); Sergeant Murphy (57 minutes); Mysterious Mr. Moto (62 minutes).

Claiming her B movies were merely shorts may support your argument that Mary’s life and career wasn’t worth writing about. But it’s clearly factually incorrect. How did you of all people get this wrong?

In England, she fared slightly better with a couple of leads in “A” films, notably co-starring with George Sanders in The Outsider (1939), but again hardly enough to stamp her as a major star.

Words and numbers have specific meanings. A “couple” means two. Mary was the female lead in Black Eyes, The Outsider and An Englishman’s Home. That’s three. Am I being pedantic? I’m just stating the facts.

… again hardly enough to stamp her as a major star.

I never argued she was a major star. Page 384:

Mary assessment

Then there’s your conclusion:

The book’s chief problem is that Mary never emerges as fascinating enough in her own right to justify 400 pages. It’s almost as if Adams realises this and fills the book with masses of names, mini-biographies of many of these, detailed accounts of aspects of World War II, including the rise of fascism and the role of the Mustang in the Allies’ fight against the Nazis.

I have no problem with you not finding Mary Maguire fascinating enough for a biography. But I do have a problem with your unfounded assertion that I spent five years on this book and then thought better of the project and so merely filled it with “masses of names, mini-biographies of many of these”. I included relevant details about people who were important to Mary: her first husband (a prominent fascist); her second husband (who, by the way, did more than “promote”—as you write—the Mustang P-51); her four sisters (who gained entrance to British society via Mary) and their husbands (millionaires and aristocrats). Without understanding the relevance of these people and events, Mary’s life and decisions would make little sense.

Some of this makes quite interesting reading, full though it is of words such as “probably”, “supposedly” and “likely”, so that the lack of sources makes us wonder what to believe.

In what sense are you using the word “lack”? As in “being without entirely”? Or as in “not having enough”? Which parts of my descriptions of the rise of fascism or the deployment of the Mustang P-51 are hard to believe because they “lack” sources? They are based on interviews with Mary’s family, experts in fascism and war-time aviation, declassified MI5 files, North American Aviation company documents, newspaper articles, multiple books about Oswald Mosley, British fascism, the Mustang P-51, etc. Again, it’s telling that what you find interesting in a book about a woman is the rise of fascism and the Mustang P-51. I would have thought, as a film writer, Mary’s attempt to navigate the misogynistic Hollywood studio system or how she fared in the struggling 1938-39 British film industry might have been worthier of some analysis.

Oh, and in 120,800 words, I used “supposedly” seven times, “probably” 17 times and “likely” 38 times. Many instances were in the direct quotation of people or newspaper articles. In other cases they were to let the reader know—as explicitly stated in the sources section—that I was making what I believed reasonable assumptions based on the available evidence presented in the book.

Post-divorce, we are told “Mary’s star had faded”. The book doesn’t persuade us that it ever really shone brightly – or why it should have.

You’re perfectly entitled to that conclusion. Yet I have been inundated with messages from friends and colleagues who work as journalists, critics, academics, authors, screenwriters and film and television production executives, and they, bewildered by your sneering tone and misrepresentations, have all asked what I did to you. Similarly puzzled, I contacted a film academic you and I both know. He was at a loss to explain the vehemence of your review, other than to suggest you were feeling “territorial” about the subject of B movies. The idea that this was somehow personal for you is actually supported by you rather bizarrely inserting yourself into the review:

… as he charts Maguire’s family life, with aspirational mother (born in tiny Lillimur some decades before I was) and boxer-footballer father

I here note that the only other person to have written in detail about Mary Maguire—Melbourne-based Nick Murphy, with whom I enjoy cordial correspondence, and whose excellent article “Mary Maguire—the Film Star and the Fascist” draws on some of the same sources as my book—listed among his sources your 2003 book, The Encyclopedia of British Film, co-authored with Anthony Slide.

Was this my gravest error? Neglecting to include your book in my extensive bibliography? Was it not a lack of sources but that I omitted the one source you considered most important? This would go a long way to explaining why you start your review by focusing on the back of the book. Is it the first place you turned?

Following my Melbourne academic friend’s comment about you dismissing women’s achievements, I also found this passage from Harry Windsor’s 2018 review in The Australian of your book Making A Meal: Writing About Film to be very instructive:

Moving on to classic Hollywood, McFarlane takes no prisoners. Spencer Tracy was a “vile man”; John Ford a “boring drunk”. But the author’s greatest scorn is reserved for female stars. He’s sick of biographers focusing on sex, but joins in their prurience. Elizabeth Taylor’s escapades “comprise a sickening chronicle”. Shelley Winters’s sex life was “relentlessly vulgar” and betrays “a shoddy set of values”.

So, in closing, how to account for the tone and mind-boggling number of inaccuracies and misrepresentations found in your “review”?

Borrowing your turn of phrase, it’s almost as if you took offence that someone was writing about a female star in your masculine B-movie domain without sufficient obeisance, and then you responded by twisting a few facts to your own purposes to tear down Mary Maguire while also maligning my reputation.

Sincerely,

Michael Adams