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Excerpt from A Private Life of Michael Foot

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Excerpt from

Carl Rollyson



This is not a conventional biography. I rely not on documents but almost exclusively on recorded interviews and memories of Michael Foot constituting a raw record of conversations not smoothed over by a biographical narrative. This is a book about process. I show how I went about obtaining my story, which ostensibly concerned Jill Craigie, the subject of To Be a Woman: The Life of Jill Craigie. But Michael, who entered Jill’s life in 1945, was such an important source that inevitably I learned as much about him as about her.

Readers come to biographies to learn about the subject, not the biographer. And yet the biographer is, in a sense, half the story. Or as Paul Murray Kendall put it in The Art of Biography, every biography is an autobiography. So this book is an effort to show how a biographer struggles to tell his own story even as family and friends cherish differing narratives about that same subject. My wish is to highlight these clashes of perception rather than reconcile their discrepancies.

There is value, too, in showing the rough edges of biography, the stops and starts, in an unapologetic fashion. I have to wonder, as well, if there has ever been a biography that has treated a British political and literary figure in quite so revealing a fashion.



Here’s my library, which, I’m sorry to say, is a bit of a mess. Jill used to [huh!] reprimand me.” The huh! does not do justice to Michael’s high-pitched wheeze, or capture the wry pleasure he took in recalling her scolding. The Hampstead home on Pilgrim’s Lane she had so beautifully refurbished had a shabby and dishelved appearance now—rather like its surviving rumpled owner. The room was lined with bookshelves, top to bottom, and even had a wall of bookshelves that could be moved like a door, opening to a smaller room congested with more books and papers. The library seemed to serve as a huge storage vault: A long table was piled high with books, books blocked up an unused fireplace, and the floor supported still more heaps of books and papers.

It had been nearly five years since I had last seen Michael. Then we had talked in a cozy sitting room surrounded by books but also lovely furnishings. I had come to discuss Rebecca West, the subject of my biography, and Jill was not only telling me about the writer and woman she befriended and grew to love, she was producing Rebecca’s first scrapbook of articles, the ones West wrote just after she had abandoned her family name, Cicily Fairfield. “Look,” Jill said, pointing to Rebecca’s own handwriting announcing, “Rebecca West born on 11 December 1912.”

Now Jill was dead. I had missed her memorial service because I had recently moved and Michael had sent the notice to my old address. I first met Jill just after Michael retired from Parliament in 1992. They couple were selling their cottage in Wales. Over dinner Jill asked me if I knew anyone who might like to buy it. “A good place for a writer,” she added, smiling at me. Her “big eyes,” which both her daughter and an ex-lover, William MacQuitty, extolled, seemed to swallow me up. I wanted to buy the place on the spot, such was her charm—and Michael’s. They displayed not just the good humor biographers experience during interviews that go well, but also extended an affection that amounted to a blessing.

When Michael greeted me at the entrance to their home just three months after Jill’s death, his pallid complexion shocked me. I thought that I had arrived at death’s door. He had aged more than a decade. I remembered that he sometimes stumbled, even with a cane, but now he was all wobble. Yet his voice was as strong as ever and just as engaging as always.

I had come to discuss doing Jill’s biography. In order to ascertain if Michael would be receptive to my overture I had consulted my agent Gloria Ferris, who had represented Michael’s biographer, Mervyn Jones. Gloria and Mervyn thought Michael would be. So I had then written Michael, simply saying that I felt a terrible loss myself when I read Jill’s obituary in The New York Times. Perhaps it was too soon to think about a biography, but if he should decide he wanted one, I asked him to keep me in mind. Two weeks later he called me at my home in Cape May County, New Jersey: “You are the one to do it! Jill would have approved!”

I knew that both Jill and Michael had liked my biography of Rebecca West, but just how much quite astounded me. I had kept them apprized of my progress on the book, sending them chapters for their comments. Jill could be exceptionally critical, especially on the subject of feminism, and I worried that she would find my chapters on Rebecca’s early years as a radical feminist wanting. But her praise was more than gratifying. Michael later touted my book in his biography of H. G. Wells. They had discussed my work often, Michael said.

Michael had published articles in praise of Rebecca West’s patriotism. Unlike many others on the Left, he did not find her fierce anti-Communism troubling. Indeed, it was in accord with his own mission to develop a Socialism that would provide the world with an antidote to Soviet tyranny. Mervyn Jones told me that while researching his biography of Michael, he had been impressed with the vehemence of Michael’s own anti-Communism as expressed in the hard Leftist Tribune, which Michael edited for several years.

Biographers are often made to feel like supplicants. But Michael’s first phone call was a wooing, making me feel that as the biographer of Rebecca West I was conferring an honor on Jill. He provided me not just with unfettered access to Jill’s study. I was to live with him whenever I was in London. I was to go about the house as if it were my own. I could rifle through every drawer, cupboard, room and receptacle. I slept on a sofa bed in Michael’s library. Each night before retiring, I would go through a shelf or pile of books (his only filing system) filled with letters and reviews and notes. Every night brought a new revelation. A few letters from Mary Welsh, Hemingway’s fourth wife, whom Michael had known in the war, were tucked into Hemingway books. In a debunking biography of Michael’s hero, Aneurin Bevan, founder of the National Heath Service, I read Michael’s comment on the flyleaf, which began “read with rising anger . . .”

I often thought of Boswell and Johnson during my stays with Michael Foot. In Michael’s company, I was very much a Boswell, keen to get the great man to talk. I recorded everything, compiling a hundred hours of Michael reminiscing and nearly another hundred of others commenting on him. Scholars estimate that Boswell spent something like 400 days in Samuel Johnson’s company. Over a period of three years and ten trips to England, I lived for something like 100 days with Michael. Boswell knew Johnson much longer (more than 20 years), but he did not live with his subject and see him throughout the entire course of a day and night. I was with Michael from breakfast to lunch to drinks and dinner and usually more talk right up until bedtime. I watched the cycle of Michael’s days and became a part of them, sometimes locking up the house at night or taking messages when he was away for part of a day—and once having to rush down the stairs of his Hampstead house and into the street to pick up him where he tripped and fell.

Michael was a gallant man who rarely let down his guard. But with me, perhaps because I was American and because we spent so many continuous hours together, he would sometimes reveal himself. He was profoundly angry the night I had to pick him up in the street. Sitting at the kitchen table he nearly sobbed and said, “You don’t know what it is like to grow old. You don’t know.” His humiliation was palpable.

Our conversations—like most conversations—were circular. Michael would keep coming back to the same topics, digress, then lose his place—“I was just . . . [un-huh] . . . I was just . . .” A soundtrack accompanied his conversations. He could not walk without making noise, groaning in different octaves and punctuating many expressions with a “whee!”

Michael wanted my biography of Jill to do what she could not do for herself: write the whole story of what it means to be a woman. Like the subjects of Daughters of Dissent, her never completed epic about the struggle for female suffrage, Jill saw herself as a dissident fighting for recognition.


Our March meeting lasted for nearly two hours. Toward the end of the interview, I brought up Michael’s relationship with Julie, Jill’s daughter by her first marriage:

[CR] Mervyn mentions that when you first married Jill, Julie wasn’t happy about that.

[MF] We’ve had our problems over the years, but . . . anyhow you talk to her . . . anyhow I don’t think we had much trouble. We had some other . . . you talk to Julie. You’re going to see her tomorrow?

I did. Michael was never one to discuss relationships in depth. I would have to press him again and again—usually in response to what others said—to get him to open up. His pauses were blanks I had to fill in by talking to others.

Michael was not openly recalcitrant, but he would often cut off discussion by reverting to the sort of encouragement that became a refrain in our relationship: “Anyhow, Carl, I’m very glad that you’re doing it. And I’m going to have a sleep now.”

Even as Michael was heading off for his nap, and I was backing out of Jill’s study, where our first conversation about my biography of her took place. I stopped and said, “I’ve just got to take a quick peek in here [a drawer]. I want to see if it contains more manuscript.” As I fingered photocopies and note cards, Michael said, “There’s nothing to be hidden.” I took him at his word.


Michael’s life is one long love affair. It is a love affair with the Labour Party, a love affair with Hazlitt, Swift, H. G. Wells, and my mother,” Julie told me over drinks in a pub the next day.

Julie first caught sight of Michael right at the end of the war, shortly after her mother had made her film The Way We Live, shot in bombed-out Plymouth and featuring a cameo performance by Michael Foot who was campaigning for a parliamentary seat during what became the Labour landslide of 1945. Jill, a beauty, had her pick of men and was then involved with a handsome suitor, her producer William MacQuitty, while at the same time conducting an affair with a good looking painter, Dennis Matthews. She was also still married to her second husband, Jeffrey Dell.

Yet to Julie’s amazement, Jill set out to captivate Michael early on. “He was the most revolting specimen of a man I’d ever seen,” Julie recalled. “He had asthma and eczema. How could my mother touch him, let alone get in bed with him?” This shy, myopic man appealed to Jill because unlike so many of her other lovers, he talked of building a better world and took her entirely on her own terms, barely inquiring about her past. What he did know only made him prouder of his conquest. He would later brag to me about how Jill had led on so many men. He spoke of winning her. During the early days of their courtship, she had shown up at a miner’s gala event in Durham with another man, “But,” he chortled, She came home with me.”

Michael’s brothers, by his own account, were astounded when he won Jill. Brought up as a strict Methodist, Michael never had the easygoing attitude toward sex that seemed second nature to Jill. With Jill, Julie could talk about sex freely, sharing the most intimate details of her relationships. Sex, in Michael’s Plymouth home, had been unmentionable: “Don’t put your hands under the covers, young man!” his mother admonished him.

Slowly, slowly, slowly,” Julie began to appreciate Michael. Although she found him reticent and difficult to have fun with, he was always there for her when she was in distress. “He took me to movies like Ivanhoe and Scaramouche I loved to see and that mother was not interested in at all.” Later, as Julie developed a love of opera, she would share record albums with Michael. “He thinks he shared everything with Jill,” Julie noted, adding that Jill would say, “I’m not the one who loves opera.”

Michael’s trusting nature, his absolute faith in Jill, irritated Julie. The director Ronnie Neame, who employed Jill in the 1950s to write screenplays for The Million Pound Note and Windom’s Way, was, Julie recalled, “always round the house.” The teenaged Julie became suspicious. As soon as Michael came home, she would say, “Ronnie’s just left.” Michael, never one to become jealous, would laugh and call Julie Iago. There was something wrong with a man, in Michael’s view, if he wasn’t in love with Jill. He scoffed at the idea of Ronnie as Jill’s lover when I raised the subject with him later, and Julie did the same, even though she admitted, “Michael was a loving man but no sexual athlete, and my mother was a sexy woman.” Jill once confessed to Julie that Michael had “many wonderful attributes, but after five years their sex life was virtually over.” Michael would make the most of his romantic revivals with Jill during their many trips abroad, especially to Venice, but Jill’s own journal reveals how terribly disappointed she was by his flagging sexual appetite.

Was Jill jealous of Michael?” I asked Julie. “You can’t publish this if Michael is still alive,” she replied, her voice dropping. “She had cause to.” I mentioned Jill’s comment in a published interview that if Michael had an affair she did not want to know about it. “She knew about it,” Julie said, “and it devastated her.” Julie then began to tell me in capsule form the story of Michael’s affair with Lamia (not her real name). “It isn’t publishable,” she repeated. I agreed, although in the end, I published part of the story in To Be a Woman after a struggle with Michael and those close to him about what was really central to the story of the Foot-Craigie marriage.

Jill stuck by Michael, “out of love,” Julie believed, “but also out of a sense that he was making a contribution to society. She was the most subservient feminist ever. Intellectually, she was a feminist, but in her behavior she was not.” Recalling the marriage’s dynamics in the 1970s and thereafter, Julie noted that if Michael wanted a cup of coffee and Jill was writing her book, he got his cup of coffee. She was always complaining about these interruptions. “Why not go away for six weeks and finish your book?” Julie would ask her. “But who would take care of Michael?” Jill’s replied. No one—not Julie, not anyone—could take care of Michael as Jill did. To Jill, Michael was “special.” And then Julie added, “Excuse my language, but fuck that! He was just a man. I took issue there, strongly.”

“I think my mother had quite a tough time with Michael. He adored her in a cerebral way, but she had to do all the dog work.” He was attentive. He brought Jill flowers and gifts, often consulting with Julie about what Jill might like best. But to Julie, Michael never put Jill first. “He did on a certain level. He only wanted to hear praise of her after she died. But that tells me that he realized he had not worshipped her as he should have done.”

After listening to Julie over the course of three years, I did begin to wonder why Michael never gave Jill the space or time she gave him. I could never formulate the question in a way that would not seem accusatory, especially to a man who was still grieving. But in retrospect, I wish I had asked: “Michael, did you ever—especially after you retired from public office—just say to Jill, ‘Why don’t you go off and finish your book. I’ll get on.’” Indeed, there were all sorts of friends and family—as I discovered—who were quite willing to coddle him. Other than complaining to others—as Jane Carlyle did about her mate—Jill never made an issue of her husband’s selfishness. And perhaps, for all sorts of reasons, she did not really want to finish her book, but the nagging question is why he did not do more to encourage her. He was interested in her work. He read it and made editorial suggestions (which he did not want me to mention in her biography for fear this would somehow diminish her achievement), but as far as making some significant alteration in a life built around him, he seemed incapable of proposing a plan for her book that would free her to confront the formidable task of telling the story of women’s struggle for equality.

Michael was the male partner in a dance, but he did not know how to lead. Or rather, he led by default, since Jill did not challenge his authority. He simply filled a vacuum. As a political man, he would have the same problem: He had a solid group of adherents, but he could not use that base to assert his authority. He was a sort of effigy of a great men. And he seems to have known it, since he became leader of the Labour Party only after considerable prodding from Jill and others. It would have looked cowardly not to accept the leadership. But Michael was a sort of hollow man, as he acknowledged with self-deprecating humor during his 1983 campaign against Margaret Thatcher: “I’m here to impersonate the leader of the Labour Party. What have I been doing the rest of the week? You might well ask.”


Did you see Michael yesterday,” Mervyn Jones asked me before we sat down to lunch at his flat in Brighton. “People say he is so old and frail. But Jill said to me once, ‘You know, Michael is as tough as old boots.’” Although they had once been close friends, Mervyn had little contact with Michael now, the result of some bad blood over his biography of Michael. I should have taken this development as a warning sign.

I asked Mervyn about Michael’s pronounced limp, occasioned by surgery after a catastrophic car accident in 1963. “I haven’t dared to ask him, but it’s painful, isn’t it, just for him to move?” I had never heard Michael complain, although his explosive grunts made me wonder. But Mervyn did not take the question seriously, simply saying Michael had stiff joints “like old people do.” And this was very much the way others close to Michael saw matters. Indeed, rather than seeing the strain he was under because of his disability, more than one friend called Michael’s straining “nervous energy.” Michael was like some mechanism constantly agitating and lacking a muffler. He had not merely endured a severe physical injury, he had turned his crippled condition into a kind of performance—like a merry pirate with a peg leg, an Ahab without animus. But there was fury in his temperament and even hatred, especially for traitors to the cause like David Owen, who had split off from the Labour Party during Michael’s leadership, and whom Michael called a “mountebank.”

Mervyn only noticed Michael’s shortness of breath during walks on Hampstead Heath. Michael had been an all-day walker for much of his life, but at 87 the rises robbed him of air and he had to stop frequently to tell his anecdotes. Yet he was still taking buses and clattering along with his cane, sometimes hitting posts with it for emphasis. The walking stick had also become a prop, an animated exclamation mark. Sometimes Michael would wave it high and take my breath away, since I was certain that he would take a tumble. He would later wave the stick high while standing atop picturesque Dubrovnik, and I worried whether he would topple over in an off-balance movement, plunging into the sea. Michael’s word for his condition was “rickety.”


Mervyn listened to me expatiate on my enthusiasm for doing Jill’s biography:

[CR] My experience with them was as equals. When we went out to dinner, or when I was in their home, the back-and-forth between them was marvelous. I had no sense that this was simply Michael Foot’s wife. I liked the whole feeling of that, and when I read her obituary, I thought, “if I can work that into a biography . . .”

[MJ] Yea [I can now detect on the tape recording Mervyn’s unexpressed dismay]. Well, there are problems.

I pressed Mervyn to explain.

Well, I think a certain legend is being created about Jill, which came through in my own obituary. I wouldn’t stand by it. It was eulogistic--for Michael’s sake, of course. And so were the speeches at the memorial service.

I assured Mervyn that after writing about Lillian Hellman, Martha Gellhorn, Rebecca West, and Susan Sontag, I was prepared for problems. “That’s what Gloria said. ‘He knows what problems are,’” Mervyn laughed, and continued: “The legend is that she was a great feminist, and I just don’t think that was true. She really didn’t get on with other women. . . . The only person who considered Jill Michael’s intellectual equal was Michael. You’re going to have trouble with that.” I heard echoes of Julie’s criticism of her mother in Mervyn’s rather harsh assessment.

Mervyn had had a rough time with Jill over Michael’s biography, which she thought neglected her own role in Michael’s life, mischaracterized her experience as a mother, and failed to capture Michael’s domestic side. To Mervyn, Jill seemed rather high handed. “When Jill said we’re having dinner, it was a royal command. If you were doing something else, she would say, ‘Drop it.’” This aspect of Jill did get short shrift in my biography. Michael objected to Mervyn’s remarks, which I included in a draft without using Mervyn’s name, and I could see that unless I identified my source, neither Michael nor the reader would take the criticism seriously. Mervyn warned me that Michael would not be able to see—or admit?—that Jill had an overbearing quality.

What enchanted Michael? I asked Mervyn. “Beauty,” he said, but then added:

For a political man to have a wife with a career of her own and was an achiever you could be proud of was at that time unusual. Labour leader wives were uneducated. But most people thought of Jill as Michael Foot’s wife. That’s not what you want, and that’s not what Michael wants. That’s a big hurdle in the writing of the biography.”

And if true, I thought, what does that say about Michael?


Gloria mentioned a woman at Tribune who was in love with Michael. She could only remember her first name, Sheila,” I told Mervyn. “That was my impression too,” he answered. “Mind you, she hated Jill, presumably because she was in love with Michael.” I encountered Sheila Noble on several occasions in Michael’s home, where she would come for a day to help him with his correspondence. When I asked her for an interview, she just smiled and shook her head. “Sheila adored Michael. I don’t believe she ever had an affair,” Mervyn said. “The other person to see is Elizabeth Thomas, Michael’s personal secretary—way back, in the 1940s. Then she started working at Tribune, and then when Michael became a minister she was his political advisor. They were never lovers, I don’t think.” Mervyn was wrong on that last score, as I learned later from Michael himself in a rather trying scene. Like Sheila, Elizabeth rebuffed my request to interview her about Michael and Jill. It is apparent now that certain women formed a cordon sanitaire around Michael, one that Jill grew to resent.

Did Michael ever stray with other women? I asked Mervyn.1 “I’m convinced it was a rare event,” he replied.

Actually, Elizabeth Thomas, an extremely sensible woman, told me an anecdote about Michael straying. He spent a night with another woman. He came home at breakfast time, and Jill was completely furious and said, “I’m divorcing you.” He managed to smooth it over. My respect for Elizabeth is that Elizabeth had never told me the story before, and she didn’t want to tell me this story while I was writing a biography of Michael. If I put it in, the press would have fun with it. It would have run away with the biography, of course.

I was beginning to feel uneasy about falling into the authorized biographer’s trap of becoming privy to secrets that could not be divulged. I could see that I was heading toward some kind of confrontation with Michael. The way he handled it would be another means of assessing his character.

Talk about Michael sex’s life segued into a discussion of Arthur Koestler’s rape of Jill, a story that Michael himself first revealed in a review of a book about Koestler. He caused an uproar in the press and among Jill’s and Michael’s friends. Frederic Raphael wrote a piece questioning Jill’s account, suggesting she had exaggerated or perhaps had even led Koestler on. And there were other skeptics, although another woman came forward, writing a letter to the press that described Koestler’s assault on her (she managed to escape being raped). Then it was revealed that Koestler had also raped one of Dick Crossman’s wives.

Jill had kept the rape secret for more than 40 years—supposedly not even telling Michael--but had blurted it out late one night at a small party with her friends, many of whom I would interview on subsequent trips to England. Mervyn was skeptical about the story, although he believed Koestler quite capable of rape. Mervyn had asked Jill, “Did you tell Michael?” She hesitated, and said, “Michael saw the scratches on my arm. He said, ‘What’s this?’ And I didn’t tell Michael I was fully raped but that I was assaulted and that it was Arthur.” It all seemed a strange story to Mervyn, especially when Jill said Michael’s response was, “Well, you have to admit he’s a very good writer.” Mervyn thought this was an unbelievably “crass thing to say. A man has raped your wife—I couldn’t believe Michael had said this.”

As I pieced together the story of Jill’s rape for my biography of her, I realized there was a missing element: exactly what Michael knew and what he did about it. I spoke with him many times about the rape but never came close to comprehending what, in the end, was the truth. But I also held back certain testimony, which led me to believe that Mervyn’s assessment of Jill and his belief in Michael was misguided. The Koestler rape became just one of many instances when Michael did not stand by Jill. To do so, would have meant an ugly confrontation with his wife’s rapist, a writer Michael would continue to rhapsodize over in our conversations.

1 “Michael always struck me as being an exceptionally monogamous person,” said his old friend Mike Bessie. “Did I think the same thing was true of Jill? I never observed in all the years of their marriage any signs that she longed for other male companionship.”

DMU Timestamp: January 07, 2015 02:48

Added January 20, 2015 at 2:15pm
Title: typo


DMU Timestamp: January 07, 2015 02:48