Lillian and Germaine in New York

Robert Milliken recounts the fraught relationship between two Australian women who made enormous contributions to the international literature of the counterculture

20 January 2011



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Above: Lillian Roxon at the launch of her Rock Encyclopedia in late 1969.

In this extract from the new edition of Mother of Rock: The Lillian Roxon Story, published almost forty years after Lillian Roxon’s untimely death at the age of forty-one, Robert Milliken documents Roxon’s explosive friendship with Germaine Greer: two brilliant Australian women whose contributions to the international literature of the counterculture made them legends. For her groundbreaking book Lillian Roxon’s Rock Encyclopedia in 1969, Roxon was declared “the unchallenged queen of the New York rock scene.” Greer later dedicated The Female Eunuch, her own momentous book on feminism, to Roxon. But the comradeship between these two star figures from the group of Sydney social rebels known as The Push crackled with conflict.

SBS TV will screen Mother of Rock: The Life and Times of Lillian Roxon, a documentary inspired by Robert Milliken’s biography, on 26 January.

THE revolutions in music and lifestyle were well advanced by August 1970 when another freedom movement opened up. At the height of that New York summer, 25,000 women marched down Fifth Avenue to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the day women won the right to vote. For many, this event symbolised the start of the women’s liberation movement. Lillian Roxon filed a report on the march for the Sydney Morning Herald, which turned into something of a landmark piece itself.

The Herald splashed her story on the front page on 28 August with a picture of the marching women beneath the headline “There Is a Tide in the Affairs of Women,” followed by the dateline “New York, Thursday: Lillian Roxon cables a biased report.” She opened her story: “This is the hardest piece I have ever had to write in my life. I am supposed to be telling what happened when 25,000 women marched down Fifth Avenue last night on the 50th anniversary of the day women won the right to vote. As is customary in my business I am supposed to be telling it briskly and factually and without bias. Fat chance. I’m so biased I can hardly think straight. My emotions are all in a turmoil and I don’t know where to start.”

For the Herald at the time, this was an unconventional, almost rebellious, way of treating a front-page news story. The paper’s management, under the chairmanship of Sir Warwick Fairfax, was conservative on two of the biggest issues of the day, the emerging voices of feminism and the rising tide of opposition to the Vietnam War. It was particularly strict about keeping news stories free from reporters’ interpretations. Something of an undeclared war was being waged between news executives on the fifth floor and management on the fourteenth floor over the paper’s treatment of the women’s movement. Sir Warwick, who had access to all correspondence from the news editor’s office, once rebuked a news executive for having addressed a letter to a reader as Ms. The honorific Ms was not Herald style, the chairman pointed out. The executive argued that, because the woman had signed her own name as Ms, he felt it was only courteous to reply in kind. To which Sir Warwick responded, “It was most discourteous of her to write to us and sign it that way.”

So when Lillian’s story landed off the teleprinter, Alan Dobbyn, standing in for David Bowman as news editor, decided to take a risk. “There was a conjunction of things,” Dobbyn says. “There was Lillian’s excellent report, there was a splendid picture and there was Doug Verity, who was an assistant to the news editor. Verity was greatly taken by the picture. He said, ‘I know the heading: There is a Tide in the Affairs of Women.’ All of these things came together to encourage us to do something adventurous. It was a bit out of character for the Herald at that time. But no thunderbolts descended on us. I thought it was a very effective front page.”

When she saw it in New York, Lillian wrote her appreciation to Dobbyn, her former bureau chief there:

Not a minute too soon to thank you for whatever you had to do to get my women’s lib story on page one. It was really something. And I felt I simply had to counter the stand the blokes took here, especially Lea [Fitzgerald, the Australian Financial Review correspondent] who is very uneasy about it all. I don’t know why they feel so threatened. As someone said recently, the only reason men don’t want to see women free is because they’re not free themselves. Come to think of it who said that was the big G, Germaine Greer in London, who has just written a book called The Female Eunuch with lots of four letter words. She is seven feet tall and a bully and about the only female I know who is NOT a eunuch. Good looking but. She dedicated the book to me and my cockroaches which I thought was kind of her. (Four other girls got a mention in what I thought was the all time weird dedication.)

The story behind this dedication began in late 1968 when Germaine Greer visited New York, a visit that tested the feisty friendship between these two formidable women. Germaine returned to London and wrote her great work The Female Eunuch – first published in October 1970 and never out of print since – which became the bible of feminism for a whole generation of women. It began with the following dedication:

This book is dedicated to LILLIAN, who lives with nobody but a colony of New York roaches, whose energy has never failed despite her anxieties and her asthma and her overweight, who is always interested in everybody, often angry, sometimes bitchy, but always involved. Lillian the abundant, the golden, the eloquent, the well and badly loved; Lillian the beautiful who thinks she is ugly, Lillian the indefatigable who thinks she is always tired.

Shorter dedications to four other women followed. But none struck as many sparks as the one to Lillian. She always believed the cockroach image was a putdown that overwhelmed whatever else Germaine wrote about her. There was something very Australian about the double-edged friendship of these two strong women who had come out of the same proving ground, the Sydney Push. As independent women who had broken free of a heavily male culture, they often seemed to others to be competitors more than compatriots. Germaine had her own connections in the British rock scene. And Lillian had already lived the life of a liberated women well before Germaine came along with her book on women’s liberation.

The first Lillian heard of the dedication in The Female Eunuch was when Tony Delano, an Australian journalist working for the Sunday Mirror in London, rang to tell her about it. “He thought it was lovely. I thought it was simply horrible.” Delano says, “I think Germaine probably made the dedication in commemoration of their times together in New York. It seemed to me that Germaine and Lillian did get on then. Germaine hadn’t been to New York before. She relied on Lillian then: she chose Lillian as her guide to New York.”

Germaine had come a long way since she had arrived in Sydney from her home town of Melbourne in 1959, the year Lillian left for New York. Armed with a first-class Master of Arts degree in English from Sydney University and a Commonwealth scholarship, she left for Cambridge University in 1964, where she took her PhD three years later. By 1968 she was teaching at the University of Warwick. That year, too, saw her marriage to Paul du Feu, a hunky London construction worker with a degree in literature. It lasted three weekends. Du Feu later told Coronet, an American women’s magazine, that Germaine’s “favoured method of conversation was to run both sides of the dialogue,” while Germaine herself was quoted by the New York Times saying that du Feu had tried to “conquer” her in the “crudest form of colonisation.” While at Warwick, Germaine also started appearing on Nice Time, a Granada Television program on which she grooved and jousted with rock stars, using the show as a launching pad for her later media stardom.

By the end of 1968 Germaine was finally ready, as she put it, to confront the New York scene. Up to then Lillian and Germaine appear to have met only in passing through mutual Push friends. Lillian first glimpsed her in Melbourne in 1959 when Germaine was working as a waitress while completing her English–French honours degree. The sighting was in the coffee shop where Fred Astaire, Anthony Perkins, Ava Gardner and others from On the Beach (then filming in Melbourne) hung out: “She had purple hair and was the first person in my life I had ever seen wear red stockings.” Germaine later spoke of this period to Clyde Packer, the Australian media figure: “I was a waitress lots of times, but the best time was when Goldy [Brian Goldsmith] opened a restaurant in Toorak Road. By that time, I knew a lot of people in television and the media and I ran the backroom for him where all the television people used to come after hours…” Germaine told Packer: “I believe in kicking ass and taking names, talking loud and drawing a crowd.”

It was Christmas 1968 when Germaine landed in New York, preparing to call on their common Push background to stay with Lillian. She was not yet rich or famous. Lillian was already a star in the New York rock and underground scene centred on Max’s Kansas City; if Germaine had designs on drawing a crowd there, Lillian was well placed to introduce her. The two women were a study in physical contrasts. Lillian was thirty-six, short, round, still a beauty with blonde, shoulder-length hair, but starting to suffer from the asthma that would eventually kill her. Germaine was twenty-nine, tall, slender, striking, with dark hair. Lillian later described Germaine’s arrival in New York dressed like a counter-culture queen in “her embroidered satin antique jacket from the Chelsea Antique Market, her Bessarabian Princess’s Defloration robe, a black net and silver belly dancer’s vest and see-through chiffon velvet elephant pants.”

What happened next did not conform to Germaine’s expectations and appears to have endangered their friendship from the start. Lillian was writing the Rock Encyclopedia and fighting to meet her publisher’s deadline. In these pre-computer days the book and its rising tide of research papers had swamped her small apartment on East 21st Street. She told Germaine she was in no position to put her up and had booked her instead into the Broadway Central Hotel, a budget hotel which, she believed, matched Germaine’s financial circumstances. The Broadway Central had been one of nineteenth-century New York’s grand hotels, known then as the Grand Central. By the late 1960s it had gone very far downhill. Lillian later wrote about this episode; but Germaine had never discussed it until, thirty years later, I approached her for the story behind the dedication to Lillian. She wrote back:

My difficulty is that I did not know Lillian Roxon very well. By the time I came to Sydney she was in New York. I went to New York in 1968 thinking to stay with her but she would not let me. Instead she put me in the Broadway Central, a welfare hotel where people screamed and ran up and down stairs all night, from which I escaped the next day. I probably spent in all no more than five or six hours of quality time with Lillian after The Female Eunuch came out; of course she made it seem rather more.

I admired her but she disliked me and did not bother to hide it. We could talk, I dare say, but I doubt if it’s worth the trouble to you.

Germaine’s letter raised more questions than it answered. Why had she dedicated one of the most influential books of the twentieth century to a woman who disliked her and had dumped her in a cheap hotel full of mad people? Was there more to it than this? If they had spent a mere six hours of quality time together after The Female Eunuch, what about before? Was Germaine simply showing her unpredictable side with this reply? Despite her apparent dismissal of Lillian, her last line left a door ajar.

SHE stood just inside the open door to her study at Newnham College, Cambridge, a tall figure in a long, billowing dress, the sunlight from the window at the other end of the room shining through her greying hair. At fifty-eight Germaine Greer had lost nothing of her commanding presence. She had six other substantial books under her belt now, but none as big a publishing phenomenon as The Female Eunuch. She looked up from an open book in her hands, glanced at me quizzically over the top of her spectacles and invited me to sit on one of her generous sofas, apologising for the way her students had tousled them. We chatted about the Cambridge gardens, then I asked her to delve back thirty years into the past to her first meeting with Lillian Roxon. “I didn’t have any money in 1968,” she began.

Teaching at Warwick University I had a minute salary which barely paid to keep a roof over my head. But I was equipped with the Push addresses for people abroad. So it seemed the most natural thing in the world that, when I went to New York, I would look up Lillian. It was because of the way the Push did things it never occurred to me that I couldn’t just doss on Lillian’s floor. Enough people had dossed on my floor. We had the impression we knew each other because we knew so much about each other. Usually, contact between Australians abroad is very easy. People are very understanding and we all understand the way we’re reacting to things because we all react in a predictable way.

And Lillian was a Libertarian, which was a plus and should have brought us closer together. But a lot of Libertarians will tell you that she really wasn’t, that she really wanted to be mated and monogamous and have some kind of normal Jewish girl’s life. That was always there somewhere. I arrived and she lived in a very over-heated flat opposite the police station. I was perfectly prepared to sleep on her floor and clean her flat and do all that stuff and sort her out a bit, but she didn’t want that – at all. She just did not want me there.

The Broadway Central Hotel was located near Broadway and 3rd Street, about eighteen blocks south of Lillian’s place. When Germaine arrived there during the day to check in, she was told her room would not be ready before midnight. “As I stood there all kinds of human flotsam and jetsam were creeping up to the desk, junkies and madmen. It wasn’t that I was afraid. I was vulnerable. I just didn’t know the score. It was like dropping someone into a snake pit.” Germaine had academic friends to contact and went that evening to a party on Riverside Drive, near Columbia University. She met Andrew Sinclair, the English novelist and historian, who came to her aid.

He decided it was a coup de foudre, in his English-French, and that he wasn’t going to let me out of his sight ever again. He forgot about this within twenty-four hours, but just right then it was a coup de foudre. He said to me, “Where are you staying?” I said “the Broadway Central.” He said, “What?” I said, “Well, my friend Lillian Roxon has booked me in and I really should go there because she’s gone to the trouble.” He said, “Well, I’m coming with you. You’re not going there by yourself.” So off I went with Andrew Sinclair to the Broadway Central. We couldn’t go up in the lift to my room because there was someone being brought down who wasn’t in a very fit state. The door opened and this person was pushed out in a wheelchair death rattling, with a cigarette stuffed in his face to make him look well.

Andrew said, “No – come on!” I said, “No, no.” So we went upstairs and a drag queen, grotesquely made up with lipstick and five o’clock shadow everywhere, in a dress made of an Indian bedspread, came running down the stairs saying [mocking loud, distraught New York accent], “Oh my God, the police are after me. I didn’t pay my cab fare.” I said, “How much is your cab fare?” [Loud, distraught:] “Ninety-five dollars.” I said, “Where the fuck did you come from, Mexico City?” The police come thundering down after this guy. He runs screaming into the lobby in his platform soles. And we find my room, a corridor which had been partitioned off and the door didn’t shut. But I still slept there. But, of course, I didn’t sleep there again. And I never understood why Lillian did that. Was she trying to teach me that life is real, life is earnest or something? Did my sort of convent girl thing annoy her or what? But she was Margaret [Fink]’s great, great friend and I just had to persevere and try to get her to like me. So I didn’t say anything about the Broadway Central. I just moved out.

Next day Germaine moved to the apartment of other friends at 110th Street on the edge of Harlem, a long way from Lillian on 21st Street and the epicentre of New York’s counterculture at Max’s Kansas City. Andrew Sinclair recalls meeting Germaine at the Algonquin Hotel before the Broadway Central drama unfolded:

I met Germaine at the Algonquin, I think, at some literary party. She was terrified at returning to the Broadway Central Hotel. I offered her a couch at my New York publisher’s. Bold girl, she elected to go back to her hotel. “Not without me,” I said, tho’ both of us were penniless. You must understand, I had always treated her as a Victorian lady, which she liked, and she had considered me as an “intellectual lumberjack,” her terms.

Arriving by underground, we found two members of the NYPD wheeling out a stiff on a wheelchair. “How do you know he is a stiff?” Germaine said. “Because they can’t light the cigarette in his mouth.” Going upstairs to G. G.’s hotel room, we encounter a young drag queen, mascara running from his eyes. “Give me twenty bucks,” he says, “or they’ll bust me.” I take out my last two dollars and give it to him. “Best I can do,” I say. He puts lipstick on my hand. At Germaine’s cubby hole, I show her how to jam a chair and wardrobe behind her door handle to deter intruders. We do not even kiss good-night, but we have continued to respect each other mightily – she’s a fine woman.

Lillian’s account of the visit appeared in Woman’s Day in May 1971, soon after The Female Eunuch hit the international bestseller lists. The Australian magazine hoped to capitalise on their New York correspondent’s being the dedicatee of this sensational book and asked Lillian to write about Germaine. In her article Lillian wrote:

Just before she got the idea of writing The Female Eunuch Germaine, who had been living in England, came over to New York for a holiday. She had an open invitation to stay with me but, as luck would have it, she couldn’t have chosen a worse time.

I had just finished covering a presidential election, I was in the process of finishing my Rock Encyclopedia, I had just developed asthma and I had put on, in a matter of a few months, 30lb [13kg] I could definitely live without. My home was covered with newspapers and pages of my manuscript, New York was in the throes of a cockroach plague, I was exhausted and bad-tempered and definitely NOT in the mood to entertain anyone, let alone a lady larger than life and twice as clever.

I told her I was awfully sorry but I just had to be left to cope with my troubles alone. She said, without a trace of compassion, that it was all in my mind, and the love of a good man would solve everything, her usual solution, but that’s small comfort when your breath comes whistling out like a tea kettle and your publisher wants your manuscript fast.

So I moved her into the only hotel she said she could afford. When I rang to ask how she liked it, she said in her best Cambridge Debating Society voice, “Listen, I don’t mind the junkies. I don’t mind the transvestites. I don’t even mind the prostitutes. But I do object to riding down in a lift with corpses.” I hadn’t known that this particular hotel had the highest homicide rate in the world.

In its nineteenth-century heyday, the Broadway Central was the scene of an infamous assassination when Jim Fisk, a rogue tycoon, was shot dead on its staircase by an erstwhile business partner in 1872. Some things, it seemed, had not changed.

Despite this troubled start, Lillian and Germaine did get together during Germaine’s visit. In Germaine’s recollection their connection was clouded by Lillian’s preoccupations with work and her asthma:

There was a lot of stuff going on and I think that was one of the things that annoyed her. I’d go and see her and she’d be doing her thing: “I’m really very busy, I’ve got to work.” And I’d hear her on the phone becoming agitated. She’d be asking for a press pass or something and they’d be stonewalling her, and I could hear her hyperventilating. I could hear the asthma attack coming on. And all I could think was, “I mustn’t play this asthma game because if you reward this phenomenon she’ll do it more.” And I could see it was killing her. She was short of breath, her heart was labouring, probably, already. I never knew how much she ate, and that might be one reason why she didn’t want me there. Because I would have stopped her eating.

She interpreted my behaviour – which was to keep very calm when she was having an asthma attack, and to try to distract her – because I could see her working on it: “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.” And I’m an asthmatic myself. She lived in this terribly dry environment. That flat was a tinder-box. I couldn’t breathe in it. So I would try to be very cool with her. “Come on, let’s go and get something to eat, let’s go for a walk, let’s get out of this apartment, let’s get into some moist air.” And she would think I was just being a cow, that I wasn’t responding to her misery. I was her junior by miles, you know, in every way. She was a seasoned old hand and I was this convent school girl. So I tried that and it didn’t work. She would get very, very angry with me and that would make the situation worse. So I couldn’t intervene. But I tried.

Germaine was hardly an innocent convent school girl. Her account reveals little sympathy for Lillian’s need for solitude as a writer up against a publishing deadline, something Germaine, as a brilliant academic, with three degrees to her name, must have understood. She never mentions the Rock Encyclopedia’s central role in Lillian’s life at this time. Did she consider it unworthy? Or, at a time when Germaine had her own standing in the rock-and-roll community in Britain, was Lillian’s forthcoming book a source of competitive friction between the two women?

Lillian’s New York friends remember Germaine’s visit through a somewhat different prism. They remember Lillian taking Germaine to Max’s Kansas City and introducing her to the rock, art and Warhol crowd there. Donald Lyons, the academic and Beach Boys essayist for the Rock Encyclopedia, recalls having a spirited fight with Germaine at Max’s one night over their differing interpretations of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. Danny Goldberg remembers Lillian championing Germaine in the way she hyped other Australian visitors to her New York circle. But there was something ineluctably different about Germaine: none of the others ended up on the cover of Life magazine as Germaine would two years later. “It seemed to me that Lillian devoted [herself] full-time to publicising Germaine,” says Goldberg.

They were together all the time before The Female Eunuch. In New York, they were inseparable for many, many weeks. Lillian was constantly having lunch with this one with Germaine or breakfast with that one with Germaine and taking Germaine to Max’s or Germaine to this or Germaine to that. There is no way you could have paid anyone to do the PR that Lillian did out of her heart and out of her belief in her friend. I was there for that. I’m sure Germaine had other allies and had something to say that the world wanted to hear. But there is no question that Lillian was an extraordinary champion before most people in the US knew who Germaine was. Every day it was Germaine this and Germaine that. I believe later they had terrible fights.

One fight led to a severing of their relationship for more than a year. It happened one night in the back room at Max’s Kansas City, although its origin and nature are unclear. Germaine gives a graphic account of it:

I came in and joined a party that Lillian was already in and she just ripped into me. She abused me up hill and down dale – everything about me. My face, my hands, my feet, my voice, my mind, my past, my future, my everything. The New Yorkers were just sort of sitting there as if this was some sort of mud-wrestling contest and I was made to respond in kind. But there was no way I was going to do that. And besides, Lillian was too vulnerable. So I just sort of sat there with tears running down my face thinking, “Why are you doing this? What have I done?” It was as if there was no need for it to be justified: “I feel like giving you a pistol-whipping with my tongue and I’m doin’ it and I’m doin’ it good.” And I just couldn’t believe the brutality of it. So I left.

It must have been one of the few times in her life when Germaine failed to respond to a verbal pistol-whipping, if that is what it was. How could a woman of her strength and verbal skills have remained so uncharacteristically passive? The survivors from that time at Max’s have little recollection of this sensational incident, possibly because so many sensational things happened every night at Max’s in 1968 and 1969. But happen it did, and it was possibly the culmination of an inner competitive tension between the two women that found its outlet in a public display.

Lillian was proprietorial about New York and enjoyed taking charge of visitors. Much as she might have needed Lillian to introduce her to the city’s late sixties underground life, Germaine was not a person to be taken charge of. Germaine says: “I think what Lillian wanted, if she wanted to have anything to do with me at all, was to sort of be my agent in New York, that I would do what she said and I would meet the people she said. And she had a very odd way of doing that. She would say things like, ‘Here is Germaine Greer, Miss Dover Heights 1956.’ Gee, thanks.” (Dover Heights was then on the edge of Sydney’s most exclusive suburbs.)

It was almost as if the two women had too much in common: independence, drive, energy and an Australian background combined with a desire for stardom on a wider stage. New cultural frontiers were being explored and both of them wanted to lead the way. Their competitive edge was often apparent. Marion Hallwood, a Sydney friend then at Columbia University, says: “Lillian would sometimes express political opinions. Lillian was having lots of direct encounters with politicians around that time, with the Nixon presidential campaign. She knew lots of details. But because Germaine had access to academics in New York she would score points. Germaine would say, ‘Oh that’s just gossip. All you know is gossip, Lillian.’ That was one of her put down phrases.” Writer Jim Fouratt says: “Lillian and Germaine had in common the fact that they gravitated towards intelligence. In some ways Lillian then was more successful than Germaine. Lillian Roxon was probably the warmest and nicest cultural mover and groover in New York at that time. It might have been because she was Australian: Australians are very direct and very kind. She didn’t play games of the sort that occurred around the Warhol Factory. A lot of that was drug-induced. But Lillian always remembered what she’d said. Then there was a falling out between her and Germaine. There seems to be something about Australians criticising their own.”

Germaine Greer returned to Britain in early 1969, ready to embark on the book that would make her famous. •

An edited extract from Mother of Rock: The Lillian Roxon Story (Black Inc 2010) by Robert Milliken. On 26 January, SBS TV will show Mother of Rock: The Life and Times of Lillian Roxon, a documentary inspired by Milliken’s biography, produced by Robert de Young and directed by Paul Clarke.

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