Charmian Clift

1923-1969     |    Columnist & Commentator

Charmian Clift was in the vanguard of the post-World War II wave of feminism, attracting large and loyal audiences for her columns in the Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne Herald. Commissioned to write columns “from a woman’s point of view”, Clift wrote powerfully, passionately and emotionally in essay style about the Vietnam War, conscription, world hunger and the Greek junta. Many prominent women writers, including Helen Garner and Elizabeth Riddell, have referred to Clift’s work as an inspiration. Clift survived the scandal of an affair with her long-time famous partner George Johnston and the social restrictions on women in the 1940s to become a significant figure as a journalist and author in her own right.

The Australians drank more than other people, they wrote more, they got sick more, they got well more, they cursed more, they blessed more, and they helped a great deal more. They were an inspiration.

Leonard Cohen on his time with Charmian Clift and George Johnston on Hydra
 
 
 

Biography

Charmian Clift

By MARGARET SIMONS

“There is a sort of dreamlike quality in returning to a place where one was young. Memory is as tricky as a flawed window glass that distorts the view beyond according to the way one turns one’s head.”

So wrote Charmian Clift in 1964, months after returning from the Greek island of Hydra to Australia. This was the first of the newspaper columns for which she is best remembered.

Clift and her husband, journalist and writer George Johnston, were broke. His novel My Brother Jack had been published but was yet to earn. She was writing out of economic necessity.

Her work appeared on the women’s pages, surrounded by advertisements for cosmetics and margarine. She had just 500 words. Yet over the next five years she was to push the form of the women’s column to its limits, writing 240 mini-essays that used a confident, personal and above all conversational tone to reflect on Australian society.

By the time her contract to write the column was confirmed the following year, she had criticised consumerism, accused Australians of being conformist, ridiculed advertising and attacked the Australian Government’s commitment to the Vietnam war – which The Sydney Morning Herald supported.

But such was her following that the newspaper’s main advertiser, Grace Brothers, insisted that its advertisements should be placed next to her column and she had been given a permanent prime position on page two of the women’s section. The paper’s mail room was deluged with fan mail and and Clift was getting used to being stopped on the street by strangers. 

The early columns in the Melbourne Herald and Sydney Morning Herald were bounded in domesticity, but as the decade developed they became explicitly critical and wanted a brave Australian national identity “a real cultural and social flowering, spiky and wild and refreshing and strange and unquestionably rooted in native soil”.

When, in 1966, demonstrations disrupted the ceremonial motorcade of visiting US President Johnson she wrote about the right of dissent as “something that we Australian people used to hold dear, all the way back to the Eureka Stockade.”

She raged against complacency. Australia was “so bland and even meek in the character of its people…far from being anti-authoritarian as I always believed, they actually seem to drive a sense of comfort and ease from unquestioning submission.”

On the list that followed of things that had been too easily accepted were conscription to the Vietnam War and the “tragic” departure of architect Jorn Utzon from designing the Sydney Opera House and Australia’s treatment of Aborigines.

Born and brought up in the NSW coastal town of Kiama, Clift’s first job in journalism was editing and writing an army magazine For Your Information when she was a lieutenant in the women’s service during the second world war. She was 21 years old.

The army’s head of public relations, Brigadier Errol Knox, was in civilian life the managing director of the Melbourne Argus newspaper. Impressed by Clift, he hired her to work on the paper as soon as she was demobilised in 1946.

It was at the Argus that she fell in love with George Johnston, a famous war correspondent who was then editing a new weekly magazine, the Australasian Post. Their very public affair was a scandal and the talk of the town. Johnston was eleven years her senior and married with a child.

Her career was progressing but was cut short. Weeks later, she was sacked by management over the affair with Johnston, and he resigned in protest.

In 1954, they committed to a literary life and moved to Greece, first to the island of Kalymnos and then to Hydra. It was here that Clift began to publish books in her own right, with two autobiographical books of travel writing, Mermaid Singing (1956) and Peel Me A Lotus (1959).

On Hydra, Clift and Johnston had been at the centre of a community of artists and writers that has been almost mythologised in retrospect. They were visited by the then unknown author and poet Leonard Cohen, who gave his first performance as a singer while staying with them. Cohen later wrote: "The Australians drank more than other people, they wrote more, they got sick more, they got well more, they cursed more, they blessed more, and they helped a great deal more. They were an inspiration.”

Other visitors to Hydra included journalist Mungo MacCallum, artist Sidney Nolan, actor Peter Finch and the writer Rodney Hall. It was a hard-working, hard drinking bohemian community of unusual freedom. Her first solo novel Walk to the Paradise Gardens (1960) was followed by Honours Mimic (1964). All four of her books were well received in the USA and Britain, but barely distributed in Australia.

The couple returned home when George Johnston’s most famous book My Brother Jack was published. Clift found she was not allowed to enter public bars in Sydney. Women were everywhere constrained. How much longer was it going to be, she asked, before “society faces up to the fact that women are fully fledged members of the human fraternity and as such entitled to participate in its economic social and cultural life on terms of absolute equality?”

Clift had developed a serious drinking problem on Hydra that continued to plague her for the rest of her life. She also found it difficult to suddenly be a public figure, saying to a friend: “There is this woman, Charmian Clift. And I have to dress up as her and go out and be her.”

On 8 July 1969, Clift took a fatal dose of sleeping tablets while drunk, just before George’s latest novel, Clean Straw for Nothing, was published. The artist Joy Hester, a close friend, said part of Charmian’s depression was her distress over the book, a fictional version of her extra-marital affairs during the Hydra years. Johnston died a year after the book was released.

Margaret Simons is a freelance journalist and associate professor of Journalism at Monash University.

Charmian Clift, circa 1964. Courtesy of HWT

 

Charmian Clift with George Johnston, circa 1964. Courtesy of News Corp

 

 

 

Further reading

 

The Life and Myth of Charmian Clift, Nadia Wheatley, Flamingo Press, 2001.

 

Images in Aspic, Charmian Clift (ed.George Johnston), Harper Collins, 1989.

 

Trouble in Lotus Land: Essays 1964-1967, Charmian Clift (ed.Nadia Wheatley), Angus and Robertson, 1990.

 

World of Charmian Clift, Charmian Clift, Collins, 1983.