The Manoly I knew by Paul Knobel
The Manoly I Knew 2,371 words. Spell checked. In 12 point Times Roman. CORRECTED 3 SEPT
When I was in the final stage of compiling my Encyclopedia of Male Homosexual Poetry I met Manoly Lascaris, Patrick White's partner. Someone told me he wrote poetry and I sent him a letter asking if it was true. Some days later he rang me up: "No, Mr Knobel" he said "I don't write poetry". We chatted for a couple of minutes and he said that if ever I was in the vicinity of 20 Martin Road, Centennial Park (his and Patrick's last house), "Ring the doorbell". I had admired Patrick White's writing since I was an English honours student at the University of Queensland in the late 1960s. Initially a set work, Riders in the Chariot (1961), which I found gripping and could not put down, impressed me, then The Solid Mandala (1966). The latter I picked up remaindered and read as an allegory of a gay relationship finding it amazing. (About this time, when I met him cruising the sandhills of Southport in the late 1960s, the late bisexual Sydney doctor Ian "Sadie" Thompson told me Patrick White was gay "and Sydney had several gay millionaires"; he got his nickname from gay icon Johnny Farnham's first hit song Sadie the Cleaning Lady since gays who got vd went to him to be "cleaned": a delicate matter since it could be in the anus and that involved legalities, indeed was evidence that anal sex then illegal had occurred). As I used to bicycle around Centennial park for exercise, a few days later I rang Manoly's doorbell and was invited in for a cup of tea. I found Manoly easy to talk to and at the end of our meeting spontaneously broke into French "Enchante de faire votre connaisance" I said (Pleased to meet you). Manoly replied with a twinkle in his eye "Enchante aussi" (Pleased also, though English does not quote convey the meaning of enchante). We were simpatico.
I visited the house on several occasions before his death. I had actually sat beside Manoly once before at a dinner party at the composer Nigel Butterley's. Patrick White dominated the conversation with everyone listening to every word (he was practically the only one who did speak, certainly at any length). Manoly only spoke once commenting on what good cheeses could be bought at David Jones in Bondi Junction; on this occasion he gave the impression of being very shy but on reflection I think this was because of Patrick's presence.
The Manoly Lascaris I knew was an amazing person: warm, kind, civilized (though even these words don't convey him fully), the perfect companion for a writer of novels who spends long hours at his desk. He was totally relaxed to talk to with no pretensions and was totally different to the harridan of Vrasidas Karalis's memoir. He spoke perfect English (he had read all Patrick's novels in manuscript) since he had been brought up bilingually with his mother being American and his father Greek. (I kept no notes of our meetings by the way.)
Early in our acquaintanceship Penny Coleing was frequently present: she came for afternoon tea each day at about 4. The gay writer John Loney was also a constant guest, visiting Manoly daily, and it was apparent he and Manoly got on very well (the writer Jim Waites had shared the house with Manoly for a while after Patrick died in 1990). Meetings took place in the sitting room to the left of the front door with pictures of Manoly's aunts who had brought him up in Alexandria and Athens on display and Orthodox icons on a shelf. Notable was Aunt Despo (I think; otherwise it was Aunt Elly), photographed reclining on a yacht in a long Edwardian dress; she seemed quite a character. This area was adjacent to the dining room which had had part of the wall removed so that there was one large sitting-dining area (at the auction of the house contents after Manoly's death, I was later to buy the table, 8 chairs and the rug on which it stood as well as three chairs White had used; the famous "passing out" couch which stood in the room was not part in the furniture auctioned; the chairs, which are every comfortable, and couch were all upholstered in purple).
Manoly told me the main events of his life: his childhood in Alexandria and later in Athens during the war. He told me of both his parents abandoning him and his siblings when their marriage broke down (a brother Mario was a pianist at the conservatorium in Athens where a sister also lived). His father had been quite wealthy before the marriage broke up with property in Egypt and Turkey. He worked in a bank owned by his uncle where the homosexual poet Cavafy then looking very dowdy was a customer before meeting Patrick in the 1940s. He paid his own airfare to Australia and commented on shouting fellow travellers who had no money a coffee when the plane stopped for refuelling. He was well aware of his being "the central mandala" in Patrick White's life and it was apparent from the way he referred to Patrick that he loved him dearly.
He told me that White's study at Dogwoods, their first home in Showgrounds Road, Castle Hill, was in a room in the middle on the right side of the house looking from the street (this house has now been extensively changed and this room no longer exists; the house has heritage protection but that does not mean much in NSW: see later in this piece about the fate of 20 Martin Road). He kept the fire going as PW wrote through the night; Patrick would also get up from the dining table to write down an elusive word which had come to him Both men had been soldiers in World Ward Two and I well remember Manoly mentioning Jewish friends who had escaped Auschwitz by bribing the guards while others ended up "as smoke" from the chimneys (and here he curled his eyes upwards).
I visited him several times over a period of 2 or 3 years. The charming young male nurses who were with him 24 hours a day and most of whom were gay were anxious to keep him in contact with people. He became housebound after a fall when his Spanish housekeeper arrived early one morning and, alarmed by the barking of the dogs next door, called out to him; coming down the stairs too quickly he broke a bone. Gradually he became frailer and frailer and alzheimer's set in. However he was quite lecherous at this time of the onset of alzheimer's and holding his hand, I found it drawn by him to his penis. On one occasion when a man from Britain who had read all Patrick White's novels visited Sydney a friend who knew of my visits asked if I could arrange for him to meet Manoly. I rang the nurses and they said OK. We brought a large cake. Afterwards we discussed whether Manoly was a Christian and this man stated that Manoly had to be a believer.
Once I happened to visit him on his, I think, 89th birthday when pink lamingtons were presented which delighted him (a photo was taken showing him smiling impishly). On a couple of visits I was allowed to see Patrick's study where there was a shelf or two of old books from the 1930s (as you face the house, the window to the left on the ground floor); the desk was against a wall which I thought peculiar when there was a lovely view to Centennial Park in front. There were very few books in the house though many translations of White novels stood on the book cases. I also saw PW's bedroom at the back upstairs (there was a smaller bedroom in the front which Manoly had had, though now he was on the ground floor in the third bedroom). The house inside exuded a certain magic and stillness: clearly a writer's house but one where conversation and dining went on.
Patrick White has been said to have had poor taste in art but I liked the artwork (ranging from abstraction to a painting of a typical Aussie male in the dining room). In the study was a marvellous portrait of Margaret Carnegie by Desmond Digby (in fact several portraits of her face from the shoulder up done from several angles); when I later asked this vivacious woman about dinner with Patrick she said "I think I was copy", so she may be an inspiration for one of the women in a White novel.
Manoly explained how 2 large pine trees in the garden were "the pines of Rome" and he had smuggled the seeds back in the bottom of a coffee jar. These trees and others helped attract birds whose calls could be heard in the house. Hannah, Lady Lloyd Jones, had sent other plants for the garden. You became aware how well connected White was (after all his family owned a huge station in the Hunter Valley). I also found out from the nurses about Manoly and PW's sex life (obviously everyone wanted to know this: what the nurses said —and obviously they had been asked the question before—was that "Patrick had a large cock and did not fuck Manoly as he had a small anus"; whether the opposite occurred I don't know and what else but since mutual masturbation is a major activity of both heterosexuals and homosexuals no doubt this happened; probably Manoly would have told me this himself but I did not feel I knew him well enough to ask and there were also ago differences).
Manoly also told me that "all our friends were gay" and I could have seen him marching for gay rights if PW had have agreed. White did write to the Sydney Gay Right's Lobby in the early 1970s when I was a member, encouraging our efforts at law reform but this was as far as he was prepared to go: he was not prepared to demonstrate (as he did in the anti nuclear movement) but did give best wishes. In fact the publication of his autobiography Flaws in the Glass in 1983 helped the cause of legalization which was finally achieve with a legal age of sexual consent set at 18 in 1984; it is now 16 (still above the legal age of sexual consent (but only for heterosexuals) of 12 which it was prior to 1885 in Britain and its realms and which it had been from the middle ages and church law). It was also fairly courageous of Patrick and Manoly to live together in the Australia of the late forties, fifties and sisties.
Manoly had been left a life tenancy of the house plus White's money at the bank and the royalties from the books, now translated into over 30 languages (the house could be sold if needed to buy him something else suitable though this did not happen; once Manoly had to go into a nursing home for a few days when the downstairs was painted but he checked himself out and came back immediately; he was probably afraid he would not be let out). White's will left his estate to 4 residual beneficiaries including the State Library of NSW and the Art Gallery of NSW and through this the state of NSW in effect owned half the house on his death. Manoly could have challenged the will as he had a stake in the house in helping maintain it and in creating the garden but he was not the type to challenge a will. I felt PW's will was a callous act by White and the ultimate betrayal of his partner. White was probably aware that Manoly would have left the house to be a writer's museum and did this to thwart him (the academic Katherine Runcie told me that Patrick "did not want a shrine"). I am quite sure Manoly in his will would have left the house to become a museum and indeed in the will he made provision for the contents to remain if within 3 years of his death the house was made a museum. Manoly's own will also stated that his ashes be burnt and "scattered at sea" (not scattered with Patrick's on the lake in Centennial Park at the corner of Anzac Road and Alison Road). He must have felt very hurt at Patrick's actions.
I last saw Manoly a week before he died at Lulworth, the Elizabeth Bay house White's parents had once owned. This had become part of St Luke's Nursing Home. Manoly was in a suite with classical music playing and gave me the most beatific smile though I am sure he did not know me. We shook hands. There on the table were the photos of his beloved aunts.
Despite the strictest heritage protection at both City of Sydney Council and NSW State Government level 20 Martin Road was sold and the present owners have had a development application approved (which makes a mockery of heritage laws): they have been allowed to redo the interior once they have documented it and make changes to the exterior. A 250 page heritage report commissioned by the Historic Houses Trust has been completely ignored. In fact as Peter West, former head of the Historic Houses Trust stated recently, book reading NSW premier Bob Can had actually deposited the money in an account to buy the house at auction but it was withdrawn (there were rumours in Sydney that the Premier had been rolled in cabinet on this issue). Work has commenced on 20 Martin Road, which should be a World Heritage site since White is a writer in the same league as Dickens, Shakespeare and Virginia Woolf. The back yard where Manoly and Patrick once entertained under a trellis has been hollowed out and is to be a swimming pool and garages. The contents were sold as "property of Manoly Lascaris".
Paul Knobel is the author of An Encyclopedia of Male Homosexual Poetry (second edition 2009) and An Encyclopedia of Male Homosexual Art (2005). He is also the author of 3 volumes of poetry. He was involved in the campaign to save 20 martin Road.