How a chance remark led Patricia O’Reilly to explore a literary mystery and come up with her own solution
Eileen Gray (1878-1976), Irish designer, architect and painter, has been part of my life since the mid-1990s, when Image magazine asked me to write a piece on the Irish diaspora in Paris, focusing on her. I confess that I had never heard of her, but of course, when as a freelance you are being commissioned, ignorance of the proposed subject is never admitted.
From the first I was fascinated by this talented, reclusive woman, who had destroyed personal papers, mementoes and photographs but who left a meticulous record of all her projects. Over the years I wrote features on her, a radio play, did some broadcasts and spoke about her as far afield as the Princess Grace Library, Monaco. I wrote a book, too, Time & Destiny, published by Hodder, so I considered myself to be a bit of an expert.
Then one day, over lunch, Antony Farrell of Lilliput Press mentioned that Bruce Chatwin had done an interview with Eileen Gray in 1972 for the Sunday Timesmagazine. In all my years I had not come across anything that tied Gray’s name to Chatwin’s. From that small seed The Interview was born. It was a mystery I had to get to the bottom of.
In the National Library of Ireland I trawled through reels of microfiches of the Sunday Times magazine. Nothing. In Under the Sun: the letters of Bruce Chatwin, selected by Elizabeth Chatwin and Nicholas Shakespeare, I discovered a letter, dated 21 December 1972, that Bruce wrote to Eileen from Sloane Avenue, his London address, thanking her ‘for the most enjoyable Sunday afternoon I have spent in years’. So they had spent time together.
Next I telephoned Bruce’s wife, Elizabeth, in Wales. Yes, Bruce had interviewed Eileen and, as far as she knew, the interview had never been published. She did not know why, and did not think that he had even written up his notes.
I would write a book about that interview.
After decades of living reclusively, suddenly, aged 94, Eileen Gray was back in the news owing to the price of $36,000 paid at auction for her lacquer screen. It was then the highest price ever paid for a ‘modern’ antique. Le Destin was the four-panel screen that first brought her fame in 1913, when it was bought by couturier and fine arts collector Jacques Doucet, and fame for the second time in 1972 at the executors’ sale of Doucet’s collection. Always reluctant to face the media, Eileen Gray refused all interviews.
That same year, 32-year-old Bruce Chatwin was the rising star of Fleet Street. After a successful career in Sotheby’s and studying archaeology in Scotland, he had joined theSunday Times magazine as art and architectural adviser, with an unlimited expense account. He travelled the world, profiling the people making the news: the Guggenheims in New York, Mrs Gandhi in India, and the ‘Nazi-hunter’ Simon Wiesenthal in Vienna. In Under the Sun it is stated that he wanted to interview Eileen Gray.
And so I began the process of sorting through my research—whiteboards, yellow stickies all over the house, a tape recorder and a notebook glued to me. Slowly the information I had accrued took on the shape of a manuscript. I labelled it BIP12 (book in progress no. 12). Ten of my titles are published; one languishes in a chest of drawers in the spare bedroom.
I settled on using interview techniques as my primary strand—it helped that I had a background in journalism. I planned to weave Eileen’s and Chatwin’s life stories through the interview. But the questions as to how he gained access to her and why his interview had not been published niggled. I looked into the traits of my two characters.
Both had disturbed childhoods: Eileen Gray was a lonely child, with a habit of sleeping on the floor outside her mother’s room. When she was eleven, her father returned to Italy to paint. She was devastated and poured all her love into Brownswood, her home in Enniscorthy. A few years later, her sister’s husband’s ‘renovation’ resulted in the simple Georgian house becoming an over-elaborate monstrosity. Eileen and her mother, Baroness Gray, moved to their London townhouse.
Bruce Chatwin was a war baby whose mother shuffled from relation to relation, while his father, Charles, served with the Royal Navy Reserve. When the Second World War ended, the family moved to Birmingham, where Charles set up a successful legal practice. Bruce and his brother went to Marlborough College, where Bruce is best remembered for amateur dramatics and his fascination with Noel Coward.
Charming and charismatic is how Chatwin is remembered. He had the ability to inveigle his way in past Louise Dany, Eileen Gray’s maid, who was the first line of defence in protecting her privacy. Would Gray have spent time with Chatwin? Yes, she was lonely. She would have felt safe in his company and they would have social identification. With him, she could relive the halcyon days of her successes.
Gradually I began to see how a relationship could develop between the unlikely pair and why, perhaps, that interview had not been published. And so it was that BIP12 evolved into The Interview.