May 21st, 1945. It’s two weeks since Nazi Germany surrendered, but Japan is undefeated and Sydney remains in the shadow of war.
In Mosman’s Ashton Park, a well-dressed man in his thirties pushes his way through the scrub and finds a secluded spot beneath a sandstone ledge. From his coat he takes out a bottle of pills and a small volume of poetry. Gazing out over the Harbour the man swallows the pills. Then he opens the book, which is a copy of the ‘Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam’, and marks two stanzas with a pencil.
Those verses are his suicide note.
I first came across this sad story while researching the underbelly of Sydney during World War II for my book World War Noir.
The man in Ashton Park was George Marshall, and he was born in Singapore in 1910. He came from a prominent family and though regarded as a brilliant young man, he struggled with depression. He spent five years in France, studying, honing his skill at philosophical discussion and writing poetry – but the only book of verse he ever published was savaged by reviewers.
He became more and more alienated. In 1939 he moved to Australia, joining one of his brothers in Perth, and over the next few years he travelled between Perth and Sydney. In Sydney he met a woman, Gweneth Graham, who was ten years younger than him. They struck up some kind of relationship, but then he went back to Perth, severing contact with her.
Over the next four years Marshall worked in the wartime bureaucracy in Perth, but serenity eluded him and he made at least one suicide attempt. Then in April 1945 he returned to Sydney and, out of the blue, resumed contact with Gweneth Graham. As she later told the inquest into his death:
‘… he telephoned me and said he was back in Sydney. I met him soon after that. We had a difference of opinion and I gave up seeing him for a fortnight … Mr Marshall was extremely temperamental and emotional. He was apt to take offence very easily. He had a masterful or domineering manner … Occasionally he referred to poetry. He referred to Lord Byron and Omar Khayyam …
In the month before his death Marshall and Graham met five times, but his attempt to revive their relationship failed.
Wartime relationships were often volatile. This is the main theme of Come In Spinner, the wonderful 1946 novel by Dymphna Cusack and Florence James that is the most wide ranging panorama we have of Sydney – and arguably, Australia as a whole – during World War II. Cusack and James portray the emotional and sexual mood of the wartime city through the eyes of three women who work in a beauty parlour off Martin Place. It’s the story of their struggles to balance the conflicting pressure of old and new relationships under the stress of wartime conditions. A hairdresser in real life, Gweneth Graham fitted so perfectly into the fictional world created by Cusack and James that she could have been one of their characters.
Trying to reconnect with Graham, Marshall warned her against her current boyfriend, a soldier named Helmut Hendon who was then in an Army camp in the Hunter Region; Marshall’s opinion was that Hendon was exploiting her. They also discussed her plan to open her own hairdressing salon. Graham was clearly attracted to the mercurial, cosmopolitan poet, but was wary of his unstable behaviour.
As well as being temperamental and domineering, Marshall could be charming. Just two days before he committed suicide he had run into Charles Jacobs, his old school teacher from Singapore who had retired to Sydney. As Jacobs told the inquest
I last saw him on the night of Saturday May 19th; he was then as always beautifully dressed, charming in manner, appeared full of good spirits … he so impressed the party of ladies I was then escorting that they decided to offer him hospitality …
This, then, was the complex personality of the man who killed himself in Ashton Park that day in May 1945. On the one hand he was brilliant and personable and on the other hand reclusive and volatile, with a history of suicide attempts. And he was a failure: a failed poet whose relationship with Gweneth Graham had just failed. Disappointed in life, he was inclined towards fatalism, and so it was appropriate that he should quote the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayam as his suicide note.
In its day the Rubaiyat was one of the most widely known, oft-quoted poems in the Anglophone world – for example, it also features prominently in Adelaide’s Somerton Beach Mystery, which was incubating around this time. The Rubaiyat was first published in 1859 by the English litterateur Edward Fitzgerald, as a free translation of verses attributed to the medieval Iranian mathematician Omar Khayyam. Fitzgerald’s interpretation of these verses is contested, but he believed they advocated a materialist, sceptical philosophy: that this life is all there is, and we should enjoy it while we can. This went right against the grain of the prevailing conservative Christian morality – and this subversive message gave the poem a phenomenal counter-cultural appeal.
The Rubaiyat was so popular that it became a sort of Swiss Army Knife of personal ethics, used to justify just about anything. Hollywood comedies even used it in seduction scenes – but the poem justified tragedy, too. The Rubaiyat’s doctrine that there was no afterlife to fear is spelt out in the two stanzas Marshall marked, and which were his explanation for why he took his own life.
Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,
Before we too into the Dust descend;
Dust unto dust, and under dust, to lie
Sans wine, sans song, sans singer, and sans end.
Oh, come with old Khayyam, and leave the wise
To talk; one thing is certain, that Life flies
One thing is certain, and the Rest is Lies
The Flower that once has blown for ever dies
Done with poetry and philosophy and love, Marshall found eternal oblivion an attractive prospect.
Marshall had hidden himself well in Ashton Park. It took two weeks for his body to be discovered, by which time it had been gnawed by rats – Sydney then being in the throes of a great rat plague. (This, by the by, was an unintended consequence of wartime meat rationing, which had led Sydneysiders to do away with their dogs and cats, which led to an explosion in the rat population.) The inquest into his death concluded on 13 August, four days after the second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, and while the world was awaiting Japan’s response to the Allies’ demand for surrender.
Marshall’s old teacher Charles Jacobs told the Coroner just how much his former pupil had impressed him …
in later life he was a rather remarkable case … he had developed what appeared to me to be a first class philosophic mind …. The philosophy in Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam would have appealed to him very deeply ….
The Coroner’s verdict was reported in the press: Perth’s Daily News nailed both the local and the philosophical angle with its headline: ‘Former Perth Omar Disciple Suicides’:
SYDNEY, Tuesday — Described as a philosopher and disciple of Persian poet Omar Khayyam, 34-year-old Joseph Haim Saul Marshall, formerly of Perth, took poison in Ashton Park, Mosman, on or about May 21.
Marshall’s death was a harbinger of the emotional upheaval which swept through Australia in the immediate postwar period – an upheaval reflected in the soaring divorce rate. The popular and conservative expectation was that after six years of wartime disruption everyone should settle down: a time for men to return from the armed services, for women to give up their wartime jobs (in fact, they were often sacked from them), and for couples to do their national duty and concentrate on raising children. From now on, Australia’s goal was to ‘populate or perish’, and this meant that the family would regain its unquestioned pre-eminence – a pre-eminence which had been threatened by the volatility in wartime relationships.
But not everyone saw it like that. Many young men and women had found the war to be the most dramatic and exciting experience of their lives, and many failed to adjust to peace – the theme of Neville Shute’s novel Requiem for a Wren. The last thing many people like Gweneth Graham’s boyfriend Helmut Hendon wanted to do was to subside into suburban domesticity. Eventually the groundswell prevailed baby boom was the result, but there were casualties along the way. Gweneth Graham was one of them.
Graham lived in Roslyn Road, Kings Cross, in Hendon’s flat. The two had first met up around the beginning of 1944, but Hendon was soon conscripted into the Army and he asked Graham to occupy his flat while he was away. At this time there was an acute shortage of accommodation in Sydney, and if the flat wasn’t occupied Hendon would lose his claim to it. So it was a mutually convenient arrangement, but the two were also in a serious relationship – or she thought so, at least. She used to visit Hendon at the various Army camps where he was posted, and she told him of George Marshall’s reappearance in Sydney. Later Hendon commented:
The death of Marshall seemed to upset her. She said she understood that when a man had nothing to live for, he would take his life
After the Japanese surrender Hendon was released from the Army and returned to his Kings Cross flat. It seems that at this point Graham expected him to formalise their relationship, to ask her to marry him. Her expectation would have been made more urgent by the fact that the caretaker of the building had said that now that Hendon had reoccupied his flat, Graham would have to move out, because the management wouldn’t allow unmarried couples to share the rooms.
Instead, Hendon dumped her.
In the evening of 25 August the two went to the cinema in Castlereagh Street where the movie On Approval was showing: a British romantic comedy about men who can’t show commitment. They went home and then, according to Hendon at the inquest into her death:
We had supper. Whilst having supper I suggested she leave the flat and go back and live at home … she said “I want to have a hot bath … Leave me alone in the bathroom for a while I want to think”. It did not strike me as unusual. She liked long hot baths … I was reading when after a while she did not come out of the bathroom I called out to her and I got no reply … I then went into the bathroom … First thing I saw was blood in the water, she was floating in the bath with her face down …. there was a razor in the bath
With Marshall’s example fresh in her mind, her rejection by Hendon prompted Gweneth Graham’s to kill herself.
This could have happened at anytime, but Graham’s decision was also a reflection of the emotional turmoil of the particular period. Today’s view is that the war was a time of self-restraint and self-sacrifice, and for many it was. But it was also a time when relationships were often contingent and transactional, and when people gave way to their urges and lived for the moment. Or died.