The story of my grandparents’ secret

My happy Bar Mitzvah photographs, taken in 1987 in the foyer of the once grand Germiston synagogue on the East Rand near Johannesburg, captured a rare moment in time when my grandfather Rolf was in the same room as his ex-wife, my petite, and glamourous grandmother Nella.

I am in the middle, smiling like a cherub, my beaming parents (Ian and Cecile) on either side. On my left, wearing a white suit and a gentle smile is my grandfather, while in between my mother and my Zaida Harry, staring back rather demurely at the camera in a stylish outfit and black beret, is Nella.

I remember the day as a joyous and successful one, me singing my parashah from the Torah on the Bimah, while my family watched on proudly, then later, the sweets, as was tradition then, raining down from the women’s section of the synagogue above to celebrate my symbolic entrance into adulthood. A catered luncheon followed after in the hall at the back of the synagogue with all the South African Jewish delicacies on offer (mock crayfish, chopped herring, gefilte fish, bagels and lox). I made a half decent speech which got a few laughs, then came singing and dancing with my family and friends.

My Bar Mitzvah: From L-R: Rolf Schlesinger, my dad Ian, Me, my mom Cecile, Granny Nella and my Zaida, Harry Hyton

I was at the time, and for many years after, unaware that my grandmother had not spoken to my grandfather in over 30 years, after he divorced her to marry an Afrikaans lady called Elizabeth, with whom he’d had an affair.

There was an obvious clue to this secret – whenever my grandfather, whom we called “Grampie” came to visit us (armed always with a large bag of sweets and chocolates) my grandmother would hastily retreat to her bedroom and not come out until he had left.

This practice continued until my grandfather passed away suddenly in 1988, when I was 15.

He’d fallen in the rain, whilst doing a delivery for the charity Meals on Wheels in Johannesburg, been taken to hospital by my mother and passed away completely unexpectedly from suspected congenital heart failure, though the exact cause of his death remains something of a mystery.

He was cremated and his ashes placed in a wall of remembrance at West Park cemetery in Emmerentia in Johannesburg’s northern suburbs. My grandmother Nella, who passed in 1997, is also buried at West Park.

My grandfather had met Elizabeth at the boiler suit-making factory in downtown Johannesburg that was owned by my grandmother’s wealthy family, the Grevlers. He was a director (courtesy of the largesse shown to him by “Big Uncle” Isaac Grevler) while Elizabeth, whose first name was actually Johanna, worked in the factory.

After he admitted his affair, divorced my grandmother and married Elizabeth, my grandmother never spoke to him again or forgave him for his betrayal. For the rest of her life she held onto that “terrible thing done to her”. A beautiful woman who in her younger days looked like a 1930s movie star, she dated other men after her divorce, but sadly never established a serious romantic relationship again.

My grandmother in her late 20s (circa 1935)

“I don’t blame my mom…she was a woman with very high self-esteem, and [the affair] completely dashed her. Nobody got divorced at that time. I was the only kid in my class whose parents got divorced,” my Uncle Colin (their older son) tells me on a Zoom call from his home in Alamo in California.

Growing up I never knew anything about this family saga; I had no idea my grandfather was married to someone else, and lived a life entirely outside the sphere of our fairly observant Jewish life with its festivals and Shabbat dinners.

I have strong and vivid memories of my grandmother, who lived with us for many years after giving up her flat on the edge of Hillbrow. She was a well-travelled woman of refined taste who loved her grandkids dearly. My memories of my grandfather are more fleeting as we saw him less frequently. Looking through old photos reminds me of his soft and sweet demeanour.

“He was pretty tough as a father. I think he tried to be like his dad (my adventuring great grandfather Bruno) who was a tough bloke,” recalls Colin.

Two of Colin’s strong memories of his father – before his parents got divorced – are of the very pleasant Sunday drives the family took to visit the many tea gardens in Johannesburg and, riding on his father’s back as a small boy when Rolf would get down on all fours.

Less pleasant, were memories of the whippings he received from his father’s cane.

Made out of “flexible material” Rolf had obtained it through his volunteer work for St John’s Brigade, known today as St John’s Ambulance.

One particular memory of that cane has long remained vivid in Colin’s memory.

“We had a huge oak tree outside our house at14 Rutland Road, Parkwood (a leafy, old inner Joburg suburb) and I used to love climbing trees.

“I don’t know what had happened, but something had happened and I knew that my father was going to punish me. So I climbed up the oak tree, right to the top where the branches were pretty thin. It was a big tree,” says Colin.

Happier days: Nella and Rolf as a married couple.

“My father was down below, and getting really quite agitated, telling me to come down, saying ‘you are going to fall. Don’t be silly’

“And I said to him” ‘I’m not coming down, because if I do, you are going to whip me with that cane.

“He said: ‘No, no, I won’t do that. Please come down.”

“So after saying that for a while, I did come down…and guess what happened?

What? I asked him, but guessing the answer: “He whipped me.” said Colin.

However, Colin says my grandfather’s toughness mellowed later in life, after having some kind of a quasi nervous breakdown, most likely to do with the guilt he felt about his affair and its impact on his family.

After about 16 years of no contact at all, my uncle re-established his relationship with my grandfather after returning from the UK and USA, where he’d completed his PhD in Chemical Engineering.

“When I cam back, I decided that if my mother did not want to talk to her ex-husband that was her business, but he was still my father and I wanted to have a relationship with him.

“I discovered that he had changed completely. I think he had either had a nervous breakdown or got very close to having one. It was caused by guilt. He felt enormously guilty that he had abandoned [my brother] Ian and me because of his behaviour.

“It was very strange, it was like our roles had been reversed, I was actually trying to reassure him.

“He liked to eat hot mielie meal for breakfast (cornmeal) and I would tell him. When you wake up at 4am, do something: make hot mielie meal, listen to the radio, read a book, don’t just lie in bed with all these negative thoughts.”

After a while – with the help of his eldest son – my grandfather pulled out of his depression, turning, according to Colin into “the kindest, sweetest guy you could imagine”.

“He was 180 degrees different from the way he had been growing up, and we became great friends.”

One of the things my grandfather and uncle did together, along with my cousin David (Colin’s son) was build a mirror dinghy, a small sailing boat, that I distinctly remember checking out when we visited our cousins at their home in Parkmore in the 1980s.

Colin and my grandfather Rolf (1987)
The inscription on the back of the photo.

“David, my dad and I would work on building this dinghy. And when it was finished, on the weekends, we would take it to various dams like Emmerentia Dam and sail it. It was a very nice bonding experience working on that boat together,” says Colin.

He also showed me a sign, that his dad made for him after he took a job as a salesman for a sign-making company.

“We’ were talking about procrastinating and doing things, and he made this sign for me, which I have on my desk,” says Colin.

Made out of bright yellow plastic with red letters, it says simply: “TODAY”.

The sign my grandfather made for Colin when he was working as a salesman for a sign-making company in Johannesburg (pictured here with Colin’s dog Lola)

My last memory of my grandfather Rolf is him sitting atop a hill watching me play in a school cricket match in Linksfield, Johannesburg, perhaps not long before he passed away. I remember distinctly his small figure in long pants and a dark blazer in the distance, and my sense of surprise and pleasure at seeing him there.

The last time I saw my grandmother was in July 1997, before I headed off to the USA for six months to work at a summer camp in Wisconsin.

By then she was in her late 80s and quite frail.

At the time she lived with us in our Linksfield home. Her bedroom was right next to mine at the back of the house and she would often call out in her quiet, wavering voice: “Larry” to ask a favour. I often drove her to and from visits to her friends in their apartments around Johannesburg. Though I sometimes complained about having to do these errands, I miss those trips and ferrying her around the suburbs. She was always very grateful; we had a close bond.

In her younger and more independent days, my grandmother had a flat in Killarney – an old Johannesburg suburb packed with apartment buildings (hers was a white Art Deco block called Daventry Court) and old Jewish people. I remember her flat filled with dainty trinkets and old, dark wooden furniture and there was a dark green Peugeot 404 (a gift from Colin) parked in her garage.

I distinctly remember riding up the old musty elevator, and walking along the outdoor passageway to her flat door, and her warmth and delight at seeing me and my brother and sister when we came to visit.

She died while I was in the USA in 1997 and like my grandfather’s passing I never attended her funeral.

Always elegant: My grandmother taken in the garden of house in Germiston circa 1985

Me (a very chubby baby) and my grandmother

Revisiting Serial: The 5 big reasons why Adnan Syed most likely did not kill Hae Min Lee

Like many of those who enjoy true crime podcasts, I got hooked after listening to the groundbreaking first season of Serial, which investigated the 1999 murder of Baltimore student Hae Min Lee, who was strangled and buried in Leakin Park on January 13, and the problematic conviction of he ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed.

Hae Min Lee was murdered in 1999

Released in 2014, the show hooked tens of millions of people as it delved deep into the baffling case, examining the evidence used to convict Syed and coming up with fresh leads, a possible alibi, new theories, controversies and inconsistencies.

Serial set the scene for an explosion of investigative true crime podcasts and became the template against which they would all be judged.

Serial also threw a huge spotlight on Syed’s conviction and the many doubts about the dubious testimony of his so-called friend and local drug dealer Jay Wilds which ultimately sent Syed to jail for life despite no hard evidence linking Syed to Lee’s murder. The podcast inspired a four-part HBO documentary that also argued for his innocence (along with numerous follow-up podcasts and blogs), paving the way for efforts by Syed’s legal team to secure a re-trial.

While that effort ultimately failed – in March 2019 the Maryland Court of Appeal quashed a decision by the state’s lower courts to grant him a new trial and in November 2019 the US Supreme Court declined to hear the case – doubts about his conviction have remained and the debate has raged for years online and on social media. Did Adnan Syed do it?

While it came out a few years ago,popular true crime podcast called Crime Junkie (which I have just discovered via a good friend) aired a special episode in April 2018, which in my opinion tips the scales firmly in favour of Adnan Syed’s innocence and highlights an appalling miscarriage of justice.

Called “What Serial Didn’t Tell You”, Crime Junkie host Ashley Flowers, with the help of her co-host Brit Prawat, pulls together all the extensive information published since Serial season one aired, drawn mainly from two other podcasts, Undisclosed and Truth and Justice as well as three blogs written by Rabia Chaudry (the lady who brought Adnan’s case to Serial host Sarah Koenig), lawyer Sarah Simpson and law professor Colin Miller, all three of whom are hosts of Undisclosed. She also read Chaudry’s best selling book Adnan’s Story.

“I tried to make that 30 minute thing with the top need to know facts [so that people can] have an informed discussion about Adnan’s case,” says Flowers at the start of the podcast.

Flowers then goes on to launch a concise and highly convincing argument for Syed’s innocence, or at the very least, the right to a new trial.

Without listening to all the podcasts, or reading the blogs and books Flowers researched to prepare the episode (I assume its accurate, Crime Junkie is a very popular and scrutinised podcast) I’ve summarized the main points she makes, plus added one of my own:

  1. The cellphone tower pings

Adnan Syed was convicted of murder largely because Jay Wild’s testimony of what happened and where on January 13, 1999. This timeline of events matched the locations of cell phone tower that pinged off Syed’s mobile phone every time it rang on that fateful day.

“Police created a map to show how the cell phone moved during the day based on its signal pinging of towers,” Flowers reminds listeners.

While there was a lot of controversy about this testimony – Wilds changed his story when the police and prosecutors realised they got the map wrong being just one example – it still dealt a body blow to Syed because two calls pinged off towers near Leakin Park at 7.09 and 7.16pm that prosecutors said proved Syed was there burying Lee’s body.

(You can read Jay Wild’s account of that day as told to The Intercept in December 2014.)

“They even got an expert to testify to this in court who said Adnan was where Jay said he was at the time they were burying Hae’s body,” says Flowers.

However, this expert did not see (most likely it was deliberately withheld) a fax cover sheet from telephone company AT&T which made the point that outgoing calls only are reliable for location status. Incoming calls – the ones Syed received on January 13, 1999 – are not considered reliable information for determining a location.

“The expert witness did not see this, and would have changed his testimony” says Flowers. This was one of the man arguments Syed’s lawyer Justin Brown used to get a new trial.

2. The State of Hae Min Lee’s body

While this cell tower information is startling, it does not prove conclusively that Syed was not in Leakin Park at the time Wild’s said they were there burying Lee’s body, only that the data cannot be relied upon.

More important – and damning of the conviction of Syed – is the state of Hae Min Lee’s body when it was discovered four weeks after her murder on February 9.

According to Flowers (and confirmed by medical examiner who undertook the autopsy), Lee had “full-fixed lividity” on the front of her body including her face, chest, stomach and legs.

Lividity or Livor Mortis is the settling of blood after death in gravity-dependent portions of the body, including in the organs. Blood settles after death in parts of the body closest to the ground, causing purplish-red blue discolouration.

Lividity happens pretty slowly, and can take 8-10 hours to occur, explained Flowers.

This meant Lee’s body had remained face down in the same position for that period and therefore she could not have been placed in the trunk of a car, as Jay Wilds, the state’s key witness had claimed when he picked Syed up around 4pm from Best Buy on the day of the murder.

In addition, because Lee was found on her right side, but she had full, fixed lividity on the front of her body, she could not have been buried flat in a shallow grave at Leakin park at around 7.30pm. Lee was last seen alive at around 2.15- 3pm, so at a minimum her body would have had to lie face down until 10.30 or 11pm, most likely even later.

“Nothing adds up,” says Flowers.

3. Hae Min Lee’s car

Hae Min Lee’s car – a Nissan Sentra – is a crucial piece of evidence as Jay Wild’s says that her body was in the boot before Syed drove it to Leakin Park with Wild’s following behind in Syed’s Honda Accord.

Later, according to Wild’s testimony Syed parked it in a lot behind some houses. The car was recovered on February 28, the same day Syed was arrested and charged with her murder.

Flowers notes that there was green grass growing under the car, and even inside the wheel well, which suggests the car was moved from somewhere else and that someone told Jay where the car was.

This is confirmed in pictures of Lee’s car, which you can easily find online showing clearly the grass growing underneath and the patch of dead grass next to it, indicating what should have happened over time.

“It highlights the fact again that Jay new nothing about what happened to Hae – his account is all made up. Jay’s story unfolds as police find new evidence not the other way round,” say Flowers.

And the question remains: who moved Lee’s car?

Hae Min Lee’s Car: the green grass can be seen clearly under the car

4. There is no evidence linking Adnan Syed to the crime scene (my own ‘research’)

The entire case made against Adnan Syed was based on Jay Wild’s testimony. There is in fact no physical evidence linking Syed to the crime scene, not a shred.

Furthermore, DNA testing carried out in 2019 of 12 pieces of evidence found on or around Hae Min Lee’s body found none of the them produced a DNA profile that was a match for Syed.

“This included a rope/wire found five inches from the body that yielded a DNA profile that is a match for some unknown person; and two hairs recovered from Hae’s body that are not the hairs of either Hae or Adnan,” writes law professor Colin Miller on his blog Evidence Prof.

5. Adnan Syed was the only person police investigated – there are other suspects

Says Flowers” “The cops looked into no one else a tenth as hard as they looked into Adnan” whose criminal record was pulled on February 3, 1999, before the anonymous tip came in to look at Syed as the most likely suspect.

Nobody else’s criminal record was pulled.

This included her current boyfriend at the time, “Don”, other people close to her. and a guy (Roy  Sharonnie Davis) who had murdered another 18-year-old girl who attended Woodlawn High a year ago (Jada Denita Lambert, an 18-year-old Woodlawn woman whose body was found in May 1998) and was not in jail at the time (Davis was convicted in 2002).

However while Davis was surely worth investigating, the Crime Junkie hosts say its most likely Lee was killed by someone she knew.

“Someone paged Hae that day to meet her, and kill her, but that pager was never found.” Flowers says.

Flowers also question the alibi given by Don, who could not be reached until 1.30am on January 14, and who said he was working at a LensCrafters store.

I’d rather not going into all the anomalies in his alibi, but you could read about them on the Crime Junkie podcast. However, I will just mention one, both Don’s mom and his stepmom worked in manager roles at the company and provided his alibi on the day Lee was murdered.

‘If the police had done their job; if they would have looked into anyone else as hard as Adnan they would have found this out,” says Flowers.

According to evidence collected as part of the trial, Lee was due to meet up with Don on the day she died. She also worked at Lenscrafters, though not at the same store Don was working at that night.

Of course none of this is absolute conclusive proof Syed had no involvement in Lee’s murder – bear in mind Wilds gave about five days of detailed testimony at both trials so it beggars belief he made it all up.

However, it does highlight that if Syed had a decent lawyer he almost certainly would not and should not have been convicted based on the evidence and testimony presented at the trial. Furthermore, being a non-white American clearly did not help his cause.

If you’re interested in find out more, I’d encourage listening to the whole Crime Junkie podcast in full and then, if you’re keen, taking a deep dive into the case. There’s a ton of information out there.

(This link has all the court transcripts to the 1999 mistrial and 2000 trial)

If not – and no judgement here, life is too short – remember this point made by Flowers: “Adnan has facts on his side, the State of Maryland only had Jay.”

Adnan Syed, Arrest photo

Remembering Elliot Wolf

While one should not speak ill of the dead (so “they” say) my reaction to hearing the news that my old King David Linksfield high school headmaster Elliot Wolf had passed away did not generate a great outpouring of grief.

I remember his reproachful face peering over us high school kids at assembly, and sneeringly telling those who did not like some or other dictum of his that they could “Go to that other institution down the road”. By that he meant our Johannesburg sister school, King David High School Victory Park, whose headmaster was by some bizarre coincidence his identical twin brother.

This joke was repeated ad nauseam in a sarcastic fashion as he surveyed his domain, perched behind the lectern on stage.

Well anyway that’s how I remember Mr Wolf, who passed away last month aged 83.

Of course other people have different memories of him. Indeed the tributes have come flowing thick and fast for his contribution to my alma mater, where he was headmaster for an eternity, a feat of longevity if nothing else.

“His wisdom, quiet strength, and intellectual prowess, were renowned, but it was genuine care and heartfelt love for his students that earned him his reputation,” read the official statement from the South African Board of Jewish Education.

That genuine care it seemed to me was reserved for a very small percentage of high achievers: prefects, the academically gifted and those who did well on the sporting field.

It was certainly not shared with average students such as myself, who never did brilliantly or badly (Four ‘Bs’ marked my matriculation scorecard, the highlight of my high school sporting career, was making the Under-15 B rugby team). I was a non-entity in the eyes of Mr Wolf.

Not once in five years of high school did he offer a friendly comment or greeting. Never did he say anything vaguely encouraging. I found him an intimidating presence, one which did little to shape my personal development in any positive or meaningful fashion.

Instead, he reinforced the notion that academic and sporting success mattered above all else, regardless of how hard you worked or tried or the strength of your character.

When I left school in 1991 I quickly forgot about Elliot Wolf. Only his passing last month reminded me of how much I disliked him.

Perhaps Mr Wolf inspired many people, but he did not inspire me.

The nine lives of the Yorkshire Ripper

Cats supposedly have nine lives, as the phrase goes, and so too did Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, who died in November last year from COVID aged 74, whilst serving  20 life terms at Frankland prison in County Durham.

I’ve just finishing watching the excellent four-part Netflix documentary ‘The Ripper’ which examines the series of horrifying murders committed by Sutcliffe, and the bungled attempts by the West Yorkshire police to capture him.

Incredibly, Sutcliffe, a married lorry driver from Bradford, was interviewed nine times by detectives, after his name came up in various lines of inquiry as a possible suspect. However, he was let go each time, despite some lower-ranking detectives and police officers reporting their suspicions.

A tragedy: many of these women may still be alive today had the police done their jobs properly

So often did police show up at his place of work to question him, that Sutcliffe earned the nickname ‘The Ripper’ among his truck-driving colleagues at Clark Transport – an irony, that would have seemed unbelievable were it included in the plotline of a crime novel.

As explained by Joan Smith, one of the few female journalists to report on the case, the all male senior detectives leading the investigation, blinded by their own sexist attitudes and sucked in by a hoax audio tape, dismissed Sutcliffe because he was recently married, had the wrong accent to the Geordie accent on the hoax tape and did not fit the supposed picture of a modern day Jack The Ripper maniac hunting down and slaying prostitutes.

As a result police also neglected to investigate other attacks on young woman at the time because they were not prostitutes or women of “loose morals”, and who because they survived these assaults, could have provided valuable information about their attacker and led to Sutcliffe’s capture many years earlier, saving the lives of many who later crossed his path.

Recalled retired West Yorkshire detective Andrew Laptew, one of the “stars” of the documentary with quiet fury: “I got the report typed up [about boots belonging to Sutcliffe that appeared to match footprints left at one of the crime scenes] and explained all the things that were bugging me. And the most startling thing was the Marilyn Moore photofit [based on an accurate description by Marilyn Moore who survived an attack by Sutcliffe]. It was a dead ringer for him

“Is he a Georgie,” Laptew was asked by his superior officer. “I said no. He’s from Bradford. But it’s an uncanny resemblance.

“Does he have a Geordie accent [to match the one on the audio tape]? I said no. He started effing and geffing. He said anyone who mentions effing photofits to me again will be doing traffic for the rest of their service.”

In the end it was only by sheer luck – Sutcliffe was arrested in January 1981 because he was driving a car that did not match its number plate – that led to his capture, confession and life imprisonment.

As with so many great true crime documentaries created by the streaming giants – ‘The Ripper’ was commissioned by Netflix – it takes viewers back in time through grainy, archival footage to Leeds, Manchester and Bradford of the mid-1970s where unemployment was rising as the great big factories were shut down, and as Margaret Thatcher became the first female British prime minister.

This footage is contrasted with crisp, present day interviews of families of victims, the now grey haired detectives who were on The Ripper taskforce and journalists like Joan Smith, as they look back on those terrible times, when an unknown killer terrorised the streets.

I found it compulsive viewing, so fascinating, seeing how a serial killer investigation back then relied on thousands of hand written index cards – so many in fact that the floor of the taskforce headquarters had to be reinforced to prevent it from collapsing – to create a database of suspects and evidence.

And yet for all the information gathering, and the many clues that should have pointed the way to a much earlier solving of the mystery, it was the bungling alpha male chief inspectors and their bureaucratic overlords, who made the key wrong assumptions about the case, that had the Ripper laughing in their faces for many years.

John Humble, who sent police the hoax letters claiming to be the Ripper (Humble mimicked phrases used in letters supposedly written to police in the 1880s by Jack the Ripper) and an infamous hoax audio tape was unmasked in 2005 and jailed in 2006 for perverting the course of justice.

“I remember listening to it and being incredibly puzzled because there was nothing on the tape that actually suggested it was genuine,” said Smith in November 2020, when Peter Sutcliffe died.

Julie Bindel, a feminist campaigner who was 18 and living in Leeds when Sutcliffe killed his 13th and final victim- Jacqueline Hill, a 20-year-old student – recalled how police denigrated the victims, some of whom were prostitutes, as being “fair game” despite many of them only doing what they did to support their families.

Bindel told The Guardian last year she remembered George Oldfield, who led the investigation, addressed the murderer on TV in 1979 saying: “There may be more pawns in this war before I catch you, but I will catch you.”

“That’s what women were to these detectives, said Bindel: disposable pawns.

But, says Smith, the Ripper investigation did force woman, who felt unsafe, to realise it was up to them to look after themselves, “because the police weren’t actually going to do it for us”.

“That was the beginning of women pushing back and say, No. Why shouldn’t we walk around at night at 2am without worrying that someone will attack us? So I think it changed women’s perception of how we live in this culture and it had a incredible radicalising effect on a whole generation of women.” Smith says.

The 13 women Sutcliffe was convicted of murdering were:

Wilma McCann, 28, from Chapeltown, Leeds, who was killed in October 1975.

Emily Jackson, 42, from Morley, Leeds. Killed on 20 January 1976.

Irene Richardson, 28, from Chapeltown, Leeds. Killed on 6 February 1977.

Patricia Atkinson, 32, from Manningham, Bradford. Killed on 24 April 1977.

Jayne MacDonald, 16, from Leeds. Killed on 26 June 1977.

Jean Jordan, 21, from Manchester, who died between 30 September and 11 October 1977.

Yvonne Pearson, 22, from Bradford. Killed between 20 January and 26 March 1978.

Helen Rytka, 18, from Huddersfield. Killed on 31 January 1978.

Vera Millward, 40, from Manchester. Killed on 16 May 1978.

Josephine Whitaker, 19, from Halifax. Killed on 4 April 1979.

Barbara Leach, 20. Killed while walking in Bradford on 1 September 1979.

Marguerite Walls, 47, from Leeds. Killed on 20 August 1980.

Jacqueline Hill, 20. Killed at Headingley on 16 November 1980.

Ann Rule, Kate Summerscale: two masters of the art of true crime writing

The last two books I read were both in the true crime genre, and brilliant examples of writers at the top of their craft.

First I read Ann Rule’s Don’t Look Behind You and Other True Cases, a collection of mostly cold case investigations that take place around the Seattle area on America’s west coast,

After finishing it, I then stepped back 160-odd years and into an entirely different landscape, of Victorian England and the ghastly murder of a three-year old boy in a large manor house in the countryside and the London detective recruited to solve it in Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher.

Ann Rule, who died in 2015 aged 83, started her career as a law enforcement officer for the Seattle Police Department, wrote for True Detective magazine under a pen name and then established herself as the Queen of American true crime writing with a long career of best sellers. She is most famous for The Stranger Beside Me published in 1980, her sensational account of her charming, handsome friend Ted, whom she met while working at a Seattle suicide crisis hotline, who turned out to be serial killer Ted Bundy.

Ann Rule’s books are motivated by a strong desire for justice for the victims and their families, especially those heart-wrenching cases that are never solved.

Don’t Look Behind You and Other True Cases is dedicated to “everyone who has lost someone they love, never to find them – or learn the reasons they vanished”.

Rule goes onto explain, in a brief introduction to the first story in the book “North to Alaska” that when she chooses which cases to write about, they are almost always selected from the Cold Case departments of homicide divisions.

“There is something infinitely satisfying about finding killers long after they have become confident that they have walked away free,” Rule writes.

The two long stories in Don’t Look Behind You – “North to Alaska” and “Too Late for the Fair” both track cold case investigations: the former about the disappearance of charismatic meat salesman Joe Tarricone, and the second about Joanne Hansen, a young mother locked in an abusive marriage who vanished one day, never to be seen or heard from again.

Rule is a master of plot, narrative and pace: she is a natural and gifted storyteller. While her stories are rich with procedural detail – the collection of evidence, investigating leads – and the small steps taken by investigators to unravel decades old crimes, they never becoming boring or plodding.

It’s not hard to see why she became a best selling popular writer of true crime: stories are told in an uncomplicated, linear way with plenty of direct dialogue. She brings characters to life on the page, both the perpetrators and the victims, the latter for whom she displays the greatest of empathy.

She once said of her motivation to write about true crime: “I wanted to know why some kids grew up to be criminals and why other people didn’t. That is still the main thrust behind my books: I want to know why these things happen, and so do my readers,”

Apart from these two books – The Stranger Beside Me and Don’t Look Behind You – I have also read Rule’s Lust Killer, about the shoe fetishist and necrophiliac serial killer Jerome Brudos.

I highly recommend all of them if you enjoy reading, listening to or watching true crime stories. They’re an easy read, but also engrossing and thought-provoking.

Kate Summerscale is cut from a far more literary cloth than Rule, but none the less entertaining a writer.

In the case of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher – the only book of hers I have read – Summerscale writes from a much broader historical and social perspective, producing in the words of the great spy novelist John le Carre called “a classic of the finest documentary writing”.

Born in London in 1965, but brought up also in Japan and Chile, Summerscale attended Oxford University and then California’s Stanford University, where she obtained a masters in journalism. She worked at a number of English newspapers including the Daily Telegraph and Independent, whilst establishing herself as a writer with an award-winning biography about eccentric speedboat racer Marion Barbara ‘Joe’ Carstairs.

She then wrote The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, which won The Samuel Johnson Prize (since renamed the Baillie Gifford Prize), Britain’s top book award for non-fiction writing. It was also made into an ITV television series, which unfortunately seems very hard to track down.

I’ve actually read the book twice, but enjoyed it just as much the second time round.

It’s not as easy a book to read as the pacier novels of Ann Rule, but if your penchant is for slowly unravelling, procedural crime shows like Inspector Morse, Prime Suspect or Unforgotten I think you’ll immensely enjoy reading The Suspicions of Mr Whicher.

The “Mr Whicher” refers to Jonathan or “Jack” Whicher, one of the first eight police detectives who joined a newly created branch of the London Metropolitan Police, at Scotland Yard in 1842. Whicher was sent from London to the village of Rode, near Trowbridge in the county of Wiltshire to solve the most famous crime of the era, the murder of three-year-old Francis Saville Kent in a stately country home called Road Hill House.

Summerscale does not just tell the story of the Kent family and the terrible events of the night of Friday 29th of June 1860 at Road Hill House, when the young boy’s body was discovered shoved down a privy (outside toilet), his throat cut, and the efforts of Whicher, the most brilliant detective of his day, to solve the baffling crime.

She captures the whole zeitgeist of that time – the public’s fascination with the crime (especially since it occurred in the country home of a wealthy, upper class family) fueled by a legion of city and country daily newspapers that reported on its every detail, theory and rumour.

“While the press and the public condemned Whicher’s prurient, impertinent speculations, they freely made their own,” Summerscale writes, capturing the fascination with the case that gripped the country from the big cities to farming villages, and its distrust of the new class of detectives.

As Summerscale explains in her wonderfully researched book, the crime was the first “whoddunit” set in a quintessential country home, in which all the suspects were inside the house: circumstances which created the template for hundreds of fictional detective stories, movies and TV shows including Agatha Christie and Midsomer Murders.

Not surprisingly, the case influenced many subsequent Victorian novels, captured the attention of the greatest writer of the times Charles Dickens, a friend and admirer of Jack Whicher. Dickens, like everyone else had his own (wrong) theories about who the murderer was.

There are so many fascinating aspects to this book, not least of which is the crime itself, there’s the story of the brilliant career of Jack Whicher, and how the immense pressure to solve the Road Hill House murder almost finished him off, the growing power of daily newspapers to shape public consciousness and the emerging art of crime detection.

Part true crime, part historical and social commentary, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher is non-fiction writing at its finest and a must-read in my opinion.

Oscar Wilde, David Sedaris, Paul Auster and Esther Freud: Four short reviews of books by masterful storytellers

It has been my custom, on this humble blog, to write reviews (often quite badly, but perhaps sometimes entertainingly) of the books I have read.

I’ve gathered them in one spot on the Freshlyworded virtual bookshelf, mostly for my own nostalgic pleasure, to peruse from time to time and to remind me of what I have read over the years. At worst, its fantastically eclectic mix of genres, themes and styles.

I hope it might also provide some recommendations for friends and strangers who may be looking for a tome to entertain them, and perhaps an escape from Netflix etc.

As, I have fallen far behind on the books I have read and not yet reviewed, I’ve decided to gather mini reviews of the last four books I have read – Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, David Sedaris’s The Best of Me, Paul Auster’s Moon Palace and Esther Freud’s Hideous Kinky in one handy blog post, sparing my dear reader the lengthy, waffling and rambling diatribes I tend to succumb to when writing reviews.

While it’s hard to find too many commonalities across the four books – Wilde and Auster’s are novels of exquisite imagination set in big cities (London and New York), while Sedaris and Freud’s works are highly autobiographical and deeply observational stories – I can confidently say that all are the product of wonderfully entertaining storytellers that bring characters to life on the page through their precise and elegant writing.

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde, who famously said “Books are well written, or badly written. That is all” penned one of the best works of Victorian Gothic fiction, The Picture of Dorian Gray, in 1890.

An absolutely wicked and very dark tale about how vanity and the pursuit of pleasure can destroy the soul, it was an absolute pleasure to read it for the second or maybe third time. From the very first page, where we meet the artist Basil Hallward painting the portrait of young, beautiful Dorian Gray in a stately London home, Wilde transports you to upper class world of Victorian England.

Wilde depicts the inner moral decline of Gray, who succumbs to the “new hedonism” promoted by the aristocratic Lord Henry, and goes from a innocent “young Adonis” to a cruel, murderer frightened of his own shadow. While Gray retains his youthful looks, the painting hidden up in the attic of his Mayfair townhouse grows hideous, depicting the corruption of his soul.

An aspect I loved about Wilde’s book is that the “monster” of the gothic tale is handsome young man, with evil growing inside him, rather than the real monsters that inhabit Bram Stoker’s Dracula or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Forget the numerous film adaptions of the book, and read’s Wilde’s brilliant, dark novel.

Rating: 9/10

The Best of Me by David Sedaris

I was pretty late discovering the wonderful writing of David Sedaris, whose celebrated short stories, fables and accounts of his own life have turned him into one of America’s most celebrated humorist and best selling authors.

A friend lent me a copy of a collection of his stores, Holidays on Ice, published in 1997, that included a retelling of his experiences working as a Christmas Elf in Macy’s Department store in New York

Then I came across Sedaris via the great Radio Show/Podcast This American Life. In one episode he read aloud his story about the death of his sister Tiffany, who committed suicide after a troubled life (Now we are five). In another episode, host Ira Glass meets with Sedaris in Paris, where the writer had lived for two years with his boyfriend Hugh. Sedaris takes Glass on an eventful tour of Paris sharing anecdotes of misadventures with the French language and the dangers of buying the wrong butter

Sedaris narrates his own stories with a delightful weariness in his mid-Western voice. He has an almost magical ability to write as if he is confiding only to his reader.

The Best of Me is an anthology of favourite works hand-picked by Sedaris. It begins with a delightfully wicked tale entitled “Glen’s Homophobia Newsletter Vol. 3 No. 2” where Glen (perhaps Sedaris’s alter-ego) describes his brief and doomed friendship with the attractive male cashier at Dave’s Kwik shop. It’s both very funny and unsettling, descriptions which apply to a lot of the stories contained in The Best of Me.

While I enjoyed some of his fable-like fictional stories like Christmas Means Giving, where rivaling super-rich neighbours try to outdo each other’s charitable acts in the most hideous fashion, my favourite stories are the one Sedaris tells about seminal moments in his own life particularly those about his family. Sedaris grew up with five siblings, including the actress and comedian Amy Sedaris.

Sedaris combines both tenderness and great humour in his writing, which is never overly sentimental or lecturing, but always insightful whether it be about relationships, politics, culture or identity.

Many of his stories explore the relationship with his father, who treated him with disdain and unkindly in his youth, but who softened into someone almost likeable as he aged.

To get a taste of Sedaris’s unique voice, you can listen to him narrate the story of his father’s final days in the achingly poignant Unbuttoned via the New Yorker magazine website. Unbuttoned is one of the stories contained in the anthology.

You can also read online – Dentists without Borders – which was first published in The New Yorker in 2012.

You can also listen to him read Now we are five and Americans in Paris on This American Life and dozens of other episodes featuring his stories and essays.

While his writing is a platform to explore his own upbringing, identity, phobias and personality, Sedaris has this amazing ability to make the reader feel good about being alive in a world of contradictions and craziness.

Rating: 8/10

Moon Palace by Paul Auster

I hadn’t realised how many Paul Auster books I had read until I browsed my bookshelf at home, after reading his work of magical realism Moon Palace.

Here I found Mr Vertigo (1994), The Book of Illusions (2002) and Oracle Night (2003).

I also know of Auster through two screenplays he wrote for the movies Smoke, and its follow-up Blue in the Face, both starring Harvey Keitel, who plays the owner of a Brooklyn cigar shop.

Though I don’t remember all the plots in detail, I have a clear memory of the sheer pleasure in reading those books and the sweetness of the movies, especially Smoke.

Auster, is one of the modern greats of American Literature, and has been touted as a potential recipient of the Nobel Prize of Literature. Were he to win it, he would be one of the most accessible and worthy recipients (the prize is often in my opinion given to writers no one has heard of (Abdulrazak Gurnah in 2021?) apart from university professors of English literature.

Auster is a wonderful storyteller and masterful creator of characters, that often draw on his own personal history. Many of characters reappear in his books, at different ages and stages of their lives.

Moon Palace is narrated in Holden Caufield-like fashion by the introverted, intense and tortured orphan Marco Stanley Fogg. It begins with Fogg nearly starving to death in his sparse New York apartment after deciding to “live dangerously” and simply live off the proceeds of the mountain of books he has inherited from his late Uncle Victor. Later he finds love in the arms of the beautiful and kind Kitty Wu and then a live-in job reading and carrying out chores for a blind old, wheel chair-bound man called Thomas Effing in his large Manhattan apartment.

Along the way, all sorts of strange and seemingly unlikely (but believable in the hands of Auster) coincidences take place throughout Marco’s epic, modern odyssey that take him from streets of New York to the sparse wilderness of the American Mid-West and that bring him closer to knowing his back story and finding his identity.

As with other Auster books, there are “stories within stories” as the reader is swept down portals of time and memory. If you’re looking to make a start on the oeuvre (yep, fancy word – look it up!) of Auster, magical and mystical Moon Palace is a good place to start.

Rating: 8/10

Hideous Kinky by Esther Freud

I thought I’d be a bit more enthralled by Esther Freud’s autobiographical tale about her stint living in Morocco with her aimless mother Julia and older sister Bella. (Freud is the daughter of the legendary portrait painter Lucian Freud and the great granddaughter of the founder of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud).

I picked the book at random from my gigantic 1001 Books You should Read Before You Die and was looking forward to reading it as I’d travelled through Morocco with my wife when we backpacked in 2010 and been entranced by its ancient and bustling cities with their overflowing markets, maze-like laneways and lively squares like the incredible Jemaa el-Fnaa, the main square and marketplace in Marrakesh.

Indeed we stayed in just the kind of cheap hotel Lucy, the six-year-old narrator stays in with her mother and sister (the wonderfully named Hotel Moulay Idriss) close to the Jemma el-Fnaa.

Lucy precociously narrates the family’s adventures across the country, the curious sights she sees in the markets, squares and festivals, the relationships forged with local characters like Bilal (her mother’s Moroccan lover and a father figure for her kids) and the eccentric expats they meet, like the wealthy “prince” Luigi Mancini. The children seem to have a supernatural power to to know which adults to trust, a fortunate quality given their mother is often absent, in spirit if not sometimes physically.

The family are constantly having to find ways to make ends meet as they wait for money to arrive, making dolls to sell in the market, or a few pieces of fruit they have gathered. One “holiday” has them sleeping outdoors on a beach for days.

Esther Freud’s beautiful descriptions transported me back to my time in Morocco, especially Marrakesh, which was wonderful. The novel is magical in parts, but I was also quite bored at times by all the wondering about and waiting around. Perhaps I need to read it again (It’s only 186 pages). I’d also like to watch the movie starring Kate Winslet.

Rating: 7/10

What’s so obsessively interesting about the lives of serial killers?

Chances are, if I am at a loss as to what to watch or listen to, I’ll turn to some documentary, dramatised movie or podcast about a serial killer, psychopath or madman.

Just the other day, while my wife tuned out at the end of the day to episodes of The Nanny, I was racing through a new documentary series on Netflix investigating the Son of Sam murders which occurred in New York in the 1976 and 1977.

Narrated by Paul Giamatti, the show called The Sons of Sam (note the plural) focuses on the claim by obsessive investigative journalist Maury Terry who believed that convicted killer David Berkowitz did not act alone but was part of a satanic cult that committed the spree of murders that terrorised the city.

Then before that, I was gripped by an Australian true-crime documentary series on Stan called After the Night which looked into the series of killings that occurred in the affluent and until then quiet and safe suburbs of Perth in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The crimes were perpetrated by deranged family man Eric Edgar Cooke, the last person to be hanged in Western Australia.

David Berkowitz; Did he act alone or was he part of a satanic cult?

After the Night told the story not only of Cooke, but also of two other men who were wrongly convicted of some of his crimes, Darryl Beamish and John Button, and the lengths they and their supporters went to clear their names.  It also captured very well the easy-going, carefree life in the well-to-do suburbs of Cottesloe and Nedlands, and how that sense of security was shattered by a violent string of murders and rapes.

A big motivator to watch this show was reading and re-reading Robert Drewe’s wonderful Perth memoir The Shark Net which had as its backdrop the Cooke serial murders and Drewe’s start in journalism as a cadet reporter for the West Australian newspaper. (Read my review here).

Before that both my wife and I watched The Serpent on Netflix about conman and serial murderer Charles Sobhraj (also known as the Bikini Killer) who lured in hippy backpackers travelling around South East Asia in the 1970s with the promise of a place to stay and a luxurious lifestyle and then poisoned them, held them captive and then murdered them and stole their possessions.

Charming and sadistic: Ted Bundy is a fascinating study in evil

Then there was the documentary series The Night Stalker, about the satanic serial killer Richard Ramirez who broke into homes across Los Angeles in the mid-1980s to rape and murder in a vile spree that terrorised the city. The documentary focused on the detectives who tracked Ramirez down and some of the extraordinary stuff-ups that occurred along the way. It also delved into the cult-like rock star status Ramirez enjoyed and the perhaps even crazier women who threw themselves at him.

Prior to that there was Des about the London serial murderer Denis Nilsen who lured in young men into his shabby Muswell Hill flat. Here he smothered them, slept with their corpses and then dismembered and attempted to flush their remains away. ‘Des’ was played by the brilliant David Tennant (a key attraction for watching the series).

Killing for Company the classic true crime book about Nilsen by Brian Masters (who is played by the great character action Jason Watkins in the television series) that so fascinated me when I read it whilst visiting my London cousin stirred my interest in Nilsen at the time. It also happened that my London cousin lived and still lives in Muswell Hill, a short distance from Nilsen’s flat of horrors, one of the creepy reasons no doubt I chose to read the book at the time.

David Tennant as Dennis Nilsen in Des

I also watched the Netflix documentary series Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes which re-examined one of America’s most notorious and charismatic serial killers, who also had his own female fan club. There was also the biographical crime drama about Bundy (starring Zac Ephron in the lead role) Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile that I watched maybe a year ago.

My fascination with Bundy began when I read Ann Rule’s classic of the true crime genre The Stranger Beside Me. Rule’s perspective was unlike any other in the history: she was a friend of Bundy.

There’s more for sure. And there are also shows I’ve yet to watch but will no doubt get to at some point. A new Netflix documentary about the Yorkshire Ripper looks intriguing.

Part of the fascination for me is the “how they caught them” aspect, the police and detective work, the clues that emerge and the trail that leads them to identify and capture the villain.

It’s probably then not surprising that my favourite detective shows are not the fast-paced glitzy stuff (I can’t stand shows like NCIS) but the slow-paced procedural dramas featuring believable investigators, my favourites being the dour and eternally grumpy Inspector Morse, Idris Elba’s rugged and damaged Luther and most recently, the renegade LA detective Harry Bosch in the Amazon series Bosch played by Titus Welliver (and based on the novels by Michael Connelly).

All these shows and the ones I have described above I highly recommend if that sort of thing intrigues you.

I do wonder why I am so drawn to these dark and disturbing shows, as are so many other people.

I like to think that I am not a secret psychopath with a penchant for blood and violence. Rather I think there is an innate human fascination with evil people or – if you don’t subscribe to that idea – to people who do evil things, especially those who do them over and over again.

After all these ‘monsters’ were soft, and cuddly babies once, not little devils with horns and a pitch fork.

I also think, that there is penchant in all of us – in the right (or wrong) circumstances to commit crimes of violence and descend into a kind of madness. Just think of all those seemingly ordinary Germans and other Europeans who became Hitler’s willing executioners during the holocaust. Might they have gone on living ordinary lives had a mad dictator not come to power?

Interestingly, on YouTube, a death row interview with serial killer Richard Ramirez has over 6 million views, while Ted Bundy interviews and documentaries online have racked up millions. Ditto Jeffery Dahmer and others.

Just like slowing down when we pass a car crash, it seems we can’t look away.

Writing ‘philosophical drivel’ and the other crimes of a ‘Z list blogging cretin’

This week, out of nowhere, and for no obvious reason, I received a lengthy, rather unpleasant email from someone seemingly quite upset about something I’d written on this humble blog, and who it seemed had developed a profound dislike for me and my work.

As the email (which you can read in all its unedited glory below) was sent anonymously, there was no way for me to reply to ask what bothered my mystery correspondent.

As I read his ‘delightful’ note, I was struck by the strange irony of it all: here was someone who apparently “didn’t care what I had to say” but who had taken the time to write to me even if it was to suggest that I try film myself ”sniffing dog farts”.

I suppose I should be flattered – any feedback is better than none. Most of what I write on the blog goes largely unnoticed except for the occasional comment from my close friends and immediate family (Yes, mystery writer, my relatives still seem to tolerate me despite your claims to the contrary, though I will double-check).

As to your concern at my lack of accomplishments to date, I should clarify: I am perfectly fine with my lack – by your standards – of online success. I really am not trying to be a social media influencer or win anyone’s respect or approval.

It’s just a humble blog dear mystery friend, and though I may be a journalist in my professional life (yes a ‘real journalist’!) my online scribblings on freshlyworded.com are nothing more than a hobby, albeit one that I enjoy, a chance to write about the things that interest me and an escape from the property round I cover at The Australian Financial Review.

And so yes, I wholeheartedly agree with you, there are TikTok creators and YouTubers with more influence than me, and good luck to them.

As to the ‘philosophical drivel’ I spout and the ‘profound perspective” I can only pretend to have found, I can only but apologise if it has offended your own world view.

Take care (who ever and where ever you are).

Larry

Hi 🙂

Inbox

blahblahblahblah69blah <blahblahblahblah69blah@protonmail.com>Jun 15, 2021, 5:42 AM (3 days ago)
to me

Hahahahahaha you’ll never know who I am Larry but it brings me so much joy knowing how much of a loser you’ve turned out to be, it’d be one thing if you were a real journalist or had an enviable readership but no, just a Z list blogging cretin who writes about nobodies because that’s what you specialise in. I’ve seen Tik Tok creators and YouTubers with a mere few hundred fans who have more respect and influence than you. 

Here’s a thought why don’t you write an article about this email? You can bullshit for paragraphs about philosophical drivel and pretend to have some profound perspective. 

Just think if you were actually worth anything or if you were actually above average in anything then you’d have accomplished something by now, you’d have given your relatives something to brag about but…no 😦 just an embarassment who can’t even write about interesting people because your own lack of charisma and charm sucks the life out of anything you write. 

Poor poor Larry.

The funniest thing is I don’t even care what you have to say and won’t be using this email again so all you can do is nothing, which you’re good at! 

And if you’re curious lets just say I’m closer than you think and all of us couldn’t be happier or less surprised at what you’ve accomplished. (Nothing Larry, the answer is nothing) 

You could just film yourself sniffing a dogs farts and I think you’d be having the same impact on society. But hey who am I to judge, I’m sure you think you’re doing great.

Bye Larry! 👋

Why ‘Life Itself’ (about Roger Ebert) is one of my favourite documentary films

One of the most entertaining, moving, inspiring and powerful documentary films I have watched in a long time is ‘Life Itself’, about the life of the famous Chicago film critic Roger Ebert. It’s also the title of Ebert’s own memoir published in 2011.

The film by Steve James (who made the Oscar-nominated Hoop Dreams) unintentionally documented the final months in the life of Ebert, who had long battled thyroid cancer, losing his lower jaw in the process, his ability to speak and eat but never his wit or brilliance.

It’s quite shock seeing Ebert for the first time in his hospital bed, missing a large part of his face. But he has these incredibly sparkling eyes, still full of mischief as he types away on his computer, making jokes through a voice synthesizer, writing film reviews and responding to emails.

Just a few months into filming, Ebert passed away in his hospital bed after another medical setback, surrounded by his devoted wife Chaz (who has continued to run rogerebert.com since his passing), friends and family.

The documentary moves between past and present telling the story of how Ebert started out as a young journalist at the Chicago Sun-Times – one of the city’s two main newspapers – and how by chance he became its film critic after a sudden vacancy emerged, a role he maintained and cherished for over four decades.

In 1975, Ebert whose non-snobbish and direct style of writing made film criticism accessible to all who loved the movies, became the first film critic to win the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for criticism and later a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

But it was his on screen rivalry with fellow Chicago film critic Gene Siskel (of rival paper the Chicago Tribune) on their show ‘At the Movies’ that would make Ebert almost as famous as the actors and directors whose movies he reviewed.

The documentary features interviews with Gene Siskel’s widow Marlene – Siskel died from cancer aged just 53 in 1999 – who wonderfully channels the love/hate relationship between the pair as well as with director Martin Scorcese, who emotionally praises Ebert for helping resurrect his career when it had sunk to a low point in the 1980s due to cocaine addiction and depression.

The documentary also includes interviews with current film critics like the New York Times’s AO Scott, who wrote of Ebert’s passing that he along with Siskel helped to make Chicago “the first city of movie criticism”

“Every medium [Roger Ebert] made use of was, above all, a tool of communication, a way of talking to people — Sun-Times readers, the critic in the other chair, Facebook friends, insomniacs and enthusiasts — about the movies he cared about and, perhaps more important, the human emotions and aspirations those movies represented,” wrote Scott.

Someone who reviewed hundreds of films a year, wrote books and blogs even when battling cancer, he still had time to answer letters, and emails from schoolchildren and college students, said Scott,

In James’ film, Ebert is a larger than life figure with boundless energy. In his earlier years he was always the last person to leave the local bar in the early hours of the morning (his drinking almost killed him) and then later entertained readers with his offbeat and colourful stories from the Cannes Film Festival.

Someone whose well-chosen words could ruin a movie at the Box office (as could the ‘Thumbs up, thumbs down reviews given on television by he and Siskel), Ebert was also one to champion lesser known film makers and smaller independent pictures – among his most ardent admirers is German filmmaker Werner Herzog who dedicated one of his films to him and said, when Ebert passed away that not only was he “the good soldier of cinema” writing about cinema for four decades but that he was also the “wounded soldier who for years in his affliction held out and plowed on”.

A statue of Roger Ebet outside a movie theatre in Champaign, Illinois where he had is first newspaper job.

Never someone who wrote anything  out of malice or spite, Ebert was controversial at times, most notably in his review of David Lynch’s cult classic Blue Velvet, a film Ebert despised, but one praised by many critics as a masterpiece.

Ebert gave it one star noting that the “movie is pulled so violently in opposite directions that it pulls itself apart”.

But even if Ebert criticised movies, he would often find things in them to praise (including in Blue Velvet). Scorcese called Ebert’s review of his movie The Colour of Money starring Paul Newman “condemning and helping”.

Still I wondered why the documentary film moved me so much. I hardly knew much about Roger Ebert, apart from having read some of his film reviews, and had not followed his career closely, or his battle with cancer.

Reflecting on that question, I think it has a great deal to do with the storytelling – James is a master storyteller – which manages to capture the totality of Roger Ebert’s “grand adventure” from his small town roots to becoming arguably the famous film writer in the world, with a love of movies that never died.

It’s also this idea of a man who loved sitting in a darkened cinema for 40 years, watching and writing wonderfully about movies, and the emotions and feelings they conveyed (and it’s a nice break from almost every other documentary film I watch and like, which seems to be about true crime, especially serial killers and maniacs).

James also manages to capture Ebert’s magnetic and warm personality and his mischievous nature seen – when most of his body had failed him – in his sparkling eyes.

I give it two thumbs up!

Apropos of a lot: A devout Woody Allen fan on his autobiography and legacy

I’d say roughly a third of Woody Allen’s rather concise autobiography, Apropos of Nothing, is devoted to detailing his professional and personal relationship with Mia Farrow and responding to the allegations made in 1992 that he molested his adopted daughter Dylan at Farrow’s Connecticut  home when she was seven.

As a huge fan of both his stand-up comedy (“The moose mingled, did very well. Scored.”) and his movies (Where do I begin? Love & Death, Annie Hall, Manhattan, Crimes & Misdemeanors, Match Point to name just a few) I would have preferred to have heard more about his many celebrated films. some of which are only disappointingly glossed over in the memoir – but its not hard to understand why the Allen-Farrow story is given so much weight.

No matter the three decades of denials and the two major investigations that have cleared his name (Allen has never been charged with any sexual offence) an ‘innocent-until-proven-guilty’ man he is not. Allen has been tried and convicted by the media and by many of his peers in Hollywood, where he has been  lumped into the same #metoo boat that includes jailed sex offender and former movie mogul Harvey Weinstein.

Just the other day – if I needed reminding of the stigma attached to Allen’s name – I was listening to the podcast, Fresh Air featuring an entertaining interview with the film director Spike Lee.

At one point during the chat with guest host Sam Sanders, Lee remarked that he had been called the “black Woody Allen” by film critics after the success of his film “She’s Gotta Have it”.

Sanders jumped in: “ How did you feel about that, because in hindsight, none of us want to be Woody Allen?”

To his credit Lee responded “He’s a great filmmaker, he’s from Brooklyn and he’s a Nicks fan”. But no doubt many others in the entertainment industry would have agreed with Sanders.

Indeed, the publication of the memoir itself was caught up in the rebooting of the allegations when Allen’s original publisher Hachette pulped the book following intense pressure from Dylan Farrow and his estranged son Ronan Farrow (the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist whose own book Catch and Kill was published by Hachette.).

A new HBO documentary has again examined these allegations, without the participation of Woody Allen who has said all he wants to say in his memoir, and in a subsequent interview with the actor Alec Baldwin on Baldwin’s popular podcast, Here’s the Thing.

In his June 2020 interview with Allen, Baldwin, a staunch supporter of the filmmaker, asked him why he considered the allegations made against him “ludicrous”.

Allen replied: “The idea that any one of good standing, that has never had any problem in his life at all would suddenly pick an odd day once in his life to do something [like this] in the midst of a hostile break-up…the whole thing was so preposterous, I thought any common sense person looking at it would see it for what it was: The cliched accusation that one party makes against the other so common in custody cases.

He admits that the fact he was dating Soon-Yi (the adopted daughter of Farrow and her former husband at the time, the pianist and conductor Andre Previn) “absolutely” made the accusations seem more credible, but that doesn’t make them so.

“People were saying, my God, this older person has seduced this young girl and he is taking advantage of her. It looked awful. I could understand that. But we’ve know been married over 20 years. We have two girls in college. It was tabloid fodder at the time, and I understand why it would be. I’m not naïve.

“But the charges were something else…they were investigated, they were not swept under the rug and given meticulous investigation in Connecticut and over a year in New York…and they said there was no thought this child was ever bothered in anyway.

“I feel better they investigated it, I don’t have to feel this thing was ever side-pocketed…they really followed up on it and those were the conclusions they came to.

“I was never alone with my daughter [at the time of the alleged behaviour]. My son Moses will testify to this. I was always in a room with a lot of people, on the sofa, watching TV. I may have sat on the floor and lay my head down on her lap for a second, but to infer anything sinister from that is crazy.”

Allen says his philosophy was to not focus on any of the “rubbish” being said, but just to work, which he did .

“From the moment the false accusation was made, I worked. I did a million films, I wrote for the theater, I toured my jazz band, I played every week at the Carlyle Hotel. If you just keep your nose to the grindstone and work…”

All of this is elaborated on in detail in the memoir alongside a deeply affectionate portrait Allen paints of his wife Soon-Yi.

It is interesting to note that Mia Farrow, an outstanding actress in my opinion, has appeared in 13 Woody Allen movies, from a Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy in 1982 to Husbands and Wives in 1992, the last of which was filmed at the time their relationship was descending into anarchy, when Farrow discovered erotic Polaroid photos of him and Soon-Yi.

Woody Allen at Cannes in 2016. Pic credit: Georges Biard

While the media focus has always been on Allen’s marriage to a woman 35 years his junior, whom he knew as a child, in his memoir he paints a very damaging picture of Farrow as an often cruel mother who collected children like “toys” – she adopted 10 and had four of her own – and who was especially unkind to Soon-Yi, threatening to send her to an insane asylum.

Allen also reminds readers that three of Farrow’s adopted children died young and that her brother the businessman John Villiers-Farrow was jailed in 2002 for the sexual abuse of two young boys. (Another brother, the sculptor Patrick Farrow, committed suicide in 2009.)

He also notes the irony that Farrow flew to London in 2005 to defend the film director Roman Polanski (Farrow starred in his brilliant horror film Rosemary’s Baby) despite Polanski pleading guilt in 1977 to unlawful sexual intercourse with a 13-year-old minor.

None of these events I understand are included in the HBO documentary.

In Allen’s retelling of events, he was a doting father, who was denied a relationship with his children by a woman bent on revenge.

“A little girl, just turned seven…is taken from a loving father forever, placed in the hands of her out-of-control mother during an emotionally confusing crisis, suggested to by her mother that she was abused, then her denials are finessed over years of contact with only one parent and she is taught, led over time, to believe she has been molested.”

Despite the lengthy focus on his relationship with Farrow, where he chides himself for not recognising the “red flags” early on, Allen does not come across as bitter. When he talks about Farrow’s alleged cruel behaviour towards her children he merely asserts that what he is saying is true over and over again.

 “And how have I taken all this? And why is it when attacked I rarely spoke out or seemed overly upset? Well, given the malignant chaos of a purposeless universe, what’s one little false allegation in the scheme of things? Second being a misanthropist has its saving grace – people can never disappoint you.”

That attitude certainly helps dealing with a rapid press mob which Allen says have promoted and given substance to Farrow’s claims and the many actors, who worked with Allen in his movies, but who later stated they regretted working with him though never so far, he points out, to return their paychecks or Oscars.

It is interesting to consider, in light of the allegations and theTime’s Up movement to support victims of sexual harassment, that Woody Allen has probably created more memorable and powerful roles for woman than any other director in the history of cinema, many of whom have won or be nominated for Academy Awards for their performances.

He also claims that not a single actress young or old has ever accused him of untoward behaviour, unlike so many other big name directors and actors.

While the memoir is disappointingly and strangely devoid of any photographs, I think it says a lot that the only picture on the back cover, a great shot of Allen stretched out on a couch, was taken by his former girlfriend and long-time collaborator Diane Keaton.

There is of course thankfully a great deal more Allen talks about in the memoir than his disastrous relationship with Mia Farrow and the terrible consequences of it.

I found there was an intimacy to his writing, that I was part of his inner circle. While I have given up hope of ever sharing a coffee  with him, I do feel at least that I got to know him a little better.

Perhaps the most enjoyable parts of the book are Allen’s stories about his childhood as a freckly-faced baseball-obssessed redhead living on 14th Street, Brooklyn and the tales of his gambling, philandering, but loving father who would stuff $20 notes into his pocket while he slept, leaving it up to his more stern and serious mother to keep the household together.

He  confesses, that even though his mother was the better parent, he loved his father more because he was a “sweet guy, warmer, more demonstrably affectionate, while she took no prisoners”.

It’s a heartfelt and very amusing  glimpse into Allen’s early years reminiscent of the opening scenes in Annie Hall, when a young Alvy Singer talks to the camera As a reader you really feel as if Allen is confiding in you and sharing his inner thoughts. A huge fan that I am, it was wonderfully satisfying.

It’s interesting that Allen rejects any claims to be an intellectual – in fact, despite his nerdy appearance he was quite sporty – a point he makes frequently in the book, claiming that he instead has a flair for appropriating erudite snippets that he did not really understand and utilising them in his work “to give the deceptive impression of knowing more than I do”.

He is also extremely self-deprecating about his achievements, especially his work, often attributing its surprising success to cinematographers, editors and co-writers, while always accepting sole responsibility for his flops and failures.

Luck, Allen says played a huge part in the successful career he has had: from getting picked to write jokes that celebrities used in their newspaper columns, to being introduced to the great comedian Sid Caeser (after writing sketches for three seasons at a summer resort in Pennsylvania).

Then, after his stand-up comedy took off, meeting Hollywood superstar Warren Beatty who wanted him to write a comedy. This culminated in 1965’s What’s New Pussycat? which though a bad film in Allen’s opinion, turned into a huge box office hit and paved the way for a long career as an auteur director.

While that luck may have deserted him from 1992 onwards, Allen has just gotten on with his life, making movies, experimenting with different genres and ideas and creating many of his most memorable movies.

While the memoir is ultimately a vehicle for him to tell his side of the story in the Allen-Farrow saga, he has come to terms with the fact that some people won’t ever change their minds about him who “despite all logic, for one reason or another didn’t seem to want to get it.

“Nothing could stir them from the idea that I’d raped Mia’s underage backward child or married my daughter or molested Dylan. I had faith that in due time, common sense, reason and the evidence would descend upon even the most phlegmatic mouth breather, but I also picked Hillary to win.”

An amicable split on screen: Woody Allen and Mia Farrow played a divorced couple in Hannah and Her Sisters.

As a postcript to reading his memoir, I watched Allen’s celebrated comedy- drama Hannah and her Sisters, made in 1986.

I had seen it before, but had largely forgotten the plot which is the story of the loves and lives of three sisters in a large well-off New York family of actors and entertainers.

It’s a wonderful movie, blending dark comedy and pathos in a way only Woody Allen can.

Spookily, the cast contains many of the people who would figure prominently in the abuse allegations.

There’s Allen himself, who plays Mickey, a neurotic television executive having an existenial crisis after finding out he doesn’t have cancer.

His ex-wife Hannah, a Broadway star is tenderly played by Mia Farrow while Moses Farrow (a staunch support of his father) and his future wife Soon-Yi both have cameo appearances as guests at the Thanksgiving dinners that bookend the film

But in a case of art not imitating future life, Mickey and Hannah have parted amicably, remain friends and he is welcomed into her apartment to bring birthday presents to their twin boys. He’s even invited to the second thanksgiving family dinner despite marrying Hannah’s cooky sister Holly (played by Dianne Wiest) and impregnating her.