Patrick White’s kitchen

March 2, 2009
Patrick White Letters ed David Marr
Patrick White Letters ed David Marr

One of the things I like so much about letters, as opposed to biographies, is the layer of intimate domestic detail that gathers in the former. I’m reading Patrick White: Letters, so skilfully edited by the wonderful David Marr. (This edition also has the perfect cover, designed by Helen Semmler and featuring Brett Whiteley‘s 1981 portrait of PW.)

In the letters Patrick is always moaning to someone about the burden of being chief cook and bottle washer*, but he clearly loved food and cooking.

He and Manoly [Lascaris, White’s lifelong partner] were always cooking dinner for large groups of people, and Patrick often turned down invitations to restaurants, instead suggesting dinner at his home.

Little culinary details are always creeping into the letters, and I love them. Like these, in a letter to the director Neil Armfield in 1982, when White was 70 and his and Manoly’s health were failing in various ways. Manoly had arthritis and White glaucoma; he had also had a few ‘shocks’ to jump-start his heart.

“I’m still taking pills by the handful and putting in eyedrops every couple of hours. I went again to the heart man last week, and believe it or not, he wanted me to rush straight to the Prince Henry and have some more electric shocks. I refused because I’d planned to make a strudel stuffed with vegetables and a grüne Sosse at the weekend. I told him I had to have some little frivolity in my life, and this seemed the only way. I think he thought me completely nuts …

“Today is Manoly’s seventieth birthday. Not a very happy one in that he has had to spend the morning in the ultra-violet oven and will have to keep out of natural light for several more hours. Tonight I’m going to try to make a timballo of ravioli with a cream and chicken-liver sauce. This sort of thing is my only recreation nowadays … Must begin the last phase of the birthday dish. Wish you were here to try it. Love, P.”

*The dignified opposite of a housekeeping moan is his elegant, chilling retort on the subject to a vile review  of one of his books in Time Magazine, 1974. In the review,  Martha Duffy had snidely described Manoly as White’s “male housekeeper”. White wrote:

“I feel I must draw your attention to an incorrect, and I should have thought gratuitous, biographical detail. The distinguished and universally respected man who has given me his friendship and moral support over a period of thirty-four years, has never been a housekeeper. I am that, and shall continue playing the role at least till I am paralysed: it keeps me in touch with a reality often remote from those who dish up their superficial, slovenly pieces for Time Magazine.”


  1. You tell her, Patrick!

    I LOVE the strudel story. Hospital? Are you mad? I’ve got people coming for dinner!

  2. […] I finally finished the Patrick White: Letters, a book I’ve been reading slowly and with deep pleasure since January. Now feel a little mournful and quiet with respect, as […]

  3. […] I’ve said here before, one of the things I love about letters as opposed to biographies is their domesticity and their […]

  4. I’ve read the letters too, and love them to bits. David Marr’s biography of White is another favourite of mine, and well worth a read if you haven’t already indulged in it. He (White) really was one in a million, not just as a writer, but as a character. Such joie de vivre in a curmudgeonly sort of way.

  5. Hi Jason, nice of you to drop by. I have heard so many recommendations of David Marr’s biography that I really must read it. And ‘curmudgeonly joie de vivre’ is my new favourite expression! Think I’ll adopt both the words and the demeanour myself.

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