Books Australia

Financial eunuch

13 April 2019

9:00 AM

13 April 2019

9:00 AM

Teenagers are normally embarrassed by their mothers. Germaine Greer was particularly so. Elizabeth Kleinhenz in her new biography writes: ‘Germaine learned to be selective when choosing which boys to bring home, because her mother was quite likely to open the front door wearing underpants on her head (to protect her hairstyle) and little else “except [her] sun-tan”…’

The biography is the first to draw on Greer’s 487-box archive which she sold to Melbourne University in 2013. Kleinhenz concludes that Greer is a genius, but I’d exclude finance from Greer’s cornucopia of talent.

Her style was hazardous both to counter-parties and herself. Her father Reg signed as guarantor for her four-year Victorian Education Department studentship that paid eight pounds a week. When Greer got her Melbourne Honours degree (second-class), Kleinhenz records that instead of teaching country kids for the required three years she lit out to Sydney, leaving Reg to pay back the salary and training costs. Ten years later, when Greer was earning well as a TV comedienne, she reimbursed him.

Sadly, her wealth from multi-million sales of The Female Eunuch didn’t last. She invested in a Ponzi scheme called Vavasseur Ltd promising returns of 70-160 per cent a year. By 1975 she’d done her dough. Top US swindler Terry Dowdell got 15 years gaol.

By 1978 Greer’s finances were ‘dire’. In mid-1979, a decade after The Female Eunuch came out, UK’s Inland Revenue filed for her bankruptcy over non-payment of £37,095 tax plus interest. Her accountant argued that Vavasseur had seemed ‘a most reputable and secure finance house’ but its failure wiped out Greer’s tax fund. ‘What remaining funds Dr Greer had were invested in a property which, equally disastrously, slumped…’, he pleaded. Greer hadn’t been fraudulent or negligent but her income wasn’t enough to meet old tax liabilities, despite her valiant efforts and payment of substantial arrears, he said. She escaped bankruptcy pleading that it would dry up her ability to earn from writing. Her agent Peter Gross wrote that ‘Authors are not machines and cannot be made to produce on demand.’

The Notting Hill house-investment disaster from 1973 involved a warren of five storeys and six doorbells,  infested with squatters and graffitied with ‘Boredom is counter-revolutionary’ and ‘This too will burn’. She had the squatters ejected – they were comatose from dope – with the help of fifty police. Only her skip got set on fire. She   converted the place exquisitely and expensively back to a grand house but had to sell at a big loss to fund tax demands.

She took up a women’s literature professorship at the provincial but wealthy Tulsa University, Oklahoma – partly to eke out her finances by living in a campus cottage there rent-free ‘surrounded by parking lots and dead trees’ while letting out her London flat. Her seven closest Tulsa students she described as ‘in scholarly terms simply illiterate… Not one could name an English poet of the eighteenth century. One thought maybe Kipling.’ Her Tulsa interviewer Andrea Chambers wrote that to let off steam Greer ‘liked to hoon around the country in a rented Mustang with a bottle of Jack Daniels under the seat’ and sit at night in smoky corners of what, in Tulsa, passed for bohemian bars, quaffing bourbon. ‘I think I am a potential alcoholic,’ Chambers quoted Greer, ‘and I can’t afford the only drug I like, which is coke.’


Detail on Greer’s finances is fragmentary but fascinating:

1984-5: She gets a £110,000 advance from publisher Hamish Hamilton to write a book Daddy, We Hardly Knew You about her late father Reg, who had invented his colourful life story.

1996: She gets free £360 seats for herself and her 75-year-old gardener Charlie at a Wembley Stadium performance of The Three  Tenors, better than the seats occupied by Prime Minister and Mrs Major and the Duchess of Kent. But her planned feature on the tenor trio for New Yorker is aborted amid libel fears and her harangues about sub-editing: ‘You f-ck the whole thing up with blind abandon…’

1998: Doubleday pays her £500,000 for rights to Eunuch sequel The Whole Woman.

1990s: She commands one pound a word for press articles. She bats off requests for gratis contributions, ‘No fee no work’.

Late 1990s: She decides to buy a piece of Australian outback, and agrees to pay $360,000 for a lucerne farm near the James Range an hour out of Alice Springs. After six months regret at the impulse purchase, she manages to extract herself from it.

2001: She pays something like $500,000 – her life’s savings, for Cave Creek, a 60 hectare derelict dairy farm in the Gold Coast hinterland, to convert back to rainforest.

2005: Cave Creek is a money pit for equipment and five staff’s salaries. Greer takes up an offer of £40,000 to go on UK’s Celebrity Big Brother in the role of a serving  wench to the mother of Sylvester Stallone and seven other vapid contestants. (In other words, to make a goose of herself). They complain about her ‘going on and on’. She wades through manure with a colander on her head, vomits from a merry-go-round and tries to persuade her housemates into a naked sit-down protest. She storms out after six days, complaining of the bullying and squalor of her ‘fascist prison’,  sharing towels and bathrobes ‘crawling with bacteria promiscuously collected from all eight bodies.’

2013: She transfers Cave Creek ownership to a UK charity Friends of Gondwana Rainforest. Kleinhenz writes, ‘The day she gave away all her cash to the rainforest, she said, was the happiest day of her life.’

2013: Melbourne University buys her 487-box archive for $3m including its hefty storage and cataloguing costs. She intends the proceeds to go to her Gondwana charity, giving it ‘some financial independence’, she says.

2019: Consulting the charity’s annual report to March 2018, I find, ‘The trustees [including Greer] are keen to increase income from various sources so as to secure adequate future funding.’ The accounts show net assets of £26,031 after the year’s spending of £56,831. Keeping the fund topped up seems a priority.

Kleinhenz’s biography spares us nothing of her subject’s provocations, showwomanship, tribulations and formidable talent. Let’s hope her ‘80s brings calmer conditions, financial and otherwise.

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