Sumner Locke Elliott – loved us but left us

PINK EXPAT Novelist, Screenwriter & Playwright Sumner Locke Elliott (main photograph by Lorrie Graham).
PINK EXPAT Novelist, Screenwriter & Playwright Sumner Locke Elliott (main photograph by Lorrie Graham).

WHEN Australians challenge progressive thinkers to pack up and leave if we don’t love what’s happening politically in our country, it brings to mind the ones who actually depart as a form of protest.

With his intriguing, genderless, triple-barrelled name, novelist, screenwriter and playwright Sumner Locke Elliott (1917-1991) remained almost unknown in the country of his birth for much of his life, because he left it early and rarely returned.

I am sure many Australians still have never heard of the writer of the iconic Australian novel Careful, He Might Hear You.

Heavily autobiographical, this riveting debut tells the story of a boy who is fought over by a pair of aunts in post-Depression Sydney. Despite being steeped in the matters of Australians between the wars, it was written in New York.

But it was Elliott’s last book – Fairyland – published in 1990 that really bookended his life.

“Expats often get a bad name, especially when they heed the bogan’s call to ‘love’ or ‘leave’ our shores, but Elliott had the courage to do both.”

Having only experienced gay characters in E.M. Forster’s Maurice up to that point, here was something very thrilling for a closeted Australian man in the year he reached his twenty-first birthday. 

Elliott’s swan song gave me a silent credibility as an Australian who found himself in similar circumstances (minus the conscription).

A product of the theatre community in Sydney during and after WWII, Sumner Locke Elliott made his name with his 1948 play Rusty Bugles, the story of a group of army recruits stuck in the outback, produced at Sydney’s Independent Theatre before an extensive national tour.

But Elliott never saw a single performance of what became the first Australian play to be staged simultaneously in two states. He was, by its opening night, in New York.

The great mystery of Elliott’s life remains why, after this dramatic relocation and eventual re-identification (he became an American citizen in 1955), did he turn to writing in such detail, across many novels, about the country he turned his back on?

Long before turning to fiction after the age of forty, Elliott rode the early wave of screenwriting in America. His New York Times obituary credits him with the role of lead writer on more than thirty live television broadcasts during the 1950s.

At least one of these dealt with an Australian subject. Televised in November 1948, (when the Sydney media noted Elliott was ‘visiting’ the USA) his Australian play Wicked is the Vine (also set in the outback) was broadcast on WNBT New York.

But the patriotic fervour ended there, at least for American television audiences. Elliott continued to write for the small screen, including scripts for Kraft Television Theatre, Westinghouse Studio One, and later, Playhouse 90. As the names suggest, these series were heavily advertiser-focussed, and therefore tended to present palatable classics, but the work put Elliott in the pathway of many of America’s producing, directing and acting luminaries.

Most of the scripts required ingenious adaptations of well-known storylines (such as Jane Eyre and Little Women) for the fast-paced live television machine.

The pay for writers was not huge. The secret to success seemed to be sheer prolificacy. Writer and New York denizen Helene Hanff (author of 84, Charing Cross Road) also wrote for the New York television industry.

In her first book Underfoot in Show Business (1961), Hanff describes how the once flourishing East Coast TV behemoth collapsed almost overnight and decamped to Hollywood in the early 1960s, leaving many of its writers behind.

Elliott had as many failed Hollywood and Broadway dreams as Hanff, but the most documented of these was his failure to land the screenwriter’s job for a highly-anticipated film – Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961).

Elliott took Truman Capote’s characters – the nameless gay protagonist and the prostitute Holly Golightly – and created a screenplay that by all accounts was faithful to the eccentricities of the original.

Lengthy Paramount studio memos, however, reveal grave concerns about the overt effeminacy of the male lead, and anything that got in the way of a conventional love story between he and Holly. On advice, Elliott and his screenplay were quickly dumped from the production.

Like Hanff, Elliott used what might have been a disappointing turn of events into a new writing identity, by turning his typewriter to recording his own experiences.

CUSTODY BATTLE Poster for 1983's 'Careful, He Might Hear You'.
CUSTODY BATTLE Poster for 1983’s ‘Careful, He Might Hear You’.

Careful, He Might Hear You was published to great acclaim in 1963, winning that year’s Miles Franklin Award.

After an intense fifteen-year period adapting the work of other writers for the small screen, this novel unleashed Elliott’s true voice.

He had a lot to say, and until his death, he wrote a novel every two to three years.

Among this crop of titles, Eden’s Lost (1969) and Water Under the Bridge (1977) stand out as explorations of the Australian identity, from the perspective of an expat looking objectively back at his homeland during the morally repressed inter-war years.

Expats often get a bad name, perhaps because they heed the bogan’s call to ‘love’ or ‘leave’ our shores, but Elliott had the courage to do both. He wrote about this country with an objective explorer’s courage, and a deep understanding.

Eventually, middle Australia caught-up with Sumner Locke Elliott, when Water Under the Bridge was adapted for television in 1980; followed by the sumptuous big screen version of Careful, He Might Hear You in 1983; and capped-off by an ABC mini-series of Eden’s Lost in 1991.

Elliott’s coming-of-age dramas landed like a surprise in the thick of Australian popular culture, taking a swag of Australian Film Institute awards and finding him a new home-grown audience.

However, he eschewed complex family drama for his next, and last, novel, Fairyland. A smattering of reviews explained that the author was ostensibly coming out with this piece, written from the perspective of a boy who grew to become a successful writer and moved to New York.

Protagonist Seaton Daly explores the homosexual underclass of the Sydney amateur dramatic scene, the army, and, after coming to dubious terms with his sexuality, ultimately encounters the most devastating form of prejudice a gay man can face, far from home.

Fairyland was an extremely courageous move for a writer who’d hidden his sexuality for so long, was well known for plundering his own life story for fictional source material, yet lived long enough to reach a time when homosexuality was no longer illegal in his homeland.

It placed Elliott’s legacy way out in front of gay Australian writers like Patrick White, whose literary award Elliott had been awarded in 1977. The cranky established modernist and the cautious emerging popular writer met, late in both lives, but found little in common.

PLUCK COVER copyThey moved in different worlds, and in Fairyland, the boy who bore his mother’s middle name had, in a sense, finally come home in a way that Patrick White never managed to despite returning decades earlier, and I like to think that the success of Sumner Locke Elliott’s books on home turf encouraged the man to finally come out.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

This article appears in Michael’s eBook Pluck: Exploits of the single-minded.

9 thoughts on “Sumner Locke Elliott – loved us but left us”

  1. Thank you for this. I have just finished reading Careful He might hear you for the first time and had questions, many of which were answered by your blog. I can remember my father expressing veiled disapproval of Elliott and now realize that this could have been for 2 reasons: 1. desertion of Australia 2. homosexuality. This was probably in the 60s. I enjoyed the book greatly and read it in 3 or 4 days. The subtlety of the descriptions of emotions is extraordinary. I will now see the film…

    1. Hi Sue,

      Great to hear I answered some of your questions about Elliott – there is so much more to know about the man. I agree whole-heartedly with your praise of his writing skill. If you enjoyed “Careful He Might Hear You”, try “Waiting for Childhood” one day – a late Elliott novel, which addresses many of the same issues and takes them into unexpected places. Would love to know what you think of the “Careful” film. Mike

  2. a great article! My year 11 students are studying the text ‘Rusty Bugles’ this year, the information I am finding about him is scarce but very interesting none the less.

  3. Nina I read this thesis by Sharon Clarke you sent the link to – it’s fascinating, a real page-turner. There seems to have been many reasons SLE turned to writing fiction set in his homeland, but a definitive answer remains elusive. He took a risk writing ‘Careful, He Might Hear You’, and it paid off so handsomely that he just kept on writing more novels.

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