Spouses who Tell

Call it the result of our obsession with the famous or a new era for wives and ex-wives (even soccer WAGS have web pages during the World Cup), today’s sidekicks and partners – former or continuing – of the famous are of interest to publishers. The stories they can tell, the people they have known, the insights they bring, the gossip they have heard, are meat for good reading.

There are some tinged with revenge like A Slight and Delicate Creature, the memoirs of Margaret Cook, ex-wife of the late Robin Cook who became Foreign Secretary in Tony Blair’s ministry in 1997. As the Cooks prepared to go on holiday in July that year, word came The News of The World was running a story on Robin’s affair with his secretary. Cook told Margaret, in the VIP lounge, that the holiday was off and he would keep his job by divorcing her.

The affair hit the newsstands, along with the sordid details of Cook’s rather ungallant response. So Margaret Cook wrote an autobiography instead of hosting foreign dignitaries. It sold well and readers who knew no more of Margaret Cook, a consultant in a Scottish hospital, than her treatment by Robin Cook at the start of the book, were well versed in many a Cook family saga and all of Margaret’s achievements as well by the end of it. Robin survived but probably never fully recovered his reputation.

Partners who record their lives with the famous not only have a unique vantage point for research, they’ve often grown and developed with the experience. Their wisdom can be important, their lack of sycophancy enticing. Margaret Cook went on to become a columnist.

Some, like Margaret Whitlam, prefer to co-operate with a biographer. Susan Mitchell’s ­Margaret Whitlam – a Biography gives compelling insights from Margaret’s life with Gough Whitlam revealing character traits his more formal record could never explain. For Richer, For Poorer­, Margaret Crick’s biography of Mary Archer, steadfast wife of notorious Jeffrey Archer and accomplished scientist, reveals the real political wizard in the Archer family is Mary not Jeffrey.

And now Wendy Cook, the ex wife of the late Peter Cook, of Cook and Moore fame, has produced a page turner in So Farewell Then – The Untold Life of Peter Cook.

By the time Peter Cook died in January 1995, he and Wendy had been separated for two decades and he had remarried a couple of times. Their two children, Lucy and Daisy, kept them in distant contact and, a few months before he died, Peter and Wendy had a reunion of sorts at Daisy’s wedding.

There are broken hearts in Wendy Cook’s story of her Peter Cook, but there is no revenge. And since the best of Peter Cook’s life and achievements came early with The Establishment Club, Private Eye, Beyond the Fringe, Not Only But Also, The Wrong Box and Bedazzled, all before he was thirty, Wendy Cook enjoyed the best of it – “What a privilege it was for me to be repeatedly, personally, entertained by this group of intriguing characters.”

Not content to rely on her own recollections, Cook has gone back and talked with the best of the talented bunch that surrounded them – British satire and performance at its best in the sixties. Paul McCartney, Alan Bennett, Jonathan Miller, Elizabeth Luard, Christopher Booker, Eleanor Bron, Bruce Copp, along with others, voice their take on how it happened and where Peter stood amid it all.

There’s his bitterness at David Frost, (“an ingratiating but determined character who had Peter firmly in his sights”), accused by Peter of plagiarising his Establishment sketches to use in This Was the Week That Was. Cook called him the “bubonic plagiarist” ever after. As David Frost’s star rose Cook’s plateaued. Cook never mastered film like Dudley Moore and yet he had a confidence as a satirist that stage successes like Moore and Alan Bennett lacked. This was his hardened shell too. “I never had a conversation with Peter outside one of his accents,” says Jonathan Miller.

Like many partners who write it down, invariably women who have devoted themselves to husbands and not made it to the end, Wendy Cook discovers herself as well as Peter in the story. Named after Peter Pan’s Wendy, she became aware, especially with Peter and his mad Fringe mates, that “I seemed to grow into this role of ‘den mother’ and have looked after numerous ‘lost boys’ all my life.”

And she has her own take on many of the glittering souls they met, from HRH Margaret Rose to Germaine Greer (“she was not good at listening to others”) to writer Jeffrey Bernard, with whom she had a brief fling: “I just wish he had had a better acquaintance with his toothbrush.”

Wendy Cook can see the effects of Peter’s boarding school days in a “hardening of emotions”. She thinks it likely he “had homosexual experiences at Radley”. And she concludes that, in their marriage, they never were friends in the true sense, in spite of years complementing each other. Of the starry line up at their dining table at Hampstead, intimidating for Alan Bennett, she noted Peter had his audience, or “fix”. But also that Paul McCartney let girlfriend Jane Asher talk “something Peter often failed to do with women”.

Peter Cook’s descent into alchoholism and bile is well documented but Wendy Cook’s account of his character swings and the personal consequences is most telling. She watched their family used and twisted in Bedazzled­, so much so that often Peter’s Lucifer character captured Peter himself. Peter’s violence after she confessed to an affair, hitting her and pushing her down the stairs, left her looking like “the Irish rugby team had used me like a football”, according to her doctor.

In the end, it is the ex-wife, who can see it most objectively. Banned from Peter’s funeral by his surviving wife Lin, Wendy made her own memorial and concluded that if Peter had chosen peace there would be fewer broken hearts but “the world would have been deprived of a jewel.”

Article published in Weekend Australian Review

'2012