I recently finished reading Shirley Smith: An Examined Life, by Wellington writer Sarah Gaitanos. (Yes, I know the book came out last year, but you can’t rush into these things.)
It’s a fascinating biography, opening a window on a period in New Zealand history when a tightly knit coterie of leftist intellectuals attained positions of influence in the public service, the arts and academia. You might well ask, so what’s new? But the political tone of the period from the 1930s to the 1970s was very much of its time – an era when many leading thinkers, writers and influencers were so seduced by Marxist ideology that they clung doggedly to their beliefs even when Soviet-style communism was exposed as a monstrous fraud.
Smith was highly accomplished in her own right, particularly as a ground-breaking woman lawyer, but it was her unfair fate to be known principally as the wife of the prominent left-wing economist and public servant William Ball (“Bill”) Sutch, who was famously acquitted of espionage in 1974. Few people reading this biography will be in any doubt as to which partner in the marriage was more deserving of respect.
Irrespective of her politics, which remained staunchly and unapologetically left-wing until her death in 2008, it’s hard not to admire Smith for her indefatigable energy and commitment to her political and social ideals. Her husband, on the other hand, emerges from the pages of this book as a phony, a liar, a fantasist, a philanderer and a hypocrite, especially when it came to the role of women.
Oh, and he was almost certainly a KGB spy. If there was any doubt about that when Sutch was acquitted in 1974, only his most diehard supporters could believe him innocent now. Yet it says a lot about Smith’s sense of honour that she remained doggedly loyal to him in public while privately harbouring grave misgivings about the type of man he was.
Not that the Shirley Smith we meet in the early chapters of the book is an instantly appealing character. On the contrary, the young Shirley comes across as self-absorbed, spoiled and rather precious. The only daughter of a doting father who became a Supreme Court judge and a knight of the realm, she lived a life of rare privilege for one growing up in the generally straitened circumstances of the 1920s and 30s: attending an expensive Anglican private school (Nga Tawa), enjoying childhood holidays in the family bach at Taupo, winning a scholarship to Oxford, swanning around Europe, engaging in a series of relationships with dashing young suitors and being fussed over in an exclusive sanatorium in the Swiss Alps when she contracted tuberculosis.
At a time when few could afford to travel abroad, her life was a peripatetic whirl of continental train journeys and sea voyages, all financed by her father. She rubbed shoulders with an emerging elite of upwardly mobile leftists, many of whom she remained close to for the rest of her life. Yet parallel with this life of self-indulgence, and in line with the paradoxical spirit of the time in British and New Zealand intellectual circles (remember, this was also the period when the Cambridge Five – Burgess, Maclean, Philby, Blunt and Cairncross – were recruited as spies by the Soviet Union), she became a loyal servant of the Communist Party, remaining a true believer even after Joseph Stalin entered a pact with Hitler to crush Poland and carve it up between them. Like many of her gullible fellow-travellers, she found ways to rationalise and excuse communist infamy. When the facts conflicted with the theory, it was assumed that the facts must be wrong. It wasn’t until after Nikita Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin and the brutal Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 that Smith, like many other party members in New Zealand, renounced communism.
How she reconciled her Marxist belief with her rarefied existence as a member of a privileged intellectual elite, ironically funded by capitalism, is just one paradox that Gaitanos doesn’t, or can’t, explain. But Smith’s relationship with Sutch, whom she married in 1944 after he had divorced his first wife, strikes an even more discordant note. The reader is left to wonder how a strong, assertive and intelligent woman could allow herself to be so dominated by a cold, controlling husband. The only explanation is that she was in awe of him – although why, when she seemed a more admirable human being in every respect, is a mystery.
For all his professed belief in women’s equality, Sutch had conventional expectations of marriage and wanted a traditional, compliant wife. While pursuing her own increasingly demanding career, first as an academic and later as a lawyer (activities Sutch disapproved of), Smith was expected to fulfil all the traditional domestic chores such as cooking and cleaning. When Sutch entertained friends, it was she who prepared and served the food and cleaned up afterwards – all this after putting in a day’s hard work, and in a poky kitchen ill-suited to entertaining. (According to the book, Smith had little say in the planning of their showpiece home designed by the fashionable modernist architect Ernst Plischke. It rankled with her that it became known as the Sutch House, especially as much of the money that paid for it was her own.)
As far as can be ascertained from the biography, the couple lived largely separate lives; Smith involving herself in political and community affairs – nuclear disarmament, civil liberties, the peace movement – while her husband progressed through a succession of high-profile government and diplomatic posts where his known communist sympathies aroused the attention of the Security Intelligence Service and alarmed New Zealand’s allies.
That he supplied information to the Soviet Union was confirmed in the early 1990s when New Zealand journalist Geoff Chapple tracked down a former Soviet diplomat who recalled Sutch passing him a package intended for the KGB. The former KGB agent Dimitri Razgovorov, whose rendezvous with Sutch on a dark and rainy Wellington night led to the New Zealander’s arrest, was subsequently reported in the Auckland Star as revealing that he had “inherited” Sutch from his predecessor at the Soviet Embassy. Later again, in 2014, newly released KGB files from the so-called Mitrokhin Archive appeared to identify Sutch as the New Zealand agent recruited in 1950 and code-named “Maori” – although it should be noted that Sutch’s daughter Helen, herself a high achiever with a glittering career working for international agencies such as the World Bank, didn’t accept that the details about “Maori” matched her father, and continued to defend him as a patriotic New Zealander.
Whether Sutch’s income from the KGB explained his ownership of multiple properties, some of them acquired without his wife’s knowledge, isn’t clear from the Gaitanos book. Much of his life appears to have been conducted in secret. Certainly he died a wealthy man, with a Swiss bank account and a fortune estimated, in today's terms, at $5 million. It wasn’t until long after his death that Smith learned he owned part of a luxury estate in the Bahamas – surely an incongruous investment for an avowed socialist (but consistent with my long-held belief that some of the most fervent leftists are, at heart, frustrated and envious would-be capitalists).
That wasn’t the only surprising thing Smith learned about her husband after his death. Going through letters he had written to his mother, she discovered that his claims to have walked across the Soviet Union and traversed the Arctic Circle in the 1930s – feats which contributed to the aura around him – were total fabrications. In fact he crossed the Arctic Circle on a ship, took a train across the USSR and flew over the mountains to Afghanistan. Though there’s no suggestion Gaitanos set out with the intention of demolishing Sutch’s reputation, all of this helps to construct a picture of a man who was sneaky, deceptive, selfish, chauvinistic, rigidly dogmatic and possessed of enormous self-regard (he reportedly longed for a knighthood). That Smith stayed with him is a marvel.
On the other hand Smith, whatever you think of her politics, was a woman of principle and integrity, putting in long days at her legal practice battling for underdogs who often couldn’t afford to pay her and immersing herself in the social and political issues of the time. She was also an inveterate and adventurous traveller into her old age, with a particular affection for Greece.
I met her once. While at Wellington’s Evening Post in the 1990s I organised an afternoon tea for a group of habitual writers of letters to the editor. I thought it would be interesting to put faces to their names and allow them to meet each other, but it was also a gesture of appreciation for their contributions to the correspondence columns. As you might imagine, the guests were a disparate and quirky group that spanned the political and ideological spectrum. Shirley Smith was one of them, and I took an instant liking to her. She was a tiny woman but you could sense her fierce energy and intellect. She was immensely engaging and radiated charisma. As Gaitanos’ book reveals, she packed an enormous amount into her life. I defy anyone to read it and not feel inadequate.