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He wandered, but always came back; Bruce Chatwin's letters reveal the rock-solid marriage that survived his gay flings. By Nicholas Shakespeare
Sunday Times (London, England). (Aug. 29, 2010): News: p8.
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Byline: Nicholas Shakespeare

In the summer of 1965, the 25-year-old Bruce Chatwin sailed to New York to marry Elizabeth Chanler, a 26-year-old American he had met at Sotheby's. In a letter that has survived, Chatwin wrote: "The sight of you on the docks will be worth all this trial. Love, love, love, Bruce."

The words love and marriage are not ones that spring to mind when talking about Chatwin, who during 23 years of marriage had fleeting liaisons with men - from Edmund White in New York to a barman called Joao in Copacabana.

Given his secrecy, Elizabeth could not easily untangle the nature of his affairs. Further, she chose not to. "It didn't worry me. It was just, 'Oh here we go again.'" Her understanding of who he was is part of what kept them together and allowed him to become one of the most important travel writers and novelists of his generation.

In 1993, four years after he died of Aids, I drove with Elizabeth across Patagonia. It was the first of several journeys in Chatwin's footsteps. As his biographer, I wanted to track down the models for the characters in his first book. It became apparent that it was true what their friends had told me: Chatwin's "eye" was never better demonstrated than in his choice of a wife.

In my travels in pursuit of those people Chatwin had known, I met few who were indisputably themselves, but Elizabeth was one such person, and remains so.

The marriage was not universally understood, but it made good sense. It would be unorthodox - but that worried neither. (Elizabeth, I learnt, came from a line of women accustomed to letting their husbands roam.) It is nonsense to suggest their marriage was a chaste affair: friends have testified to the physical side. Frequently he went off with other people but always he did return.

Their engagement took friends by surprise. Elizabeth says: "I had no expectations. From the beginning he said, 'I'm going to have to go off by myself, you don't mind?' 'No.' I was perfectly happy to accept that."

Since a young girl, she had pledged never to be dependent on her spouse. She was also aware of Chatwin's friendship with homosexuals.

"I knew Bruce was 'ambidextrous'.

He was never obvious about it and it embarrassed him that he had this tendency, but he wasn't going to give in to it completely. Looking back, I think he was very uncomfortable at having got himself into this situation, but given his background he didn't see any alternative, and he thought men living together completely unnatural."

Initially, when I began gathering Chatwin's correspondence, I imagined I would find letters to his lovers. But the business of love affairs is not prominent. Jasper Conran, who was involved with him in the 1980s, says Chatwin never wrote. Nor have letters turned up to Donald Richards, author of Know Your Cats. The most revealing are to Sunil Sethi, an Indian journalist; and to the American film director Jim Ivory.

It seems that Chatwin burnt all the love letters he received. Even so, the letters that have survived, to correspondents all over the globe, give a glimpse of what Chatwin actually was up to. For the first time, all the strands are pulled together.

Elizabeth says of their marriage: "Although I knew him better than anyone, I didn't intrude. Now I am able to discover where he was. And who with." In Kenya, he's with Richards - not on his own, as he had led her to believe. In Sydney, he writes to Elizabeth c/o a former model, but in fact he is staying with a gay filmmaker, Ben Gannon. A month later, he flies to Indonesia to join Conran.

Elizabeth had known none of this. "I didn't ask questions," she says, "because if he wasn't going to tell me, there's no point in asking."

There is a matter-of-factness in Elizabeth's acceptance of whatever Chatwin did. She had made her decision and her love was constant. She says: "People asked: 'Why do you let him go off?' But that was the arrangement.

You can't change someone.

It's pointless. If you want to change them, you shouldn't take them on."

Under the Sun: The Letters of Bruce Chatwin, selected and edited by Elizabeth Chatwin and Nicholas Shakespeare, is published on September 2 by Jonathan Cape ([pounds sterling]25)


Bruce Chatwin in Italy; after his marriage to Elizabeth Chanler in New York in 1965, inset, his travels - and affairs - never ceased

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
"He wandered, but always came back; Bruce Chatwin's letters reveal the rock-solid marriage that survived his gay flings. By Nicholas Shakespeare." Sunday Times [London, England], 29 Aug. 2010, p. 8. Infotrac Newsstand, Accessed 22 Apr. 2019.

Gale Document Number: GALE|A235968816