Jean Russell on her life with Belfast author Brian Moore and the new Lonely Passions festival celebrating her late husband's work
Jane Hardy chats to Jean Russell, widow of the acclaimed Belfast author Brian Moore, about their life together and the new Lonely Passions festival celebrating his work on the centenary of his birth...
WIVES of great writers assume different roles. They may be the muse – Frieda and DH Lawrence, before the plate throwing phase – or help-meet – Valerie Eliot, secretary then wife of TS and keeper of the reputation – or a partner who does her own thing.
Jean Russell, widow of the late great Belfast author Brian Moore and supporter of his new centenary festival, Lonely Passions, has been well known in her own right. The Canadian TV commentator, remembered for what she modestly calls "little features on things I probably knew nothing about", was probably a mix of them all.
She tells me down the line from Nova Scotia that she is thrilled the festival is taking place in Belfast next week to mark the 100th anniversary of Brian's birth.
"I think he would have been very pleased," Jean says.
Jean's memories of her second husband are sharp, humorous, affectionate. She reveals that Brian read his day's output to her each evening:
"Yes, I heard his writing first and I loved that, but I would only suggest changes if he questioned something. He was a pretty perfect writer."
When Jean heard the violent ending of his 1990 novel Lies of Silence, which was dedicated to her, she was shocked by the denouement with its killer lines: "Two young men came in at the door... They raised their revolvers. They were not wearing masks. This time, there would be no witnesses".
"Brian taught some seminars at the University of California Los Angeles and always told his students that if they didn't grip the reader on the first page, it wouldn't work – and if they didn't have a proper ending, that was another strike against them."
A humorous woman who describes herself as of "indeterminate age" – "If you reveal your age, you may start behaving like it," Jean advises – she met her future husband at a publisher's party in Toronto that she hadn't particularly wanted to attend.
It was a coup de foudre: "I'd been invited to a party given for a writer I knew nothing about. I walked in, saw this creature in a double breasted suit with brass buttons and thought 'Oh, my goodness!'.
"As I turned away to leave, I noticed this man was watching me across the room. I looked over and it was an instant recognition. I didn't believe before this that people could fall in love like that."
Brian Moore discovered in conversation that Jean Russell was moving to New York. She recalls: "I had found an apartment on Riverside Drive which was very nice but he told me I was bound to be mugged.
"In fact, the police chief lived in the same building, there were security guards everywhere and I was completely safe."
It was a genuinely whirlwind romance and, as Jean tells it, Mr Moore did something he didn't always do: "He pursued me and, reader, we married."
In 1967, they were married at a $3 ceremony at City Hall.
"I looked in shops but couldn't find anything suitable for a $3 ceremony, so as I was a decent seamstress, I made my dress. It was pink with a mini skirt, as it was the 60s."
The couple lived in New York but quite often holidayed in California, in Malibu.
"We used to say 'Gosh, isn't this beautiful?' and one year we found this house by the sea."
So began the Malibu years, where Jean was to spend the next 50 years, remaining after her husband died in January 1999. She says that they had a wonderful life there, mainly just the two of them, although they did entertain close friends like Seamus and Marie Heaney.
Heaney wrote Remembering Malibu about this period and compared Ireland's neighbouring Atlantic to California's Pacific ends with the lines "But to rear and kick and cast that shoe / beside that other western sea / far from the Skelligs, and far, far from the suck of puddled, wintry ground / our footsteps filled with blowing sand".
Jean remembers the Heaneys staying with them quite often.
"Seamus was teaching at Harvard and they'd come with their two then small boys. Seamus was a very loyal friend to Brian and would read this poem, which was written after the two men had walked along the beach, at poetry events they invited us to."
One observation Jean makes about her husband, whose characterisation of women is as acute as his delineation of the male of the species, is telling:
"He was one of nine children, of whom six were sisters. There were also two maiden aunts living with the family, so there was an abundance of women!"
This helped in their courtship, as Jean explains: "Brian said that when talking to women, you learnt something, but talking to men, they were adding their credits. I think that's a very Irish or Northern Irish thing."
Being married to a famous author did not faze Jean, who observes that the notion of celebrity in the late 20th century was slightly different.
"Writers weren't the celebrities they might be now."
She also thinks her late husband's reputation might have slightly suffered because of his ability to tackle different genres and his sheer range, saying: "I think had Brian stuck to one genre, his fame might have been greater."
One memory of Seamus Heaney's friendship surfaces. Jean and Brian Moore were in Dublin for the launch of the dramatised version of his 1965 novel The Emperor of Ice Cream at the Abbey Theatre.
"We went afterwards to the Shelborne," Jean recalls.
"Brian had suffered with stomach ulcers in his youth and, when he got up from his seat, held my hand. His was wet and he said he wasn't feeling well. This is humorous as well as tragic. He collapsed in the foyer and from his colour, I thought he'd died.
"I shouted for the director who ran over, by which time Brian's eyes flicked open. This guy said 'Well, I didn't think our play was that bad, Brian!'."
Moore spent several weeks in hospital, lost two thirds of his gut and was visited regularly by Seamus Heaney.
The couple visited Belfast and Northern Ireland once a year. Jean reminisces about their first visit when they stayed at the Culloden Hotel.
"It was fabulous, so beautiful, and the family running it were connoisseurs – well, they liked to eat, and the food was great."
Family is a recurring theme and Jean says that they loved visiting Brian's favourite sister, Una, and also Peggy, the mother of her nephew, Gerrard, a physician who has a talent for poetry.
She adds: "It was a great family to marry into. Brian's father, a surgeon, was 50 when he married and his wife was quite a bit younger. I was younger too when I married Brian."
We discuss writers that Brian admired and Jean says she was upset to hear of Derek Mahon's death, somebody they both rated.
"I've been invited to an event involving Paul Muldoon and he is someone my husband thought was very good," she adds.
Questioned on why Northern Ireland punches above its weight artistically, Jean says: "Maybe it's because the conflict was recent, provoking a creativity."
Like the pearl in the oyster.
Due to Covid travel complications, Jean can't make it over to Belfast for the Lonely Passions festival.
"I am so sorry I can't get to the festival," she says, "but it took me two-and-a-half days, plus two months for the paperwork, to come to Nova Scotia from New York.
"It's just too complicated, but friends are going to come over and we'll watch some events online."
:: Lonely Passions: Brian Moore Centenary Festival runs from August 19 to 25. Full programme details at paradossotheatre.com. The Festival is supported by Organisational Emergency Funding by the Department for Communities through the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and Tourism Northern Ireland.