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Revealed: the truth about Frank Sargeson’s imprisoned lover

Steve Braunias pursues the puzzle of the pāua shell painter who was imprisoned for having sex with Frank Sargeson – and finds a wildly different version of events than the official story as handed down by Sargeson’s biographer Michael King.

Someone’s name kept coming up when I reunited CK Stead and Kevin Ireland at the Takapuna home of their literary mentor, Frank Sargeson, and interviewed them for a  feature in Saturday’s Weekend Herald: Leonard Hollobon, the man who was punished with a five-year prison sentence for having sex with Sargeson. Hollobon and Sargeson were arrested in 1929. They were both found guilty of indecent assault. Sargeson was given a suspended sentence. He never spoke of it; his real name was Norris Davey, and he changed it to Sargeson after the arrest, and the trial, which was widely reported. It was a key and crucial incident in his life, the central trauma. It turned him into a kind of fugitive. He was arrested in Wellington, where he worked as a solicitor; afterwards, he hid out at his uncle’s farm in the King Country, before heading north to take up lodgings in the family bach in Takapuna with a new name, and an entirely new way of living. He became an author. He changed New Zealand literature by creating it in the first place. The short stories, the colloquial voice, the mentoring of Stead, Ireland, Janet Frame, Maurice Gee, Owen Marshall ... Sargeson is a vital figure in New Zealand writing, its one-man foundation myth. But what about Hollobon?

His name was bandied about during my two-hour interview with Stead and Ireland. He was mentioned only as a kind of bystander to the bigger, apparently more important story of Sargeson. He was peripheral, vague. The only facts of his existence that the three of us knew about were recorded within the most dramatic pages of Michael King’s 1995 biography, Frank Sargeson: A Life. He was older than Sargeson, he painted commercial trinkets, he came from Christchurch, he was sentenced to five years hard labour. Also, as exclusively and sensationally revealed in King’s biography, he was betrayed by Sargeson. According to King, Hollobon’s arrival in Wellington led police to put him under surveillance, and to station two detectives in a room next door to the one Hollobon was renting in a boarding house. ‘Later in the evening,’ writes King, ‘when the two men were masturbating each other, the detectives forced their way into the room and arrested them both.’

For Sargeson, it was a ‘catastrophe’, ‘a disaster’. For Hollobon, it was a prison sentence; Sargeson avoided that fate by betraying him. King: ‘Norris [Sargeson] appears to have agreed to pose as the victim ... He was also persuaded to testify against Leonard Hollobin [sic].’ We’ll come back to that ‘appears to’ and that tell-tale sic in a moment - very well, it may be a long moment - and leave ‘Hollobin’ with the asterisk that King provides as a footnote, to sternly inform the reader that all sex offenders at that time were sent to New Plymouth gaol: ‘The Controller-General of Prisons ... was especially punitive towards this class of offender and has stated on at least one occasion that they had to be watched constantly while working in the prison quarry in case they offended again.’

Nothing more is said about the poor wretch. The book returns to Sargeson, and the impact that the scandal had on him. ‘The determining crisis of his life,’ writes King, ‘was his arrest in Wellington and the long shadow it cast on the remainder of his life’.

The first Stead and Ireland knew about it was the first anyone knew about it: by reading King’s book. It was the version we talked about in our recent interview at that small, dark, weird little shack at 14 Esmonde Rd, with the stained ceilings and the single bed and the old, rusted stove, the whole place maintained as a museum by Sargeson’s estate. Stead and Ireland began visiting Sargeson in 1955, when they were young men, and wanted to become writers. The experience changed their lives. They formed close friendships with Sargeson, and have written about him extensively and intimately since his death in 1982.

‘He never ever discussed it,’ said Ireland. ‘I must have come here a hundred times or more and he’d never ever spoke about it once. It was merely that he’d once been arrested and was very lucky and wouldn’t want to go through that again. And that was it. But he did not go into the fact that he betrayed the bastard.’

Stead said, ‘Well he saved himself from what would have been a prison sentence otherwise. But I’m sure he always felt guilty about it.’

I said, ‘Hollobon got five years! It was one hell of a betrayal.’

Stead sat in an armchair by the fireplace, and Ireland perched on the edge of Sargeson’s little bed until his bum got too sore – the culprit was an exposed bedspring. He said, ‘It’s not so much a betrayal as that Frank comes out of it badly.’

Stead said, ‘It’s not even so much he comes out of badly as he comes out of it with a guilty conscience.’

Ireland said the arrest made sense of a strange incident in the late 1950s, when he was walking around Takapuna late one night with Sargeson – and Sargeson suddenly took off when he saw a police car.

‘It was just a prowl car,’ he said. ‘That’s what we called them. They used to go around the streets, and stop people walking around to see if they had criminal intent. Everyone was in bed by about 9 o’clock at night in New Zealand back then, and so anyone walking the streets, if the cops were out in their V8s with the big light on the top, they’d turn the light on you, and you’d explain you were out visiting a friend and that was it. But Frank had a panic attack. It was the most peculiar reaction. Why was Frank so upset? But then you read Michael King’s book and learn about the horror of the trial.’

The horror of the trial, the trauma of being caught in the act by two detectives who burst through the door – it certainly helps to explain why Sargeson got spooked that night many years later on Lake Rd in Takapuna, and ran for his life. It very neatly acts out his fear of arrest. The only problem is that much of the official version of what happened to Sargeson in 1929 is a nonsense.

*

The curious thing is that the real story came out 10 years ago, but has been ignored, or unnoticed. I only stumbled on it two days after my interview with Ireland and Stead, when the three of us laboured under the delusion of police surveillance and Sargeson’s betrayal. We had been sold a pup. King’s version of events was demolished by Otago University professor Chris Brickell in his 2008 book Mates and Lovers. There was no surveillance. There was no dramatic bust. As well, there was no betrayal, and consequently not a trace of guilt.

Brickell’s study was the first ever history of gay men in New Zealand. One aspect of his research was the policing of homosexuality, and his finding that it was really fairly relaxed, certainly in the 1920s and 30s. I called Brickell at his university office, and he said, ‘I was working on a whole lot of court cases involving gay men, in Dunedin, Auckland, Whanganui, Oamaru, Wellington, Invercargill, and what I found is that what was alleged to have happened in the King book didn’t square at all with policing practices at the time. Police weren’t actively pursuing homosexual men and certainly weren’t hiding behind bedroom doors and leaping out at people. So I was really puzzled by the Sargeson case. It was anomalous to the pattern.’

He went digging. He found Hollobon’s court file at National Archives. It told a different story: Hollobon was the one who betrayed Sargeson.

Frank Sargeson at 14 Esmonde Rd. Photo: John Reece Cole 1/2-022683-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington.

The saga began when Hollobon called Wellington police and said he was being blackmailed by a man for five pounds. Two detectives went to talk with him: ‘We asked him what was the reason for the man demanding money from him. He then explained that for some time past he had been indecently interfering with men, and that they were then afterwards demanding money from him.’

They asked him for the names of men who he had been ‘indecently interfering with’. He gave them the names of two sailors; it seems they left New Zealand before the police could get to them. He also named Norris Davey.

And so it was that Sargeson got caught up in a blackmail intrigue. As for Hollobon, it’s a bit weird that he went to the police, knowing he would have to confess to his pick-ups. Homosexuality carried a maximum sentence of 10 years imprisonment. The likeliest interpretation is that he was caught between a rock and a hard place. The money, or the lag? He could have chosen to pay the five pounds; instead, he chose to go to the cops, and for his pains he got five years.

I said to Brickell, ‘So this whole exciting happenstance of the cops bursting in on Sargeson and Hollobon, caught in flagrante, “You’re nicked, you filthy bastard!”, all that – it’s a fiction.’

‘A total fiction,’ said Brickell. ‘That’s what made me so puzzled at the start. I couldn’t find any other  example of police arresting gay men in entrapment-type behaviour ... What’s interesting is that the narrative in King’s book has been taken as the truth about the policing of male homosexuality in New Zealand in the pre-Gay Liberation period. Only about three months ago I peer-reviewed a book proposal, and there it was! It stated that police carried out surveillance, and cited the King version of Sargeson and Hollobon. It tells the story that people like to believe.’

I said, ‘It’s a good story.’

Brickell said, ‘It’s a good story, and it fits with the narrative of social progress. You know, “Once upon a time they hid behind doorways of men’s bedrooms and burst in on them and arrested them and sent them to jail.” It implicitly tells a story of social progress that people find attractive.’

Is this why Brickell’s revelations about the Sargeson-Hollobon affair have been overlooked? His book was hardly obscure – it won the prize for best first book of non-fiction at the national book awards the following year, and Greg Dixon wrote a long, typically entertaining feature about Mates and Lovers in the country’s biggest newspaper. His story in the New Zealand Herald included eight paragraphs on the true nature of the arrests of Sargeson and Hollobon.

‘The mystery in my mind,’ said Brickell, ‘is why didn’t King, who was a very thorough historian, go and look for the official file? It’s where a historian would go first. Because it’s simply not true that Sargeson ratted on Hollobon. It’s an inversion of the other way around. I think King’s story came from a family member of Sargeson’s. But the danger of interviewing family members is that various forms of family mythology get woven back into the telling of the story, and then it gets distorted over the generations. For a historian, that kind of reporting of family hearsay is really a kind of dubious coathanger to hang your narrative on.’

While we were talking, I looked up the passage in King’s biography of Sargeson, and found the relevant footnote. Brickell was right: King notes that ‘the account of events leading up to his arrest’ comes from interviews with Sargeson’s sister, Phyllis Gadd.

*

Brickell and I mulled it over. We agreed that it was all very odd for a historian of King’s stature to have got so many elements of such a crucial story (‘the determining crisis of his life’) so wrong. Neither of us wanted to impugn King. The guy was one of our greatest authors, ahead of his time in realising that the most important stories about New Zealand life and history were Māori stories, as the author of biographies of Princess Te Puea and Dame Whina Cooper, and his masterpiece, published in 1989, Moriori: A People Rediscovered. His last book, The Penguin History of New Zealand, was massively popular, and confirmed King as probably our most trusted and loved author. His death in a car crash in 2004 robbed the nation of one of its few public intellectuals who could talk knowledgeably and sensibly.

Brickell had wondered why King didn’t look for an official file. But King actually did locate a document – and it flatly contradicted the story Phyllis Gadd had told him. The truth was staring at King right in the face.

King narrated a rather bland documentary on Sargeson made by Bruce Sheridan in 1999 (Karl Urban has a speaking part, no doubt honing the craft that would catapult him to such Hollywood roles as an assassin in The Bourne Supremacy). During a voice-over, when King blithely retells the myth of the police putting Hollobon under surveillance (and accuses him of being a ’predatory homosexual’), the programme films a close-up of Hollobon’s police indictment. It sticks it on the screen, and the camera lingers on it for 11 seconds. It makes for interesting reading.

Hollobon's narrative begins begins, ‘We walked from the wharf to my business premises in York Chambers. On the way the accused asked me if I was circumcised, and he said, “I suppose you have a good one.” 

‘I said, “Oh I don’t know so much about that.”

‘That was all that was said.

‘When we got to my work-room at York Chambers we started talking about sexual matters. I showed the accused some postcards. Some of them were art pictures and others were men and women. Some of the figures were nude. One of the pictures was of a man lying on his back with a woman on top of him ... We then took down our trousers. The accused took out my penis and I took out his. We each abused the other – the accused spent himself first. We did not remain at the room long after that.’

No police bursting in the door, no sudden and shocking arrest; not even a room in a boarding house, as Phyllis Gadd fancied. Instead, a pick-up under cloak of darkness at the wharves, then to a studio off Manners St for a brief, private, intensely satisfying conclusion (Sargeson would later tell Stead and Ireland that his favourite sexual activity was mutual masturbation), complete with dialogue straight out of the kind of story Sargeson would one day write about men of few words and seething emotions:

- I suppose you have a good one.

- Oh I don’t know so much about that.

They had sex on September 2, 1929. Hollobon went to police on October 1. An entire month had passed before Sargeson was arrested. Another month passed before they went to trial. A story appeared in Wellington’s Evening Post, and is available on the Papers Past website; it states that Hollobon pleaded guilty to ‘three charges of indecent assault on males’, and the number squares up with the court documents that Brickell discovered, of Hollobon giving police the names of three of his lovers – the two sailors, and Norris Davey.

An oil painting of Stewart Island by Jesse Hollobon, who forbade his son to sign his own pictures with the family name. Photo: Steve Braunias.

Unfair, though, to make too much of a song and dance that King was led astray by Sargeson’s sister (who achieved what her brother wanted, by marrying Frank Gadd, who Sargeson adored). King’s version is right in its essential substance. There was a trial, Sargeson got off, Hollobon got five years. True, too, that it was ‘the determining crisis’ in Sargeson’s life, led him to change his name, and bury himself in Takapuna, in the family bach on the edge of a mangrove swamp. But the rest of it is false.

His footnote suggesting Hollobon would have had a rough time at New Plymouth gaol is likely another nonsense. Brickell has researched the subject of the imprisonment of gay men in New Zealand, and said, ‘The thing about New Plymouth prison, where homosexual offenders were sent at the time when Hollobon was there, is that it was a reasonably enlightened regime. On one hand there was a quarry and men broke rocks in there, but on the other hand there were play readings, and entertainments, and love affairs every day.’

King’s footnote on the ‘punitive’ nature of New Plymouth gaol is somewhat slipshod: he makes his general, non-specific claims based on a single page in Greg Newbold’s 1989 book on New Zealand prisons and, even less rigorously, cites ‘Bill Pearson, personal communication’. Pearson wrote the novel Coal Flat and the famous essay Fretful Sleepers. He was a gay man. He knew Sargeson. He had never gone to prison or researched the subject.

King could have consulted a peculiar little paperback called In Prison, by ex-con Ormond Burton, published in 1945. Burton’s book provides a fascinating glimpse into the conditions of prisons in New Zealand. It includes a few lines on New Plymouth. He writes, perhaps a little over the top, ‘The place is clean and as beautiful as a prison can be, polished up to the nines, and with much taste in the decoration of the cells. There is a beautiful garden. Hobbies are encouraged ... There are excellent concert programmes ... I should think it is a heaven for homosexuals.’

Is this what Leonard Hollobon experienced? I had become very curious about the man who was put in prison for five years for touching Frank Sargeson’s cock. It felt sad and manifestly unfair that nothing more was ever heard of him, that his life was reduced to a footnote. Who was he? What became of him? ‘I did not see him again after the incident’, Sargeson writes in his police indictment; King’s biography consigns him to an imagined awful fate banged up in a terrible jail, and never refers to him again. He calls him ‘a predatory homosexual’ without a scrap of evidence, and puts ‘a corrupter of youth’ in quote marks without indicating who said it (it could have been that old gossip, Phyllis Gadd) - he can’t even get his name right. I thought to see if he had any surviving relatives and wondered why I couldn’t find anyone called ‘Hollobin’ [sic] in the White Pages. It was because there’s no such name. But I looked up Hollobon, found a number, and a few days later I called in for a cup of tea and chocolate biscuits in Birkdale with a lovely woman called Merle Pash, who said, ‘I was born in 1934. The same year Uncle Len got out of prison.’

*

Merle was at home with her husband Ivon, who I don’t think heard anything that was said, her son Gary, who had only just began an ambitious jigsaw of the Swiss Alps, and her daughter Susan, who brought in the tea and a very generous plate of biscuits. Strange to consider that a casual gay pick-up on the wharves of Wellington had led to my visit, 90 years later almost to the day, to a home on Auckland’s North Shore. The trail of Leonard Hollobon, which appeared to have gone cold after his arrest, was picked up again as Merle spoke about her uncle. It was a sad story but not entirely so.

Her father Cuthbert and his family grew up in Christchurch. Cuthbert had a twin brother, Edgar. There was a sister, Irene, and a brother Taiaroa, a rifleman who was killed in France in the first world war. And then there was Len – but Merle didn’t even know he existed until she was about 10. ‘He was never spoken about in the family,’ she said. ‘The first I ever heard of him was in the war years [WWII] when he donated a bedspread in silk, with painted flowers on it, for a school raffle. I thought it was strange that a man should paint all these beautiful flowers. I was told, “Your uncle Len made it.” And that was it. He was never mentioned again.’

The shame of Hollobon’s arrest and trial – unlike King, the newspapers spelled his name right – was too much for the family. Its patriarch was Jesse Hollobon. He made picture frames at a workshop in Sydenham, was a talented woodcarver (he made a sideboard table that Merle has inherited, with beautifully carved lion heads: ‘They used to scare me to death as a child’), and painted landscapes in oil and watercolour. His entry in Nineteenth Century New Zealand Artists: A Guide & Handbook reads: ‘Was a deeply religious man and once spent a time on Quail Island looking after lepers.’ (The author of the guidebook was Una Platts, who lived in Takapuna and was friends with...Frank Sargeson.)

Christchurch painter and Anglican conservative Jesse Hollobon - father of Len Hollobon, jailed for five years for his casual pick-up one night in Wellington with Frank Sargeson - carved these absolutely terrifying lion heads.

There are obvious and meaningful parallels between Jesse Hollobon and Sargeson’s father, Edwin Davey. Both were God-fearing men disgusted by homosexuality. Sargeson wrote, ‘My father was genuinely religious and moral.’ King writes that Edwin Davey was ‘devastated – both by the news of the arrest and the nature of the charge’, but was given counselling from the Reverend at his church, who ‘offered them a compassionate view of the nature of homosexuality and urged them to be supportive of their son.’ Davey transferred the deed of his Takapuna bach to Sargeson, who enjoyed the luxury of living freehold.

Jesse Hollobon, though, washed his hands of Len. ‘Jesse had nothing to do with him,’ said Merle. ‘He was completely lost as a son.’

Len earned his living as a painter of trinkets and souvenirs. Merle remembers that he painted pāua shells. ‘He sold them through a  gift shop. I actually saw one and it was quite beautiful. He painted little boats – yachts, going out to sea.’

That was a nice memory. But then she said, ‘Jesse forbade Len from signing his pictures with his name Hollobon. He was a very conservative Anglican, and felt thoroughly ashamed and disgraced.’

There is one glancing parallel between the author and the painter: both made their work under assumed names. Norris Davey signed his books as Frank Sargeson; intriguingly, Len Hollobon signed his pictures – the pāua shells, the egg cups, the bread boards – as ‘T Wilson’. Merle didn’t know why or who it referred to. We sipped our tea and speculated that it might have been one of Len’s lovers.

She wasn’t sure what year he died. She knew nothing about his imprisonment until Michael King phoned her. But she’d learned a little about his life after he was released. He moved to Picton. Then he moved to Orewa. He was living in reduced circumstances in a Herne Bay boarding house (‘an awful place’, said Merle) when his sister Irene rescued him, and brought him back to live with her family in Riccarton. He spent his last days in the George Manning retirement village in Spreydon.

‘Len liked to come and visit us,’ said Merle. ‘I got to know him quite well. He was a lover of poetry. He was in his 60s then and seemed rather egotistical and self-centred in the way that some old people think the world revolves around them.’

I asked, ‘What did he look like?’

She said, ‘He had a ruddy complexion, and quite rotund in the face. He was rather a short man.’

Hollobon enlisted in the first world war, and his height is registered in an online archive as 5’2”, and his weight as a trim eight stone, five pounds.

Merle said, ‘He was rosy-cheeked. Do you remember his rosy cheeks, Sue?’

‘Yes,’ said Susan. ‘I was a little girl then. He had quite a round face. Very small, not fat. Very cheerful! Unlike his brother. My granddad was an introvert. A very quiet man. Except when he was with Len, when he was mischievous.’

‘That’s quite a good description,’ said Merle. She talked about a party given for Len on his eightieth birthday. ‘My dad was living with us and my auntie Irene asked if I would have Len’s birthday at my place. And I remember my dad and his twin brother Edgar goaded him to recite poetry. Well, Len did, and my father and Edgar nudged each other and snickered. He was a lovely man, my father, but he had a different attitude towards Len. He could be quite mean. It was totally unlike him.’

I said, ‘Do you remember what he recited?’

Susan said, ‘Something about, “I do like an egg for my tea.” I think it’s from Alice Thorough the Looking Glass.’

Merle said,  ‘But there was no feeling from Len of being the black sheep. None at all. He didn’t regard himself like that; he regarded himself as the kingpin of the party.’

‘He put on a bit of a performance. He behaved like an actor,’ said Susan.

Merle said, ‘You’re right there, Susan.’

‘He wasn’t afraid to speak. He sang as well,’ said Susan.

Later that day, back home, I looked up the line he was goaded into reciting – ‘I do like an egg for my tea’ – and saw that it was actually a lyric from a 1920s English comedy song. It’s likely this was part of the singing he performed at the party held in his honour.

At any rate, a clearer, really very likeable portrait of Len Hollobon had emerged. I thought: I like the sound of this guy, a plucky little ex-con, who survived five years in gaol and chose to live near water – Orewa, Picton, Herne Bay – before returning to Christchurch, a merry old soul who saw himself as the centre of attention, who ignored the snickerings of his quiet and disapproving church-going brothers (both Edgar and Cuthbert were bell ringers at Christchurch cathedral) and who enjoyed himself. He sounded like the type of characters Sargeson surrounded himself with: genuine eccentrics, a very New Zealand species, men alone, who lived as they wanted and cared not a whit for the conformist society they lived in.

Kevin Ireland told a wonderful story about one such character, Bill Anso of New Lynn, during our interview at the Sargeson shack: ‘Barry Crump married his daughter. He wore tiny little shorts like a bathing suit, and boots or sandals, everywhere he went. He was Estonian, and he was built – I’ve never seen a physique like it. Huge barrel chest, and immensely strong legs and shoulders. He was just a gorilla. And he dug. He had a very girly, very light voice, and was the most polite man on earth, but if we were all like Bill Anso, the earth would be like gruyere cheese. It would be full of holes and tunnels. He would see a spade, and start digging. I remember being at a party one night and waking up to the crashing of bottles. He’d seen all these empty bottles of beer lying about and immediately dug up the lawn big enough to bury people in. Six feet deep, and he’s down there, digging. Just incredible. And he buried the bottles, filled up the hole, and laid the sods perfectly.’

Sargeson wrote one of his most famous stories based on Anso’s hole-digging mania. As for the good-natured Hollobon, small and rosy-cheeked, with his paintings of yachts sailing across pāua shell oceans, a showman and a humourist, who was blackmailed and got Frank Sargeson busted, who was excommunicated by his unforgiving father, who signed his little gift-shop pictures as T Wilson – there are rich hues to his story, to his life of pleasure and punishment, exile and survival, returning home in old age to his family.

But when Merle showed me old black and white photographs of her father and her aunts and uncles at weddings and other gatherings, I asked, ‘Is Len in any of these photos?’

‘Len isn’t in anything,’ she said. It was a devastating sentence. ‘I have no photos of him. Len was an outcast. He was never invited to anything.’ Once more, Leonard Hollobon had reverted to his shadowy guise as the man who wasn’t there.

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