Bob Hawke had a song he used to sing to Blanche d’Alpuget. “Zsa Zsa Gabor,” he would croon, “I love you more and more.

Seeing d’Alpuget in the flesh, you have to take his point. The resemblance between the two women is striking, even now that d’Alpuget is 75: the high priestess forehead, the wide-eyed gaze, the sex starlet lips. Gabor, of course, was famous in her own terms: beauty queen, film icon, animal lover. D’Alpuget, conversely, is known to Australians almost entirely through her connection to one of our most irrepressible political figures, Bob Hawke: first as his lover, then his biographer, then his wife.

Since Hawke died in May, nothing has changed. We’ve heard about d’Alpuget caring for him to his last breath; revising and updating her two-volume biography of him (to be republished as a single work on Monday); and stealing the show at his Sydney Opera House memorial with her upraised arms, her velvet cape, and her clarion call to the power of love. But we’ve heard almost nothing about d’Alpuget herself: what she’s thinking, how she’s feeling, what her plans might be. Blanche, it seems, is still – as ever – the trailing tail of Bob’s comet.

There’s never been any evidence that d’Alpuget is bothered by this subsumption, mind you: her love and loyalty to Hawke, according to everyone, was absolute. Yet here she is, sitting in her brand new apartment overlooking Sydney’s Hyde Park, ballet dancer’s body folded into a modernist armchair, without a reference to Hawke in sight. “I deliberately have not got a single picture of Bob here,” she admits in her surprisingly deep, broadly accented voice. “Well, I do have one photograph – of my wedding – but that’s all.” She shrugs one shoulder, smiling. She’s wearing a fitted top in pale green, slim dark pants, colourful socks with dark pumps, and no visible jewellery (not even a wedding ring). “I didn’t want to be reminded all the time.”

Instead, she sold almost everything from their joint life in a huge on-site auction at their four-level house in Northbridge; and she’s just sent 377 boxes of material to the Bob Hawke Prime Ministerial Centre in Adelaide. “I am not sentimental about material things,” she says, “not at all.” Now she has her brand new imported furniture, her gleaming new interiors in shades of grey and eggshell, and handmade French teabags in a black lacquered box. When she makes morning tea, she carefully selects a navy blue bone-china cup for me, “to go with your dress”.

And your cup is green, I respond, to go with your top.

“Yes,” she says kindly, after a pause. “Though this cup is turquoise, and my top is leaf green.”

“She won’t suffer fools,” warns her former publisher, now agent, Jeanne Ryckmans. “She surprises people. She’s not a passive person. She understands men, power, politics; she’s been an active observer of that world. And she’s a survivor. I always think of her like Scarlett O’Hara. You think she might be bowed down with grief, totally lost without Bob, but that’s not the case. Tara’s gone, but she will live to fight another day.”

The first thing to know about Blanche d’Alpuget, independent of Bob Hawke, is that she is strikingly frank. This might be a product of her upbringing in Darling Point, in the harbourside heart of Sydney’s eastern suburbs, as the adored only child of a larger-than-life, hyper-masculine father (a boxer, blue-water yachtsman and news editor) and a well-bred, socially sensitive mother. Her father raised her with unapologetic vigour to sail, fight (literally: he taught her “unarmed combat” for self-defence) and believe she could do anything (his plans for her included studying marine biology in order to, as d’Alpuget has written, “feed the planet from the abundance of the sea”).

Her mother, meanwhile, felt that everybody should “behave well, as she always did”. Unkindness or, significantly, dishonesty, “upset her deeply”. Between them, they created a child who was confident enough to run away with a married, penniless Polish immigrant at 17; and honest enough –flamboyantly so – to write of this period: “In one three-day stretch, we made love 21 times, stopping only to bathe and eat rye bread, csabai and cucumbers.”

This frankness has never left d’Alpuget, and it sparkles in her writing. She worked briefly in journalism after an abortive attempt at a science degree at the University of Sydney, before turning seriously to it in the 1970s. She published her first book, a biography of Richard Kirby, the former head of the Australasian Conciliation and Arbitration Commission, in 1977. But her writing is another detail of d’Alpuget’s life usually passed over. “It’s easy to forget Blanche is a real writer,” says Ryckmans. “It’s very important to her: the room-of-one’s-own thing. And she has a significant body of work, also often forgotten: eight novels, several prizes [including the inaugural Australasian Prize for Commonwealth Literature], all the non-fiction stuff, the journalism.”

The most startling of her non-fiction work is On Lust and Longing, two essays from 1993 and 2008 published as a single collection last year. It’s here that she recalls with relish her second meeting with Hawke, in 1976, when “with mutual, wordless consent it was agreed we would become lovers as soon as possible … He was charming, funny and straightforward: he liked me and enjoyed talking to me; what he loved was sex.”

The vast bulk of her writing about Hawke, however, occurs in Robert J. Hawke: A Biography and Hawke the Prime Minister, now being reissued as a single title, Bob Hawke: the Complete Biography. These thousand pages have always been regarded as the definitive portrait of the man: exhaustively researched, accurate and comprehensive. Perhaps surprisingly, however, for the woman who could recall in On Lust and Longing that her Polish lover’s armpits were “the colour of gold … as inviting to my tongue as honeycomb ice-cream”, their tone is engaging but impersonal. D’Alpuget never mentions herself in either work, despite the fact that both describe long periods in which d’Alpuget was, in real life, Hawke’s mistress. This self-erasure sits oddly with someone of d’Alpuget’s candour; you can’t escape the sense of an opinionated ghost flickering between the pages. But in the new chapter of the revised work – entitled “Part III: At Large” – she triumphantly reappears, in word as well as in life.

Writing the new chapter was no easy thing, she admits. “When I first tried, subsequent to his death, it nearly killed me.” But, ultimately, it proved cathartic. She describes their marriage, Hawke’s achievements after office, and the slow march of his decline. Central to all is the theme she expounded at his memorial: love. “Hawke and Hazel had enjoyed young love,” she writes, “he and I enjoyed mature love. Now we entered the delight that is held in the love of old age, feelings of inexpressible tenderness and unity … He was, when alone with me, a radiant spirit trapped inside a cage of thinning flesh and bone, saying, as I helped him into bed each night, how lucky we were to have this time together.”

It might be hard to imagine Hawke, that powerhouse of real-world politics and hard-living enthusiasms, as a radiant spirit. But in reclaiming the narrative – this is her story as well as his, after all – d’Alpuget describes an ultimately triumphant end to a triumphant life. At the moment of his death, to her “astonishment, [she] felt intense, uplifting joy”. Hawke would surely have approved of that.

Everyone agrees that Bob Hawke was immensely charismatic. But d’Alpuget, it must be said, is no slouch in the charm department herself, although her appeal has not always been obvious to the naked eye. When Hawke divorced Hazel and the world learnt he was in love with d’Alpuget, “people called her a home-wrecker,” her son, artist Louis Pratt, recalls. Blanche was the scarlet woman; the temptress who had led a married man with a wonderful wife astray. Her looks – that blonde hair, those enormous lips, the sidelong glances – all gave rise to an image of d’Alpuget as the archetypal brainless sex bomb.

D’Alpuget, say those who know her, probably quite liked being called a sex bomb. “She’s terribly vain,” says old friend, novelist John Lonie, affectionately. “I know people see that as a criticism, but it’s actually a very endearing feature. She’s beautiful – she’s always been beautiful. I’m a poof, so she doesn’t do anything for me, but I think straight men find her very sexy, too. She’s like Aphrodite. But she has a sort of simplicity about that aspect of her – beautiful things are simple, I think.”

She’s certainly as straightforward about her looks as she is about everything else: more than 20 years ago, she cheerfully discussed her cosmetic work up to that point with then Good Weekend journalist Janet Hawley: “Grey eyebrows permanently tattooed, black eyeliner above and below her eyes likewise tattooed, laser eyelid job, a synthetic thread inserted along her upper lip-line and collagen injections around her eyes and lips”.

“She’s entirely unapologetic about everything in her life,” says Jeanne Ryckmans. “She’s just always herself.” D’Alpuget simply shrugs when I ask what the public makes of her these days. “I think people are nicer,” she says cautiously, “but it hasn’t been for that long. Hazel’s passing made a difference because then that sort of legitimised me more in the public mind. And certainly since Bob’s death. It’s nice to think people care. And what happened to me earlier on was an intense judgmentalism, which was really very unfair. But I still don’t blog, or Facebook, or Link-In or any of that, because I know I’d be trolled to death.” She sits back, thinking. “But I must also say that I don’t worry about what people think – or things in general, very much.” She laughs. “And that’s because I believe in the holy angels.”

D’Alpuget is largely helpless to explain exactly what these angels are: “A sort of protective, guiding force.” But she has no doubt her lifelong interest in spirituality helped her process the knowledge of Hawke’s impending death. “We talked about it a great deal a year or two ago,” she says now. “And he really was so keen to go; once he couldn’t contribute anymore, that was it – he wanted to go. And of course, initially, that was terrible for me, but eventually I came to accept it. And so when it came, it was a release, and a relief.”

Writing also proved a solace – both the work on the biography, and the completion of her quintet of novels about the English medieval king Henry II, which she was working on during his last months. “Writing for me is never a chore,” she says. “It’s something into which I’m deeply drawn: something I can retreat to. So that helped a great deal. Thank god for the 12th century!”

 Bob and Blanche on their wedding day in 1995.

Bob and Blanche on their wedding day in 1995.Credit:Robert Pearce

Blanche d’Alpuget met Bob Hawke at a party in 1970 when she was just 26 years old. She was the cosseted wife of Australian diplomat Tony Pratt, living in Jakarta with five servants and a chauffeur. “We talked about politics,” she recalls, laughing. “I think he liked discovering I was quite serious-minded: I wasn’t just an airhead with a fabulous tan!” Their affair didn’t begin that night, although both d’Alpuget and Pratt had taken other lovers, as had Hawke. Perhaps d’Alpuget wasn’t wildly attracted to him: when they were introduced, she confesses, she thought his name was Robin.

Between that night and their next meeting six years later, d’Alpuget returned to Australia with her husband, gave birth to her son Louis, published a novel, and became interested in – of all things – the history of trade unions and the labour movement in Australia.

“I remember falling asleep to the sound of the typewriter,” recalls Louis. “She was always working.” But she was personally unhappy. Canberra was “a steamroller of banality and domesticity”, she wrote in On Lust and Longing, and the feminism of the 1970s, which “strengthened one’s sense of self, [simultaneously] sharpened one’s dissatisfaction with life as it [was] – and that, invariably, meant one’s male partner”.

When she met Hawke again in 1976, the stage was set, and the pair immediately became lovers. D’Alpuget describes their affair as intoxicating, inspirational and devastating. She slowly realised Hawke was simultaneously “having affairs with women all over the country, that his love life was a kind of free-wheeling, decentralised harem, with four or five favourites and a shoe-sale queue of one-night stands”. Nonetheless, late one night in 1978, he asked d’Alpuget to marry him. She was astonished, appalled and “slain with delight”.

A few months later, however, he decided to have a serious tilt at politics, and withdrew his offer. D’Alpuget rolls her eyes at this memory. “The ‘My job’s more important’ moment,” she says wryly. “Yeah, yeah. But I was also thinking, if I married him, I wouldn’t be able to write. He was a politician first and foremost, and I was a writer first and foremost. So there was the fury and the sense of, ‘Oh, I’ve been rejected’, but there was also a degree of relief.”

Less than a year later, at the start of 1980, d’Alpuget began her biography of Hawke. This seems an odd choice for a former lover, and one wonders if it was a way to maintain contact with the beloved – but according to d’Alpuget “that really wasn’t it. Once I got over the anger and hurt, the writer took over. He was a good subject.” Robert J. Hawke: A Biography was published in 1982, five months before Hawke became PM, to immediate critical and commercial success.

For several years afterwards, author and subject had no contact. D’Alpuget and Tony Pratt divorced in 1986, she moved to Sydney from Canberra, wrote novels, chaired the Australian Society of Authors, studied spirituality. Then one night the phone rang. “This voice just said, ‘G’day,’ ” she recalls. “Of course I knew who it was. I happened to have another boyfriend there when he rang, but I knew he was sussing things out. He said he’d love to meet me again.” And so their affair began once more.

Then, in 1993, a light plane d’Alpuget was travelling in crashed into the sea in far north Queensland. Hearing the news, Hawke believed she’d been killed or terribly injured. In that moment, she writes, “he felt himself die”.

In fact, she was unharmed. She had swum out a window of the plane and been rescued by a passing yachtsman. (This sort of thing only seems to happen to people like Blanche d’Alpuget. The holy angels at work, perhaps.) But the die was cast. “By the time [Hawke] learnt [I] was alive and unharmed, his mindset about the future had changed,” she writes. Within two years, he had divorced Hazel, and he and d’Alpuget were married.

Blanche with her son, Louis, in 1981..

Blanche with her son, Louis, in 1981..Credit: Courtesy of Blanche D’Alpuget

Marriage, even for wonder couple “Bob and Blanche”, was no fairy tale. “It was very hard for both of them,” recalls Louis Pratt. “They were a vilified couple there for a while. Even Bob – he lost a lot of friends over it.” Hawke was the first PM in Australian history to divorce, ending his marriage to Hazel four years after leaving office. But he approached his second marriage with what sounds like total dedication.

According to d’Alpuget, he chose to commemorate it with a wedding ring that he “never allowed to leave his finger” – and in the service itself, he insisted on vows of fidelity. “It was right in the midst of all these very beautiful, spiritual words,” she recalls, “and suddenly there was this very fleshly bit, ‘thunk’ – like being jammed in the mouth with a curb bit. But he had it put in to remind himself.” She tilts her head, smiling. “And perhaps me.”

Was he faithful to you, I wonder.

D’Alpuget smiles again. “I asked him about that once towards the end, and he swore to me that he was.” She lifts one shoulder. “Now certainly his intention was to be, yes. And I think he was – I think he was telling the truth. I have no way of knowing, but there’s no point in my saying he was faithful to me.” Her smile deepens. “That’s what my father would say is leading with the chin.”

What she can say, unequivocally, is that they were happy. “When we were together, I just felt very contented.” She pauses, trying to explain it. “Just very … like a cat. A sense that something had clicked together, two parts of a thing had just clicked.”

“When she was single, there was something missing in her life,” recalls John Lonie. “And while she needed that space, for her own growth, I think, things did get back in balance when she got together with Bob. There was great happiness there.”

Not that Hawke was a walk in the park to live with. D’Alpuget once described him to old friend Susie Dane as “either asleep or like a dog on a chain”. Was he high-maintenance? “Oh yes! Absolutely! He was very needy!” d’Alpuget says, laughing. “Although, because he was almost an only child [his elder brother, Neil, died when Hawke was 10], he didn’t need me fussing around. But unlike my first husband, who was very independent and domesticated – he would iron my dresses! Why did we ever get divorced?! – Bob literally didn’t know where the laundry was in our house. And he could be super-aggro when he got angry. There were very few people who weren’t intimidated by him when he got going.

“But my dad was super-aggro, too. Once, when he was news editor at [Sydney afternoon newspaper] The Sun, he shouted at John Pilger so loudly that Pilger fell flat on the floor in a faint. He was terrifying. And because I’d had that terrifying father, Bob didn’t faze me.”

“She’s a tough little thing,” agrees Lonie. “Once she makes up her mind, oh god. She’s just so determined. Bob met his match with her.”

And so, for almost a quarter of a century, d’Alpuget ran an enormous house with a man who “could not boil an egg or change a light bulb”, entertaining endless visitors and travelling every six weeks, “which was exhausting, frankly. Bob could sleep on a railway line with the trains going over it, but I can’t.” Nevertheless, she joined him in all his social and business ventures, everything from African art to voluntary euthanasia.

In his final years, as Hawke grew more physically frail, their focus shifted from activity to emotional connection, with d’Alpuget still in constant support. “She was a very, very loving carer of him,” recalls Craig Emerson, who was what Blanche calls “an honorary son” to Hawke, dating from Emerson’s time as a policy adviser in Canberra, before becoming a Labor MP in the House of Representatives and minister of various portfolios between 1998 and 2013. “He relied on her very heavily. And she was always so gentle with him. She’s said the bond of love became even greater at that time, and you could see it. Just all the little signs of affection.”

During this time, Hawke reconciled with Paul Keating, which “brought him great joy”, and reconnected with his son Steve Hawke, now aged 60 and based in Perth. All three of the Hawke children have, at various times, been highly critical of d’Alpuget; they’ve also had their own issues with their father. But according to d’Alpuget, these were resolved in the last months of his life. His youngest daughter, Rosslyn Dillon, “rang every few days with messages of love”, and Steve, who “was very angry with Bob for leaving Hazel”, visited his father several times.

“It was particularly lovely seeing them together,” says d’Alpuget. “They spent hours doing cryptic crosswords. Stephen was very good at them; and Bob used to be able to whiz through The Times’ cryptic in nine minutes flat, day after day.”

“I did get the puzzles gene from Bobby,” confirms Steve Hawke by email, “especially the mania for cryptic crosswords … though one a day will do me, rather than the multiples that Dad liked to tackle. It did become a ritual that we both enjoyed, and one that has left me with good memories.”

Hawke’s oldest child, Sue Pieters-Hawke, was also in frequent touch, visiting and cooking and offering support not only to Hawke, but also to d’Alpuget, whom she regards as “a very good friend”.

“She’s my one remaining family elder, and she’s my stepmum, and I very much value her in that role,” Pieters-Hawke says. “We’ve developed a very good friendship from inauspicious beginnings!” It might help that both are writers – Pieters-Hawke has her own book about Hawke, Remembering Bob, also coming out this month – and that both are generous about each other’s skill. “Blanche’s biography is the bible,” is how Pieters-Hawke puts it. “When it comes to checking facts and details about Dad’s life, she’s better than Google.”

"When we were together, I just felt very contented ... like a cat. A sense that … two parts of a thing had just clicked.”

“When we were together, I just felt very contented … like a cat. A sense that … two parts of a thing had just clicked.”Credit:From Bob Hawke, The Complete Biography, by Blanche D’Alpuget, published by Simon & Schuster on November 18; RRP $60

As well as family, there were still floods of visitors, including, in the final weeks of Hawke’s life, a roll call of people organised by d’Alpuget to help her overnight. In early 2019, she explains, Hawke suffered a stroke, and “when he came home afterwards I wasn’t physically strong enough to pick him up if he had another fall. So I had a whole roster of blokes staying in the house, actually staying in the bedroom next to Bob, who, if he fell or needed help during the night, were strong enough to pick him up.”

Craig Emerson – who lived close by – was on this list. “I’d help get him up into bed, cook a meal for him, watch the cricket or the golf – just really simple things. It was an honour to be able to do that. And he and Blanche were so relaxed – it was delightful. There was a lot of laughter, even then.”

Both Emerson and his partner, Tracey, were present the day Hawke died. He’d been in pain earlier, d’Alpuget writes, and “I knew that if one fought pain, it increased. ‘Try to surrender to it,’ I whispered. My husband turned to look at me as if I were mad; the life force in him reared like a tiger hiding in the grass. He roared, ‘I can’t surrender!’ ”

Those, says d’Alpuget, were his last coherent words. Less than 24 hours later, at 5.04pm on Thursday, May 16, Bob Hawke died.

"I miss him – the conversation, yes – but really just his physical presence."

“I miss him – the conversation, yes – but really just his physical presence.”Credit:Harold David. Hair and make-up by Kimberley Forbes

It may be too early to tell, but it seems – from the outside at least – that d’Alpuget is good at grief. Of course, say her friends, it has taken a toll. “The last three years have been really tough for her,” says John Lonie. “[Hawke’s death] was actually a release for them both: her lightness has returned. And of course, her spiritual connections mean that, for her, she and Bob aren’t finished. That’s a great comfort to her.”

On the earthly plane, however, it hasn’t all been plain sailing. Recently, it has been reported that Rosslyn Dillon (who was contacted through her lawyers for this story, but did not respond) is disputing her father’s will, which, according to reports, left $750,000 to each of his children and to Louis Pratt, but the bulk of his estate, which includes the $15 million-odd from the sale of their Northbridge house, to d’Alpuget.

“I think that’s just grief,” says d’Alpuget calmly when I ask her about it. “I shouldn’t say just grief; I think that is grief.”

As for her own grief, despite all the processing she’s already done, she says it’s still a surprise. Some days she’s filled with gratitude for the life they had; others she’s “crying into the cauliflower at Harris Farm”.

“My day-to-day sense,” she concludes, “is the weird feeling of this finger missing.” She holds up the ring finger of her left hand. “I took my wedding ring off, and so this finger feels funny. And then of course I miss him – the conversation, yes – but really just his physical presence.” She takes a breath. “Yeah. I miss that.”

But grief, as they say, “is a marathon not a sprint, so I’ll have to just see how I’m going. I’ve got some publicity to do on the books [the biography and the historical novels]. Then I’m going on a beautiful trip, including two days at the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg: one of the things Bob and I always wanted to do together and never got around to – I think it’s just about the only place we missed.”

What would Hawke make of her life now, I wonder? Was he worried about her before he died? Worried that she would miss him, or be bereft after all their years of intense life together?

“No, I don’t think so,” she says simply. “He knew I was a fairly strong-minded person.” She smiles, waves her ring-less hand. “He knew I’d be all right.”

To read more from Good Weekend magazine, visit our page at The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and Brisbane Times.

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