Michele Hewitson interview: Anna Hoffman

By Michele Hewitson

Anna Hoffman says Truth was always writing outrageous things about her which she felt she had to live up to. Photo / Natalie Slade
Anna Hoffman says Truth was always writing outrageous things about her which she felt she had to live up to. Photo / Natalie Slade

Anna Hoffman, who is, possibly, a witch and who was once, definitely, notorious for living the sort of rickety life then known, in the 1950s and 60s, as a scandalous one, arrived wearing purple, almost from head to toe. (Her boots were black and her hair is white.) She had on a purple beret and a fake feather purple boa and purple fingerless lace gloves.

We were meeting in the SkyCity Grand lobby at her request (she wanted to look at the Karl Maughan paintings) and I was only too happy to meet there because I thought it would be a fun place to meet a witch.

Does she look like a witch, or someone who has lived a scandalous life? Don't be silly. She looks like a sweet, tiny lady of a certain age who might be a tiny bit eccentric: All that purple.

She likes to pinch her great friend David Hartnell's catch phrase - "my lips are sealed" - on the topic of her age, but as she reproduces the horoscope for the time and date of her birth (6pm on March 12, 1938) on page seven of her third memoir, you can work it out for yourself.

Her third memoir. She said: "I'm just trying to get the last word."

I was just trying to work out how many times she'd been arrested, having lost count somewhere in the middle of volume two of The Tales of Anna Hoffman. She said I'd have to wait for volume three and go back and count them up for myself. Anyway, she hasn't kept tally either.

"Several times," she said, airily, as if this matter was of no consequence, and it probably isn't.

Her third volume is Tales of Papatoetoe: The Childhood Years of Lorna Jenks, 1938 - 1953 by Anna Hoffman. Lorna Jenks is, or was, Anna Hoffman and she was a nice, if rather fey little girl who grew up, in Papatoetoe obviously, in a nice, middle-class, respectable family.

She changed her name to protect her family, but also because she has always played characters and once decided she was the reincarnation of Beethoven. "I started to wear my hair tousled and practised a frown."

The book - a hiatus between her grown-up memoirs - is a love letter to her childhood. It is a gentle little book. There are faded old black and white pictures of grandparents and parents and picnics and afternoon tea on the lawn and games of dress-ups in the garden with little Lorna as a witch, of course, and her sister Phyllis as a teapot.

There was always a Sunday roast and homemade ginger beer and jam and preserves.

At last week's launch, at Shanghai Lil's, there were actresses and David Hartnell, and beat poets as entertainment. I asked somebody who was there what it was like and she said: "Fruity." I did hope there had been some scandal, but had to settle for a lamp falling over and getting smashed and one of the beat poets being unable to perform because he had consumed most of a "flagon of purloined plonk".

Never mind, there will be more last words and more launches.

"I'll just keep going until I run out of adventures." That doesn't seem likely.

"I hope not. There's an adventure around every corner. If you invite it." I did ask where people could get her books and she said: "At the library", so she's not going to make her fortune from them.

She's never had any money and has lived "precariously" and courtesy of the kindnesses of her many loyal friends. (You can buy her books by emailing: tarimerak@yahoo.com.)

At 16, chafing against domesticity and respectability, she left home with her violin tucked under her arm. She was looking for adventure; she wanted to be a famous violinist. Instead she achieved infamy. "Yes, it's much harder. Anyone can be famous."

She lived in dives and took up with an amazing array of characters including James K Baxter and John Yelash, who she decided she "wouldn't mind" being seduced by (for the first time) but who instead began reciting Baxter.

"On and on, verse after verse, hour after hour he waxed bucolic ... until I realised that any ideas I had about seduction were right out of the question. I could not compete with the poetry of James Baxter ..." She remained, for the moment, unseduced.

She was once given a fur coat by John Banks' mother, Brownie, when she turned up at the Banks' house where they "entertained the hierarchy of the underworld with copious amounts of booze and goodwill".

There was "the kleptomaniac lady who always wore a large overcoat ... Flo the Abortionist and the One-armed Greek" and a sailor called Boadicea who "looked like the average sort of seaman except for the running mascara, the smudged purple lipstick and rouge smeared on his face".

By 17 she was in Sydney, and in the clink. She'd been arrested for her association with Rosaleen Norton, an artist who was done for exhibiting obscene art, and who was a witch who initiated Hoffman into the black arts.

There was a mad sort of orgy, impossible to take seriously when you read this: "As the red and black robed magician stepped forward ... I caught a whiff of the unmistakable odour of goat." Not very alluring, the odour of goat. "No. No, it is not." Leaving aside the pong, did she enjoy that particular scene? "Well, I thought I was special, being included."

This, I think - keeping up with the ever madder adventures proved beyond me - was before she was a lesbian.

"Oh. Where does the lesbian bit come into it?" Where does it come into it? From her book! "Oh, well, that was just part of growing up." She says she doesn't think she was ever really a lesbian. "I was just caught up in the moment." Or one of the moments.

She won't say who the "prominent Aucklander" was who offered her lots of money to "initiate his son into sex".

She didn't take the money; she did it "for free". But why would she? "I thought it was an honour. Fancy being offered that sort of privilege."

She writes that she had an "overrated reputation as a femme fatale and a sex symbol". Why over-rated?

"Well, I don't think I did anything much to deserve that reputation. I just went along with it." She might have enjoyed such a reputation. "Yes! Well, it was mostly from ... the Truth and other media. They'd write these outrageous things and I had to live up to them!"

The goats in Grafton Gully, that was an outrageous story. She and the pianist Billy Farnell kept the goats and milked them at midnight, God knows why, and you'd think she'd have been put off goats for life, after the whiffy magician, but obviously not.

One night the police turned up, as did Truth's police reporter. She told the reporter that he was just in time to witness a goat sacrifice: "We are going to drink the blood! It is an aphrodisiac!"

She somehow got him to drink a mug of goat's milk, telling him it was blood, then ordered him to take off his clothes: "You will have to ride naked on the back of a goat in the moonlight." He got his shoes and hat off before being ordered to sod off by the copper.

The headline in Truth the next day was: "Gruesome Goings-On In Grafton Gully." Is all of this true? She says it is and, really, what does it matter? It's fabulous stuff.

As is another goat story, this one involving another copper who came across Hoffman walking her goat, Mabel, on a leash, in Queen St, at night. The policeman, Detective Sergeant John Hughes, told her to get that goat off the street and in reply she mimicked a monkey called Mowgli: "Make me! Make me!" The monkey, which belonged to Billy Farnell, was well known to John Hughes, having previously leapt on to his head, where it proceeded to look for fleas. So, right, said the copper, "I'm taking that goat into custody."

It was duly handed over, tore off across Customs St, dragging the detective behind, causing a car crash, after which it got free and sauntered off to devour the newly planted marigolds outside the Central Post Office. When the marigolds were later replanted Hoffman added a final mischievous post-script to this potty story: She sowed marijuana seeds in the marigold beds.

All true? That story, too, appeared in Truth, so it must be.

Her stories are not all romps by moonlight. She married, briefly, and had a daughter but that didn't work out and her former husband took the child and she didn't see her again for nearly 20 years.

She says she has no bitterness about this and her daughter, once grown up, found her again and now they are good friends. She couldn't have raised a child, she says. All she had to offer was a gypsy life. She was arrested for vagrancy at least twice and for being "idle and disorderly. I pleaded guilty to idle, but disorderly?"

There were some "funny old charges" including, on the third time you were picked up for vagrancy, a charge of being "an incorrigible rogue". She was never charged with that one which is a terrible shame, really. "Yes! I think they changed the charges."

She once said that the witchy stuff was all just "mad, mad fun" and that people wanted to believe it, so "I gave it to them". She says she now probably takes it more seriously, but who knows?

What she really is, she says, is a "flaneur: Just someone that observes other people in life, and enjoys it".

She does seem, in her books, and in person, strangely detached from her own life; she observes it from a distance. She attracted, and was attracted to, eccentrics but she says she isn't particularly eccentric herself. "Some people say I am. I don't think so. No. My upbringing was too normal." She was never, I thought, terribly interested, actually, in sex, although there was plenty of it.

"Well, I think the best sex organ is the brain. I can have mental orgasms just sitting in a patch of borage flowers with the bees buzzing around. And there are certain perfumes, like Poison. There's an orgasm in every spray!" Golly! I said, a bit nervously, that I hoped nobody walked through the lobby wearing Poison. "Oh, I'm wearing it at the moment," she said, smiling like a sweet tiny lady of a certain age, which she is, of course. But she is also, oddly, after all of the scandal and newspaper headlines, still recognisably that nice, fey little girl from Papatoetoe.

- NZ Herald

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