Steve Braunias talks well of the dead
Max Cryer died on August 25 possibly aged 86, and I wrote an appreciation of him in last weekend's Canvas. It was a very discreet story. Perhaps it was discreet to a fault; I wondered about that in the days after the story was published, and whether I had failed the test of journalism in my attempt to respect Max's wish for privacy. These conflicts gave the story a certain kind of tension. It was one of the stranger obituaries I've written – bring out the famous New Zealand dead, and I will usually be on hand to say a few words for the Herald - but consistent with my philosophy that while you cannot defame the dead you maybe ought to think of everyone deserving a bon voyage. You'd want the same for yourself. The fear of what people will say about us when we leave the room is no less an issue when we leave the room and never come back.
Max enjoyed long and loyal friendships. I interviewed five of his oldest friends and no one had a bad word to say about him. Neither had they any hard information, including the year of his birth; he maintained a silence bordering on pathological secrecy. No one had ever seen him with a partner. The author C.K. Stead – they were at university together, and remained friends - told a funny story about a house guest from Kurdistan at Max's home in Onehunga. I withheld it. It was more innuendo than fact, and I approached the story with a certain piety. I knew Max, liked him, and wanted him to rest in peace. But when the story was published, I figured it would lead to fresh information, as readers crept out of the woodwork not so much with dirt – please excuse another fit of piety but in my long career I've never asked anyone for dirt – than with sightings, evidence, facts.
"Max was a character," emailed an author who had known him for nearly 30 years. He relayed the fresh information that he often went to Max's house for lunch, "every one unfailingly accompanied by borscht. I have a childhood loathing of beetroot, but I dared not share that with dear Max." This wasn't quite what I had in mind, but then he wrote, "So many people have a Max story." Aha! Such as? "I have a friend who has a concrete rabbit in his garden, which Max coveted hugely."
"Max was my friend for over 70 years," emailed a former businessman now in a rest home in Ōrewa. "He truly was a wonderful man and friend. Your story mentioned, interestingly enough, whether he was a milliner. In my early days I was the NZ representative of the Queen's milliner, Aage Thaarup to her Majesty the Queen of England." What? He signed off with the honorific of a knighthood and the explanatory note, "Awarded by His Majesty the Emperor of Japan. The Order of the Rising Sun, with Gold Rays." Fascinating; but not very helpful as far as understanding the life and activities of Max.
"Max was the designated bell-ringer at the start and end of the school's lunch hour," wrote a school friend at Ōtāhuhu College. Bells, borscht, concrete rabbits – was that it? Well, what people say about you when you leave the room depends entirely on what you say and do in the room. The artist Billy Apple died last week, aged 85, and I duly wrote something about him in the Herald. Numerous readers came out of the woodwork with emails scorning him as a cheapskate and an asshole.
Max, in his own words, provides a clue to his essential character. The Ōtāhuhu College old boy attached a 1953 edition of the school magazine, Kōtuku; it included two essays and a poem by J. Maxwell Cryer. The poem was a satire of T.S. Eliot's Wasteland. One essay was on the extraordinary New Zealand tour of the Stratford-on-Avon Theatre Company in 1953; Max hung about backstage, watched actors of the calibre of Anthony Quayle and Leo McKern in dress rehearsal until 4am, attended the opening night, and was clearly dazzled, describing the costumes ("armour made of felt sprayed with glue and metal paint") and wigs ("finely made of real hair woven strand by strand onto a mesh base") with awe – easy to imagine the impression it made on a teenage Max, who went on to perform leading roles in stage musicals such as The King and I. The other essay was a rather stiff exposition on Elizabeth I. But there was real feeling in one admiring sentence. "Elizabeth was great because of her goodness," he wrote, "and great because she was remembered."
Next week: Diana Wichtel