Writing About an Ex

I remember speaking with Canadian author and journalist Peter C. Newman some decades ago about a woman who had written a book about her ex-husband. I can’t remember the book, or anything else about the conversation, except for Peter calling it “the ultimate betrayal,” someone exposing to the public domain the secrets of an intimate relationship.

That conversation popped back into mind in 2004 when Peter released his autobiography, Here be Dragons, with its many pages devoted to the amorous adventures of the author. I’d thought that describing something as “the ultimate betrayal” meant it was never to be done. Peter would have been amused at my naiveté.

He not only dished on his former relationships but claimed to have been faithful to each of his several wives (some common-law) in turn, while leaving clear evidence in the book, if you follow his dates closely, that he hadn’t. When Allan Fotheringham pointed out the discrepancies in a review of Here be Dragons, Peter was tickled. He twice boasted to me (and separately to others I knew) of Fotheringham’s discovery, as if to say the only thing better than the ultimate betrayal is layers of betrayal.

I miss Peter, who at age 91 has retired from public life but, then, I wasn’t married to him. (That’s him, above, with the wonderful writer and editor Christina McCall, one of his exes.)

For various reasons, some excellent, some less so, people are always writing about their past relationships. I’m amazed that more of these books don’t land their authors in court, sued for libel by an injured ex-partner or family member or colleague. That they don’t suggests that publishers understand the risks and are getting pre-publication legal advice. But prudence doesn’t always work. Look at the mess Sir Elton is in.

Renate Blauel met Elton John in 1983 when he was using a lot of coke and recording Two Low for Zero, what he hoped would be a comeback album after four duds. She was an attractive round-faced sound engineer at London’s AIR Studios. They fell into a sort of relationship and in 1984 the singer proposed, despite never having kissed Renate. After an engagement of four days were married in Sydney, Australia.

The bride war Lindka Cierach and a heart-shaped diamond-studded pendant, a gift from the groom who had come out as bisexual in Rolling Stone eight years earlier, and who had been in a serious relationship with a beefy blond Australian named Gary when he met Renate. She told a reporter around the time of their wedding: “I’ve heard all sorts of stories about Elton and that he’s supposed to be bisexual, but that doesn’t worry me.”

There were rumors of trouble by 1986 and the marriage was over by 1988. The couple divorced and both parties signed a non-disclosure agreement binding them never to speak publicly of their relationship. Renate took a settlement of between £5 million and £10 million and went to ground. She is said to have remarried, spending much of her time in Germany.

Skip forward to 1992 when Elton tells Rolling Stone he is “comfortable about being gay,” to 2005 when he marries Canadian David Furnish, to 2019 when he publishes his memoir, Me, and to last week when Renate’s lawyers filed suit in London’s High Court claiming that the book breaches their non-disclosure agreement. She says that she repeatedly asked her ex-husband to stick to their agreement, and requested certain details be excised from the book, to no avail. The rockstar was “dismissive and disingenuous,” that he treated her as “unworthy of respect,” and showed “cynical disregard” for her feelings.

According to stories in the Daily Mail and the Boston Standard, lawyers for the rockstar (his new ones, not the Henry Holt lawyers who would have vetted the book before release) claim that everything revealed about the first marriage in Me is common knowledge and that no secrets were spilled and the non-disclosure agreement was not breached.

Renate is asking for £3 million and I’m betting she settles for something close to that (not that any settlement will ever be disclosed).

Most of what Elton writes about his first marriage is unexceptional. He calls her a decent and dignified woman—“someone I couldn’t fault in any way.” He says that she loved him unconditionally and that the failure of the relationship caused him “huge guilt and regret.” After their separation, he writes, they had limited contact. He did invite her to meet the children he and Furnish are raising (below) because "I wanted her to be part of our lives, and us part of hers, in some way.” She declined.

That might not sound like much but non-disclosure means non-disclosure and even dropping that he had tried to rope Renate into his current family circle might be construed as a breach if the agreement was drawn up to permanently protect her privacy.

Also dicey are passages where the author claims that he didn’t marry Renate with the intention of having children, and that starting a family only occurred to him after he met Furnish. Renate maintains they “did attempt to have children during their marriage but were unable to do so.” Discussion of attitudes toward family held by Renate and Elton during their relationship seems to be exactly the sort of detail expressly forbidden by the agreement, even if Elton is remembering wrong.

Worse, Elton says in the book that he married Renate in a moment of “insanity,” asking himself, “what if I had only spent the last 14 years sleeping with men because I hadn’t found the right woman?” His feelings toward her weren’t love—they only “felt remarkably like love.” Even if entirely honest, those words would read to his ex as a provocation. Where were Henry Holt’s lawyers?

A settlement is by no means a sure thing. John’s defense lawyers may have a case. It is not clear, for instance, how much (if any) of the manuscript Renate saw before publication, and what she may or may not have signed off on. Still, I doubt Sir Elton, in his dotage, with two young children, wants to risk a full-blown legal challenge to the charming and largely self-serving story of his first marriage that he tells in his best-selling book.