IN a Caulfield coffee shop, author Lily Brett looks aghast. “Idolise rock stars? Absurd!” she says, rolling her eyes – unimpeded by false eyelashes these days – to convey maximum scorn.
The New York-based novelist, essayist and poet was in town as part of her nationwide tour to promote her sixth novel, Lola Bensky, which kicks off in 1967 when at age 19, the eponymous heroine is sent to London by her Melbourne newspaper to interview the who’s who of the rock scene.
Lola is a large, insecure girl who irons her hair and is forever on fad diets that don’t work, but she’s great at her job. Before long, she has interviewed almost every rock star on both sides of the Atlantic … Jimi Hendrix, Cat Stevens, Mick Jagger, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Cher – the roll call goes on.
It’s an almost exact slice of Brett’s life and by no coincidence, Lola is equally immune to infatuated groupie behaviour. Her tete-a-tete with the Rolling Stones’s lead singer in 1967 makes this abundantly clear.
There is the Australian reporter, shifting uncomfortably on a low five-seater sofa and wishing she’d brought a notebook big enough to cover her knees (“Lola was sure they took up more space than Twiggy’s hips”) in case her skirt rides up.
Lolling in an armchair opposite her is Jagger, the sex god to millions. They are alone in his swish London apartment and Lola has his undivided attention.
So what do they talk about? Lots, including the social revolution, rock concert mass hysteria, Jagger’s disapproving father, Lola’s weight problem and, in chilling detail, the Holocaust.
That unspeakable evil has haunted Brett for most of her 66 years. She was born in a displaced persons camp in Germany to Polish parents, Max and Rose, who survived Auschwitz, but lost their entire families.
“I grew up in North Carlton knowing there had been a catastrophe, but my parents revealed only odd fragments,” recalls Brett. “Then I started reading about the Holocaust and have never stopped. I now have more than 300 books about it.
“If there’s one theme common to all my books, it’s the danger of deciding that someone else is not quite as human as you are because of their skin colour, religion, sexuality or some disability.
“It’s the road to disaster because it allows bigotry and hatred to flow, and then you’re doomed. My mother said, ‘It wasn’t enough to survive; you had to survive as a human being.’
“She had terrible nightmares and would scream for her mother in the night, but she could make beautiful things like roses out of radishes – amazing, considering what she had been through.”
Max Brett, now 96 and also living in New York, achieved the near-impossible by surviving the Holocaust with both his humanity and humour intact.
“When I make him laugh, he laughs so hard I’m terrified it will kill him,” confesses his celebrated daughter.
Her ability to deftly blend humour and horror, autobiography and fiction, has won Lily Brett literary awards and a wide international following, and Lola Bensky will thrill her fans; finally, a book based on her extraordinary experiences as a reporter for Australia’s first music magazine, Go-Set, during the most exciting era in pop music history.
“Extraordinary by today’s standards, but it was different back then,” explains Brett. “There were no minders, managers or PRs – just you and the rock star.”
Lola Bensky teems with real-life gems. Like her fictional heroine, Brett really did lend her prized diamante-lined false eyelashes to Cher and never got them back.
It’s also true that like Lola, she failed her matriculation year at a Melbourne school “for gifted children” (actually, University High) because she went to see Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho instead of sitting for two exams.
And yes, again like Lola, Brett routinely asked all those rock stars how they got on with their mothers.
“Their answers revealed a lot and Cat Stevens really impressed me. He spoke at length and in great detail.”
In 1989, Brett moved to New York with her artist husband David Rankin and their three children – “we now have six grandchildren” – and she adores the city, though the lost world of her parents is never far from her mind.
For the past three years, Brett has been gathering the Lodz Ghetto records on her father’s family with the help of Melbourne historian Krystyna Dusczniak, and there is a documentary she urges everyone to see: A Film Unfinished, written and directed by Israeli Yael Hersonski.
“I saw it about 18 months ago and was so shattered, I couldn’t get on the subway afterwards,” says Brett.
The footage, revived by Hersonski, was filmed by a Nazi propaganda team in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942, shortly before the mass exterminations began. It was one of Josef Goebbels’s pet projects. He intended it to be a star historical attraction about the extinct Jews.
Lily Brett’s Lola Bensky is published by Hamish Hamilton, $29.99 (rrp).
REPORT by Zelda Cawthorne
PHOTO of Lily Brett, by Frida Sterenberg