Anne Summers’ profile of Andrew Bolt in the October edition of The Monthly looks set to become one of the most successful commissions in Ben Naparstek’s 30-month reign as editor.
Interim sales figures are said to be huge and when the story was temporarily released online last Monday it notched up a massive 10,000 page views in 24 hours.
But since its release several of its central claims have come under sustained attack. At the centre of Summers’ piece was a pseudonymous interview with a one-time belly dancer, now executive coach, who was engaged to Bolt in the 1980s.
The duo had met when they worked alongside each other at The Age — Bolt was a cadet journalist and “Sophia Wilson” ran the editorial floor and worked as a secretary to an editor.
Ever since details of the profile started to circulate, Bolt has been eager to cast doubt on the some of the facts in the piece. On October 3, when only the blurb was available, Bolt rejected the existence of his fiancée at all, informing readers he promised to read out a “1987 letter confirming the error”.
Two Sundays ago, Bolt posted this incorrect entry on his blog under the headline “defamation removed”. He wrote about his “supposed previous ‘engagement'” and referenced the “pathetic sledging of my wife by an unnamed ex-girlfriend of mine from more than a quarter of a century ago”.
Bolt had also requested that The Monthly “pulp” all its remaining news-stand copies.
But some commentators have continued to cast doubt on the veracity of the piece. On Friday, Gerard Henderson’s Media Watch Dog column ran an item under the headline ANNE SUMMERS’ ANONYMOUS SOURCES mocking the existence of the “alleged” Sophia Wilson:
“Dr Summers’ sources for her essay included (i) ‘a colleague of Bolt’s’, (ii) ‘someone present’, (iii) ‘one colleague from The Age‘, (iv) ‘a woman who lived with Bolt in the early 1980s’, (v) ‘a former journalist who has worked with Bolt’, (vi) ‘the woman who was once engaged to Bolt and who lived with him for the best part of six years’ [What about the worst part? — Ed], (vii) ‘a friend of the belly-dancing Sophia Wilson’ and (viii) ‘a Ten inside’. For the record, Sophia Wilson is a nom-de-plume.”
Colleagues and friends have expressed little doubt that Sophia Wilson, whose real name is Sue Walshe, was once engaged to Bolt.
Walshe was facilitating a business seminar and was unavailable to comment this morning. But Gavin Youl, Walshe’s husband of 20 years (they met in 1988), confirmed that his wife had in fact been Bolt’s fiancée.
“It was a matter of family history that she had been engaged to Andrew. They lived together for 5-6 years in St Kilda and they were engaged towards the end of that time,” he said.
“How can Andrew possibly argue against reality?” Youl told Crikey. “Let’s hope this is the end. We’d like to see the end of it.”
Summers had cited a statutory declaration written by Walshe, as yet unpublished, and letters sent between the young couple as evidence for the engagement. The text of that statutory declaration reads as follows:
“My last formal contact with him was via email after the publication of a profile of Andrew in the IPA Review in January 2011, where he described himself as going to Darwin in 1984 as ‘a minder for a belly dancer’. I took exception to his belittling our relationship in that manner and reminded him in that email that we had been engaged. He did not dispute this fact when he replied to me, apologising for having hurt and embarrassed me.”
The email trail remains in existence. The “minder for a belly dancer” line has been used before, in a 2008 Bolt blog post under the headline “Ruining a good spaghetti”.
Former Age colleagues attested to Bolt and Walshe’s closeness the morning.
“There’s no doubt about that,” former Age editor Mike Smith told Crikey. “They were pretty thick, it was no secret and it was common knowledge. It was a very strong relationship.”
Margaret Simons remembers Walshe well as a “seriously bright young women who ran the editorial floor, photocopying and greeting people coming in for an appointment.”
“There was certainly no doubt that Sue and Andrew were in a relationship…everyone knew about it,” she said.
A recently-retired former colleague of Bolt’s, legendary Herald Sun business editor and former Sunday Age and Australian editor Malcolm Schmidtke, said that Walshe had once belly-danced for him on his birthday.
“I knew her and I knew they had a relationship,” he said.
Both Bolt and his wife Sally Morrell have kept up the email heat on The Monthly, with Bolt accusing Naparstek this week of “lying” in response to a profile of the young editor by Nick Leys published in yesterday’s Australian. Morrell has also personally emailed Naparstek saying she was sick to her stomach over the piece.
Bolt’s rancour may reflect his uneasiness in revisiting his romantic history with his current wife and family.
He wrote that after details of Walshe’s existence emerged, he had “boasted to my eldest son, a Mad Men fan, that at least I was now a man with a Hidden Past, the Don Draper of journalism …”