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A memory of John Bayley

And a poignant moment with Iris Murdoch

Simon Willis | January 23rd 2015

In 2008, Julie Kavanagh wrote a piece for Intelligent Life about the photographer Richard Avedon. She had watched him at work on photo shoots for the New Yorker in the mid-1990s, for which his subjects included Helen Mirren, Judi Dench and Alan Bennett. One of the most moving moments in Kavanagh’s piece, though, comes from a shoot with the novelist Iris Murdoch and her husband John Bayley, who has died at the age of 89.

Iris Murdoch, then in the late stages of Alzheimer’s, arrived for a double portrait with her husband, the Oxford professor John Bayley, who had written for the magazine about his experience caring for her. Avedon’s portraits are themselves visual biographies—“New Yorker profiles in miniature”, his close friend and colleague Adam Gopnik calls them. Sometimes, as in his definitive study of Marilyn Monroe, his pictures augured the tragic consequences of a life. Dick had not yet read Bayley’s memoir, the germ of his book “Iris” and the film of the same name, but the disparity between the couple’s expressions—Murdoch’s serene half-smile contrasted with Bayley’s stern but solicitous gaze—sums up their situation with consummate simplicity. And yet there was one unforgettably poignant image which no still camera, not even Avedon’s, could catch. After a few minutes posing beside her husband, Murdoch began making an agitated twisting motion with the fingers of her right hand: she was miming the turning of a car key in the ignition—she wanted to be taken home.

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