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The Trials of Eric Mareo

Chapter Ten — Golden Years

page 150

Chapter Ten
Golden Years

As a Consequence of the Court of Appeal's decision, all avenues of relief were now effectively closed for Mareo. It was simply a matter of how long he would remain in prison. This did not, however, reassure Mrs Trott. In October 1946 Messrs Watney Sibun &c Sons, Funeral Directors of Newmarket, applied, at her instigation, to have Thelma's decade-old remains disinterred and cremated in New Zealand. Mrs Trott's reasons for this request were explained in a letter to Dallard:

[F]irstly we have no one there to look after the grave. Secondly the fear of that man expressing the wish to be buried there. It would be too terrible for words after taking nine months to take her beautiful young life [?]… I am nearing the journey's end almost 82 and will meet my beloved child in a better world than this.1

Dallard had already written to her advising against this action on the grounds that it would provoke 'further publicity'.2 In his reply to this letter he decided not to grant Mrs Trott's request, and she replied thanking him for 'your advice and kind expressions' and resolving to 'try and console my self with the thought my little girl is better off'.3

However, others had expressed concerns that if Mareo were released from prison he might commit further crimes in this world rather than the next. About a year after Mrs Trott's sad request, the Prisons Board had indeed recommended that Mareo be released on probation in May of the following year, 1948. No reasons for this recommendation were given but it was by no means unusual: by that time Mareo would have been a 'model prisoner' for more than twelve years, or about two years more than the average sentence served by murderers at the time. Truth page 151somehow got wind of this recommendation and on 1 October 1947 questioned how the Prisons Board could have decided that a man who murdered with poison was 'no longer a danger to society' when, by contrast to the murderers who act 'in the heat of violent passion or on the impulse of the moment',

[t]he poisoner works with calculated cunning, doing his victim to death in the most cold-blooded manner, exerting every wile to assure that his crime goes undetected. Diabolical cruelty is the essence of the nature of the person who slays by poison.

Mareo not only deserved a longer sentence than other murders; he also needed to be kept in prison because a poisoner 'is more likely to repeat his crime than any other type of killer'.4

Six days later, the issue was raised in Parliament. Broadfoot asked Mason whether there was a specified time a person convicted of a capital offence must serve. Mason replied that the Prisons Board decided the matter of releases for prisoners, not the Minister of Justice. Another National MP, Ronald M. Algie, asked the Minister 'when convicted murderers, after having been softly and gently cared for in the prisons, would be let loose ["to have another go" according to newspaper reportage] upon a suffering public?' Broadfoot then pursued his original question, insinuating that '[t]he persistence of the efforts on [Mareo's] behalf suggested that some sinister influences had been at work, and that the Prisons Board was releasing the prisoner as a result.' Mason's objection to the expression 'sinister influences' was upheld, and he then made the rather surprising admission that when he received recommendations for the release of prisoners he sometimes glanced through them, sometimes not, and that on this occasion he had merely 'notice [d]' the name of Mareo. Predictably, another National MP, Hilda Ross, replied that this 'would not reassure the public, especially women'.5

Nor did it reassure Truth. Commenting on this typically scurrilous exchange in the House, the tabloid protested that

[i]t would be a travesty of justice if all the rejections of the most strenuous efforts made to disprove Mareo's guilt were to page 152be thwarted by the failure of a Minister to face the facts and realise the seriousness of turning loose on the community a man convicted of the most satanic crime in the criminal calendar.6

Broadsheets such as the Evening Post and the Daily Telegraph also questioned, albeit in less alliterative terms, Mason's casual treatment of Mareo's case, demanded clarification of the term 'life sentence', and, in the case of the latter, reiterated Mrs Ross's concern for New Zealand womenfolk. Again, the demonic qualities of Mareo the outsider were contrasted to the sanctity of the country's women. A world war and more than a decade had passed since Mareo's first conviction, but apparently nothing had changed.

Thus, when Mareo was eventually released in May 1948, Truth's coverage was almost identical to its coverage of the trials. (In a smaller article it also made the bizarre suggestion that Mareo's crime bore comparison with that of Lionel Terry, a man '[s]till alive and in good health in a mental institution' after forty-three years for shooting 'an old Chinese in Wellington on the night of September 24, 1905, as a means of impressing on the public the menace of what he described as the "Yellow Peril"'.7) There is the same stress on Mareo's 'well-dressed appearance', except that the ostentatiously held cigarette holder has been replaced by a 'twirling' of his gloves. His 'debonair manner' is the same except that it now contrasts with a postwar society of ration cards rather than a pre-war world of unemployment queues. Mareo is still a 'good musician' and still the 'showman' with 'the air of an artist who had just given of his talents to the less fortunate, or an impresario come to negotiate the showing of a superfilm [sic], or arrange a tour for some world-famous musician'. Whereas once his past had been mysterious, it is now his 'future intentions' which are a 'close- knit secret'. He has also somehow managed to acquire £500, a sum suspiciously like Thelma's wasted savings.

But above all there is Mareo's 'jaunty smile'. True, the smile is framed by a 'soft felt hat set at a jaunty angle'; its owner in page 153the two photographs is staring straight at the camera, and it reveals a set of sparkling new dentures. However, it never occurs to Truth that the extraordinary smile might be a consequence of its owner's jubilation at being set free after twelve years. Instead, the smile conceals 'any inward sorrow' or 'pricks' of 'conscience' and 'masks the dreadful record of the wearer' as, in one of the photos, its owner 'reclines in the car' that 'whisks' him 'back into society'.8 Like the smile of Lewis Carroll's Cheshire cat, Mareo's takes on an unsettling life of its own. The smile is fundamentally deceptive and therefore exemplary of its owner's elusive or ambiguous qualities.

Truth did not need to wait long to see what Mareo was up to. A few weeks later he was married again, also in Wellington. Revealing that he had changed his last name to Curtis, thereby deliberately ruining his desire for anonymity, Truth also reveals that his bride was Gladys Ethel Andreae, Mareo's physiotherapist in Mt Eden Gaol. Like Thelma, Gladys Andreae is also 'a woman of wide sympathies and considerable artistic taste', but her reputed fortune - 'a third interest in an estate of just under £40,000 left by her father, Charles Oscar Andreae, wool exporter and Kauri gum merchant, who died in 1929, and the major portion of the estate left by her mother, which was sworn for probate at just under £7,000', the paper informs us in unnecessary detail - is considerably larger than Thelma's. Not surprisingly, then, the marriage 'came as a shock to socialites in Remuera, as it will to the general public', the implication being that Mareo had targeted yet another innocent woman for her money. And adding to the general air of suspicion is the fact that the minister who performed the marriage ceremony, Rev Jack Broxholme Rushworth, one of 'Mareo's helpers and protectors' and the son of the previous petitioner on his behalf, Captain H.M. Rushworth, had not only complained about the paper's coverage of Mareo's release but had also mysteriously changed from talking frankly to the paper about his friend's innocence to refusing comment as the result of '"legal" advice'. Truth denies creating a 'wrong impression' and reiterates the fact, which 'cannot be escaped', that 'Mareo is a free man, page 154apparently in good health and capable of a wide enjoyment of life, who is at the same time a convicted wife-poisoner', without spelling out the obvious implication.9

But perhaps there really was some cause for concern. A month after his marriage Dallard wrote to Mareo's Probationer Officer asking why Mareo had not reported to the District Probation Officer while 'holidaying' in Wellington. '[I]t would be unfortunate,'he writes, 'were the public, through the press, to get the impression that our system is a farce and that a probationer… can move about the Dominion and live in the district of another Probation Officer without the latter's knowledge and without any form of direct supervision.' Dallard finishes with the alarming question, 'Where is Mareo at present?'10 By then Mareo had slipped back to Auckland, his 'holiday' unsupervised because his probation officer felt that he 'been subjected to unnecessary publicity which could almost amount to persecution' and had done his 'best to make him feel that we, in this Office, are his friends and not his persecutors'.11 Nevertheless, Mareo's new friend confessed that his probationer had failed to inform him of his marriage.

Although Mareo's third marriage seems to have been happier than his previous ones, it was unable to revive his failing health. After only a year of married life he suffered what his doctor described as a 'severe coronary thrombosis on 24-4-49'. According to the doctor

[t]his condition is liable to recur and to be gravely affected by emotional states. He has the very high-powered and dynamic emotional set up which is sometimes found in musicians and he cannot help reacting much more powerfully than the average man to emotional upsets. His having to report [to his probation officer] once a fortnight for a further twelve months is beginning to upset him quite seriously and is likely to affect his heart. I therefore strongly urge that if possible he be now excused all further routine visits to the police.12

Mareo applied to Dallard to have this requirement lifted, pointing out thatpage 155

[t]he fact remains that the necessity of reporting is so very much on my mind that even when I am at work composing, orches- trating or practicing the piano I simply cannot forget it.

I know you will understand when I say that in some indescribable way it is as if I were mentally still in prison.13

Although not unsympathetic, Dallard replied that he could not grant this request because it might 'focus further attention on you', and advised him 'if only as an exercise in self-discipline, to face the position stoically for a while longer'.14 Fortunately, however, Mareo's stoicism was barely tested because two days later the Prisons Board, following representations from Mason, granted his request.

Soon afterwards the Curtises said goodbye to Remuera and its 'shock[ed]' 'socialites' and moved to Ardmore, a small town on the outskirts of Auckland near Papakura, where they purchased, according to Mareo, 'a delightful house built on our section of three quarters of an acre, in very lovely surroundings with a view of both harbours'.15 They seem to have led a quiet and unremarkable life in Ardmore, even though Mareo did not at first make a very favourable impression on Papakura's probation officer. The latter was of the opinion that he

is a wily individual who is using a subterfuge in order to make his term of probation as easy as possible for himself. I found it necessary to make him report personally on one occasion when I first came here so that I would at least know him.16

Seven months later, however, the officer reported that '[h]e appears to be of strictly sober habits and no adverse comment can be passed on his general mode of life'.17 Four years later, the same officer even reported that being on probation 'seems to have a psychological effect on him and it would seem that he is in constant fear that if he commits the slightest breach of the law his license [for probation] will be cancelled.'18 Inevitably, prejudice against Mareo always dissipated with familiarity.

As Eric Curtis he did, however, attract some publicity. On 8 August 1951, the oratorio Mareo had begun to write after page 156being removed from the Condemned Cell and following his religious conversion, The Christ, was performed for the first time in Auckland by the seventy-strong Ardmore Teachers' Training College choir and a professional orchestra of thirty players. The oratorio received favourable reviews, the Herald reporting that '[a]n audience which completely filled the hall heard "The Christ" in a movingly sincere performance that was alive with musical interest' and the Auckland Star grandly comparing 'its grace and spontaneous outpouring and… its harmonies [to]… Donizetti… the younger Verdi, and Mendelssohn'.19 However, two years later Arthur Jacobs, a visiting English music critic of some stature, but notorious for his abrasive manner and negative reviews, heard the oratorio rehearsed by the Christchurch Harmonic Society and mockingly confessed,

[h]ow choralists who have recently given Bach's Mass in B Minor can devote time to this unspeakable drivel is beyond me.

The presence of the Biblical text must have numbed their critical faculty. Remove the words, play this music in a restaurant, and it would be recognised as an inadequate accompaniment for drinking what in New Zealand passes for coffee.

I really feel that if I can persuade this society to drop this oratorio before it is too late I shall not have come to New Zealand in vain. The thought of healthy men and women spending time on this type of combination of bad Mendelssohn, bad Gounod, bad Saint-Saens, and bad Stainer, when they could be engaged in some relatively uplifting occupation like dominoes, stirs me to a quite personal indignation.20

As Jacobs' gratuitous (though no doubt true) comments about New Zealand coffee might suggest, his main intention seems to have been to insult his readers. He begins the first of his five columns: '"Why are you going to New Zealand?" they said in Sydney. "You'll find it's provincial." Of course it is! Any ass can see that.' And he then reports as evidence of this page 157'provinciality' the fact that the Italian words for 'Ladies' and 'Gentlemen' had been misspelled on the doors at the flying-boat base in Wellington at which he had disembarked.21 As for other New Zealand composers, Jacobs finds that their 'idiom… indicate[s] an isolation which might become dangerous', and more specifically that Douglas Lilburn's Preludes for Piano are 'unfinished and scrappy, calling for correction'.22 It is difficult to know, therefore, whether Jacobs's assessment can be trusted. Certainly, many of the Listener's readers did not think so, judging by the number of indignant letters protesting his review published in the following two weeks. Nevertheless, perhaps because of Jacobs's influence, when it received its first public performance the Christchurch Press's reviewer found the oratorio 'a thoroughly bad work'.23 Perhaps because of these reviews, neither Mareo's expectation of the 'strong likelihood' of the oratorio being performed by the BBC choir and orchestra, nor his belief that the National Orchestra would perform one of his piano concertos, was satisfied. Apparently, a Baptist choir in the United States did perform the oratorio during Christmas of 1957.24 But apart from these performances, and despite the existence of the scores of nearly ninety of his compositions in the British Library, to the best of our knowledge his music has never since been performed. Many of Mareo's compositions were for children and some were popular pieces with mawkish titles such as 'The Dying Rose: A Lament' and 'Crushed Petals'. Nevertheless, the New Zealand conductor and composer, Ashley Heenan, told us that his 'middle of the road' compositions were certainly quite 'competent' and in the second or third rank by international standards. As for The Christ, Heenan thought that it had

a certain curiosity value. It is obviously written by a composer who has lost touch with any contemporaneous influences in his art. It is as though he has experienced a 'time warp' as there is not one sign of the musical developments that took place during the period of his confinement. It is as if all had stood still since his conviction in February 1936.
page 158

Just prior to the first performance of The Christ, Mareo had written to the Prisons Board informing them of the impending performance and pleading to be discharged from probation. His plea was rejected, although when it was made again the following year the Board did waive the requirement that he report in person to his probation officer. However, Mareo kept applying unsuccessfully every year, explaining in his 1955 application that

[t]he fact of being on probation is always a source of mental anxiety. One would need to be inordinately phlegmatic not to feel anxious and mentally oppressed as the years pass and one is still what for want of a better description, one can only call 'under open arrest'. With the thought of being 'On probation' as a sort of sword of Damocles over one's head at all times.25

Since even his initially hostile probation officer at Papakura had referred to his 'constant fear' that he might unintentionally breach the conditions of his probation, Mareo was probably not exaggerating his 'mental anxiety'. Two years later, his new probation officer confirmed his predecessor's impression that 'Curtis lives a life of fear', pointing out that

[h]e is scared of publicity and afraid of being involved in a traffic accident. Some months ago Curtis happened to bump into another car in Papakura while parking. He went to the Police Station and, according to the Sergeant, was very nervous over the episode. It was the Sergeant's impression at that time, and still is, that no useful purpose could be served by keeping him on Probation.… I believe that Mrs Curtis has, in the past, exercised rather a strict supervision over her husband. This, I am told, is being relaxed now but it has served the purpose of tiding him over what must have been a difficult period of re- adjustment. If there is strain in the home, or if Curtis is not living the life he ought to, it is kept a remarkably close secret.26

As a consequence of such submissions, the Parole Board finally recommended on 21 October 1957 that Mareo be discharged from probation in May 1958, assuming presumably page 159that there would be no obstruction from the Minister of Justice. However, since the National Party now formed the government, the Minister of Justice was not Mason but Jack Marshall. In rejecting the Board's recommendation, Marshall, who was a supporter of capital punishment, explained that probation

is… a protection to the public and a restraint upon the probationer which in the case of a murderer can justifiably be retained indefinitely. While it is true that released murderers seldom offend again, there is often an element of instability in their character of temperament which tends to make them less reliable than others. There has been at least one case in the past where the conduct of a murderer on probation has caused such alarm in the neighbourhood that it became necessary to recall him until arrangements could be made for settling him else- where.27

But since the National Party had just been defeated in the general elections, Marshall concluded by noting that his successor might review his decision.

Marshall's successor was Mason, and he did indeed bring Mareo's case before Cabinet. Although Marshall had contended that a murderer should, except in 'exceptional cases', 'be on probation from the time of his release for the rest of his life',28 Cabinet had requested information as to whether such a draconian policy had actually been implemented. The Secretary for Justice's figures would hearten today's advocates of law-and-order: four murderers had previously been discharged from probation but the most recent was as long ago as 1947.29

A week before Christmas 1958, Mareo was finally granted a discharge. He had been, to use his own phrase, 'under judicial control' for more than twenty-two years. Just under two years later his wife, Gladys Curtis, died. Within a few weeks Nora Bailey, the violinist and second 'Mrs Mareo', had flown to Auckland and married him. Nothing could have been more typical of the enigmatic life of the musician and composer. Mareo had left Nora Bailey and not seen her for twenty-eight years. page 160Was he heartlessly remarrying in order to exploit yet another woman a second time, or was he the kind of man who inspired extraordinary love and devotion? Perhaps time would have told but for the fact that Mareo's fifth 'marriage' was to be his shortest. Less than a month after marrying Nora Bailey he died of heart failure.