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Close, Robert Shaw (Bob) (1903–1995)

by Gavin De Lacy

This article was published online in 2019

Robert Shaw Close (1903–1995), writer, was born on 15 July 1903 at Canterbury, Melbourne, eldest child of Henry Osborne Close, railway clerk, and his wife Julia Louise, née Tutles, both Victorian-born. Robert was educated at Camberwell State School and Swinburne Technical College. In 1918 he was apprenticed aboard the Shandon, a three-masted barque with the Commonwealth Government Line. After about five years training, he sat for the second mate’s certificate in England, but failed the eyesight test. He later published his experiences at sea as Morn of Youth (1948).

Back in Australia in 1923, Close worked for a few years as a telegraph linesman and labourer for the Victorian Railways, then for five years as shipping foreman with the Ford Motor Co. of Australia Pty Ltd at Geelong. On 14 April 1927 he married Hilda Maud Harvey, a clerk, at the Malvern Presbyterian Church. During the Depression he worked in numerous jobs including as a vacuum cleaner salesman in Melbourne. He also trained as a singer but, when diagnosed with tuberculosis, spent time in Gresswell Sanatorium in 1936. Back working the next year, he was a circulation canvasser for the Argus, before being employed as a debt collector and later a journalist for the Melbourne Truth.

Earlier in the 1930s Close had started writing sea stories and articles. He joined the Victorian Writers’ League and met another aspirant author, Alan Marshall, who became a long-time correspondent. In 1938 Close published his first literary short story, ‘Sputum Sam,’ in the league’s journal, Point. He won short story competitions held by the Fellowship of Australian Writers (1941) and Damon Runyon Universal Films (1942). In 1942 he published The Dope Pedlars, a now rare pulp.

Close’s next novel, Love Me Sailor, was set on board a windjammer and explored the turmoil caused by the presence of a female passenger in the midst of a male crew. It was rejected by Doubleday, Doran and Co. as ‘sensational but trite’ (Close 1944–47) before being published in Melbourne by Ted Harris’s firm Georgian House Pty Ltd in 1945. Close received legal advice that the novel ‘would be well scuttled on the grounds of obscenity’ (1946). Although he hoped it would avoid scrutiny, in July 1946 three Adelaide booksellers were prosecuted for selling it as an indecent publication. A total of about six thousand copies, including a corrected issue, were sold before the novel was suppressed. A French edition, Prends-Moi Matelot!, appeared in 1947. By now a full-time author, he wrote The Dupe, a novel also set at sea, which was published in America by Vanguard Press in the same year.

On 10 January 1947 Close was committed for trial in Melbourne on the charge of obscene libel for publishing indecent and corrupting material in Love Me Sailor. In March the following year, the trial was abandoned after an indiscretion by the foreman of the jury. At the retrial in April, he was found guilty and spent eight days (of a three-month term) in gaol before being released on bail. The verdict was widely condemned by authors and in the literary press. In June 1948 the conviction was upheld on appeal, but the penalty was altered: the gaol sentence was remitted and the fine increased from £100 to £150.

After briefly relocating to Sydney, Close left Australia in October 1950, bitter, but buoyed by an advance from Frederick Fell for an American edition of the novel (published in 1950). During his ‘self-imposed exile’ (Close 1977, 249), he lived in France, mostly in Paris. In 1951 Hilda divorced him on the ground of desertion; three years later he remarried. He went on to publish four more novels: Eliza Callaghan (1957), With Hooves of Brass (1961), She’s My Lovely (1962), and The Voyage Continues (1969), written variously in France, Italy, Spain, and Britain. Three had Australian settings, but his literary life would continue to be dominated by Love Me Sailor, ‘my old albatross,’ as he called it (Close August 1976).

Overseas editions of the book were prohibited in Australia between October 1951 and June 1960. Horwitz Publications subsequently issued an expurgated edition in 1962, but the original text was not republished in the country again until 1969. Short of funds, in the early 1970s he sold the manuscript to the University of Sydney for $1,000. In 1975 he returned to Australia to write Of Salt and Earth (1977), an autobiography dealing with his life up until the Love Me Sailor case. He was awarded (1975/76 and 1976/77) grants by the Australia Council’s literature board for the purpose. After two years he left again to live in Spain.

Described as ‘vigorously good-looking’ (Porter 1966, 99), Close was of short stature with black hair, brown eyes, and a moustache. The journalist Phillip Knightley recalled that he had a ‘brash and forceful personality, a rough charm that women found attractive, and a capacity for drink and yarn-spinning that his male friends admired’ (1995, 21). Close died on 17 July 1995 at Palma, Majorca, and was cremated. He was predeceased by his second wife and survived by the two sons from his first marriage.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Argus. ‘A Siren Goes to Sea.’ 23 March 1946, 10
  • Close, Robert S. Correspondence with US Agent Paul Reynolds, 1944–47. Robert Shaw Close Personal Papers, box 1. Rare Book and Special Collections Library, Fisher Library, University of Sydney
  • Close, Robert S. Interview by Hazel de Berg, 9 November 1976. Transcript. Hazel de Berg collection. National Library of Australia
  • Close, Robert S. Letter to Alan Marshall, 21 March 1946. Papers of Alan Marshall, 1930–1970, MS 2741, box 9, folder 2. National Library of Australia
  • Close, Robert S. Letter to Alan Marshall, 5 August 1976. Papers of Alan Marshall, 1903–1982, MS 3992, box 21, folder 144. National Library of Australia
  • Close, Robert. Of Salt and Earth: An Autobiography. West Melbourne: Thomas Nelson (Australia) Limited, 1977
  • Hetherington, John. Forty-Two Faces. Melbourne: F. W. Cheshire, 1962
  • Knightley, Phillip. ‘Writer Rocked Boat.’ Australian, 21 July 1995, 21
  • Moore, Nicole. The Censor’s Library. St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 2012
  • Porter, Hal. The Paper Chase. Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1966

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Gavin De Lacy, 'Close, Robert Shaw (Bob) (1903–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/close-robert-shaw-bob-23675/text32627, published online 2019, accessed online 17 June 2019.

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