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Mackenzie, Kenneth Ivo (Seaforth) (1913–1955)

by Veronica Brady

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Kenneth Ivo Brownley Langwell (Seaforth) Mackenzie (1913-1955), poet and novelist, was born on 25 September 1913 in South Perth, son of Australian-born parents Hugh Mackenzie, farmer, and his wife Marguerite Christina, née Pryde-Paterson. After his parents were divorced in 1919, Kenneth was raised by his mother and maternal grandfather. Educated at South Perth and Pinjarra state schools, and (as a boarder) at Guildford Grammar School, he took no interest in sport and studied only when he felt inclined. At 16 he ran away from school and refused to return. Finding Muresk Agricultural College even more uncongenial than boarding school, he entered the University of Western Australia in 1932 to read law. He gained a reputation for spasmodic brilliance and eccentricity, and left before the end of his first year.

Following occasional employment as a journalist on the West Australian, Mackenzie travelled to Melbourne in 1933. In the height of the Depression he took a job as a scullery-assistant and survived on the charity of his father's sisters. He moved to Sydney in the following year. There he reviewed books, films and drama for the Sydney Morning Herald, wrote for Fox Movietone News and contributed to Smith's Weekly, through which he met Kenneth Slessor. Impressing Norman Lindsay, he was admitted to his Bohemian circle: wherever Mackenzie was, 'wild comedy and wild adventures tended to break out'. He was strong, muscular and blonde, and immensely attractive to certain women. On 24 December 1934 at the registrar general's office, Sydney, he married Kathleen Bartlett, née Loveday; born in England, she was a 25-year-old widow who had taken a job as a pastry-cook.

His first novel, The Young Desire It, was published (1937) under the pseudonym 'Seaforth' Mackenzie by Jonathan Cape in London; sensitive, vital and erotic, it was to win the Australian Literary Society's prize in 1939. A sense of moral ambiguity and impending chaos, evident in Mackenzie's second novel, Chosen People (London, 1938), began to invade his own life as he became addicted to alcohol. The outbreak of World War II destroyed what vague plans he had to make a name as a writer in England. Mobilized in the Australian Military Forces, he began full-time duty on 8 April 1943, but was rejected for active service because of poor eyesight. Mackenzie was posted to the 22nd Garrison Battalion at Cowra prisoner-of-war camp. In August 1944 he witnessed the Japanese break-out, the subject of his third novel, Dead Men Rising (New York, 1951). Two collections of his poetry were published in his lifetime, Our Earth (Sydney, 1937) and The Moonlit Doorway (Sydney, 1944). Medically unfit, he was discharged from the army on 11 June 1945. His drinking habits (claret with breakfast) and lack of qualifications meant that he was virtually unemployable.

In 1948 the family moved to Kurrajong at the foot of the Blue Mountains where Kate had bought 14 acres (6 ha) with her child-endowment money. When they failed to make a living there, she returned with the children to Sydney. Left alone, Mackenzie devoted himself to his writing. He was awarded a Commonwealth Literary Fund fellowship for that year and for 1955; he edited (1951-52) Australian Poetry and published another novel, The Refuge (London, 1954). None the less, his financial situation and personal life were fast deteriorating. He was accidentally drowned on 19 January 1955 while bathing in Tallong Creek, near Goulburn; survived by his wife, daughter and son, he was cremated with Anglican rites. Douglas Stewart edited the Selected Poems of Kenneth Mackenzie (Sydney, 1961), and Evan Jones and Geoffrey Little co-edited a further anthology in 1972.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Jones, Kenneth Mackenzie (Melb, 1969)
  • D. Stewart, Norman Lindsay (Melb, 1975)
  • Southerly, 9, 1948, p 214, 25, 1965, p 75, 26, 1966, p 25
  • Meanjin Quarterly, 13, 1954, p 503, 24, 1965, p 298
  • Australian Quarterly, 36, no 2, June 1964, p 70
  • Westerly, 3, 1966
  • West Australian, 29 Jan 1955
  • Mackenzie papers (State Library of Western Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Veronica Brady, 'Mackenzie, Kenneth Ivo (Seaforth) (1913–1955)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mackenzie-kenneth-ivo-seaforth-10987/text19533, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 23 September 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

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