Brenda Maddox 1932 – 2019

Brenda Maddox was not only an outstandingly talented journalist, equally at home in the columns of the Economist and the Daily Telegraph, but an internationally recognised biographer. She specialised in revealing the little known lives of people, especially women, who had previously been overshadowed by their partners or colleagues.

She made her name in 1988 with Nora: A Biography of Nora Joyce, a 600-page biography of the little regarded wife of James Joyce, and the inspiration for his most memorable female creation, Molly Bloom. Like all Brenda’s books, it was meticulously researched and instantly readable, and left some commentators wondering not why Joyce had married Nora, but why she had married him.

Brenda followed this some years later with Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA, a tribute to the least known of the DNA triumvirate. In an enterprising piece of gender reversal, she performed a similar service for Denis Thatcher frequently dismissed as a clownish figure but in Brenda’ s biography of Margaret Thatcher given his true status as an essential support to her political career.

Brenda Murphy came from a mingling of Irish and Italian stock in Massachusetts. She won a scholarship to Harvard and cut her journalistic teeth on the quaintly named Quincy Patriot -Ledger. She moved to Europe in 1958 and I first met her at – of all places – the stately Elizabethan home of the late Paul Getty, which he had bought as the headquarters of his UK companies. To celebrate this acquisition he threw an all night party at which journalists probably outnumbered other guests. I encountered Brenda around 4am by the swimming pool and, learning that I lived locally, she asked if I knew where she could get a taxi. No need, I said, and drove her to her hotel in Guildford, making sure I had her phone number before she vanished inside.

We enjoyed a platonic friendship for a few months during which I introduced her to the acoustic horrors (long since rectified) of the Albert Hall. I can still remember her look of disbelief as we were blasted by its five-second echo during Holst’s ‘Planets’. Soon after this I was sitting at my desk at the Daily Herald when Brenda rang to say she couldn’t keep that night’s concert date explaining “I just gotten engaged.”

Her fiancé, and soon her husband, was John Maddox, soon to make his name as editor of Britain’s most respected science journal Nature. Their 47-year marriage was a union of equally brilliant minds and lasting companionship until his death in 2009. When he was knighted she became Lady Maddox, though she much preferred to be known as Brenda.

Naively I once asked her if she didn’t miss her more regular income as a journalist after she diverted to biography. “What you don’t understand, Richard,” she pointed out, “is that biographies are big bucks.” In Brenda’s case they certainly were. Nora was translated into eight languages, won numerous awards and was made into a film starring Ewan McGregor and Susan Lynch. Literary awards became a regular feature of her life and she was in demand as a broadcaster, book reviewer, and media commentator.

Her newfound celebrity did not interfere with her regular attendance at BPG lunches and Awards ceremonies. In 1993, when we were casting around for someone we could recommend to members as the next chairman, we thought of Brenda. She was in America but I tracked her down and after slight hesitation she agreed to take on the job. Well used to public platforms she delivered two memorable Awards speeches and persuaded her husband to attend one BPG Awards event, where he shared a table with his fellow guru Sir David Attenborough.

Brenda’s other subjects included Elizabeth Taylor, D H Lawrence, and WB Yeats. Her last book, Reading The Rocks, about nineteenth century geologists, was published only two years before her death.

She is survived by her son Bruno, journalist and novelist, and daughter Bronwen, former journalist and now Director of the Institute for Government.

Brenda Maddox – February 24, 1932, to June 16, 2019.

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