Obituary: Kathrine Sorley Walker, biographer and dance critic

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Born: 5 March, 1920, in Aberdeen. Died: 14 April, 2015, in London, aged 95

Katherine Sorley Walker was a distinguished biographer of various eminent figures in the world of ballet and co-edited a book on the novelist Raymond Chandler whose sensational letters to two of his lovers became a cause célèbre in the early 1960s. Walker was also a renowned ballet critic for The Daily Telegraph for more than 30 years.

Sorley Walker was the only daughter of Edith and James Sorley Walker. Her father, who had seen service in the First World War, was a second lieutenant in the Scottish Rifles. After the war he was posted to Bombay and on account of the savage ’flu in the city his wife returned to Aberdeen to give birth to Kathrine at the home of her parents.

The following year her father, aged just 28, died in India. Some years later Kathrine and her mother moved south to London.

But she remained a fervent Scot all her life and as well as returning every year to review ballet at the Edinburgh Festival she was a strong supporter of Scottish Ballet from its earliest days under Peter Darrell.

Sorley Walker was also a published poet and is listed in Modern Scottish Women Poets. In her poems she celebrated her Scottish heritage with a refined affection.

She wrote Scottish Legacy, which depicts the landscape of the North (“Tough roots, unfelt, unseen in daily life/magnetic is the land, as are hill bush and tree”). The anthology mentions Sorley Walker’s sense of nationhood and deep-rooted sense of familial and domestic history as is evidenced in her stanza, “the long skein of genealogy/that ends in me”.

Sorley Walker attended St Margaret’s School in Aberdeen, King’s College, London and Besançon University in France.

Her great interest in dance began during the war when she attended many performances by the emerging Sadler’s Wells Ballet (later the Royal Ballet). In 1947 Sorley Walker wrote her first book, Brief for Ballet, which examined the future for the art form in Britain and astutely named such new talents as the choreographer Antony Tudor and the dancer Robert Helpmann.

But it was her finely researched editing of the Chandler letters that brought Sorley Walker early renown. On his death in 1959 Chandler left $60,000 to his literary agent and lover Helga Greene (née Guinness, the divorced wife of the BBC director-general Hugh Carleton Greene). The bequest was challenged in 1960 by his private secretary Jean Fracasse, a rival lover, who accused Mrs Greene of getting the writer drunk and thus influencing the will in her favour.

Amidst much legal wrangling, a San Diego judge dismissed Fracasse’s case.

After diligent research Sorley Walker’s book (Raymond Chandler Speaking) became a best-seller as it stripped away the background to the complicated case but also turned over some uncomfortable facts about Chandler’s very un-PC personal life. Sorley Walker dealt with that and edited the often colourful letters in a sympathetic, but fair, manner.

Sorley Walker included the short story A Couple of Writers and the first chapters of Chandler’s last Philip Marlowe novel, The Poodle Springs Story, which was unfinished at his death.

Sorley Walker began reviewing for the Daily Telegraph in the 1960s and became its principal dance critic in 1988. She brought to her writing a deep knowledge and love of ballet and its history. Her previous experience as a researcher ensured that her reviews captured an understanding of the significance of a work and its origins. She gloried in the triumphant period the Royal Ballet enjoyed in the Fonteyn/Nureyev years but remained enthusiastic for the other dancers – all future stars – who were emerging in the company.

She was the ideal person to write the text for The Royal Ballet: A Picture History, with Sarah Woodcock (1982) and her superb 1987 account of the determined life of the company’s founder, Ninette de Valois (Idealist without Illusions), has remained in print and a valuable reference book.

Sorley Walker brought a scholarly understanding of the larger than life dancer/actor Robert Helpmann (A Rare Sense of Theatre), capturing his theatricality and wit.

Other books included accounts of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and her two last biographies on two influential designers of British ballet, William Chappell and Hedley Briggs, will be published posthumously.

Sorley Walker was an erudite and influential member of the ballet press with a kind and generous spirit – always willing to help younger critics. Her biographies are considered classics and authoritative.

She had a joyous sense of humour and a sparkling personality. At heart she was a proud Scot. At her 95th birthday she toasted everyone with a 15-year-old malt – a tipple she had loved all her life.

Sorley Walker was unmarried.