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EXCLUSIVE: “Our last days together were the sweetest," says Blanche d’Alpuget of her final moments with Bob Hawke

Even though Bob Hawke's last months were hampered by pain and suffering, they were also the happiest, as Blanche shares in her new biography.

By Juliet Rieden
On Thursday May 16, 2019, as her soulmate, Bob Hawke, was struggling to breathe, consumed with pneumonia, Blanche d'Alpuget lay by her husband's side, eager to soothe his distress, when something strange happened.
"I started to get the pneumonia and he started to get better. His face became pink again and he was feeling brighter," says Blanche, holding back her tears.
Not wanting to make Bob worse again, and feeling decidedly crook herself, Blanche jumped in the car to consult her acupuncturist.
"She took my pulse and said, 'How did you get here?' I said, 'I drove'. She quickly replied, 'I'll drive you home, you've got no pulse, what have you been doing?'
'I said, 'I've been lying down beside my husband who's dying'. She said, 'You mustn't do that, you are giving all the energy of your body to him'."
Back at their house in Sydney's Northbridge, Blanche returned to Bob, the man she first met in Jakarta in 1970 and ultimately married in 1995.
Twenty-four hours earlier, when Bob had been poleaxed with excruciating pain in his torso, the doctor had told Blanche, "This was probably the beginning of the end" for the 89-year-old.
But could Blanche have delivered a reprieve for the love of her life?
Alas, no.
"I went back and I didn't lie down beside him, we just held hands ... This was two hours before he died," she says, her voice shaking a little.
Bob's close friend, politician Craig Emerson, and his partner, Tracey Winters, were also at the former Prime Minister's bedside when, at 5.04pm, he took his last breath.
"Craig placed two fingers on his neck and shook his head. With astonishment, the three of us felt intense uplifting joy," writes Blanche in the final chapter of her definitive new book, Bob Hawke: The Complete Biography, a compilation of her Hawke works.
It includes an update of her political study, Hawke: The Prime Minister, and a new final section filling in his last nine years.
Blanche d'Alpuget is learning to live without the love of her life. The Australian Women's Weekly
Blanche has a new biography out. The Australian Women's Weekly
Blanche was asked to write her novel just three weeks before Bob passed away. The Australian Women's Weekly

Labour of love

In April, Blanche had been commissioned to create "one volume covering Bob's whole life". But when she started writing, she had no clue that within three weeks her husband would be dead.
"I was really hoping he would make his 90th birthday [on December 9]. I had started planning a 90th birthday party in my head. But we never know the time and the hour. When he died it was very fast," she says.
Bob died just two days before the general election, in which he had hoped to see a Labor government elected.
"He was going in his wheelchair. He wasn't going to postal vote. So he ended up not voting at all," says Blanche with a sigh.
"He would have been very disappointed with the result."
Former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke with wife Blanche d'Alpuget at Moonee Valley Racecourse in Melbourne, 1995. (Source: Getty)
Bob Hawke meets with Labor Leader, Bill Shorten at Hawke's home on May 6, 10 days before Bob died (89). (Source: Getty)
In those final months Bob was happy that Blanche was updating the biography, but was of little help.
"By that stage he was very sick. Because he was in so much pain, he was taking oral morphine and also Fentanyl patches so he was awake and alert for only about four or five hours a day. So, it wasn't something I talked to him about. I just went ahead and did it."
When Bob died, the book took on a new urgency.
As the country mourned, it was clear they needed a tribute to their hero, and who better to give it than the woman he loved so completely. But there was a personal toll.
"It was a hell of a job writing about his final years and his death. When I first wrote it, it nearly killed me," admits Blanche.
"But by the time I'd rewritten it five times I could do it without feeling I was going to fall on the floor."
In love, Bob Hawke with Blanche D'Alpuget at charity cricket in 1995 (Source: Getty)
Blanche is at times philosophical, certainly spiritual and definitely still in shock as we talk in her new apartment high above Hyde Park in central Sydney.
She moved in a few weeks ago and is finding her feet, which she admits will take some while.
Blanche purchased the property off the plan in 2015. In her mind this was to be the perfect downsizing unit for the couple, right in the heart of the city.
She and Bob finally sold their mansion overlooking Sydney's Middle Harbour in March.
They had lived there all their married life and Blanche tells me the new owners said the couple could stay there until February 2020 for just $2.50 a week.
Blanche's plan was to move with Bob to the new city pad, but in the end it didn't work out.
"It was walking distance to his office for his secretary so it would have been wonderful, but the big problem would have been he could not have smoked cigars," she explains.
"They're not allowed in the building or on the balcony. When I found that out from the body corporate rules I told Bob, 'You'll have to go downstairs to the park to smoke', and he said, 'That's it'... he would only leave Northbridge in a box and he got his own way," says Blanche with a sad shrug.
Celebrating his 88th birthday next to his wax figure holding a Hawkes Lager tinnie in Clovelly. (Source: Getty)
There's a pile of leather-bound condolence books on the coffee table in the lounge room, which Blanche says are a mere fraction of the volumes she has.
The outpouring of emotion has been overwhelming.
I ask Blanche if she was surprised by the national and international expression of grief.
"I think I was," she says quietly.
"I had thousands of letters, cards, emails." There was even a private missive from Prince Charles.
"I was delighted, and he expressed himself very well, and his feelings seemed deep and sincere," she says.
What did he say? "I can't tell you, but it was very nice and extraordinarily affectionate for Bob," says Blanche.
Despite his support for a republic, Bob liked Charles a great deal.
"They'd always got on well together," she explains. I suggest this may have been fuelled by a mutual passion for the environment, and Blanche starts laughing.
"Well yes, but it wasn't that so much," she explains.
It seems the Prince and the Prime Minister forged a bit of a bromance in 1988 when the Royal was in Australia with Diana, the Princess of Wales, for the Bicentenary celebrations.
"They were going across the harbour on a boat and the Prince, who was looking through a pair of binoculars, said 'My God, Prime Minister, there's a pair of beauties!'
"You see, girls were taking their tops off and flashing at them both. They got on as blokes ... Diana was downstairs in the cabin and didn't see any of it."
WATCH NEXT: Why Bob Hawke is a legend. Story continues below...
Before she moved, Blanche held an auction of Bob's possessions and their furniture from the house. It was partly necessity.
"There's no space here," she pleads.
But also because a lot of the public "wanted a slice of Bob".
Everything – from Bob's flat-screen TV, to his office chair, gifts from foreign dignitaries, photos, artwork and sporting memorabilia – went under the hammer.
As far as Blanche was concerned, the only thing she wanted from the house was Bob, and he was gone.
In her apartment there are a few favourite artworks and sculptures but there are no photos of Bob at all. Blanche says there never will be.
"I don't want to [put them up]".
But Bob is here in an advance copy of the new biography on Blanche's coffee table. He is staring out from the cover and together we look through the photographs in the book.
Her favourite shows him looking devilishly handsome and confident, his legs splayed while sitting in the PM's airplane.
It's a beautiful book and a mighty work of close to 1000 pages, a fitting and important tribute.
Blanche's updates are raw and powerful, filling in some of the personal details from the breakdown of his first marriage to Hazel, their divorce and his subsequent "scandalous" remarriage to Blanche.
In these pages Blanche discusses Hazel's Alzheimer's diagnosis and Bob's touching goodbye to her – he sang "a song of their youth, Danny Boy," on his final visit to her nursing home a few weeks before she died – his special relationship with her own son, Louis, who came to live with them for a while, and his reconnection with his Labor colleague and competitor, Paul Keating.
Prince Charles and Diana in Canberra with Bob Hawke and then, wife Hazel in 1983. (Source: Getty)

New fidelity

Blanche has always carried the pall of the perceived scarlet woman in Bob's life, which – considering their devoted marriage – proved mightily unfair. I ask why she thinks Australians – and mostly women – judged her so cruelly.
"I think none of them had realised what his first marriage was like. They didn't realise that Bob was perennially unfaithful and had a whole shoe-sale queue of lovers … they just saw him and Hazel.
"They didn't know there was this other thing, this other world. Hazel knew what he was like when she married him. He knew what he was like. I don't know that either of them particularly saw it in that very judgemental term 'cheating'."
Did they love each other? "Yes. But it was a different sort of love to our love."
When they reunited in the early 1990s, Bob knew he wanted to divorce Hazel and be with Blanche.
But Blanche says she never sought marriage. "I didn't want to marry. Bob said, 'Look, we've got to'. He knew what the public would expect."
She was 51, Bob was 65 and this time he was giving his whole self.
"He had that phrase put into our wedding vows – the traditional words 'to the exclusion of all others' – which was certainly to remind him what he'd vowed because, as he said, when he got married the first time it was really with his fingers crossed behind his back. This time he was taking it very seriously and he wanted it in our vows ... it was for both of us, but it was more particularly for him."
Did he carry out those vows?
"How do I know? I believe he was faithful. He said he was. I asked him straight up." Blanche certainly never felt she had to look over her shoulder.
"He was so obviously in love with me and we were so obviously in love together. I used to see these very pretty girls kind of back off," she says, breaking into a smile.
Their love was "already deep" but the wedding ceremony did change something "on a spiritual level".
They were immediately "deliriously happy" together and that never changed. "People used to say, 'to see you together makes us happy'."
Marrying Blanche in 1995 in Sydney, Australia. (Source: Getty)
Happily married in 1995 in Sydney, Australia. (Source: Getty)
After their wedding and for their first three years of married life, Blanche faced a bitter and angry public.
"I said nothing. I answered nothing. But I used to feel sick when I'd go to the letterbox because there were so many hideous letters, but never signed and with no [return] address. They were written in red ink and very abusive. This was, of course, pre social media. I can imagine if social media had existed I would have had myriads of trolls."
Eventually the noise dampened but the intensity of their love had already lifted Bob and Blanche onto a plain all of their own.
"One of the first effects of being happily remarried was that he forgave Paul Keating," writes Blanche about the feud that developed when Paul famously replaced Bob as Prime Minister.
"It took him many years to tell Keating to his face that he was indebted to him, although he often remarked privately 'Paul is my best friend. If I'd stayed PM I couldn't have married Blanche.'"
When Hazel was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, Bob had suspected for some time.
"He was very sorry for her and sad. The initial stages of Alzheimer's or dementia are terrible for the person when they realise they're losing their mind, but then when it's actually happened it's just terrible for all the people around them. They can be quite happy, which was the case with Hazel."
For many years after Bob and Blanche married, his children took Hazel's side, condemning their father's decision, but this was a time for them to come together.
"They were reconciled ... what they all saw and recognised was that Bob was very happy with me and so they saw that as a good thing… when Hazel died, Rosslyn, Bob's youngest daughter, turned to me as a second mother."
Bob Hawke with then wife Hazel and Paul Keating at NSW Labor Campaign 1988 in Sydney. (Source: Getty)

Housebound

Once he hit 80, Bob's health started to deteriorate and over the coming years he developed glaucoma, had a pacemaker fitted, suffered a couple of mini strokes and though undiagnosed for a long time, developed peripheral neuropathy in his feet.
"It was terrible," says Blanche.
"The vertebra in his lower back squeezed the nerves that run down your legs into your feet. He would say to me, 'My feet are dead, I can't feel anything'. He had to use a walking stick because he couldn't feel the ground properly and it was ages before we knew what it was.
"The doctors tried to fix it with cortisone injections into the spine. He had two. They made it worse. Then we were considering having an operation to free up the vertebra but the surgeon, God bless him, said, look, it's a dangerous operation, dangerous at his age, and it's no guarantee it'll work. So he chose not to do it."
By late 2017, going out was difficult and Bob became virtually housebound.
He took this new phase of his life "with a great deal of philosophical calm" says Blanche.
But as he became sicker he longed for death.
Bob had always supported euthanasia and he started searching for a doctor to speed his way, but Blanche says he couldn't find one.
"He kept on saying he had no fear of death and I don't think he did, though of course you never know until that moment comes."
Painful though it must have been to watch Bob aching to embrace death, Blanche says she accepted it.
"The point to him was he'd given everything he had to give and there was nothing more he could contribute, and so he wanted to leave. He couldn't contribute to society anymore."
Order of service card during a State Memorial Service at Sydney Opera House on June 14, 2019. (Source: Getty)
The most beautiful parts of the new biography are Blanche's descriptions of the final stage of their love, when Bob's flesh was weak and she embraced the pure unfettered human beneath.
"I'd always thought of him as a very good man. I knew as soon as I met him that he was a man of very good character, but I wasn't expecting, I wasn't prepared for, how sweet he would become, how utterly adorable," she says.
"I think when all that egotism and the outside world are stripped away and there is just the human person left, that is a beautiful thing to see. And Bob was a beautiful human being. He was so happy in our love."
Every morning Blanche woke wondering if Bob had died in the night. But her son, Louis's, wedding was set for May and Bob was determined to make it, which Blanche believes kept him going.
It was an outdoor ceremony on a chilly autumn day in a garden in Mount Wilson, a couple of hours drive from Sydney. This was the last outing he made.
Bob was too ill to stay for the evening reception, so a couple of days later Louis and his new wife, Brianna, danced for Bob in their wedding garb in the Northbridge living room. He was filled with unquenchable joy.
"There's the same age difference between Bri and Louis as there is between Bob and me. And since we had never known young love, we'd only known mature and old-age love, I think watching them he was imagining us reborn as young lovers. Bob was a real romantic and he was so entranced so that's what I think he was seeing," says Blanche, who is caught for a moment in that reverie.
Bob Hawke with first wife Hazel and family on election night in Melbourne, 1987. (Source: Getty)
When we spoke earlier in the year Blanche thought she might throw herself into her own writing after Bob's death. But now she's not so sure.
"I haven't got anything to say, so there's no point," she offers.
And after bathing in the support and emotion of the memorial, Blanche is facing another family battle.
"I'm not seeing Rosslyn at the moment; our lawyers won't allow us to."
Rosslyn is contesting her father's will, in which he reportedly left $750,000 to each of his children, including Blanche's son, Louis, with the bulk of the estate going to Blanche.
"I think it's just grief. Then probably her friends talked her into it and it's now in the hands of lawyers," says Blanche.
In those final months together Bob and Blanche mused over being reincarnated and meeting again. Bob would be a conductor and Blanche an opera singer.
"And both of us Chinese," laughs Blanche. "I think it's a lovely idea."
Whatever happens, the lovers will, I suspect, always be together, for as we sit here today Blanche puts her hand on her heart and tells me Bob is here inside and always will be.
The Complete Biography by Blanche d'Alpuget, published by Simon & Schuster, is on sale now.
The 2019 Christmas issue of The Australian Women's Weekly is on sale now.

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