Rosemary Sullivan was born in the town of Valois on Lac St. Louis just outside Montreal. Her paternal grandfather arrived from Ireland around 1916. Family legend had it that he was a Fenian forced to flee after the Easter Uprising, though this is possibly an invention. Her father, Michael Patrick Sullivan, was born on Duluth Street in the Irish ghetto. Mike Sullivan wanted to be a journalist but became a boxer instead. In 1935 he was Junior Middleweight Boxing Champion for Quebec. He joined the Air Force but, being colour-blind, spent the war grounded in Canada.
On her mother’s side, Rosemary’s family stretches back to the potato famine of 1847. After burying their infant daughter in the graveyard at Sligo, her ancestors joined the Irish diaspora, settling on a farm in Smiths Falls, Ontario. At the turn of the century, Smiths Falls was an international center for cycling. Rosemary’s grandfather, Jeremiah Morrison Guthrie, became cycling champion for Canada. Family stories of dirty play abound. Jeremiah was the fastest man on his team. On the marathon races, the American cyclists always bribed the water-boys to disappear just as Jeremiah was passing. Jeremiah died at the age of forty-five, leaving behind eleven children. His wife Lottie managed to keep her family together. She became the owner of three farms and president of the Smiths Falls cheese factory. She sent each of her eight daughters to board in Smiths Falls to finish their high school degrees. At eighteen, Rosemary’s mother Leanore headed to business school in Montreal. In 1944, she met Mike Sullivan on a blind date and that was that. Rosemary is the second of their five children.
After graduating from St. Thomas High School, Rosemary won a scholarship to McGill University. In her freshman year, she joined Radio McGill and interviewed the Beach Boys. She was persuaded by her radio colleagues to run for Miss McGill. The consolation prize for runner-up was a Barbie doll. Throwing this in the garbage, Rosemary began her career as a feminist.
Advised by a kindly professor to get degrees from three countries, in 1968 Rosemary married and headed with her new husband to the University of Connecticut, where Stephen Spender was writer-in-residence and W.H. Auden visited. Completing her M.A. in the fall of 1969, she moved with her husband to England where she attended the University of Sussex. Virginia Woolf’s spirit reigned and Quentin Bell taught Art History. A chance meeting with Beatrice Roethke led Rosemary to write and later publish The Garden Master. In 1972, PhD in hand, she headed to France to teach, first at the University of Dijon and then the University of Bordeaux. One might suspect the vintage wines were a decisive factor.
After two years, she was hired (by telephone) at the University of Victoria, BC and returned to Canada. It was a thrilling time, a period of national cultural revolution when writers, critics, and artists met to reinvent English Canadian literature. In 1977, Rosemary got a job at the University of Toronto.
In 1978, after taking leave of academia to devote herself to writing, Rosemary lived in London where she befriended Elizabeth Smart. She also traveled to the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia. In both countries, she met dissident writers and, in Prague, encountered samizdat literature by her colleague and friend Josef Skvorecky. Back in Canada in 1979, she joined Amnesty International. In 1980 she founded the Toronto Arts Group for Human Rights, and conceived and organized an International Congress called The Writer and Human Rights in aid of Amnesty International. The congress took place over ten days in Toronto in October 1981. Seventy writers from thirty countries participated, including Nadine Gordimer, Susan Sontag, Eduardo Galeano, Carolyn Forché, Jacobo Timerman, Allen Ginsberg, Allan Sillitoe, Josef Brodsky, and Wole Soyinka. The ambition of the congress was to create an international web of support for endangered writers.
In 1982, Rosemary joined the editorial board of This Magazine, where, having become fascinated by Latin American culture and politics, she wrote articles about her travels to Chile, Mexico, Cuba, and Nicaragua. She met her present husband, Chilean actor-musician Juan Opitz in Toronto. Her first collection of poems, The Space a Name Makes, came out in 1986, and won the Gerald Lampert Award for the Best First Book of Poetry. In 1987, she was invited by Penguin Books to write a biography of Elizabeth Smart. This was published as By Heart in 1991, and was picked up in England and Spain, and optioned for a film. Falling in love with the genre of biography, Rosemary wrote Shadow Maker: The Life of Gwendolyn MacEwen (1995) and The Red Shoes: Margaret Atwood Starting Out (1998). In her mind, these works formed a trilogy about the creative lives of women artists.
In 2003, Rosemary and Juan traveled to Cuba, where they met musicians like Compay Segundo of the Buenavista Social Club, legendary ballerina Alicia Alonso, young artists and filmmakers, people on the street, and farmers in the countryside. In collaboration with photographer Malcolm Batty, Rosemary wrote Cuba: Grace Under Pressure.
At the University of Toronto, Rosemary was awarded a Canada Research Chair in Literature, and in 2003, founded the new MA program in English in the field of Creative Writing, whose young writers are beginning to assert themselves on the national scene.
From 2003-2006, Rosemary held the Maclean Hunter Chair in Literary Journalism at the Banff Centre, a position previously filled by Michael Ignatieff, Robert Fulford, and Alberto Manguel.
A profound encounter with the Mexican painter Leonora Carrington in 1995 planted the early seeds for the book that she would publish in 2006 called Villa Air-Bel: World War II, Escape, and A House in Marseille. The book is an experiment in biographical history and offers multiple portraits of refugee artists trapped in Vichy France during World War II. Four years of intense research involved trips to France, the U.S., and Mexico. In the fall of 2005, Rosemary and Juan spent three months at the Camargo Foundation in Cassis, France, where she completed her book and he worked on his first film, The Road Out, a 15-minute documentary about the residents of Villa Air-Bel.
Villa Air-Bel came out simultaneously in Canada, the U.S., and England and has been published in Spain, the Czech Republic, Brazil, Italy and The Netherlands. Rosemary traveled across Canada and into the US, attending international book festivals and giving readings in Ottawa, Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, Seattle, Toronto, Miami and New York, and speaking at venues like the Banff Centre for the Arts, the Miami Book Fair and the 92nd Street Y. In June 2007, Villa Air-Bel was awarded The Canadian Society for Yad Vashem Award in Holocaust History by the Helen and Stan Vine Annual Canadian Jewish Book Awards.
In 2008, she published the Guthrie Road, using letters, photographs, and shared family stories to delve deeply into her Irish family roots. In 2012, she collaborated with her husband Juan Opitz to produce a children’s book with beautiful illustrations by her sister Colleen Sullivan. Molito began life as a political allegory invented by Juan in 1975 when he traveled through Chile using puppets to tell the story of the cruel dictatorship in his country. The Chilean Canadian Musician Nano Valverde composed music to accompany the story narrated by Rosemary. A CD, produced, recorded and mastered by Juan Opitz, The Headroom Productions, Canada, is included in the sleeve of the book.
2012 was an unusual year. Rosemary became an officer of the Order of Canada, and she and Juan were married. After thirty-one years of living together, they were ready. When he proposed, how could she not say yes?
Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva came out in 2015. Research for the book involved travel to Russia and Georgia, where Rosemary was able to interview Stalin’s grandson, Svetlana’s cousins, her work colleagues and friends; to visit the schools she attended and the places she lived; and to scour Russian archives where, among other documents, she read the poignant correspondence between the child Svetlana and her father. She visited Svetlana’s close friends in England, including Lady Jane Renfrew, Lady Vanessa Thomas, and the Dowager Lady Pamela Egremont. In the US she spent a weekend at the home of Robert Rayle, the CIA officer who accompanied Svetlana out of India during her dramatic defection in 1967. She visited the Frank Lloyd Wright Fellowship at Taliesin where Svetlana married Wesley Peters, and numerous other cities to interview people who had been close to her subject. She came to know Svetlana’s daughter Chrese Evans whose permission to quote from her mother’s letters and unpublished work meant that Svetlana’s voice is threaded through the book. Called a page-turner by critics, Stalin’s Daughter has garnered numerous awards and has sold in twenty-two countries.
Biography is a fascinating genre. It is as if the biographer were a kind of metaphysical detectives asking: What is this life? How was it lived? What did it mean? One has to be in love with the puzzle of archival research—following the clues until they add up to the mystery of a life. And what one discovers is that life is often more bizarre, more inventive, more daunting than fiction: no fiction writer could get away with the stories biographers tell because they would be dismissed as implausible. So it is more than likely that Rosemary will set out on another biographical adventure in the near future.