The cover's a shock. A ghostly Michael Kirby hovers behind the Law, Love & Life title. I'd have him in the dazzling yellow jacket he wore in a high-jinks thespian moment at the 2007 Victorian Arts Law week. ''It's a little number we are going to put in the High Court. They'll all be wearing it next week!'' he told a cheering audience, adding that he was preparing for it when he left the law and became ''the Jerry Springer of Australia''.
He already seems that from his biography: creating havoc with pussyfooting establishment members of the judiciary, who are shocked by his judgments, jealous of his successes and popularity with the masses; shaking the High Court to its bootstraps with his enthusiasm for human rights, AIDS prevention and other touchy matters; labelled the ''activist judge'' and, according to his biographer, the best-known judge in Australia.
Who else would speak authoritatively about the use of breast milk substitutes in Zimbabwe? And why would he, a gay man, have credentials to speak on such an issue, they asked querulously about Kirby.
Dellora makes it plain that while his 2008 documentary film Michael Kirby: Don't Forget the Justice Bit led to this book, it is not the book of the film. Neither is it like other books on Kirby. The gods were smiling when the filmmaker came across a truckload of letters left by Kirby's father Dan, who kept every screed from his son, and Dellora experienced what he calls ''the elevated blood of the biographer''. He knew then he could produce something original, though still referring to his doco, in which Johan van Vloten appeared in public for the first time as Kirby's partner.
Except for the toe-curling description of his lover's ''pale complexion and the most beautiful blue eyes'', Kirby's homosexuality is dealt with in a straightforward manner. At Fort Street Boys' High School in 1956, when he twigged he was gay, the 16-year-old concentrated on work.
At Sydney University homosexuality didn't rate a mention. His pal Clive James thought it was ''some kind of rare disease,'' and the campus culture was homophobic. Student politics and pro bono legal cases engulfed Kirby and not until he left, aged 29, did he tackle his sexuality. First he had a six-month affair with a Spaniard, Demofilo Solera (''deep brown eyes, long, long eyelashes''), then he met Johan van Vloten and 42 years later they are still together.
That done, Dellora takes on Kirby's controversial career with gusto. The filmmaker's vision takes over and with scenes of life behind the bench and rollicking stories of the day's politics, interwoven with chatty quotes from Kirby et al, the mix reads like a gossipy interlude over the garden fence.
From solicitor to barrister assisting Neville Wran and Lionel Murphy, then president of the NSW Court of Appeal, then the High Court, and a mountain of legal jobs in between, his rise was meteoric. To his chagrin he didn't make it to chief justice (except as acting), but he starred in Who Weekly's list of 25 most beautiful Australians, 2002.
The book bristles with judicial triumph: in the 1987 appeal of English spy Peter Wright against Margaret Thatcher's injunction to publish his inflammatory book Spycatcher, he gave the tick to barrister Malcolm Turnbull. And failure: Andrew Mark Mallard found guilty of murder in 1994, then two appeals and eight more years in prison later his conviction is quashed ''That is a judge's nightmare - did I miss the point this was an innocent person?'' Kirby agonises.
What an exhaustive life he led, travelling the world's hot spots, delivering provocative speeches, explaining how complex law works. But reading Dellora's biog I was struck not so much by Kirby's brilliance and obsessive work ethic, as his ability to withstand the calamities flung by those out to get him. Senator Bill Heffernan's accusation in parliament of ''illegally using Comcar … trawling for rough trade'', was proved false. ''I fear I will always be remembered by this and not by the good work I have done,'' Kirby says philosophically.
''He could never take criticism,'' says his mother and on the receiving end of a judicial barb (''that sodomite Kirby'') he admits he was hurt but wryly recalls his father's warning that ''innuendo can destroy a life and bring down the tallest poppy''.
So much for that prophesy. Now 73 and retired, he says he is ''plain old Mr Kirby''. But to most he is still Justice Kirby aka Jerry Springer.