Strictly personal columns
There used to be an old Chief of Staff in Melbourne who had a contempt for all stories that were gathered on the telephone. His favourite saying was: ‘I only like reporters that have mud on their boots.” Column writing is no different. It is difficult to write a daily column by warming an office seat. Indeed in the interests of journalism we could even create a ‘Newton’ law of non-motion: 'The greater the seat-warming the greater the brilliance of mind and imagination necessary to maintain a column.’ No doubt the very clever and the very creative can fill a space every day without seeing anyone, but not lesser mortals.
So the keen columnist should always try to be where things are happening, whether it be a Davis Cup Challenge Round, a flood or a crash on the Stock Exchange. But most important of all, he should see people, lots of them. He should watch names on hotel lists, he should keep in touch with the airlines, the shipping companies, the theatres.
It is far from easy. Some people adore to be interviewed. Others hate it and have a strange terror of seeing their name in the newspapers. The worst type of all is the grand theatrical, who has been interviewed 20,000 times and has become arrogant with the years. Usually they have been married a little too often, they have too many soft spots, and they have a natural aversion to the whole interview process. I remember interviewing Frank Sinatra back stage at the Paramount Theatre on Broadway, New York. The year was 1951 and Frankie had passed ‘the swoon’ era. No longer did the teenagers pass out in the aisles and Frankie was trying to kick off on a new career. He was patient, charming and even prepared to talk to a reporter who had come from 10,000 miles out of town, if it meant publicity somewhere. Ten years later, at the peak of his success, he was a very different fellow, a man who could be abusive and threatening. There were several newspapermen in Sydney who were lucky to escape his fists.
Actually theatrical people could be disappointing. We would bank too much on the idea that because they were splendid on screen or stage, they could also provide fascinating thoughts for the newspapers. Robert Mitchum was laconic, morose. It was almost impossible to get through to him. Ava Gardner said little that was worth recording, but she was somewhat spectacular in other ways. When in Melbourne for On the Beach she travelled everywhere in a two-tone fawn Bentley, scarf over her head and usually dark glasses. When she did the bathing scene at Canadian Bay she had her caravan parked by the yacht club; less than 100 yards from the jetty. When the production team needed her on the set they put a call over the loudspeaker. There was a large American car by the caravan, but Miss Gardner did not want that. She called for her own two-tone Bentley. The Bentley rolled in, Miss Gardner stepped into the back, and drove the 100 yards to the jetty.
Some, on the other hand, liked to talk, and were very good at it. One of these was Walter Chiari, the smooth Italian comedian, a genuine screen idol in his homeland. He was everything an Italian should be — warm, ebullient, friendly. He came to Australia to play, Nino Culotta, the Italian migrant in the film version of They're a Weird Mob. He had an instinctive understanding of what would make a good line in a newspaper interview. He said that wherever he went in Australia he would be mobbed by Italians. He had just been to lunch at an Italian restaurant in Kings Cross, Sydney. All the time he was eating his spaghetti Italians came up wanting to shake his hand, or to get his autograph.
‘You know the trouble with this country?’ he said.
‘No.' ‘It’s too full of bloody Eyeties.’ -
Charlton Heston was another good man for an interview. He could talk expressively of all his experiences in heroic Biblical dramas, of the eating of Christians, and most particularly and most enthusiastically of chariot races. He came to Melbourne for the premiere of Ben Hur.
However, while talking to Mr Heston, a Sun photographer, Graham Walsh, conducted a much better interview with his five-year-old son, Fraser.
Fraser: Do you know why my Daddy’s going to let me see the chariot race? Because I was there when he made it. He had that race over and over again and he won every single time.
Walsh: Your father must be the best chariot racer in the world.
Fraser: Yair. ... Yair, I guess he must be.
Comedians make good interviews, but not for light entertainment. Usually they are lugubrious people. I remember expecting great things of Irene Handl, Irene of the Rag Trade, Irene of Hancock’s ‘Half Hour, Irene of so many Peter Sellers’ films. She turned out to be an earnest little body in a tweed suit who could talk very well indeed, but no humour, except for one thing. She had just broken her wrist and across the plaster cast she had written ‘Not to be opened until Christmas’.
Nor was Margaret Rutherford the hilarious. character one expected. It was satisfying to note that her magnificent, all-defying chin was just as magnificent in the flesh, but she turned out to be a gentle, charming person, not ‘a character’. She impressed Melburnians because every morning, along with her husband, Stringer Davis, she would go for a swim at the Middle Brighton baths. They would travel from their hotel to the baths by taxi, then they would ask the taxi driver to come for a swim too. Not only was this a kindly, friendly thing to do, but it was an ingenious method of hanging on to a taxi.
Only two people who came here could be spontaneously and brilliantly funny, Peter Ustinov and Danny Kaye. Ustinov was the wittiest, most amusing man I have known. Furthermore he would sit down and talk to anyone. When he arrived he said: ‘You see, I'm a horrible mixture with a Russian grandfather, a German father who became English, an Argentine uncle, two American children and an Egyptian aunt. I've learned to sleep standing up through all sorts of national anthems.’
He came to Australia to play the role of an English remittance man in the film version of Jon Cleary’s book The Sundowners. He was the one person who was completely happy on location at Cooma, New South Wales. He spoke German to the German cook, French to his French driver and Yugoslav to the Yugoslavians. Yet all the rugged, dashing out-of-doors activities he found difficult. Robert Mitchum, a veteran cowhand was a good rider, but Ustinov, alas, was lamentable. He looked miserable on a horse. He said, ‘It’s like ballet dancing something that one should learn when terribly young. I have only ridden once. I was playing General Grant, so naturally I assumed his character. I kept saying General-like things such as “Charge” and “Pass me a high-ball”. This impressed the horse and we got on rather well.’
As if riding a horse wasn’t difficult enough, the script demanded that he should crack a stockwhip. Mr Ustinov’s co-ordination was not all that it might be. He practised for hours with this stockwhip, but he could not get it right. ‘It is not all that difficult,’ I said.
‘My dear fellow,” he replied, ‘yow’ll have to be patient. You would be surprised how little opportunity one gets to crack a stockwhip in a flat in London.’
He wore a dreadful scraggy beard, riding breeches, a button-up jacket and a nautical cap which made him look like an old-time whaler. Fred Zimmerman, the director, accused him of looking far too Russian. The next time we saw Mr Ustinov, he was wearing his cap back to front with CCCP on the hat band.
Ustinov told us that the most difficult scene of all took place in a pub. He had to walk into this pub, fell the drunken Mitchum with one punch and carry him out over his shoulder. Ustinov, ironically, the only man in the cast brilliant at an Australian accent, never had to use it. He said: ‘As I carried him out people in the bar had to say technical Australian things, like “Leave ’im alone I orta job yal” and “Who asked you to shove ya bearded mug in?”’
Then as if carrying sixteen stone of Mitchum was not sufficient, Ustinov explained that the script called for Mitchum’s dog to bite him on the ankle and hang on to him for the next fifty yards.
‘I didn’t mind that really,' he said, ‘but don’t you see, the dog was trained over and over to do this. He’s a nice dog, but this will happen again. Somewhere else in Australia he will see me in shorts and say — Ahhh, I recognize that calf — and naturally, we’ll have a repeat scene.’
Actually the dog never again had the opportunity of another attack on the Ustinovian calf, but I wondered whether it found any other calves that were similarly juicy, plump and round.
Danny Kaye’s visit was quite a different affair. There are just two or three entertainers who have arrived like visiting royalty. Danny Kaye was one, Joan Sutherland was another and Marlene Dietrich was another. For people of such stature publicity is not really necessary. There was just the one session of press, radio and TV interviews for Danny Kaye on arrival and that was the finish.
Nobody could get to see him. We were told that he was being paid £2,500 a performance. He took three adjoining suites in his hotel and in one room set up a table tennis table. He was not seen about the town a great deal, but he had his special loves. He spoke to the Jewish communities both in Sydney and Melbourne. What is more he spoke to them in both English and Yiddish. In Sydney he opened by telling them in Yiddish that in his opinion more people had died through eating apple strudel than died in the whole of the last war.
Danny Kaye’s best performance, perhaps his best performance ever, was on a Thursday afternoon matinee at the Princess Theatre. I received a telephone call at about 4 p.m. from Bill Gordon, who was handling the publicity. He said. ‘You've got to run up here quickly. This is tremendous. Danny Kaye is laying it on for the Bolshoi Ballet.’ The Bolshoi Ballet also was performing in Melbourne and this Thursday afternoon was the only occasion when it was possible for the cast to see the great Danny Kaye.
It was an odd scene. The Russians sat back stage in the wings. One little group on one side, one little group on the other. They sat forward in their seats, their faces full of wonder, desperately trying to understand. There were interpreters who chattered away endlessly, but one has to feel for an interpreter who is trying to put pure Kayesian dialogue into Russian. They were as busy as tow truck operators. ‘For example Danny Kaye told that lovely story how the Vienna Boys’ Choir came into his dressing room in Sydney. He asked them to sing and he gave his interpretation of how they sang Waltzing Matilda.
"Valtzing Matilda, Valtzing Matilda . ." The very cute little blonde ballerina, Larissa Trembovelskaya wanted to laugh, but it was obvious, she didn’t understand at all. They’ll leave soon, I thought. Maybe Danny thought that too, for he started to change his style.
He did an incredible ballet routine, jumping a full three inches into the air and clicking his heels. Larissa began to giggle. He shouted to the interpreter: “Tell them I am going to sing “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” as the Soviet Army Band sang it when they came to England.’
A stage-hand whispered, “This is new. He’s never done that before.’
He sang it and it was a wow. Now the applause was coming from back-stage, Russian applause.
“Tell them I'll sing the names of fifty-six Russian composers in thirty-eight seconds.’
And it went on. The Russian interpreter turned to me and said: “There is one word . . . SENSASSHHHIONAL'.
Just then one of the ballerinas leaned forward and handed him a little posy of flowers. Danny did another dance. He went to the microphone, put on his silly grin and said, ‘Look — I got flowers’.
After that he brought them all on stage, put his arms around Susanna Zvyagina and she said to him, ‘When you come to Moscow?’
Danny became serious for a moment and he said to the audience, ‘Don’t you see? All over the world music, theatre, culture, amusement, it’s all the same. I don’t think they have understood a word I have said. I don’t understand their Russian. But we are all one here. This sort of thing can make the world a better place.’
As the curtain came down he signalled to them all to come to his dressing room. What was I to do? This was a good story, but he had declared that under no circumstances would he talk to any newspaper people. I hopped into the middle of the Bolshoi group, and trying to look terribly Russian went with them straight into the dressing room.
Danny looked very happy. Through the interpreter he said, “You know, I used to speak Russian once. I was the only member of our family that was born in America. All the rest of us were born in Russia. Where were you born? And you? And you?’ Mercifully he didn’t ask me. I would have had to have said ‘Melborn’.
He continued, ‘My mother died when 1 was very young. Maybe it was some psychological reaction but I lost all my Russian. But I think if only I could listen to Russian for a time I could pick it up.
‘Funny thing. The Russian Ballet came to San Francisco one time. I was in one of the passages out the back and a man came up to me, “Are you with the ballet?” I said “Da”. “Why aren’t you dancing, then?”’ Danny screwed up his face. ‘“The leg. It hurt. Almost twist right off.” Then this man started to speak Russian.
'What could I do? I said: “Pliss, I in America. I try to talk Amier-KAHNNN.”' 'Away he went in American. I said: “Pliss too fast. Too fast.” Then he started to talk very slowly like an Indian. “Look ...I...doctor.”
“Ah, yes, I understand. You EYE doctor.” “No, no, no, I . .. doctor.” , “Yes...you...fix...ze...eyes.”
Danny said the bells began to ring, the doctor went off and he never saw him again. You can imagine how that story went down with the Russians. They had their movie cameras out, all taking pictures of him. It was obvious that he wanted to see them again. Alas, all their shows coincided with his shows.
‘I've got an idea,” he said. ‘Do you like stereophonic sound records? Come back to the hotel after your show tonight. I'll give you Oistrakh on the violin. I'll give you sandwiches, food .. .er ... I wouldn’t recommend the local caviar. Do you like vodka?’ — No.
‘“Wine, vino?’— No.
Leonid Zhdanov said: ‘After dancing, we hungry. We ... we ...need FOOD ...real FOOD.’
Danny was ready. ‘We’ll have steaks, filet mignons. I'll have them served in a special room. Then we’ll go upstairs to my suite and we'll all play records.’
From all reports it was a wonderful party.
The other memory of Danny Kaye was his fascination for hats. Before he departed he gave Sir Dallas Brooks a ten-gallon hat brought out especially from Dallas, Texas. Then all the time he was here Danny Kaye wore floppy, tweed hats, rather in the Henry Higgins style. The Prime Minister, Mr Menzies admired them when he had Danny to lunch at Admiralty House, Sydney. After he had gone back to the U.S. a parcel arrived in Canberra for the Prime Minister. Inside were two floppy hats in different sizes. Danny wasn’t sure of the size of the Prime Ministerial head.
However we. have yet to see Sir Robert walking around looking like Danny Kaye or Henry Higgins.
The most amiable, the most easy to please of all the visiting stars was Sophie Tucker. Never was there a lady so careful of her public relations. After she departed, there was a careful ‘thank-you’ for all the newspaper people and for whom almost every person she came in contact. She came here in June 1962 and ever since until she died in 1966 there has been the annual Sophie Tucker Christmas Card. I was not unique in this. Many others received them.
She took four inter-connecting suites at Menzies — four double bedrooms, four bathrooms and two sitting rooms. She sent word that always she liked to have her main meal of the day served in the rooms at midnight. After that she liked to continue on, playing cards, writing letters, yarning, and so to bed, usually about 5 am.
Long before she came to Melbourne we heard stories — that her clothes and jewels were insured for £200,000, that she personally was insured at the rate of £1000 a pound (we won’t go into the figure) and that the time Sophie really came alive was some time around 3 am or 4 am.
All the reports turned out to be true. After writing a paragraph that she always ate in the early hours after her show I was invited to 'Tucker at Midnight’. The Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress, Cr and Mrs Nathan were among the twelve guests.
We entered the suite at 11.30 p.m., the same suite that had been used by General MacArthur and Danny Kaye. It was turned up to real Red Hot Momma temperature, about eighty-five degrees. Miss Tucker had changed from her superb on-stage dress. This was shell pink, beaded in crystal and worth £2,200. Now she was wearing a very simple, loose Paisley silk dress.
And the tucker! There was Lobster Newburg, Chicken a la King, strawberries, chocolates, cheeses, fruit and a drooly iced strawberry. cake. One of the guests said Sophie had been down in the Menzies’ kitchen that afternoon and she decorated the cake herself. The icing spelt out: SOPHIE TUCKER WISHES YOU ALL THE BEST.
It was THE MEAL of the day and she had two helpings of lobster, one of chicken, a sugared strawberry or two and some of that cake. The ladies were anxious to see the jewels and until we are invited to Buckingham Palace I don’t think we will ever see the like. There was a thick rope of hundreds of black and white pearls. There was a pearl ring with a black pearl as big as a shilling, ropes of green jade, brooches of turquoise intertwined with diamonds and gold.
‘How do you tell real pearls?’ asked Sophie, and at the same time gave her answer: ‘You don’t have to bite ’em. You can tell they’re real if they’re icy cold on your neck.’
In that famous gravel voice she talked. She talked of the millions she had raised for good causes and we heard about one Melburnian knight who came to her for help regarding a local good cause. He met his match. He got his help all right, but before he left he had bought a handy-sized copse in the Sophie Tucker forest in Israel.
She had a large scrap book devoted to her Australian tour, and it contained all the newspaper clippings, telegrams, and letters — all except begging letters. Both Danny Kaye and Sophie Tucker suffered from hundreds of pleading, begging letters. The best of them came from an ex-dancer in New South Wales. She asked for a ticket for the show. She asked for her air fare. Then she said that she would adore to have some Sophie Tucker records, for old times’ sake. But then she didn’t have a machine. So could she also have a radiogram for the records?
Her favourite international begging letter came from an ex-G.I. who said he had embezzled 3,000 dollars from his employer and would she please send him a cheque to stop him from going to gaol?
She answered every letter in longhand and she averaged between thirty and eighty a day. When we left at 2 am the cuttings were waiting to go into the scrapbook, there was a pile of thank-you letters waiting to go out to at least thirty people, and Juanita Harper, her coloured personal maid, was asleep sitting up in her chair.
It was Johnnie Ray who really started the tradition of the hysterical airport arrival. The P.R. firm always organized a small beach-head battalion to greet him and to get things moving. Then Johnnie would have his special airport arrival suit, which was only slightly stitched here and there. He always expected to lose at least one sleeve. So the idea grew. Any czar of popdom who arrived at an airport and wasn’t greeted by at least 1,000 fans, just didn'’t rate.
Yet I have often wondered whether there was ever an airport arrival to compare with the arrival of the Beatles at Essendon,' Melbourne, on 14 June 1964. There were many reasons why Melbourne went so utterly wild. For one thing they arrived on a Sunday and a Queen’s Birthday week-end at that. There is so little to do in Melbourne on a Sunday that if anyone stood on his head in Collins Street he would draw a crowd of 5,000. For another it was all so superbly promoted.
A month beforehand the radio station 3UZ, carefully began to promote Beatlemania. It started all sorts of Beatle competitions. It gave away 400 reserved seats at Beatle concerts. It gave away 100 pairs of Beatle stockings and 100 Beatle wigs. Sunday 14 June was always described as 'B'- Day, and announcers were instructed to give out the slogan: 3UZ, Beatle Headquarters.' Then the grand training for field operations on ‘B’- Day was unbelievably thorough. The staff began rehearsals a fortnight beforehand until everything was tested and perfect.
On the twenty-four hours of ‘B’- Day itself, 3UZ, 'The Station with the Nicest Listeners’, played 114 Beatle discs. To cover the arrival they had twelve announcers placed along the route; they had five mobile cars for broadcasting, plus a Cessna aircraft, also broadcasting, to give the overall picture. Altogether 3UZ had forty outside technicians and announcers on the job.
Nobody knows how many people turned out to see the Beatles that day. One police estimate was 300,000, but, if there were that many, 200,000 had transistor radios. As radio followed their movements, so the excitement built.
The climax came at the Southern Cross Hotel. Here there really was a packed crowd of 15,000, and nothing quite like this has ever happened in radio before. Don Lunn, of 3UZ, had an outside broadcast position at Ireland’s florist shop, right opposite the Southern Cross. Now, remember he was broadcasting and everyone had transistors. He called out: ‘Can you hear me out there?' Back came the roar: ‘YEAH, WE CAN HEAR YOU.” This was a radio announcer’s dream. He was getting an actual response from his outside audience.
So a conversation went on between the announcer and his huge outside audience. ‘Let’s all sing “WE LOVE THE BEATLES”. And so it went on. ‘We love John, We Love George, We Love Ringo, We Love Paul.’ Then there was the announcement that they were less than half a mile away. They were in Bourke Street. They were just around the corner. The excitement was too much to stand. Hysteria took over.
The Sun News-Pictorial reported that 350 were treated for fainting, hysteria and minor injuries in the foyer of the Southern Cross. The mounted police came through, picking up swooning girls here and there, laying their limp bodies across the saddle. All this was on live television, and maybe it was the best show Melbourne had ever seen.
It all looked much more frightening than it actually was. There were no serious casualties, except that one lady burst a blood vessel in her neck from screaming too loud. Most of them were treated by Dr Ivan Markovics, a Sydney gynaecologist who was staying in the hotel. He said he treated only one girl who was genuinely ill. She was suffering from exhaustion and lack of food from sitting up all night. At least twenty-five per cent of the others thought fainting was a magnificent way of getting into the hotel to see the Beatles.
The Press conference, some twenty minutes later, was an embarrassing experience for newspaper men and women. For one thing we did not know it was all being televised. For another the Beatles had a deft habit of never quite answering a question, and the questions soon died. They were asked, for example, were they worried by the appalling scenes which had just taken place in front of the hotel. ‘No,’ said John Lennon, ‘I'm only worried they might stop.” Or, ‘How do you think Australian rock groups would go in England?’ Paul McCartney: ‘By plane or boat, I suppose.'
They were amongst the most difficult people I ever had to report. For example there was the Civic Reception at the Town Hall. There were some minor incidents such as three potted palms being pushed over and the occasion when one female pushed the Lady Mayoress to one side so that she could throw her arms around Ringo.
The Lord Mayor said that the night before Paul McCartney attended a party and for some considerable time he impressed upon one young lady that he couldn’t stand civic receptions. It just so happened, said the Lord Mayor, that the young lady was his daughter. So as an act of penance he would ask the Beatles to make a speech each. John said it wasn’t his turn, so he asked Paul to take over. Paul said it was a wonderful reception and dried up. George mumbled four or five words of thanks and Ringo’s speech in its entirety was: ‘I wish you had the reception a bit later instead of getting me out of bed this early.’
As a performance it was unimpressive. The one occasion when the Liverpool sound turned into a superb silence was when the Beatles were called upon to make a speech.
As for the local characters, they are never quite so-exciting. Australia has never been good at producing the magnificent extrovert. Of all the politicians I met the best of these was Sir Arthur Fadden. Newspapermen were particularly fond of Sir Arthur, because on his retirement he said that in all his long experience he could not remember the occasion when he had been misquoted. This, surely, was pushing things just a little, but at least it was a happy change from the other variety, from the fellow who sees what he has written in hard, clear, print, takes fright, and then shouts that he has been misreported.
Sir Arthur, of course, was a columnist’s dream, one of the best raconteurs in the country. He was the greatest of the Billy Hughes’ mimics; he sounded more like Billy Hughes than Billy Hughes ever did. And as the Italian migrant he should have been on television.
I went to see him in Canberra in 1958, the day before he delivered his last Budget. He was in a mellow mood and he got to reminiscing.
Over the years, he said, the campaigning had been the best fun. One time at a meat works he was hit by a great lump of liver. At Griffith, New South Wales, he was hit by an egg, and he wore the stain on his suit for the rest of the campaign as a wound stripe. Untold numbers of tomatoes, few of them green, had been thrown - none of them, fortunately in a bottle.
Sir Arthur looked out the window and suddenly became Billy Hughes. I remember Billy telling me once that a young member of the audience heatedly interjected, 'I'd sooner vote for the devil than you, Hughes.'
‘Billy replied, “Well, brother, as your friend is not a candidate, you can appease your conscience by giving your number two vote for me.”’
Sir Arthur said that his favourite Billy Hughes story was a true incident that took place one night at the Hotel Canberra. ‘We were sitting there together in his room when the porter came in and said, “Mr Hughes, there’s a man in the lounge and he says you both humped bags together in Queensland and he wants five shillings for food and bed." "Very well,” said Billy, “bring them up and I'll see whether they are worth it."
Before I went in to see Sir Arthur, one of his friends said: ‘For Heaven’s sake, don’t forget to ask him about the Innisfail goat.’
'Actually it wasn’t Innisfail,' said Sir Arthur, ‘but, you see, in this North Queensland town, the Shire Clerk and the local Irish priest, a very popular man, were good friends. They used to meet every Friday. The Shire Clerk was secretary of the local Masonic Lodge. The priest lived in one of those Queensland houses, up on stilts, and one day he called the Shire Clerk: “I am speaking to you in my official capacity,” he said. “There’s a goat dead underneath the presbytery, and it is not improving with age. From its mean, hungry appearance, I'd say it escaped from the Temple.”
'The Clerk replied, “As a member of the Church I understand it is your official duty to look after the burial of the dead. Why worry me?' 'The priest said, “Oh yes, I accept that, but it’s also my official duty to inform the next-of-kin.”'
At the farewell given by the Press Gallery he told no stories but he recited bush ballads from ‘Banjo’ Paterson for a full hour. Occasionally there was a pause as he groped for a phrase; but there wasn’t a word out of place. I asked him about this and he said that before the First World War when he performed with a negro minstrel troupe that included George Wallace he used to recite ‘Banjo’ Paterson.
‘Now when I am upset or worried, which is pretty often, I always turn to “Banjo”’ he said. ‘You've no idea how it helps.’
The so-called retirement for Sir Arthur Fadden really meant a very active business career. No doubt he still needs the help of Banjo Paterson.
Sadly though the politicians do not make as much copy as one would expect, the Sir Arthur Faddens are rare. The man who has to write a daily column looks for the types who are not made in the deadly same mould as everyone else, for men with an amusing, original flair. They are hard to find, but two of the greatest in Australia are John and Frank Livingston. These bachelor brothers, more than anyone I have met, have a skill for living, a natural gusto for life. Admittedly they own four properties in the Mount Gambier area and a million acres in North Queensland, but often that seems to mean little to their sense of fun.
The best story I had from the Livingstons came during the Cup Carnival of 1963. John Livingston was in the Mercy Hospital, Melbourne, recovering from a heart attack. Just a chance call to the hospital to see how he was revealed this tale.
The Livingstons always have claimed to have owned the fastest yachts, the safest hunters and the slowest race horses. This day their mare Jingle Bells was running in the Oaks. As the time for the big race drew near John Livingston could not stand it any longer. He hopped out of bed, put on his boots, and still in his pyjamas he took the lift downstairs and went out into the street. There he hailed a taxi and told the driver to take him to Flemington. He doesn’t remember how he got away with it because he did not have a ticket, but he told the driver to take him straight in to the parking area on the Flat in the centre of the course and he managed to park the car just near the winning post. It was a beautiful race, the type of race that even the most successful of owners see only on two or three occasions in a lifetime. Jingle Bells in this classic, swept home leading all the way down the straight to win by five lengths. That well-known heart attack John Livingston could not restrain himself. He jumped out of the taxi and waved on Jingle Bells, cheering her all the way in his pyjamas.
Immediately after the race he told the taxi driver to drive him back to the Mercy Hospital. He nicked in without being seen, hurried down the corridor, opened the door, but what to do now? — the Mother Superior was coming. Still with his boots on he jumped into bed and pulled up the sheets. Said the Mother Superior: ‘Oh, Mr Livingston, I do hope I haven't disturbed you. Were you having a sleep?’
‘No, Mother. I've just woken up.”
'That’s good,’ replied the Mother Superior, ‘I thought you would like to know that your horse has just won the Oaks.'
John Livingston put on a convincing display of delight, but next morning the whole story was in the Sun and he was in trouble. One of the nuns, who was well known for her cheeky sense of humour, took out a certificate that they use for certifying dangerous patients."
It-laid down fearful methods for control to ensure that the patient was'in no circumstances to leave the hospital. This nun managed to persuade the Mother Superior to sign it and John Livingston still has that certificate at home. Indeed he is so proud of it he has had it framed.
The Livingston brothers, of course, are best known as blue water yachtsmen. They have been sailing since 1925 and no-one seems to remember exactly how many times they have won line honours in the Sydney-Hobart yacht race. In April 1949 they left Melbourne in their fifty-six foot ketch Kurrewa to compete in the Los Angeles-Honolulu yacht race. At the time it seemed a strange thing for two men to do who could afford to ride in Rolls Royces rather than in a somewhat elderly ketch, and many of the newspaper men at the wharf wondered whether they would ever return. John Livingston handled the departure in somewhat majestic style, he strode up and down the deck playing his bagpipes.
The trip was to be made in the classic manner of the old sailing ships. They had to sail 1,500 miles due east from New Zealand, then head north all the way to the Aleutian Islands and then across to the U.S. Coming home, they said, was easy. The had the trade winds and it was down hill all the way. They competed in the big U.S. yacht race and came sixteenth, which was good going against the armada of large and expensive American yachts.
When they returned to Port Phillip on 13 November 1950, 150 yachts sailed out to meet them and six miles down the Bay they were greeted by the Lord Mayor, the chairman of the Harbour Trust and the Commodore of the Sandringham Yacht Club.
Yet perhaps the most remarkable thing the Livingstons have done was to present a twelve metre class yacht, worth at least £60,000 to Britain to compete against Sovereign for the right to challenge for the America’s Cup. At first many people could not understand. They thought Australia was trying to slip in through the back door to steal the right to challenge from Britain. They could not believe that anyone would be generous enough to hand over a yacht like that, and demand no part whatever in the control or sailing of it.
To understand this you need to know something of the background of the Livingstons. They are members of twenty-one clubs, including the Royal Yacht Squadron and the New York Yacht Club. The New York Yacht Club is exclusive with a membership of 1,000, the majority of whom are millionaires; the Royal Yacht Squadron is the most exclusive club in the world. It has only 300 members and half are members of the nobility. The Queen is its patron and Prince Philip its Admiral and Commodore. The club was founded in 1815 to put yachting on a sound basis and to provide crews for the Navy. In 1829 the club was granted permission to use the White Ensign, and is the only yacht club allowed to do so.
The Livingstons were such regular visitors to Cowes they were made honorary members of the club, but never once did they dare set foot inside. They used the lawns outside only. The club, says John Livingston, has no written rules. The only rule is that the rules will never be changed, and seeing that no non-Englishman has ever been made a member they couldn’t be made members either. To their profound astonishment three years ago they were invited to become members. This gave them remarkable privileges. It put them on a diplomatic footing. They could sail into any port in the world and pay no port dues. They could sail into any Naval dockyard in the world, including Russia, and have repairs charged to the club.
All this was one reason why they wanted to take an interest in yachting. However with the new Kurrewa they had to be careful to show ‘the right form’. They did not present her to the Royal Yacht Squadron. They presented her to the opposition, the Royal Thames Yacht Club. It must never be construed that they were making this gesture as part of a pact for membership in the Royal Yacht Squadron. Also the new boat was almost identical to Sovereign. It would be bad form to suggest that these Australians were trying to teach the English their own sport of yachting. Kurrewa V was taken over by Owen Aisher, one of Britain’s best-known yachtsmen, but he was not successful in his bid to out-race Sovereign.
The brothers are quite inseparable and this no doubt is the reason they have never married. John is the joker of the two and the brother with the more off-beat interests. For example, he collects water wheels. He loves the picturesque quality of an old-style water wheel in action, so he has devoted much money and energy to restoring them in the country. He has bought one at Marysville, one at Porepunkah near Bright, another up on the Kiewa and another at Nariel near Omeo. He plans to get this one working and have it floodlit by night.
John has another great interest - his bagpipes. He never moves anywhere without them. One doctor has told him that the pipes are good for his breathing, so he believes this utterly, and plays every morning. However he has discovered that a small piece of paper placed in the reeds will reduce the mighty noise almost to nothing. This Livingston invention is a great contribution to humanity.
Frank, perhaps, would be the greater adventurer of the two. Anyway he seems to have the greater gift for getting into trouble. In 1945 he was badly burned after being encircled by a bushfire and he spent two months in hospital. He has been injured at sea and he has spent time in hospital after being injured whilst hunting.
Some twenty years ago he discovered an underground lake on the family property, Benara, just seven miles out of Mount Gambier. On the surface all one could see was this black hole, so Frank decided to go down and see what it was like inside. They rigged up a windlass and began lowering him in. It was a new rope but it had been near a car battery and acid had weakened the fibre. The rope had barely taken his weight when it snapped and he fell eighty feet straight down into the water. He was very lucky to come out of it alive and he spent the next two months in hospital.
Frank has now sunk a shaft by the lake and one can descend in comfort. Down below it is eerie. The ceiling of the cave is sixty to seventy feet high and just a tiny shaft of sunlight filters through the hole above to give it all the atmosphere of a cathedral. The lake would be 100 feet or more across and Frank Livingston keeps a dinghy there so that one can row around and explore with a spotlight the tunnels underwater that appear to go off into infinity.
Not many people have ever been down there, but some of them have been very distinguished: Sir Robert Menzies, Lord Casey and Sir Eugene Gorman QC. It is always intriguing when the Livingstons issue this astonishing invitation: ‘Would you like to go boating eighty feet under our homestead?’
John Livingston told me this story. He didn’t mention any names, but one did not need any divine intuition to guess. He said, ‘A man who plays a major hand in looking after Australia’s affairs was visiting Mount Gambier. When he arrived the pipers were out, giving him a good Scottish greeting. As you know, in this limestone area they say that all the caves underground are connected.
‘Our visitor was coming to see our underground lake so I hurried back first, and when he arrived at Benara I was already down below playing my bagpipes, and playing the same tune that the pipers had been playing in Mount Gambier. The tune could be heard coming up dimly through the hole in the ground. So Frank was able to say to the visitors: “There, you see, all the caves are connected. There’s the sound of the pipes coming all the way from Mount Gambier.”'
It would be easy to write a book about these people. They still own the property on the coast that was originally settled by their Scottish grandfather John Livingston in the early 1850s. This is Koondi, originally called Carratum. The paddocks are all named after various shipwrecks. The most famous wreck was the steamer Admella, which went on the rocks off Cape Banks in 1859.
John Livingston says that his grandmother dreamt that night there had been a wreck. The dream was so strong that she insisted that her husband investigate. He sent a blackfellow down to the coast, who reported there was no wreck. Soon after some sailors staggered ashore. The Admella went down with the loss of ninety-one lives.
John Livingston says his grandfather rode a horse to Mount Gambier to give the news to the telegraph. He rode it so hard that eventually it dropped dead between his knees. Adam Lindsay Gordon was working on the property at the time and the story is told in his poem From the Wreck.
There is one story about the Livingstons which has never been told in ‘A Place in the Sun’. Every year on Melbourne Cup night at Menzies Hotel they hold Melbourne’s best and most famous party. This has been going on for more than twenty years, but no newspaper people, no social editors are ever invited. Often the Governor or the Governor-General is there, but the Livingstons want no publicity whatever.
Menzies is transformed. One year they had the banquet room looking like a scene from Venice. Another year it was all Arabian with a great tent. They have had Scottish themes, they have had yachting themes with great models of Kurrewa V and recently they did the Melbourne Cup story with models of horses and their jockeys, almost life size. I have never been to one one of these parties, but I'm told that French champagne flows non-stop all night. But whether there will be any more remains to be seen. As this book was going to press Frank Livingston was tragically killed in a car accident.
I said earlier that the only two people to come here who could be spontaneously and brilliantly funny were Peter Ustinov and Danny Kaye. There is also our Barry Humphries, who can be as funny off the cuff, even funnier than either of them. I think Barry Humphries is the greatest entertainer that Australia has produced. He is more akin to Ustinov than Kaye. Often when he is being so very amiable he is really being merciless. As Geoffrey Hutton once wrote in the Melbourne Age ‘he is both wicked and funny, but as nice as a tiger-snake’.
I first met him in 1958. He had just recently departed from Melbourne University where he had put in the past year not doing a law course. He had created his famous character Mrs Norm Everage of Humoresque Street, Moonee Ponds. He was doing a little acting and he was putting on some quite superb art exhibitions. One exhibition was devoted entirely to ‘cakescapes’, ‘piescapes’ and ‘saucecapes’. He pioneered the vogue for Auto Destructive art by at least eight years when he pointed out that his Piescapes had this advantage over other forms of modern art: they couldn’t possibly last longer than a week. One quite vile picture was titled: ‘I was eating a pie when I coughed.'
Even then he had this extraordinary sang-froid, the effrontery which enabled him to do anything in public. At the exhibition opening he put his elbow in a bowl of tomato sauce to test it for correct temperature and then drank it, pouring some over himself. This, he said, was his tribute to our great national food. At his exhibtion of forkscapes, shoescapes and such, there was a splendid exhibit of twisted forks titled The Battle of the Plate. At the opening he said solemnly ‘We artists must not become inhibited. We must search for new mediums in which to express ourselves. No one has yet expressed himself in familiar every day things — forks, shoes, broken glass. I have used all these things. In fact I must caution viewers that some of my glasscapes are highly dangerous.’
Very few people understood him then, as many do not even now. He wore his hair down to his shoulders, which was most unusual in 1958. As Barry said, his long hair made Australians shifty-eyed and nervous and inclined to collide with the furniture and each other. TV comperes tended to introduce him as ‘that famous nut’.
He was an extremely difficult man to interview. Once in the public eye he had to act, so that often it was impossible to get a coherent answer and it seemed that the actual Barry Humphries did not exist. In an effort to overcome this a Sun journalist, Patrick Tennison, interviewed him for radio by hiding the microphone and until it was all over Humphries was unaware that the whole interview had been taped. He told some interesting things; for example, how he matriculated to Melbourne University with two Exhibitions. And he told the full story of the remarkable Ashburton Line incident. He took a seat in an early morning train, non-smoker first class. He had accomplices stationed at stops all along the line. At the first stop an accomplice opened the carriage door and silently passed in a grape fruit. At the next stop another passed in some corn flakes, at the next bacon and eggs, at the next toast and finally coffee. The effect on the other passengers, according to Humphries, was paralysing, a sensational experience. There was no pay-off, no reporters present. To have explained his actions would have spoilt everything. But he felt that his fellow passengers, after it was all over, were never quite the same again.
Then there was the incident during the bargain sales at David Jones in Sydney, the typical sale with clothes heaped on the counter. He went to a delicatessen in King’s Cross and bought a supply of sliced ham. Surreptitiously he placed slices of ham here and there amongst the clothes. ‘Now,’ said Humphries, ‘if they had found a moth ball that wouldn’t have been unexpected. If they had found a silverfish, even a tennis ball or a portable radio, they would have understood. But a slice of ham! Nobody would put slices of ham in amongst clothing even as a joke.'
The bargain-hunting ladies called a gentleman with a carnation in his button-hole. He went off with one of the offending slices between two fingers, deeply disturbed. Nor was he ever likely to be the same again. Humphries has a special gift for the practical joke. I always liked the other great train story. This time his accomplice stepped into the crowded peak hour compartment with dark glasses, white stick, and plaster cast on one leg. Courteous people offered him a seat. Then: as soon as he was comfortable he pulled out a pianola roll and began to read it.
At the next stop Humphries entered wearing a black cloak, black hat and with his long dank hair, looking as mean as all hell. He started to read a great volume of Mein Kampf. At the next stop Humphries lurched towards the door and fell over his friend's plaster cast. He turned round and giving the leg another kick he shouted : 'You blind, crippled Australian bastard!' That also was something of a traumatic experience for the passengers.
He is a little too well known now for these practical jokes, but he still has a gift for making the most of a situation. Recently he was walking down Fifth Avenue, New York, when there was a car smash. Two cars had collided, but it was not serious and nobody was hurt. Even so a large crowd gathered all around so that it was impossible even to see the smash. Barry Humphries ran up and began to dance around the perimeter shouting : 'They've caught a Communist. They've caught a Communist.'
In 1959 he went to London, where he played in Oliver. There were occasional letters, which said that just one thing would bring him back home, one of those old war-time signs that were still here and there in Melbourne : THIS IS A WAR SAVINGS STREET. Upon reporting this in the column there was an immediate flush of War Savings Street signs. Many streets proudly reported that they were still sporting their signs, sixteen years after the war's end Somerset Place, Windsor; Edinburgh Street, Hampton, and South Street, Ascot Vale. Later someone turned up two signs that were in mint condition and we sent these off by 'that wonderful Australian airline, Qantas'.
In London Mr Humphries nailed up one of the signs in Downing Street, right near number ten. Thereupon he made a little speech thought it an appropriate gesture to make Downing Street a sort of honorary member of my newly formed Society for the Preservation of War Savings Signs. We aim to preserve all existing signs, and re-erect those that have suffered from the corrosion of time and the apathy of peace. Our motto is "They meant something then — what do they mean now ?" Naturally the new suburbs present a problem. Many residents in Clayton, Highett, McKinnon and Nunawading may object that they can't get into the act. We are therefore preparing signs for them — "This MIGHT have been a War Savings Street." '
He also made some other requests by letter which were not so successful. He asked for a wartime Dedman suit and he also wrote this letter: ‘I am most anxious to trace a perfect example of a “Fat for Britain” tin. Those examples in the Society’s London Museum are somewhat dented and visitors have been repelled rather than overwhelmed with gratitude by the specimens on display. I understood that there was until recently a “Fat for Britain” depot somewhere in Pascoe Vale, run by an elderly lady who was under the impression that the war was still on.’
The Society he referred to was by now the enlarged Society for the Preservation of War Savings Street Signs and ‘Fat for Britain Tins’, but he was not sent a F.F.B. tin for presentation to Downing Street.
Only once did he present his characters Mrs Norm Everage and Sandy Stone to London audiences. He did this twice-nightly at the Establishment Club. Dressed as Mrs Norm, the middle-aged suburban tourist, hot off the plane with the Qantas bag around her neck she had such lines as ‘I know you've found some of us Australians a bit patronizing. But what I always say is: “Just because we have a higher standard of living and a better climate, that’s no reason to look down on the English. We should pity the poor dears.”
‘As for those who say the English don’t bathe enough - I always say it would be a funny old world if we all smelt the same, now wouldn’t it?’
Then Mrs Norm would shake hands warmly with a West Indian saying: ‘It’s so nice to meet a typical Londoner, isn't it?’
Next as an Australia House migration officer he would say to prospective migrants: ‘Don’t be put off by tales of funnel-web spiders and sharks — the Australian government maintains a blood transfusion unit with a plastic surgeon on duty at 100 yard intervals along every beach.
It was only middling successful; the highly localized Mrs Norm Everage did not transport that easily.
He returned to Australia in 1962 to put on his one-man show A Nice Night's Entertainment and he returned again in 1965. What was a hit in 1962 was a tremendous hit in 1965. I went out to meet him at the airport for the second arrival. Perhaps he would not care for the comparison, but just like Queen Elizabeth on her seccond visit, Barry Humphries was immensely more polished and confident. His suit was a better cut, his hair was a little longer and he knew exactly what to do for the cameras. For one photographer he ran up an aircraft ladder, threw out his chin, and posed as Joan Sutherland
He was wearing a large badge in his buttonhole which read 'I WILL DOMINATE YOU'. ‘So useful,’ he said, ‘to wear in countries where the white races are in a minority.’ He promised also that he was having more badges made in the shape of a Returned Servicemen’s League rosette with the message KEEP VIETNAM YELLOW. ‘Ah yes, too many young fellows of my age are getting rifles put into their hands. I am arranging for a thousand or so of these. A good job, you know, reversible with the message in Vietnamese on the other side. I will apply to the Melbourne City Council for a button day in Collins Street. Then I will sell them on behalf of the Melbourne Grammar Building Fund ...the old school.'
Two days later I tracked him down for lunch and he was in a more restful mood. He said: ‘I had a lot of trouble finding a name - for the new show. Would I call it the Oldaker-Sutherland Co., the Teen-Age Gladys Moncrieff? No, finally I settled for Excuse I — Another Nice Night's Entertainment.' He explained how part of the show was some execrably bad home movies of Mrs Everage in London. It was even rather difficult to find a professional photographer who could do them badly enough.
'I went all around London as Mrs Everage making this film,’ he said. 'It’s a curious thing. Once I put on that dress I get the most extraordinary courage, I'll do anything. I particularly wanted to get our Sir Robert Menzies in the film, and, as you know, he was in London. I waited outside the Savoy, dressed as Mrs Everage, for two and a half hours. I nearly died with the cold. But I had my Australian flag and everybody at the Savoy was very impressed with this devotion. “You must be very loyal,” they said. The doorman gave me a place to stand out of the wind. His chauffeur said, “It’s all right, he’s coming now.” Then he arrived. I ran out shouting, “I'm one of your electors. You're doing a fine job, Sir Robert.” He was very touched by this. He smiled, waved and kept on waving all the way off in his car. But, do you know the fellow who was doing the photography laughed so much that very little of the film came out.’
He said one of his objects was to make a full scale assault on public prejudices. His best gag ever was in 1962. He built up this gag very carefully with painstaking care. He discussed a particular couple. He described the house where they lived; up high, wonderful view all around. If the show was in Sydney, he had this house right alongside the Catholic Bishop’s palace. Then he would say after a long pause: ‘Ahhh THEY get all the best spots don’t THEY?' And Barry said: ‘You would notice immediately the prejudice flow- ing out, the feeling of relief like a boil being lanced. Then the prejudice would close up once more. I don’t think I will ever get a gag as good as that again.’
The worst experience was trying to control a television programme with him. It was like trying to manage a runaway railway train after - the engine driver had been shot by Indians. I had him on a Meet the Press after a very good lunch, followed by a very good dinner. He took over, utterly. He said his ambition was to do a musical about the Australian comedian ‘Mo’ Roy Rene. He would have the scene where Sir Benjamin Fuller gave ‘Mo’ the sack. Mo returned ‘with his family several days later and asked for complimentary tickets for the show. Sir Benjamin sent out a message to say complimentaries were not available. Mo said to the attendant: “Tell Thir Benjamin I have a methage for him . . . just two words.’ 'What message?’ ‘He’ll know. He'll know.’
That was the beginning of the trouble. I asked him if he could tell just by their appearance the difference between Melbourne public school boys. ‘Oh yes,’” he said. ‘Geelong Grammar boys have fair hair and albino eyes ...and terrible sexual problems. Melbourne Grammar boys have that nondescript look. Wesley mostly are Jewish and Chinese. Xavier are all black-haired and red-cheeked with pimples. They all masturbate themselves' We must have gasped because immediately he added on camera, ‘Never mind, you won’t have to cut that out of the tape. Nobody will know what it means.’
He had an idea for the end of the programme. He would givea particularly oily oration to the Press, saying how marvellous we all were. Then I would walk up to him, and very slowly, very carefully, push a custard pie in his face. He would be left silent, magnificently a dignified, his face dripping. On the way to the studio he even prepared his own custard pie, according to the very best face-sticking, non-clothes ruining recipe. This was a paper plate filled with aerosol shaving cream. But at the last moment our director banned the whole idea.
However Barry still went on with his oily oration. I finished by picking up a bunch of gladioli and in equally oily tones said: “Thank you, Mrs Everage, may we present you with these gladdies to take home?’ He pulled one out of the bunch, held it up and said: ‘And how looonnng is your gladdie?’
Next day people were asking why there were so many strange gaps in the show. One had to explain that there were so many places where we had to cut the tape it was a wonder there was a show at all.
Barry Humpbhries is most exhausting to be with, loaded with nervous energy. He can be alternately cruel and kind, but nevertheless very good value. He is simply the most original man we have.
As for Australian women personalities, these are even harder to find than the men, but in twelve years of column writing two women stand out in my memory, two very different women who both made excellent column material — Tania Verstak (now Mrs Peter Young of Perth, Western Australia) and Dame Mabel Brookes.
Tania Verstak is the most remarkable, the most completely self-composed young lady I have met. Anyone who has ever sat on the judging panel of beauty competitions knows well that the problem of separating the girls is not so great, the real problem is to find one with sufficient talent and beauty to wear the crown. Newspaper columnists are regulars on these panels. It is a fact that this very worthwhile Miss Australia Quest, particularly in Victoria, has not attracted the talent it should. Even girls who have reached the State finals frequently have been a long, long way from the standard required for a Miss Australia. They were nice girls, but they did not have the needed combination of brains, poise, beauty, common sense and intelligence.
The lack of knowledge amongst Australian girls could be frightening. I don’t mean intellectual knowledge, just plain simple knowledge of what went on around them. Before the judging they would swot up statistics on the population of Australia and its main exports and after that they appeared to know nothing. Except that they were strong on the Top Forty. I remember one girl who thought Billy Hughes was an American evangelist. There was the girl who could not name the President of the United States or the Prime Minister of England, and there was the girl who thought that Sir Winston Churchill was a former Prime Minister of Australia. One girl thought that the Isle of Elba was just off the coast of England and one could search in vain for the location of places such as Newcastle, Mount Isa, Whyalla and the Ord River.
Tania Verstak, however, was very different. Not only was she a good Miss Australia, she was the best we have had. As for general knowledge, here she was supreme. She came to Australia at the age of ten and she had spent her childhood days in Tientsin, the daughter of White Russian parents. She could speak English, Russian, French, a rather rusty Chinese and she was concentrating on languages and psychology in her arts course at Sydney University.
The remarkable thing about Tania was this, she was not affected in any way by the bally-hoo of beauty competitions. After she won the Miss International competition at Long Beach, California, she was exactly the same as before. Noel Hawken put it well in the Melbourne Herald: ‘Tania Verstak, a crowned monarch of this garish world, has kept herself wholesomely fresh in it.’
The Miss International competition was extremely heady stuff. The official prospectus read: 'The greatest beauty pageant of all time with the richest non-commercial stakes...’ and 'The greatest international event of its kind in the modern history of the world’ Furthermore the organizers promised to give the girls ‘the ten most glorious days of their lives’.
Miss International, said this prospectus, was crowned with a crown ‘designed and created’ by Dr James J. Boutross of Los Angeles. It was made of solid gold and platinum and contained over 1000 oriental, cultured and black pearls. The doctor estimated its value at one million dollars.
I called Tania on the telephone when the competition was half over. She had just returned from the International Beauty Parade along Ocean Boulevard, which was viewed by a million people. The girls had to wear their national dress while riding upon great floats, and the spectators put in their votes for the ‘Most Popular Girl’ award. Tania, as her national costume, wore a yellow dress with a boomerang of Australian flowers on it.
Tania said Miss Tahiti did a dance on her float and received easily the greatest ‘Popular Girl’ reception. One could appreciate this. A Tahitian girl dancing in her national costume would have a sensational advantage. But the interesting part about this conversation was the wind up, and I kept careful notes:
Q: Well, who is going to win? A: I don’t know. They come from so many places. They’re all so different. Q: What do you think of your chances? A: Oh no, I haven’t a chance at all. ’ Q: Surely you don’t mean it? A: I do. I'm so far behind, I wish I was home. O: What are the girls like? A: They’re just so beautiful. Gorgeous figures, lovely legs. I wish you could be here to see them.
Two days later Tania was crowned Miss International. Immediately on her return to Australia she appeared on the HSV7 Meet the Press programme in Melbourne. That day I was a sort of deputy acting chairman of the panel and I was terrified. Tania, on the other hand, was completely cool, unworried and confident. I had expected that she would arrive at HSV7 in a large car with a grand escort of the organizers of the Miss Australia appeal.
When I arrived, nearly an hour before the programme was due to start, the receptionist said: ‘Miss Verstak is already here.’ And it was true. She had arrived with her chaperone by tram and she was having dinner in the HSV cafeteria. Yes, the ‘crowned monarch’ was having dinner off a tin tray. For the programme she wore no hat, no special hair-do and just a simple skirt and white blouse, but as a subject for television she was splendid. Not only did she fill that screen in glorious fashion but she was not afraid to give her opinions. She expressed contempt for the Australian koala-kangaroo image abroad. She said the White Australia policy had been misinterpreted and the truth was that Australia let in more Asian people than the U.S. or Canada, and who had ever heard of the White Canada policy? She made a plea for more elegance in the Australian male, for more gallantry and less inhibition and wanted to see hand-kissing as an expression of it. Only one member of the panel was brave enough to kiss her hand at the end of the programme.
She protested very strongly that she did not like the life of the beauty queen, that she was not interested in film offers, in publicity or fuss, she said she would be happy to leave it all, marry, have children and live in the suburbs. Tania was criticized for all this. Some people said she appeared to be too good to be true and they did not believe that she wanted the quiet life. But it was all true. For a short time she took a job with Qantas, but within months she was married to Peter Young and only occasionally has her name appeared in newspapers since.
That was Tania, her extraordinary modesty. She would not even give details of her vital statistics, a very novel way for a beauty queen to behave. Just by a piece of luck I came across them one day in the Paris daily, France Soir. It reported that Medemoiselle Verstak’s statistics were her most eloquent feature. She weighed 50 kilos, she was 1 metre 58 centimetres high and as for the other vital data she was 88-58-88. . . . In centimetres, of course.
As for Dame Mabel Brookes, to be honest I was always in awe of her. T was born in Toorak and T went to school just down the road from ‘Kurneh’, the huge white residence in Domain Road, South Yarra. ‘Kurneh’ was Arabic for Garden of Eden and that was the way it seemed. From my earliest days I knew that Melbourne’s best parties, the parties done with the greatest style, always took place at ‘Kurneh’. If you were invited there you had made it. A guernsey from Lady Brookes was, and still is, really something.
Then there was the story of Lady Brookes’ eldest daughter, Cynthia, Lady Gengoult Smith, who died in 1961. Her marriage in 1933 to the reigning Lord Mayor, Harold Gengoult Smith was the greatest wedding Melbourne has seen. Over 10,000 people waited outside St Paul’s Cathedral and another 50,000 lined the route. The wedding presents under armed guard were on display at the Town Hall from 8 am. The Herald reported: ‘A large queue filed past the tables to see the presents. Their inspection was punctuated with spontaneous gasps of admiration at the splendour and diversity of the display.'
The wedding present from Sir Norman and Lady Brookes was 102 pieces of early Georgian silver, described by the Herald as ‘the most elaborate and complete collection of silverware in the Commonwealth.’
Dame Mabel Brookes has a famous husband, but she is famous too — in completely different fields. Prime Ministers, Premiers, managing directors, Cabinet ministers, come to her. It is fascinating to hear her name-dropping — ‘Bob Menzies’, ‘Dickie Casey’ ‘John Latham’... Except that it is not name-dropping. These are the people she deals with constantly. She has been president of the Queen Victoria Hospital for more than forty-two years (surely a world record for any hospital president); she has written five books; she is a world - authority on Napoleon; she has stood unsuccessfully for Parliament twice and she is a former commandant of the Women’s Air Training Corps.
The best judgement of her comes from her good friend ‘Bob’ Menzies and you will find it in the foreword to her book St Helena Story:
‘Inheriting from her father a lawyer-like capacity for analysis and possessing herself a remarkable executive capacity, she has, ever since I first met her, commanded the minds and judgements of politicians and of businessmen so that in the result they found it easier to agree with her. If this gives you the impression that she has any domineering mannerism, I have not conveyed myself accurately. The truth is that she is one of those advocates who not only persuade you that they are right but leave you faintly ashamed to have thought temporarily that they might have been wrong.’
Dame Mabel was the daughter of the late Harry Emmerton, an equity lawyer, and the late Alice Mabel Maude Emmerton, CBE. She was taught mainly by governesses, except that she went to a kindergarten called Miss Templeton’s School, in Shipley Street, South Yarra. R.G. Casey Snr. owned the property, and one of the pupils was R.G. Casey Jnr., later to be Governor-General of Australia. Dame Mabel said one time, disarmingly, ‘Dickie Casey was a very nice little boy’.
The Brookes have spent their lives at three houses — ‘Kurneh’, ‘Elm Tree’ a few doors up at the corner of Walsh Street, and ‘Cliff - House’, a century old wooden house overlooking the Bay at Mount Eliza. ‘Kurneh’ was sold for a block of flats for a reported £100,000. During the two world wars it was a hospital and during the filming of On the Beach it was a home for the Gregory Pecks. When I called on Dame Mabel in 1963 for material for a column she was living at ‘Elm Tree’, a lovely old house packed with Persian rugs, Regency French furniture and a book collection to make lovers of Australiana almost sob with envy.
Dame Mabel was prepared to talk about anything. On tennis: ‘Expenses? There was no such thing when Norman started. When he went overseas his father wouldn’t pay for it. Norman had to save up. When Norman and Tony Wilding won the Davis Cup they had to pay themselves to bring it back in their luggage. It made me laugh the other day when I read of all the security measures to look after it. We had it on our sideboard for years. You know the size of the thing. Big as a bath. It looked awful. I was glad when they took it away. Though the last time we had it here — I think we had the Frank Clarkes to dinner - I filled it with peonies and it looked very nice.
Dame Mabel’s great-grandfather, William Balcombe, as Naval Agent and Purveyor for the East India Company, was host to Napoleon during his first few months of exile on St Helena. Napoleon is one of her favourite topics. She bought two houses on St Helena, had them preserved, and presented them to the French nation. ‘Can you imagine the problems?’ she said. ‘Here I was an Australian, who wanted to buy some property in an English colony to give to the French Government. It took a year to go through and it had to go all the way to the British Cabinet for approval. Fortunately I had some friends in high places.’
‘Yes, I suppose it was one of the great days of my life when I actually made the gift. It was done at Malmaison, the house that Napoleon bought for Josephine. They took away all the rope barriers. It was the first party there in a hundred years. The place was filled with Napoleon’s things. There were Josephine vases full of flowers. And the glasses we used! I looked at them and they all had the Napoleon cipher. The real thing, just like the precious few I have here. I was terrified somebody was going to drop one of them.
A personally guided tour of the Napoleana is the highlight of a visit to ‘Elm Tree’. The collection is magnificent, some handed down through the family, some collected at cost. What cost? Dame Mabel, unless the cost is very low indeed, never mentions money.
We saw locks of Napoleon’s hair, some in leather folders, others in lockets. Precious locks of hair had helped to bolster the theory that Napoleon was murdered by arsenical poisoning. One hair, taken from the Emperor during his lifetime contained 10-38 parts per million of arsenic instead of the normal 0°8 parts. Dame Mabel took two locks to London in May 1962. She was met by Dr Forshufvud of Glasgow University and he tested the locks in the Harwell reactor.
He found two periods of months of arsenic. As far as I'm concerned the case is proved: Napoleon was poisoned with arsenic on St Helena. Everything points to it. While he was with my family i at the Briars he got fat and he was happy. Afterwards they installed him at Longwood and it was then that he went into a decline.’
There was a snuff box, a coffee mug, a guitar, chairs, a superb rosewood desk and a cabinet, all from Napoleon. There was a teak table. 'It’s a funny thing but that table also was used by the Duke of Wellington,’ said Dame Mabel, ‘six years earlier when he was cast ashore at St Helena and he stayed a few days at the Pavilion. Later he sent a message: "My regards to Boney. I hope he enjoys my old quarters as much as I do his at the Elysees Bourbon.”’ We walked around the room and we came to a cabinet that was gorgeous almost beyond belief. It was weighted down with exotic silver designs, with tortoise shell and ivory inlay. It was the climax that one would expect from any guided tour. “This is my proudest possession. It has been handed down to me through five wills. It dates from 1660. It’s a credence, a place where the Church keeps its sacred vessels . . . Cromwellian loot, when they were sacking the churches in England.’
Dame Mabel opened the credence. Inside there was an ivory chess pattern with the squares becoming smaller and smaller to give an impression of infinity. But well before infinity lay the death mask of Napoleon. It was of grey plaster of paris and the powerful features of the man were instantly recognizable. ‘It was taken twelve hours after his death. The cheeks are sunken. In that climate decomposition sets 1n quickly. The ear? No, that’s not the fault of cast. They had a rat plague at the time and a rat nibbled a portion of one ear. His heart also was dragged out of a silver dish that lay nearby.'
Dame Mabel closed the credence. We did not talk for a moment. It wasn’t until almost the end of the interview that we got to talking about the Queen Victoria Hospital. I became the president of an appeal in 1923 and president of the hospital in 1924. Oh yes, it’s a record in Melbourne, possibly anywhere. I've had a long suffering committee. When I came to the hospital it had only seventy beds, now it has over 520. It was a sort of left-over from the days of Mrs Pankhurst. No men — certainly not. In those days women doctors got a very poor deal. The hospitals wouldn’t have them.
‘And it remained a women’s preserve until towards the end of the Second World War. Surgeons coming back from the war wanted refresher courses in gynaecology. There are no restrictions now.
‘No, 'm not a feminist, certainly not. I did try to get into politics because I thought there should be some women in parliament. I tried as an independent liberal for Flinders in 1943 and later for the Toorak State seat. I didn’t get in — women don’t have much chance here. That’s because women won’t back women. They’re not interested in politics, they slavishly follow their husbands. It’s a very Australian trait. They’re not like that in America or France or England. Though I think they’re much the same in Italy.’
One couldn’t help but feel sorry at this. Victorian politics could use a leading lady to star in the Legislative Assembly. But it was late and time to go. There was a faint glimpse of Sir Norman through a doorway. Very tactfully he had kept out of the interview — no mixing of careers there.
Dame Mabel finally thought over her many careers and said: ‘Life is a very pleasant interlude as long as you don’t ask for too much.’