Category Archives: historical

Anzac Ada

To be quite honest, she hadn’t thought about home. She had, on all her tours, been amazed at how the local people, though, still thought of England as home – even when most of them had never visited the place, nor were ever likely to. She wondered, as she braced herself against the ship’s rails, peering out over the grey Tasman Sea, if that tie would ever break – the tie that linked her Australians to the land of their forebears. It was only now; now that she could see an end to this latest foray to the antipodes, that she discerned the first twinge of homesickness. There was still much to do before the long and sometimes arduous ocean trip back to Britain. There were her return dates in South Africa to negotiate – but that place never seemed as far away from home and hearth as here.

Part of her loved escaping the winter to the warmer climes of these southern latitudes. And she had to be truthful and admit she was relieved to be away from the close proximity of the war. She felt safer here. The locals didn’t seem as weighed down by it all as back home. She could see the same burden of loss all about, but it seemed to settle with a lighter weight in the colonies. She still referred to them as that, although she knew she’d would never call them this in public. The war had taken too many of the Australian and New Zealand boys she championed. She supposed the conflict would eventually cease, but it was a devilishly long time in coming. She was proud to carry the moniker Anzac Ada, proud of the adulation that had followed her everywhere, on all her trips and this trip in particular.

But, she pondered, in that early morning gloom, how long would this last. Her best years, she assumed, were behind her now and her looks were fading. And she presumed with that she would have to say goodbye to fame and all the rapture she received from her devoted followers. They were mainly men, she had to admit. She knew there were women who were jealous of the hold she attained over their husbands, but really, they had nothing to fear from her.

She had seen the terrible results of the war. She had seen what the war could do to a human body, firstly in Egypt, later in hospitals all over England and even in Melbourne and Sydney. Terrible, just terrible. But seeing it all resolved her. She stiffened her back, rolled up her sleeves and searched around for a cause. She recalled her pre-war tours and the revelation came to her. So many from the Empire had given their lives for Mother England. That would be the focus. And so it had come to pass. She lost count of how much she had raised. That wasn’t the point. It was a small thing compared to their sacrifice. Donations received on her tours largely went to helping the wounded Anzac lads back in hospitals in England. She was also involved with the London Anzac Buffet; that providing warmth, companionship and food for recovering troops and those on leave. She was proud that her efforts had kept it going when it seemed as if, at one stage, it would have to close for lack of funds. She fondly drew up a memory from her last tour when there was a matinee concert for over a thousand returned boys at the Tivoli in Sydney – a triumph. How they cheered her singing and skits. The adulation knew no bounds. Even on board this very boat, on her last trip, she had also given a concert, but this time around she was being a little kinder to herself and taken it easier. She had been doing such acts for over three years now.

This time around she had included an island that seemed as far away from England as it could possibly be. Yet, if anything, it was, of all the places she’d been, perhaps the one that most reminded her of home. Maybe that was the reason for the mild melancholy that seemed to be enveloping her this morn. The island had a more variable climate than its mainland. The countryside was reminiscent, in parts, of the rural landscape she was so used to from the counties of own country. But, most particularly, it was that theatre in the little capital city that struck her. She was told it was the oldest in the Commonwealth. She almost broke down, when, after the ovation at her final performance there, she was presented with souvenirs of the occasion. A moving picture camera recorded that for posterity. Yet, even from there, the lads were dying in the trenches. She was so moved by the beauty of the place – the mountain that kept watch over the premier city, the hospitality that greeted her everywhere and the wildness of the bush, as the locals called the forested regions. She recalled her train trip to the sister city in the north, across a countryside so burnished by the sun, as it rarely was in the British Isles. She cheerily noted that, at every hamlet en route, small crowds had gathered to cheer her passing. She dwelt for a while on the stop, at the halfway point, where she took refreshment in the station’s tea rooms. The villagers were prevented from coming in to watch her and her troupe take their fill of the luscious cream scones. Instead they gawped in from the windows, jostling for a view. Now, what was it’s name? It was in the tongue of the original native inhabitants. She was sure of that, such a strange appellation – starting with a P she thought. She knew the island had its historical dark side too – the decimation of those natives and the convict-days hell holes scattered around the place, as well, the economic sufferings during the straightened decade of the ’90s.

She smiled at the memory of her reception in the big northern town when she arrived – how there was a parade of motorised and horse-drawn transport, taking herself and her fellow performers around to her hotel and later on to the National Theatre where the shows were. Excited crowds lined the thoroughfares. A brass band accompanied them every step of the way. It was glorious. In the southern city she had been taken to a small zoo and shown a very strange animal – half tiger, half wolf it seemed. She had peered into the creature’s eyes and as she did so, a great and inexplicable sadness had come over her. Recalling that moment she gave an involuntary shiver. Then she felt an arm come around her shoulder. It jolted her momentarily from her reveries, but then she settled, realising it was only dear Wilf. She was snuggling in closer to his warm body when she noticed he was pointing to the horizon. A dun smudge could be discerned – New Zealand. ‘Bear up, dear one,’ he encouraged. ‘Another country awaits. When this is over we can both think about our return to Old Blighty.’ With that Anzac Ada took his arm and returned to their cabin to prepare for taking breakfast.

Ada Reeve, in fact, did return to Australia, although I could discover no evidence that she came back to Tasmania. Contrary to the above, her career continued on through the decades, both on stage and later in movies. She appeared in her last film, ‘A Passionate Stranger’, in 1957 at age 83; her farewell to the boards some three years previous. She passed in 1966, but made a television appearance in an early version of ‘This is Your Life’ in 1957 (this can be found on-line). As far as this country is concerned, she remained revered for some time as Anzac Ada before the collective memory of her faded. Some back then even called her ‘The Mother of the Diggers’. She visited again in 1922-24, 1926 and ’29 to ’35, even making films here. One was directed by Frank Thring. Reeve’s two daughters, Bessie and Goody, settled here.

Prior to the Great War Reeve was already a strong presence on the London stage. Born to two theatrical parents, she started off at very young age and gradually made her way up cast lists until she headlined. She had two marriages, the second being to Wilfred Cotton, a fellow actor who took on the role of her manager. Her first glimpse of these shores occurred under the auspices of JC Williamson, 1897-98. And she fell in love with us, as well as with South Africa, travelling constantly to those dominions during her long career. Her life wasn’t all beer and skittles. She nearly died of typhoid fever during a tour to Germany and suffered domestic violence at the hands of her first husband. But it was on stage that she reigned supreme. She was the mistress of innuendo, a suggestive gesture and a knowing wink. Men adored her.

And she in turn adored the Anzacs. Her home on the Isle of Wight became a convalescent facility for her Aussie and Kiwi boys and she raised thousands of pounds to improve their well-being whilst they were away from the front.

YouTube will provide you with her performances and some of her film roles. I first encountered her in a vivid blue dress on a card stand at TMAG, purchasing it, then delving into the ether to discover more about Ada and her link to our city’s Theatre Royal. And now it is the centenary of her triumphant stay on our island in the southern seas. Will anyone else remember that?

Ada Reeve performs –


This Abluting Life

Breakfast television largely passes me by. It’s not that I don’t like it, it is just that I’d rather start the day in a different fashion. I know in recent times, via the New Idea (I only take it for the recipes, puzzles and to pass on to a darling daughter who claims to love to read the celebrity false news), breakfast host Karl Stefanovic has millions of my fellow Australians almost breathless with each installment of his fascinating private life. I also know that the general consensus is that Auntie’s show, around the same time, is pretty good, but certainly doesn’t drag in the ratings like the two behemoths ‘Sunrise’ and ‘Today’. And thanks to my lovely mother and my lovely lady’s equally lovely daughter, both fans of the former, that show has entered my life.

So picture this. Not so long ago I was calmly sitting at my mother’s breakfast table, possibly reading or writing or puzzling over ‘That’s Life’, when some words emanated from the screen behind me, causing me to spin around, aghast and disbelieving.

Now I had no idea what the subject matter was. I did ask said mother – Nan to all – what was going on on the Koch-helmed show, but, as she wasn’t really concentrating on it, she couldn’t help me out. When I focused on what was beaming out I espied three ladies in a row, perched on a sofa, straight-backed like three parrots in incandescent plumage. They were going at it hammer and tongs, verbally, with much laughter and eye-rolling. They seemed to be competing with each other to be heard and whatever they were on about made little sense to me, but had Mr Koch mildly bemused by their squawkings. This trio of gaudy macaws (they are probably very, very lovely, sweet-natured ladies and I know I am being just a little bit naughty with my avian references) had Kochie’s co-host in stitches over the goings-on on the sofa and the inanities being uttered by the perky cockatiels holding the floor.

And the words that one of these anything but dun-coloured peahens uttered, causing me abruptly to choke on my morning coffee? Well, they were of great personal affront to my sensitivities and all because they dissed an important part of my morning routine. That is, I always have been; hopefully will continue to be until my dying day; a bathtub person. I have written before of my total aversion to taking a shower. I have an inability to understand why masses of humanity prefer to do so. What joy is there to be had standing under spurting drops when one can be immersed in scented, warm and sudsy water for half an hour or so. Once upon a time I planned my school day while I lolled in blissful comfort. These days, well, I ruminate on my humble scribblings. So, yes folks, I bathe in perfumed waters – never in anything, I hasten to add, that would cross the line into rose, lavender or other florals. I choose the more manly ones such as certain fruits – mango, coconut, pineapple, etc. At the moment I use the Original Source range, available at any chemist or supermarket. The labeling assures me they are 100% natural fragrances. My favourite is the mint and tea-tree option. Imagine, they pack 7,927 leaves of both into each bottle! How do I know? It tells you that on the container. Yep, it’s only the masculine smells that I wallow in, which brings me back to those three shrieking galahs – very comely ones admittedly, on David K’s settee that morning whilst I was up north. The words that I heard – and I have no idea which lorikeet espoused them – if you can imagine, were, ‘I have real problems with any man who takes a bath.’ And then, the person in question, went on to say that any fellow who does so has ‘…real issues.’ Issues with what, I wanted to know – but she didn’t elaborate.

So, dear reader, you will understand why I was mortified. All these years I’ve been broadcasting to the world around me about my morning ritual, with, particularly the female cohort thereof, probably thinking to themselves, ‘Gee, poor old Steve has real issues.’ Was the wagtail in question, on the tele, casting aspersions on my manhood? Am I less of a male than those hairy-chested showerers who are, presumably, able to go forth into the world scot-free of ‘issues’ due to their preference for getting under a shower rose? Oh dear. Oh dear.

Thinking about all this later (yes, in the bath – I refused to be shamed into taking a shower by the words of some know it all, strident bustard sitting on a couch), I wonder if she, that morning, realised the fine and outstanding history of the ceramic bathtub? A past that is far more worthy than that of johnny-come-lately the shower.

Baths, dear friends, have been around since the Bronze Age, whereas artificially produced showers, as opposed to standing under a waterfall or successfully shouting, ‘Send ‘er down Hughie.’, came later on. And remember, here, with the latter, we’re talking about standing in a cubicle with water raining down on one’s body through some form of plumbing. That came much later, with the Greeks, who had spray tepidly descending from above over naked bodies, much in the same way as some communal sporting facilities provide today. But still no cubicle. They were invented by William Feetham around 1810 – for cold water only. The fortunate had been luxuriating in warm baths from well before that.

I blame the French Army. In 1872 one François Merry Delabost ordered that bathing for soldiers would have to replaced by showering as a cost cutting method – thus commencing the modern trend towards the quick dousing of one’s body. Delabost had invented a newly devised apparatus for such purposes, thereby lining his own pockets in the process. Showers replaced baths, then, in prisons, followed on by boarding schools – thus adding more to the pain involved in the atrocious habit of sending young children away from home for their schooling – and by the 1920’s were in many US homes. The English, bless them, were slow to catch on. They only became common there in the ’60s. Americans are always in such a rush so quick showers suited their frenetic lifestyle. Now the water-scrooges play around with the size of the holes in shower roses and sternly recommend how long this form of ablution should take. They leave us, who prefer the older method, largely alone.

Yes, I know some claim the shower is more hygienic, but where is the bliss factor? And, having bathed all my life, I am still around and still, touch wood, healthy. In a bath a poor man can feel he’s as rich and as spoilt as the Kardashians. In a bath he/she can let one’s mind run rampant, just wallowing in the luxuriousness of the experience. We could even imagine ourselves back in the Middle Ages where servants would ply their masters with food and alcoholic beverages whilst in the tub. Or we could wander back to Roman times when scantily clad maidens would meet all needs for those bathing – just check out the recent television series ‘Spartacus’ for some eye-popping examples of this practice.

Of course, way back in the mists, most weren’t as scrupulous with their cleanliness as we have become. When Columbus returned from the New World he bought back news of the Taino people who bathed, to the shock of his gobsmacked audiences, daily. His Queen Isabella, for instance, had only taken to her bath twice in her life. The Tudor Queen Elizabeth was much more modern – she insisted on hopping into scented waters a couple of times a month. The Spanish Inquisition completely banned bathing, preferring to go smelly than indulge in habits associated with the sweeter smelling Jews and Muslims. Henry VIII bathed in musk of civet in order to alleviate his leg ulcers which were a right royal pain in the ass. Propaganda from the Republicans claimed Versailles was a filthy place, but it had running water for tubs since the time of Louis XV (1715-1774). By 1860 plumbed water was so common that baths, for the average person, no longer had to be portable and could be made of any material – in other words, like our own household essential.

Sadly though, I admit, it is sometimes necessary to take a shower. Nowadays, with travelling, unfortunately few hotel rooms now have a bath. Oh my unalloyed joy when I find I’ve booked one that does! New houses are finished without them – and old bathrooms are renovated, doing away with much pleasure, to be replaced by flashier showering facilities. My son and daughter-in-law have recently done this – but with what they have installed the showering experience in their abode is, well, maybe just a tiny bit joyful.

But, back to my ‘Sunrise’ shock. I do apologise to all the wonderful women that have and still do inhabit my life for being a man with such obvious issues. But, come hell or high water, there is no way I’ll forsake my lifelong indulgence. I’d rather have the issues – just tell me what they are. Please!

Ditzy Jenny and Rosie

She called it her funk. Some days were better than others. She was determined she wouldn’t let it beat her; it wasn’t in her nature. Not now anyhow. But, golly-gosh, it was hard. She’d tried topping herself once and found it definitely not to her liking – so she threw herself back into her charity work as a substitute – something she hoped the kids in her native Hungary would one day thank her for. It gave her a purpose. If only she could prevent herself dwelling on all that she had lost she felt she could make it through to the inevitable that lay up ahead. Dwelling on it, well, it only made her feel funkier – and if she gave into the bleakness, god knows where it would lead her to again. No more Irving, no more Jenny, thinking back to the occasions she nearly died. Why, sometimes she even thought of Harry, gone now for almost two decades. Harry, she knew, only had eyes for Miss Jenny – but she liked Harry a lot too. More than liked him, if she was honest with herself. That, at one time, made her appallingly green-eyed towards her Jen. That girl in turn dangled herself before and flirted outrageously with the man, but, despite his most becoming entreaties, usually revolving around money – money he couldn’t afford – she just would not commit. She, herself, would have been his in an instant had she been given the same chance. And, as to her cursed funks, she knew exactly the day they first came to her.

In a small way I was proud of myself. It was only a tiny win, this victory of sorts, in a game they try to play with us for reasons beyond me. I rarely watch programming on the commercial networks, apart from the footy and cricket. The ads are enough to drive me bananas and mainstream American television doesn’t do much for me, with the exception of the exceptional ‘This is Us’. There are a few Aussie staples, as well, we regularly commit to our hard drives to watch at our leisure – ‘House Husbands’, ‘800 Words’ and ‘Offspring’ for instance. I’ve witnessed my lovely lady, until the advent of our own T-Box, being regularly frustrated trying to follow some of her favourites on Ten, Nine and Seven. Shows would disappear without notice, not adhere to the tele-guide times or turn out to be repeats when a newly minted episode is advertised. Others would be shunted off to the subsidiary channels and often, trying to find them there, was like searching for a needle in a haystack. No wonder viewers are turning away from free-to-air in droves to other platforms. Occasionally, though, on these networks there would be a Brit show I’d be particularly keen to watch – the venerable ‘Downton’ being a case in point. Not that they would have dared tamper with that behemoth. But, unfortunately, that was not the case with ‘Mr Selfridge’. I really was partial to this show – and sure, the first couple of seasons rated well enough, for whichever network it was on, to keep it stationary with a regular time slot. But once Series 3 and 4 came along, with ratings presumably dropping or the need to find room for some of their crass reality dross, ‘Mr Selfridge’ disappeared from sight. Then it suddenly reappeared on one of the additional channels. There it would chop and change time-slots and days willy-nilly. It completely disappeared for a while, mid-season, only to, you guessed it, reemerge much later to finish off the remaining episodes. My victory was that I managed not to miss an episode – I persevered to catch every one, free-to-air. Of course I stacked them up on the hard drive so I didn’t have to sit through endless inane ad-breaks. But I had my victory over those pesky programmers who seem to make it their business to take every bit of enjoyment out of viewing their particular network by endlessly playing their little sport with any less than signature show. I didn’t succumb to the temptation of rushing off to JB’s to buy the final series or ask for it from rellies proficient at downloading from various maybe not quite legal sites. Yes, it’s a trifling thing, but it gave me a degree of satisfaction.

During her later decades she took to researching the special connections that exist between twins for, you see, she’d been born one of a pair. She had now survived her twin sister by a long shot. It was hard to imagine that, once upon a time, she could not have contemplated existing without her look-alike. It seemed, too, that her sister was of the same opinion. During their time in the spotlight her sibling had countless marriage proposals. The excuse to reject them was, invariably, ‘I couldn’t marry that man, sis! Have him take me away from you. No! No! No!’ The bond between the two of them was special but, back then, she wasn’t so aware of her feelings; she had no inkling her almost second sense concerning her twin was not commonplace. But she also knew that, whilst they were together, they offered the world something that was unique and something that was in high demand. For a lengthy period of time they had the planet at their feet, slavering for more. They were the chosen pair, dancing their way into the hearts of thousands – and breaking many of those same hearts. Men fawned after them on two continents; their ‘champagne and caviar’ lifestyle being broadcast to the world in the print media. Now she watched the Marilyn Monroes and the Elizabeth Taylors of her present day take on that mantle and be fêted globally. Her most melodramatic of sighs, back then, would have male pulses racing – these days the same would be considered the hammiest of acting. Nowadays men wanted so much more. She knew this as she kept an eye on the popular entertainment in the newspapers and magazines she took. Sometimes what she read made her blanch. It was an effrontery to her sensibilities the wanton titillation that was going on – in her very own city too. Even at their height, they would be out of their depth in modern times. She smiles wistfully as she recalled their era on Broadway; of the gay abandon of their frolics in Paris, Cannes and Biaritz – or wherever the glamour set hung out. And then, of course, there was Irving, the love of her life. He left her far too soon. But as well, for a time and well hidden, or so she thought, her heart, too, had belonged to Harry.

‘Mr Selfridge’ told me the tale of the founder of the eponymous department store and tracked its ups and downs from its genesis in 1909, through the Edwardian years, the Great War and into the Jazz Age. American Jeremy Piven played Gordon Selfridge across the four seasons; Australian actress Frances O’Connor his wife, Rose. There were many other characters I particularly enjoyed – Miss Mardle (Amanda Abbington), a self- made woman attempting to break glass ceilings; Mr Crabb (Ron Cook), the fastidious accountant who gave his heart and soul to his boss; the extremely odious Lord Loxley (Aidan McArdle) who hated Selfridge to his core and Mr Grove (Tim Goodman-Hall), the store executive with a tortured personal life. It was a great show – a period soapie the Brits do so well.

Rózsika and her identical twin sister, Janka, were born in Hungary on October 25, 1892. With their parents, Julius and Margaret, they migrated to the USA in 1905. As children they trained to be dancers, getting their first gigs, for small change, in the beer halls of NYC; debuting on the vaudeville circuit in 1909. They were soon hits, making their first foray into films in 1915. At their peak, in the US, they were pulling in $2000 a week, unheard of for those times.

After the war the sisters moved to France, purchasing a chateau as a base for their tours of the Continent. Their popularity kept them in plenty of coin and their crowning moment was an invitation to perform at the Moulin Rouge. They received $1200 a night for that!

Looking back, looking back. She was always looking back. It didn’t help her funk, she considered. She was almost a septuagenarian, but despite the dangers going back to those times, contrarily, her old face now creased into a smile. Memories.

It was sunny in the apartment. A few tipples had made her feel nostalgic. She could look back at Diamond Jim, surely, without coming over all funky. He was their early champion. Diamond Jim Bundy – now there was a hell of a man. Business man, financier, philanthropist (and it has to be said, glutton). He loved jewels, once loved the great Lillian Russell, too, but the instance the twins battered their eyelids at him, he loved them as well. He was in his last years then, but he regaled them with tales of how he once owned the first automobile in New York City, bragged about the huge meals that made him legendary and of his adoration of Miss Russell. He showered her sister, in particular, with gifts; from diamond rings to a Rolls Royce, presented in ribbons and bows. They were mere slips of in those days, not fully adults, having just turned twenty. But they played to his vanities and, boy, did they stir him up – they knew which side of the bread to butter. He was their sugar daddy and wanted nothing in return apart from their company.

As for their act, they were fairly chaste. They didn’t flaunt themselves on stage like the outrageous Josephine B and her ilk – no siree. They left it all up to the imagination of their audience. She knew that a wink with a few come hither posturings and beckonings could work magic on the male gender. And as for her sister, well, she was a little more provocative – but nothing tasteless, that’s for sure. No doubt the green genie would arise in the female dates out in the audience. But the menfolk adored them. They were a class act – nothing too tawdry. That was the way to win affection. Keep ’em guessing

One of the many aspects of Mr Selfridge I savoured was the introduction of actual historical figures into the show. There was Serge de Bolotoff, the Russian Prince. Selfridge was not happy when his precious daughter, Rosalie, fell in love with this chancer. Even if he was an aviation pioneer, he was also a notorious scamp. It was all sure to end in scandal and tears – and more than likely some monetary loss for her Pa. Edward VII visited his department store, as did Louis Blériot – it was all great publicity. Antarctic explorer Shackleton had a cameo and Anna Pavlova graced the first series with her presence, taking refreshments in the store’s tea room. Rose was her hostess who, by this stage, knew of the secret premises hubby kept in the city for his dalliances. For Selfridge these icons of his age, coming to his premises, was a masterstroke. Having the famous ballerina sip tea there, for instance, why, the papers were full of it for days. Later, in the same season, came Arthur Conan Doyle, at this stage of his life deeply into seances and talking with the dead. Mack Sennett visited the retailers, as well, in Season 2. In the episodes of the fourth and final offerings we find the great shopping magnate ageing and in danger of losing control of his empire, due to his extravagant ways. Rose was long gone and he was again being seduced by other temptresses.

In the Big Apple she often wondered, usually during her battles to prevent herself being submerged in the funk, if her life may have been easier if she had not been so keen to throw money around on the gambling tables of Europe. Sometimes it was from her own funds, not always being somebody else’s dosh. Those casinos and gambling clubs had been so much fun – but she could now do with some of what she frittered away, with so much panache and so little thought to the future, back in that era.

An element of the retail tycoon’s lifestyle was getting out of hand towards the end too. It was Selfridge’s own penchant for gambling. The London clubs had a hold over him too and gleefully fleeced him of his money. Just like that old woman sitting in a NYC apartment, decades into the future, he would be also adversely affected by the Wall Street Crash; it ending the good times for both. For Selfridge a new era was dawning, the shop’s colossal profits were in the past and now it was so wildly irresponsible of him to toss away his hard earned on the roll of a dice or fall of a card. He lived to a ripe old age – but he also died in penury.

Rózsika recalled that Diamond Jim, as well as showing them a fabulous time, frequently took them to the track, encouraging her and her twin to bet on the ponies. Of course he picked the horses and they were invariably, as well as mysteriously, first past the post. On their tours for Zeigfield and whilst on the continent, their various beaux would always provide the wherewithal to have a flutter. The great casinos of Biarritz and the Riviera became their domain. She recalled a frequent companion, back then, by the name of David. He liked a good time and had a habit of bobbing up wherever they were. They became fond of him for a while. She knew there was much speculation in their circle as to whether it was all just coincidental – or was he, in fact, bedding one or the other, or both. For her part, she knew his minders never allowed him too much leeway for things to get ‘serious’, but she couldn’t vouch for her sister. She had her suspicions but kept stum. She was most taken back when, fifteen years down the track, his retinue failed to keep him away from a certain Mrs Wallis Simpson.

There were others – of course there were others. King Alfonso of Spain was always hanging around as if he didn’t have a country to rule. She remembers such gay fun with the Aga Khan and Prince Esterhazy of Hungary. She recalled the night when Janka took all comers for around half a mil – in today’s money, mind you, at chermin de fer. That was the best night, but they splurged and it was soon gone. She had a couple of great evenings at the tables too, surrounded by all the glitterati – a pretty vacuous lot, she now realises, in hindsight. They were so keen to help her spend her winnings too. Well, a girl had to be popular. But her sister had the bug worse than she did and once Harry came on the scene, the rot really started to set in.

When the two look alike sisters swept into Season 4 of ‘Mr S’ I thought that these good times gals were entirely fictional. I’d never heard of them, this pair of almost identical twins – Jenny and Rosie. But, as is usual these days with such matters, I was on-line and came across an old sepia image of a pair of showgirls and thought nothing of it until I espied the appellation underneath – ‘The Dolly Sisters’. As it turned out, from my later reading of other info in the ether on the sisters, the series followed historical fact pretty closely. Harry Selfridge – yes, everyone called him Harry – was smitten. They were marvellous creatures, these girls. They were the epitome of Roaring Twenties flappers – and so willful, so glossy. They were flirtatious; always teasing of what could, just might, happen if he wooed hard enough – but he was never able to quite grasp the nettle and push the point for fear of losing them. Or losing Jenny. She was the one. She was the one he had his eye on. She was the one, he figured, most likely to fall to his charms; his persistence; his money. But deep down he knew he was just another old man throwing away his ever decreasing resources on them, providing the means to keep the girls in the lifestyle they didn’t want to let go of. And nor did he. But at 69, though, Harry was well past it. He soon discovered he was in no physical condition to keep up. But the poor guy was in love and Jenny, the habitual gambler of other people’s wealth, had to be satisfied.

Selfridge’s owner could often be found sitting behind Jenny (in the tele series played by Zoe Richards – Emma Hamilton was Rosie), peeling off notes in large amounts each time she ran out. He bankrolled her for a decade or more, covered her in expensive jewelry and she had carte blanche in the London store. Some have even speculated it was Jenny Dolly, more than anyone else, who ruined it all for him. But despite all his largesse; despite all his entreaties; she refused to wed him.

From the tele-series Mr Selfridge’ – the Dolly Sisters

Back then, though, Jenny’s survivor, sitting in a ray of sunshine as the dust motes rose in her NYC apartment, reflected she would have had Harry in a heartbeat. Maybe she could have influenced the ultimate outcome. After all, she was capable of restraining her own extravagance – or that’s how she remembered it. But then there was Irving. He became the real love of her life. How she misses him so terribly now. Just when she thought the zing was disappearing, along he came and reinstated all her old zest for life in the fast lane. Admittedly, she’d been to the altar twice before – but those marriages hardly appeared on her radar anymore. Those men were mere triflings compared to Irving. She was initially drawn to him because, like Harry, he was a retail baron, owning a department store in Chicago. It was he who took her away from Jenny to his home in Illinois. Eventually she found her quieter life, a little way out of the Windy City, suited her.

She’d had her near death experience in ’28, spending a great deal of time in hospital until recovery. At one stage they were packing ice around her to keep her going, so high was her fever. Appendicitis it was – a terrible, terrible time for her. She knew she’d never return to the stage after that. And around that time she also received word that her sister’s behaviour was becoming more and more erratic. Jenny had adopted two homeless orphans from Budapest, but really her sister was in no condition to adequately look after them. Rosie guessed their sole purpose was to keep her company – that she was incredibly lonely. The ’29 crash hit her twin hard, then, on top of it all, she got herself into trouble with the French authorities over some jewelry. Rosie felt great remorse over her own actions, or lack of them, on behalf of her sister. She was so smitten with Irving, so comfortable in her own existence and still not entirely well, so she didn’t speed to the rescue. She was too blinkered to see how Jenny was struggling. Then the silly girl became mixed up with that gangster fellow. He was seven years younger and saw Jen as a ticket to something or other. Her unsettled sister should have known better. The ravages of time were catching up with Jen, with some assistance. Her face, her once beautiful face! It was that that took Jenny to the brink more than any other factor Rosie, looking back, assumed. The losing of her looks. It was enough that she was getting old – but it must have been so tough to do so with a shredded face from that shocking accident. That idiot man was driving too fast. Rosie shook with sobs over her guilt – but decided she had better set to and pull herself together or the funk would settle back in and she’d be down in the abyss for days. She shouldn’t think of her sister’s final days, but as the light dimmed in her abode, it was difficult not to. It was that invitation, or lack of it, that was the final nail in the coffin for Jenny. That long ago holiday weekend, with war looming, back in ’41, Jenny should have been with her and Irving. She could picture her sister waiting and waiting to be invited across to them in the Mid-west, but she waited in vain. Rosie never sent it. But then they had other matters on their mind. Irving’s business was starting to appear if it would go the same way as Harry’s, so just looking at that face would be so hard to take at a time when Rosie needed to be carefree and loving for her man. Oh dear! Oh dear! When it was obvious Rosie had now disowned her dear Jenny took the sash from her dressing gown and hung herself in her own living room. Her poor Janka. Her poor, poor Jenny……

Rosie always attributed her attacks of the funk to her sister’s unimaginable demise on that day as another great conflict loomed. Irving died in 1943 of a heart attack – he was only 53. They were together for only eleven years. After that Rosie sank from public view. She devoted her remaining years to her charitable work, mainly to do with the children of her native land. She too, when she was at her wit’s end due to the funk, attempted suicide, but she lived on till 1970 when she passed, aged 77. Of course the television series in which, for a while, she was a character, was still decades ahead. But she did live to see the Dolly Sisters come to the big screen in an eponymous 1945 movie. The soldiers’ sweetheart, Betty Grable played her sister, June Haver was Rosie. It played out as a musical comedy and was quite forgettable.

The old lady collected up her memories on this day as the sun was about to set on her own existence. Razzle dazzle, she ruminated, can only count for so much. Now she was at last aligned with her sister’s dark thoughts as she battled away against the funk in her own living quarters. She’d beaten them off each time though. They didn’t completely overwhelm her. But the thoughts of Harry, of Irving and the good she would still do will keep her going for a little while yet. Good thoughts and doing good. If it were only so simple. Jenny often said, ‘Pinch me, I’m dreaming.’ during those good times when they were the toast of New York, London and Paris. Maybe that was all it was – just a dream.

Rosie and Irving

YouTube trailer for ‘Mr Selfridge =

Bill and the Two Hoofers

In another age I loved Jerry Jeff Walker – firstly because of his music and secondly, the fact he was the man who drove Jimmy Buffett to Key West to commence my favourite songster’s climb to fame. But that, my friends. is another story – stay tuned for ‘Jimmy and Jerry’ perhaps. This one is a tale of connections, real and presumed. I love connections.

If Jerry Jeff is known at all it is usually on the back of a single song he put together, ‘Mr Bojangles’. Now this tune is presumed to be the tale of a legendary dancer, but really it’s genesis is much more complicated than that – a saga again for another time. But we’re getting closer to the nub of this one.

As with Jerry Jeff, for most Bill ‘Mr Bojangles’ Robinson has only one major claim to fame, although he is deserving of being remembered for so much more. He is the black tap-dancer who shared equal billing with Shirley Temple in a dance routine for a film, ‘The Little Colonel’ (1935). Fewer would know how ground-breaking this was. With this movie he became the first black American to share the lead in an inter-racial dance scene for a Hollywood film. But Bill Robinson was ahead of the times in so many more ways than just that and is worth checking out for his whole story, easily available in the ether, if you have the time.

Bill, though, is only the connector in this piece which began life when my beautiful, writerly daughter sent me a link to a site with the appellation of ‘The Most Influential Women You’ve Never Heard Of”. One so listed, in particular, caught my attention and gave me the start to find these interconnections, real or possible.

She was born in 1880. She died this year.

The first ‘she’ was the woman on that list Katie pointed in my direction – Aida Overton Walker. So what link did she have with Mr Robinson? Well, nothing that I could directly discern through research, but logically, for reasons that will become clear, there would have been something. To start with, they were both black and vaudevillian performers. Bill R commenced his career in in 1886, when he was a mere stripling of nine. He toured constantly from that point on, achieving ever increasing fame for his dancing skills as he went, at least with Afro-American audiences. It would seem unlikely that their paths did not cross. Bill lived a long life, dying in 1949, Aida was sadly not so fortunate. She was, though, the most famous performer of her race in the fist decades of the last century. Bill would have certainly known of her, perhaps even been inspired by her breaking of glass ceilings back in their day. And, it pleases me to think they may have trodden the boards together too.

Aida Overton entered the world in 1880. She was Virginian, but grew up in NYC and just like Bill, commenced her career young, touring with Black Patti’s Troubadours in the chorus line. She soon teamed up with a pair of comedians, Bert Williams and George Walker. She married the latter in 1899. By this stage the two men were moving into the production side of the vaudeville circuit, an entertainment form starting to enter a golden period in the States. Walker saw to it that Aida quickly became their star attraction and greatest asset, especially once her skill as a choreographer came to the fore.

In 1900 came her first smash hit – yes, they also had them back then – with the ditty ‘Miss Hannah from Savannah’. She was also prominent in the duo’s productions such as ‘Sons of Ham’, ‘In Dahomey’ and ‘Bandana Land’ – snappy titles, aren’t they? But husband George took ill in 1909, passing two years later. At that time the Boston Globe described George, Bert and Aida as ‘…the most popular trio of coloured actors in the world.’

But, after her hubby’s demise she, as an independent woman, continued her climb into the stratosphere of popular entertainment. By now she was even performing to white audiences, previously unheard of – particularly with her take on ‘Salome’. In other hands this was a very risque dance. White hoofers had even morphed it into the more notorious ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’. But, for Walker, there were no scanty costumes or hints of the nudity that lay beneath. She knew, in the eyes of whites, that would confirm their regard of negro women as being ‘immoral and over-sexed’. To ape the erotic interpretations of ‘Salome’ would only encourage that notion. In the years leading up to World War One she was now sharing the stage with Caucasian dancers and the punters flocked to see her do so, despite the lack of titillation on her part. She became the first black dancer to be invited to perform at many a theatre with a whites only audience.

Due to her prominence, Aida found herself able to advance the cause of the downtrodden of her race, performing many benefits for her people, still treated as little better than slaves. But the constant touring was taking its toll and she died suddenly, in New York, of kidney failure in 1914. Laudatory obituaries appeared across the country, a tribute to the stature she had attained. She was known to many as the ‘Queen of the Cakewalk’, after a popular dance form with its origins in the plantations. Since those times her name had all but disappeared from history. Under a President with another amazing black woman by his side, she is again starting to emerge from obscurity.

So then, who was the other ‘she’? Now we have Alice. In contrast to Aida’s short time on the planet, Alice’s lasted more than a century. As a dancer, she wasn’t the huge star that her predecessor was – she being unable to make the transition from chorus to front of stage. Her moment of fame came late, largely as a result of her longevity. But still, hers is a wonderful story – and its culmination can be watched on YouTube. And one factor we do know for sure, as we have the evidence. Alice shared a stage with Mister Bojangles himself.

Alice Barker was born in Chicago, but like Aida moved to the Big Apple to further her career as a dancer. She related, late in life, that there was never anything else she wanted to do. Practically as soon as she walked she felt the urge to dance. Her earliest memory was, as a toddler, prancing around for her mother as her bath was being run. But fame at her chosen vocation eluded her for, on stage, she was forever in the background. Prior to WW2 she kicked up her legs in legendary clubs, such as the Apollo and Cotton, as part of the Zanzibeauts troupe. Out front of her would be the stars, such as Robinson and later on, Sinatra and Gene Kelly. Alice married twice but had no children – and after she retired she kept in contact with many of her dancing buddies. But sadly, as time went on, she became far too frail to maintain an independent lifestyle and spent the last couple of decades of her life in a nursing home – by which time all of her pals from her heyday had passed on. With her long life narrowing down to a single room, she let go most of her memorabilia, so in the last years had little to remind herself of her days mixing with Broadway celebrities, making movies and appearing in ads in the early days of television. She vaguely recalled seeing herself in a few of the latter and in the background of scenes in films, but there was nothing from the many ‘soundies’ she knew she had appeared in. That is, until one man decided to make it his goal to change all that. In doing so, he gave her a modicum of fame.

As to the soundies – well they were the equivalent of music video clips today, short films of the hot songs from the popular performers of the day. They were played on special machines in bars, clubs and at racetracks back in the thirties and forties. Some of them carried Alice as part of background choruses and dancers. Cameramen would lug their heavy equipment around to various venues to make them in the nightclubs of the day. It was one of the ways the masses could get a taste of the real thing, of the lifestyle they could never have.

David Shuff owned a beloved therapy dog and he would do the rounds, with his canine mate, of his local nursing homes to bring joy to the elderly residing there. One day he happened on the centurion, got to chatting with her and discovered her back story – particularly the bit about the soundies. With David Alice was in luck. David’s main calling was his work as a film music archivist, so he set himself the task of seeing if he could track down any evidence of Alice in those soundies that remained in existence. And in an on-line file marked Barker, he eventually found what he was looking for. Together, with his partner Mark Cantor, he seamed together all the bits that featured a good view of her to make a visual collage of her past career and took it to her room to show her. She was delighted with the result, exclaiming it made her ‘...wish that I could get out of this bed and do it all over again.‘ Of course, being the digital age, we can see the results on YouTube where it went viral.

Thanks to that medium, Alice Barker developed a devoted fan club, many of whom wrote her letters that bought her immense pleasure in her final months, Some were descendants of those troupers who were with her on the stages she hoofed her stuff on for several decades, way back when. Her followers even included the Obamas who also graciously sent a missive off to her expressing their appreciation of her contribution. For her final birthday a group of dancers performed some of her old routines in her room to her joy. Soon after that 103rd celebration, Alice Barker passed away in her sleep, happy in the knowledge that she was no longer a forgotten relic of a golden age.

But unlike many I didn’t discover her through the YouTube clip, but as a by-product of researching the life of another – and to link them together I had Bill ‘Mr Bojangles’ Robinson. Both are belatedly having their moment in the sun – one once forgotten and now remembered; one who never amounted to enough to be forgotten, with now her legacy burning brightly. Thank you Katie.

She has never before seen herself on film – the YouTube video is shown to Alice Barker in her room =

Much to Answer For

My lovely lady was in need of connection to social media and we were far from home, visiting the warehouse franchises at Devonport’s Stony Rise. It seemed the only available wi-fi was at the adjoining McDonald’s and therefore it was necessary to put aside my natural disinclination and enter. It would be the first time in more than a decade I had done so and despite the ‘classy’ ads that now attempt to sell it as a more upmarket option, it seems little had changed from my previous forays back in the mists. There was an unattended pool of unidentifiable liquid to be stepped over at its entrance and at that time of day the place seemed full of acned, lank-haired youth all working away at hand held devices – either that, or young mums with snotty nosed toddlers from the bogan side of town. Obviously, to use their facility, we needed to order some tucker. I scanned the unappetising menu board and asked for one of the cheaper burgers. It arrived in a grease-smattered brown paper bag and the contents reflected that. Inside two thin slivers of a bread substance was a grey slab of presumably meat product accompanied by a tired bit of lettuce smothered in bright yellow mayonnaise. It tasted of nothing and thankfully was gone in a few mouthfuls. I was thankful to be out of the place once Leigh had completed her time in cyberspace. It’s a similar story with that other ubiquitous provider of fast tucker, KFC. I must admit I do find their offerings much tastier, but it’s the sourness in the tum and the foul-breathed belching after consumption that turns me off their product.

Of course it’s not only in take-away food that the franchise model, in the retail world, has taken over. It abounds everywhere – a by-product of globalisation, nudging out all forms of local individuality in the selling of consumer items. That’s why I love strip-shopping streets in the inner suburbs of Melbourne, but even these are under threat as the big guys circle.

I think it is incredibly ironic that the word franchise, derived from the French, means to ‘free from servitude’. I wonder if the employees of 7-Eleven have felt much of that freeing feeling in recent times?

So who is to blame for all this? Who came up with the notion of franchise? I almost used the word abomination, but that is far too strong. If I think about it, much of my retail therapy is, nonetheless, carried out, reasonably enjoyably, in such outlets.

If we delve back to when it first came into being we can blame a country (the US, who else?), a religion (Christian Science) and one incredibly impressive and entrepreneurial woman (the remarkable Martha Matilda Harper). Had she not come along, I daresay someone else would have hit on the notion, but she was the first to build something almost from nothing. Hers is a story worth the telling. So thank you Katie for bringing her to my attention.

Martha mh

She had longevity, did Martha Harper. Born in Canada in 1857, she passed from the planet in 1950. The Ontarian was one of ten offspring and she was bound out – ie, placed in that aforementioned servitude, to assist her father, a struggling tailor, support his large family. It was during this time, labouring for a holistic physician who took a shine to her, that she was introduced to her lifelong passion. He was an atypical character for the time who believed that good scalp care was fundamental to well rounded health. Robust brushing of the hair was, he taught Martha, essential to virile blood flow – that and the application of his hair tonic, made to, what else, a secret formula.

It was his death in 1881 that set her on her life’s path as he passed on the recipe for his tonic to Martha in his will. Later that year she crossed the border to settle in Rochester, New York State, still as a servant – this time to one Luella Roberts. She soon gained a reputation within the circle of her employer for her hair dressing abilities. In those times this was all done within the household, either by servants, or independent hair specialists making house calls.

As the new century approached the US was abuzz with entrepreneurial fervour and change. Even in Rochester there was talk of votes for women. It all filled Martha’s mind with possibility – even the idea that a lowly servant could become part of the American dream. She had squirreled away some savings from her servitude over the years and toyed with the whys and wherefores of transforming her hair skills into a business proposition. But, before she could advance that idea, she fell ill. Her treating doctor just happened to be a practicing Christian Scientist. His success in bringing her back to fine health caused her to become a follower of his religious persuasion with the words of Mary Baker Eddy being firmly implanted in her mind.


Martha soon felt well enough to start to pursue her dream. She figured that her long years in service made her fully aware of how to pamper her social betters and a notion formed that it could be done more economically from a shop front than trailing around to the abodes of prospective customers. Chancing her arm, she used her meagre savings to open up in downtown Rochester, quite near, in fact, to one George Eastman who was setting up Kodak with similar hopes for success. Both businesses thrived. Hers was aided by the fact that she purposely invented a reclining shampoo chair to add to her customers’ comfort. The prominent citizenry of the burb flocked to her premises to partake of her salves to their busy lives. And she was the best possible advertisement for her own brand of hair care. Just look at her locks in the accompanying images. Did Eastman photograph her? I wonder.

She soon came to have some very highly esteemed spruikers too for her talents. There was Mabel Bell, missus of the supposed inventor of the telephone; suffragette leader Susan B Anthony and even a first lady, Grace Coolidge. Due to her success, it was suggested to her that she establish another outlet for her wares and procedures in the Windy City to open in time for its World Fair of 1893. As she couldn’t be in two places at once, she decided it would be an agent of the mother shop, run by another, but to her strict guidelines. Thus it became a franchise – even though this term for what she initiated did not come about for some time. This model was based on how the Christian Science church thrust out its tentacles across the nation. And after the success of the Chicago venture, Martha used the same formula for further expansion.

All products sold by her agents were manufactured in factories she set up, all staff had to be trained in her special schools and she instigated national advertising campaigns just as that industry was starting to take a form we would recognise today. She maintained the strictest quality control with all products being organic – untouched by the chemicals that her competitors, when they got going along similar lines, were enamoured of. Martha made it her calling to employ only servant girls or poor working class women. The Harper Method, as her franchising became known, had a humane heart at its core, although it catered mainly for those from the top end of society. She was an early exponent of tycoon philanthropy. How refreshing compared to the oft corporate greed of these times, although, of course, there are many who still follow her example.


Her heyday were the twenties and Harper’s Harperites (agents) strove to bring out the beauty of the inner woman, later turning their attention to their men folk as well. Over time her prominent customers included Danny Kaye, European royalty, the Kennedy family, Lady Bird Johnson and even the German Kaiser.

When she attained the age of 63 it was time for Martha Harper to start to wind down her own involvement in her company’s affairs. She married her 39 year old assistant. He took over the business and ran it till 1972 – twenty odd years after Martha’s death.

In wedlock she was never Martha McBain, again bucking the norm by retaining her maiden name throughout her long life. She had the same attitude way back in 1900, attending classes at the University of Rochester, despite the explicit by-laws banning women from doing so.

Her story makes me wonder if the American dream is still possible in the US for women from her type of background. The recent film ‘Joy’, based on a true story, suggests it was still an attainable goal at the end of last century, but today? I wonder if even Martha Harper dared dream of a woman President, let alone a black one?


Her Commemorative Stamp

Like Moths to the Flame of Ottoline

Did I actually ever read it? I can’t be certain that I did. If so, it was way back in the mists. I know I’ve watched several adaptations of it for the screen, big and small. There was the 1986 version with Sylvia Kristel – an interesting story herself – as the constantly disrobing focus, as well as a 1993 tele-series starring the late Joely Richardson that was also quite steamy. There is also a French version I may or may not have seen – my memory is so lacking these days – but given my passion for cinema from that country, it’s a fair bet I have.

But did DH Lawrence have an inspiration for what happened to Constance at Wragby Hall, or was it all fully from his imagination. There is good evidence that it was the former and her name, enough alone to invoke further investigation, was Ottoline. Why, we even know the name of the real life Mellors who enticed this upper crust damsel with his earthy charms. It was her very own gardener– Gilbert Spencer. And, what’s more, if we think of open marriage as having emerged from the fug of the swingin’ sixties, forget it. Our possible Lady Chatterley, Ottoline, was into it decades prior.

Lady Ottoline Violet Anne Morrell was born a Cavendish-Bentinck in 1873. She was related, in a convoluted fashion, to the Duke of Wellington and became a lady due to her half-brother’s inheritance of a dukedom.

lady otto morrell

Her first love affair was with an older man, doctor come writer Axel Munthe. He was besotted and proposed, but was summarily rejected as he was atheist, she possessing a fervent love of her god. She soon rebounded an accepted advances from MP Phillip Morrell – a man of similar views on art and politics. He was, though, a notorious chaser of skirt and perhaps even slightly deranged, in that charming British way. They wed in 1902. They had an ‘understanding’ that the bit about the marriage vows that concerned fidelity didn’t apply to them. His rakish ways ensured he had more that a few pregnancies to deal with and Ottoline helped out by caring for any little bastards that came along from his loins. They weren’t without affection for each other and a daughter, Julian, arrived – her twin brother sadly dying at birth. But it wasn’t all one-way traffic. Various notables shared her bed, the most long lasting being Bertrand Russell. Their passion for each other saw over two thousand letters being exchanged. Others included Augustus John, the gardener of course and for a bit of variety, Dora Carrington – Lady O features briefly in the eponymous film of Dora’s life. There was a longish list of lesser lights of both genders who may, or may not, have – all involved in the arts in one way or another – except the horticulturist, although he moonlighted as a mason as well.

Although not overly wealthy by the standards of the day, the couple, nonetheless, at their height, supported two significant properties – Carsington Manor outside Oxford and a London town-house in Bedford Square – where else but in the suburb of Bloomsbury. Like moths to a flame the infamous habitués of that locale gathered at both locations to enjoy the hospitality of the intriguing couple – for she was exotic and different, to say the least, was Ottoline. TS Elliott was a regular, as well as Graham Greene whilst a tyro. During the Great War, Lytton Strachey sheltered with them while he fought off – sorry about the pun – the powers to be who wanted him at the front. Siegfried Sassoon recovered from his wounds at Carsington and was encouraged to go AWOL. You see the Morrells were committed pacifists, becoming none too popular in certain quarters due to their stance.

Straightened financial times came for the bohemian duo after the war, causing them to consolidate with a single, smaller residence. But their circle continued to grow to include Yeats, LP Hartley, DH himself and Virginia Woolf. Both Morrells fell under the latter’s thrall and became infatuated, but there is no evidence the great Woolf succumbed to their advances. Ottoline’s fervour for her religion, at odds with most of her set; her eccentricity in dress (vaguely Elizabethan) and her haughty demeanour, some suggesting covering up crippling shyness, only added to her status. But she became blighted by ill-health, being diagnosed with cancer in 1928. As a result she lost a portion of her lower jaw. She was greatly mourned in 1938 when she passed away, losing her battle, thanks to an administration of an experimental drug to ease her pain which, well, certainly did so.

Lady Ottoline Morrell by Adolf de Meyer ca. 1912

In death she left a legacy to us all. One of her rivals for the ardour of Russell, actress and writer Constance Malleson (her too devotee of the open marriage notion), based a novel around her life. Numerous others, including Huxley, Greene and Alan Bennett used her uniqueness to place a like woman in their works. Lawrence’s temptress, Hermoine Roddice, in ‘Women in Love’ he has acknowledged as being based on her, much to Ottoline’s distress at the time. So it seems a fair bet that her indiscretions with a man of the soil gave him the nub of an idea for another novel. She also had a fondness for photography. Google will take you to sites where you can view her portraits of the many celebrities of the day who graced her residences with their presence – fascinating. And in turn many artists placed her likeness on canvas – Augustus John among them. Cecil Beaton had his camera with him when he visited.

As was stated in an obituary of her, Ottoline had a ‘…great love for all things true and beautiful which she had more than anyone else…(and) no one can ever know the immeasurable good she did.’ Henry James describes her as ‘…some gorgeous heraldic creature – a Gryphon perhaps or a Dragon Volant.’ But let’s leave the last word to DH himself who wrote of Hermoine Roddice in ‘Women in Love’ – ‘Her long, pale face, that she carried lifted up, somewhat in the Rossetti fashion, seemed almost drugged, as if a strange mass of thoughts coiled in the darkness within her.’ That was Lady Ottoline – she was a one off.

The Lady’s photography =

Dark Lady

We have just one image of her, a miniature, painted by Nicholas Hilliard, noted at the time for his mini-images of the shakers and movers of the Elizabethan world. Who was she? Well she was/is in the mix with the likes of Christopher Marlowe, Edward de Vere, Francis Bacon and others. A woman you might cry, as others have! A woman suspected of ghost writing Shakespeare’s plays! Preposterous has been the common refrain to the notion. But why not? Given, the evidence is by and large circumstantial as with all the other candidates – but, it is there. As there is for an affair with the playwright in 1598 – perhaps in doing so giving the poor fellow a dose of the clap. There is increasing suggestion that she was the ‘Dark Lady’ he refers to in his sonnets, produced the following year – the ‘dark’ being a linkage because of her Mediterranean complexion. It is not unknown for a famous man in his middle age – age 33 was considered this back then – to be bewitched by a known beauty. Think, dare I say it, Rupert Murdoch and Jerry Hall. Shakespeare had made certain promises to his Anne back in Stratford, but he was a low ebb through these years due to the death of his son. He’d be no doubt susceptible to her advances – and she certainly was not backward in coming forward, as we know from her history in contemporary sources. It is all certainly very interesting.

Emilia lanier01

Emilia Lanier was, from all accounts, stunningly beautiful and out to use her assets to work her way to the top of the pile – to the degree a maiden could in those times. Much of what we know of her wantonness comes from her doctor. Doctor was a very loose term back then – they were as much astrologists as medical practitioners and it is possible that the good Dr Simon Foreman was also very keen to bed her as well. It is thought he was rebuffed. He was one of the first to religiously keep notes on his patients, but there weren’t too many scruples involved in the information those notes contained. He refers to the young miss as one ‘to lie upon’ – women of easy virtue were termed ‘mattresses’ in the common vernacular. Lanier, around the time in question, was certainly moving in the same circles as William S. With her looks and being forward by disposition, there would be no doubt she’d be known to him – but many suggest there was far more to their relationship. Some of these ‘many’ are experts, particularly of his sonnets. But there is a great deal of drawing of a long bow between having a fling and the woman actually penning some of his plays. But she did have another string to her bow. At a time when it was frowned on for one of the fairer gender being engaged in such pursuits, in 1611 Emilia came out of the shadows and published her own book of poetry – the first English lady to do so. She was 42 by this stage – and ‘Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum’ (‘Hail, God, King of the Jews’) is a milestone. So, she had literary chops – but did she employ them on the great bard’s behalf. Even if there is not nearly enough evidence for this admittedly far-fetched claim, surely for the feat of being Britain’s first recognised poetess, it would be enough to have her join the pantheon of ground-breaking protofeminists (definition – the term is applied to a woman in a philosophical tradition anticipating modern feminist concepts, who lived in an era when the term “feminist” was unknown, that is, prior to the 20th century). There is, as well, much we do not know about her. Decades of her life are lost to the record. So here’s what we have ascertained about the ‘Dark Lady’ – and it is fascinating.

Lanier was born Aemilia Bassano in Bishopsgate in 1570-ish. Her father was an Italian – and possibly Jewish, hence her looks. He was a musician at Elizabeth’s court. Her mother was one Margret Johnson. When her father died at age six or seven she was sent to live with, or to serve, Susan Berlie, the Countess of Kent. For the rest of her childhood she resided with a number of the influential women of her time – thus possibly her strong streak of independence exhibited later in life? Soon after turning eighteen Ms Bassano became the mistress of Henry Carey, a baron some forty-five years her senior. She became pregnant to him, which was unfortunate as the imminent birth caused her to be palmed off to marry a cousin, Alfonso Lanier, another court musician. By this stage Mrs Lanier, as a heavyweight’s bit on the side, had accrued a fair amount of capital. But her wastrel hubby soon disposed of that in a short period of time, exercising his rights as a man. This found her heavily in debt. Needless to say the marriage was not a happy one – as the good Doctor Foreman was only too willing to report in his notes. A son was born to her in ’93, followed by a short-lived daughter. She was by now, though, a regular at court, as was the dramatist – and so the speculation begins. Into the picture comes a younger paramour, one William Herbert, whom Shakespeare also adored. Some have suggested it was a triangular tryst, others that the Bard was insanely jealous of Emilia’s relationship and of being usurped in her affections. All rumour, mind you, but where there’s smoke there may well be fire. William Herbert also figures in his sonnets.

We have no idea how all this panned out, or if indeed there really is any substance to the allegations at all. The next we know she is publishing her poetry. And again, after that, little is to be found. It has been discerned her husband departed this earth and she tried to support herself by running a school, but that all came to zilch when she became involved in legal action over some unpaid rent money, causing a fall from grace. In 1630 she sued a relative of her deceased husband’s over more owed monies. She died in 1645, being described on the death certificate as a pensioner.

Summing up, it would be a strange kettle of fish to discover that the hand that held the quill penning some of WS’s works was in fact that of a woman. But I reckon we’ll never conclusively know that, as is the case with the other pretenders. But whatever she may or may not have been to William S, I am of the opinion that as a flag-bearer for the cause of women, in a period that decidedly was a man’s world, she deserves credit and greater fame – as opposed to infamy. There is more than a tinge of mystery with this woman who, through her verse, attempted to give advice to her gender about loyalty to each other and the rampant male misogyny of the time. Here’s her take on my gender:-

Forgetting they were born of woman, nourished of women, and that if it were not by the means of women they would be quite extinguished out of the world, and a final end of them all, do like vipers deface the wombes wherein they were bred.
And here’s a taste of her work in ‘Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum’ :-


Thrice happy women ! that obtain’d such grace
From Him whose worth the world could not containe,
Immediately to turne about his face,
As not remembering his great griefe and paine,
To comfort you, whose teares povvr’d forth apace
On Flora’s bankes, like showers of April’s raine :
Your cries inforced mercie, grace, and loue,
From Him whom greatest princes would not moue.

To speake one word, nor once to lift his eyes,
Vnto proud Pilate—no, nor Herod, king,
By all the questions that they would deuise,
Could make him answere to no manner of thing:
Yet these poore women, by their piteous cries,
Did mooue their Lord, their louer, and their king,
To take compassion, turne about and speake
To them whose hearts were ready now to breake.

A Fine Fandango

Faith passed in 1956, age 46. She had recently moved to Chicago in another fruitless attempt to find some work. She lifted the window of her hotel room and attempted to jump out. Her room-mate, store clerk Ruth Bishop, made a desperate lunge and managed to grab a handful of some skirt, but couldn’t hang on. Faith fell two storeys onto the roof of a lower building. Ruth raised the alarm and when rescuers reached Faith she was still breathing, but later died in hospital. As an act of charity the American Guild of Variety Artists paid for the burial of penniless Faith Bacon.

Sally passed in 1979, age 67. Only a few years previous she was still vamping it up, playing Madison Square Garden in 1972. She spent her last days in a comfortable hospital bed in sunny California, although, as with Faith, she too was in debt. Sammy Davis Jr forked out the ten thousand dollars required for a flash funeral. He did it out of respect for Sally Rand.

Burlesque has its roots in the literature of past centuries, classical music, the music halls and pantomimes of the UK as well as the freedoms allowed for during the Jazz Age. After this, the fun police almost managed to snuff it out during the more censorious decades that followed. At its best burlesque is an art form, at it’s worst just a sleazy excuse for tawdry striptease – without the tease – aiming at the raincoat brigade. But during its golden age Faith Bacon and Sally Rank ranked high amongst its brightest lights. And they both claimed to have invented it. At one stage Faith took Sally to court to settle the issue once and for all.

At the pinnacle of her fame Faith was billed as America’s most beautiful dancer. She gained her start, though, in a faraway place – gay Paree. In fact it was a meeting with Maurice Chevalier that initiated her on the path to, sadly, only brief success. Amongst other roles in his revue she used bubbles and flowers to hide her apparent nakedness from the audience. In the late twenties she returned to the States and started performing there. She was obliged to conform with the increasing restrictiveness on what state of dress – or lack of it – one could appear on stage in. She also started to include Broadway productions in her activities, quickly rising to the lead in many of them. Some of these were under the guidance of prominent venue owner Karl Carroll and between them they came up with a novel routine to get around the obscenity laws. It was this that took her on to gigs with the prestigious Ziegfeld Follies and to strut her new moves at Chicago’s World Fair in 1933. And it was at this event she first encountered Sally.

faith bacon01

Faith B

Ms Rand, born Hattie Beck in Missouri, became a chorus girl in Kansas City at the tender age of 13. She caught the eye of that burb’s leading theatre critic, Goodman Ace (great name that), so her stocks rose considerably enabling her to make her way to Hollywood via Ringling Brothers Circus. Once in LA she took to touring in summer stock productions alongside a very young Humphrey Bogart. She quickly rose up the ladder, acting in silent movies under the auspices of Cecil B DeMille. And when the talkies came along, any time a certain dance was needed, she was the go-to girl. She was also invited to take her version of the by now famous routine, with an astonishing resemblance to Bacon’s, to the Chicago World Fair.

By now I figure most reading will have worked out that their oh so similar teasing dance was perhaps, along with the one requiring seven veils, the most common and long-lasting of routines associated with burlesque – the fan dance.

Faith’s career headed rapidly in a downward spiral after ’33. Fame went to her head and she started to make preposterous demands of those prepared to employ her – the number of which became fewer and fewer as time went on. Also, she developed a fondness of suing whenever there was any perceived reason. In 1936, whilst on stage. she fell through a glass drum upon which she was strutting her stuff, suffering cuts that somewhat disfigured her thighs. She demanded the then astronomical sum of a hundred grand in her law suit. She settled, though, out of court for a measly five and immediately squandered it on diamonds.

faith bacon03

Faith B

Meanwhile Sally went from strength to strength after the World Fair. Her notoriety spread, partly due to the publicity she garnered when she performed her version of the fan dance whilst riding down one of the Windy City’s main thoroughfares on a horse. Fortunately there was only a gentle breeze blowing that day. ‘Bolero’, a precursor of the Bo Derek vehicle, carried her exotic dancing to millions via the silver screen. She was body painted by Max Factor to promote his new range of make-up and she purchased her very own music hall in San Francisco. Her stage-work became even more risqué, providing all sorts of great fodder for the tabloids of the day. There were encounters with the ever present and aforementioned fun police, although judges, for whatever reason, could never seem to find anything lewd at all in what she did in her shows. She was still raising eyebrows into her dotage, giving audiences what they wanted, a taste of a golden age, in various revival shows around the country.

sally rand01

Sally R

But back in 1938 the luckless Faith had had enough of Sally usurping her right to claim the fan dance as her own. This time Ms Bacon hit on the sum of $370000 in terms of damage Rand had inflicted on her career because of her obviously erroneous claims as to the provenance of the dance. She wanted a judge to forbid Sally performing it whilst the whole matter was sorted. The latter was quick to counter in court that neither of them invented the routine – why,it was as old as the ages. Cleopatra was the first known exponent, performing it to entice a Roman notable or two. It was all quite ludicrous and the official presiding saw it that way too, throwing it out. Bacon continued to perform it sporadically after losing her claim, but yet another failed attempt at taking legal proceedings against a revue manager marked the end. This time she alleged that a promoter had attached tacks to the boards of a stage where she was about to dance in bare feet. By the fifties she was a sad figure begging around stage doors, a bag lady in fact. Her unfortunate end was close.

So be it due to Faith Bacon, Sally Rand or, indeed, Cleopatra, burlesque was thus given a Pandora’s Box of possibilities to build variations on. These have sustained the art form through the hard times into a new era, in recent years, of prominence. Many simply crave taste above crass.

sally rand02

Sally R

Both Sally and Faith can be viewed teasing with their interpretations on YouTube. We’ll never know the true inventor, but we can still enjoy the results.

Faith performing routine =

Sally performing routine =


‘You know he promised me, don’t you Mr Gainsborough. Promised me the world he did – my prince, my Florizel. And now he’s thrown me over for that wicked slattern, that foul strumpet Elizabeth Armistead. But you’d know all about that wouldn’t you, Mr Gainsborough? It’s been in the daily gazettes. They’re doing well from my woes, they are. I’ve made sure of that. I have connections you know. And I have his letters too, Mr Gainsborough. Those letters are a godsend to me. And very saucy they are too. He was absolutely besotted – and I will use them too if needs be, Mr Gainsborough. If needs be I’ll cause much embarrassment for his royal person. Him a future king and all. Why, he’ll be a laughing stock forever and a day. Some of the things, sir, that young scallywag wanted me to do you would not believe. Fair maiden that I am, I could hardly contemplate them myself. Begged me to do them, he did. But I am a proper girl with a proper upbringing, as you can no doubt tell, Mr Gainsborough, being a well lived man yourself, sir. And that young hare-brain knows I will tell. Tell all I will. I’ll hold nothing back if I do not get what has been guaranteed to me. If I cannot return to him he’ll rue the day what he promised me after he saw me on Mr Garrick’s stage and wished for some favours from me. Conspired to meet me he did. Made it his business then to insure that we were alone before he put his proposition to me. What was a fair maid to do in that situation? I told him, I did, that I was a married woman with a daughter, but he insisted, he truly did. Twenty thousand pounds he promised if I were to fulfil his needs, Mr Gainsborough. Twenty thousand on him reaching his coming of age he would pass to me in bank notes for my labours. Have I seen a penny of it, sir? Wretchedly done by I am. Wretchedly treated by him. He’s reneged and I want justice. He was so very green back then. Only seventeen. I taught him well in the boudoir, I did, perhaps too well. Methinks I shouldn’t be talking to you like this, but you are of an age to be worldly, Mr Gainsborough. Surely you do not object. And that is why I am here, Mr Gainsborough. I am imploring you to assist me in getting back what is rightfully mine.


And now, look what has become of me. That bitch only had to flash her boobies and what-not at him and he was goggle-eyed for her, he was. He treated me like a fat tub of lard, he did. I am not having it, sir! He tells me I’m finished, he does. And after all I done for him. Silly fool. But I’ll not be bettered Mr Gainsborough, I will not.

Now, as to why I am here in your studio, Mr Gainsborough, you ask? Well I want to show him, I do. Show him what he is missing, for you see, I still have feelings for my Florizel, good sir. You are the greatest painter in the land. No, don’t shake your head at me. You are and I am not the only one who says it. You have painted many a pretty woman and made them bedazzle, made them most comely indeed. And many not so pretty, I dare say, as well. You’d made them appear ever so beautiful too, although no doubt it took great mastery of your art to do so. Tizzy them up you do and make them look fit for a king. Now I don’t need too much of that dabbing here and dabbing there to improve my looks, Mr Gainsborough. I just ask you to paint what you see and I will do the rest. I want the whole of London to see what that silly boy has done to me, tossing me aside for that scarlet floozy. And if he still hasn’t come to his senses after he appraises my painting when it is finished, I’ll publish those letters. I truly will Mr Gainsborough. He’ll be red-faced. He’ll be a laughing stock. He will. I’ll not be bettered by him – or anyone else.

Maybe it went something like that – maybe it was completely different. There’s no way of knowing, but the above is my imagining of it – the conversation between the most famous mistress in the land and a renowned artist, one whose fame lasts till this day. The outcome was an art work that helped symbolise an age.


Mary Robinson, Mrs Robinson – known to all as Perdita, was the future George IV’s first mistress, well before the Regency and his eventual crowning as king. The woman, born Mary Darby, was around the twenty mark when she returned to London. Her triumph was in the David Garrick’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s ‘The Winter’s Tale’. As well as all of the city, she dazzled the young prince and he made it his business to arrange a clandestine meeting with the beguiling actress. Mary, disastrously married to a gold-digging wastrel to whom she had borne a daughter, jumped at the opportunities such a connection would provide for her. He became her Florziel, after the play’s hero. He also made generous monetary promises to her in return for her presence in his chamber, on the proviso she left the stage. Her star rose very quickly, but only for a few brief years was she a future monarch’s plaything. Her fame, as opposed to infamy, was to lay elsewhere – after she acquired a more sophisticated relationship with the language of her realm. But it was during these years on a prince’s arm, however, that she became a trend-setter, equivalent to today’s celebrities. She introduced to society ladies a looser style of fashion, the Perdita. This eponymous item was a flowing Grecian-style gown revolutionising the look of a woman of society.

The Prince, now educated, soon tired of her and began his liaisons with a long list of beauties out to make the most of their charms while they still possessed them. Later on this was to even involve a secret marriage with a commoner (Mrs Herbert), before he gained the throne with poor Caroline of Brunswick as his Queen. He loathed her.


But Mrs Robinson, like her famous cinematic namesake last century, was a force to be reckoned with. Gainsborough, for whatever reason, painted her – several times. Look closely in the  image and one can see a miniature held in Perdita’s hand – this in turn a likeness of the lover who jilted her, her prince. That sent a powerful message to the future highness concerning his promises made to her, as well as to the public who’d soon pick up on a certain fact. This lady never forgets.

It dawned on the Prince that she was fully prepared to bring him down. He initiated discussions to prevent his name being further dragged through the mud. Eventually the two came to an agreement over the letters – but she only ended up receiving a minuscule amount compared to the sum signed off on. But by then she had other irons in the fire – she had moved on.

Despite being partially paralysed by an infection, caused by a miscarriage, Mrs Robinson was now engaged in a long, lust-ridden affair with a hero of the American Revolutionary Wars, one Banastre Tarleton – she was later to base her novel, ‘The Patriot’, around his exploits. This relationship didn’t end happily for her either, but at least it took fifteen years to play out. Tarleton took a less blemished maiden to the altar.

And then she had this:- London’s Summer Morning

Who has not waked to list the busy sounds
Of summer’s morning, in the sultry smoke
Of noisy London? On the pavement hot
The sooty chimney-boy, with dingy face
And tattered covering, shrilly bawls his trade,
Rousing the sleepy housemaid. At the door
The milk-pail rattles, and the tinkling bell
Proclaims the dustman’s office; while the street
Is lost in clouds impervious. Now begins
The din of hackney-coaches, waggons, carts;
While tinmen’s shops, and noisy trunk-makers,
Knife-grinders, coopers, squeaking cork-cutters,
Fruit-barrows, and the hunger-giving cries
Of vegetable-vendors, fill the air.
Now every shop displays its varied trade,
And the fresh-sprinkled pavement cools the feet
Of early walkers. At the private door
The ruddy housemaid twirls the busy mop,
Annoying the smart ’prentice, or neat girl,
Tripping with band-box lightly. Now the sun
Darts burning splendor on the glittering pane,

Save where the canvas awning throws a shade
On the gay merchandise. Now, spruce and trim,
In shops (where beauty smiles with industry)
Sits the smart damsel; while the passenger
Peeps through the window, watching every charm.
Now pastry dainties catch the eye minute
Of humming insects, while the limy snare
Waits to enthrall them. Now the lamp-lighter
Mounts the tall ladder, nimbly venturous,
To trim the half-filled lamps, while at his feet
The pot-boy yells discordant! All along
The sultry pavement, the old-clothes-man cries
In tone monotonous, while sidelong views
The area for his traffic: now the bag
Is slyly opened, and the half-worn suit
(Sometimes the pilfered treasure of the base
Domestic spoiler), for one half its worth,
Sinks in the green abyss. The porter now
Bears his huge load along the burning way;
And the poor poet wakes from busy dreams,
To paint the summer morning

In later life she became known, by one and all, not for her Kardashian lifestyle, but for her literary achievements. Perdita was put aside for a new appellation, the ‘English Sappho’, in tribute of her poetry. In all she penned six novels on top of her versifying. Her crowning glory is that, along with her contemporary, Mary Wollstonecraft, she was a leading advocate for women’s rights of the era. Eventually, though, her affliction worsened. In 1800 she succumbed to it.

hoppner mary robinson

For us there is a certain notoriety attached to the name Mrs Robinson, but I doubt that even the subject of Benjamin Braddock’s ardour in ‘The Graduate’ could match the original Mrs Robinson’s place in the annals of women to be reckoned with.

The Lecturer and the Thirk

He made his appearance in 1931. Let’s see. That’s exactly twenty years before my good self so that’d make him 84. And as far as I know, he’s still on the planet. Born Owen, he obviously preferred his second name of Michael. His first publication was in 1963 – a book on an early governor of colonial Oz, Philip Gidley King. His last recorded, around forty years later, detailed the wreck of a vessel back in early settlement days, the George the Third. He is credited with helping ‘…inspire the revival of scholarly interest in Tasmanian history.’ He departed from academia in 1996 – I’m hoping my retirement years will be as numerous as his. He was a lecturer of mine.

Soaking in fragrant suds this morning I endeavoured to recall the names of all the others who attempted to inspire me from a lectern during my own university days in the fervent early seventies. There were Johnston and Guiler in biology; also Rose in history; Boyce in political science and Cotgrove in geography. I know there are more – some I can picture – but their names are lost to me. The most awesome figure on campus back then was James McAuley – a versifier of exquisite quality and an Angry Penguins survivor. By then he had a reputation as a crabby old bugger but, to my later regret, he never addressed a lecture room I was seated in. But I certainly recollect Professor (gained at Cambridge and the ANU) Michael Roe. Tweedy in dress – as so many were – bespectacled, blonde-ish, upright in stance and invariably dour of expression, he was neither performer nor waffler. But he was thorough. With Roe you were getting value for the money, back then, that taxpayers were sinking into your tertiary education. No, he wasn’t inspirational, but he was well grounded and copiously prepared in his areas of historical expertise. In other words, he knew his stuff and did his level best to ensure that you did too.


Now to the Thirk. I first encountered him, not in real life, as with Professor Roe, but in print. This took the form of a weighty tome entitled ‘The Sex Lives of Australians’. Despite its subject manner and a cover recommendation from no less of a figure than Michael Kirby, I found it a bit of a plod. The author, Frank Bongiorno, has since written a definitive history of our country in the eighties that’s meant to be the last word on the decade, but I won’t be buying into it. ‘TSLOA’ was pretty scholarly – evidenced by a dozen or so footnotes per page. Now and again, though, its dullness was enlivened by tantalising titbits that I felt, with some more filling out, could make for pretty good yarns for blogging purposes. And it was reading the fifth chapter, entitled ‘Tabbies, Amateurs and the Cream of Australian Manhood’ that I was introduced to the Thirk. What immediately attracted me to him was that he was obviously a Tasmanian who went on to have a most interesting life. As was stated in said book, quoting Hobart’s daily newspaper, ‘For a man from a downwardly mobile family living in an untidy suburb (Foster Street, New Town to be exact) where yesterday’s ‘Mercury’ (aforementioned daily) was today’s dunny paper…’ our hero had a very promising coming of age during the Great War years, particularly on the soil of the mother country. During that era he married into fame – but then it all went belly up.

George Lancelot Allnutt Thirkell was born, in 1891, in today’s tourist town of Richmond and was educated at Hutchins, the island’s premier school. This fact would lead one to believe that his family circumstances weren’t totally poverty stricken. On both sides his parents were several generations Tasmanian. His father’s people had been here since the 1820s, building a fine estate in the Midlands, Darlington Park, making him a descendant of local squattocracy. His mother’s forebears ran the coaching service between the colony’s two cities.

Come the conflict our man, with such lineage, was from early on seen as worthy of a commission – a lieutenant in the Engineers no less, based on the slant his education and talents took. A photo of him, published in the Tasmanian Mail, just before embarkation, shows a fellow described as ‘…a youth in chocolate soldier uniform, intent expression, an air of simplicity, even sweetness…rather long and sharp featured with slightly protruding ears, a strong face rather than handsome.’ And it was his very good fortune to be wounded at Gallipoli.

His brief few paragraphs in ‘The Sex Lives of Australians’ also describes him as feckless (def- useless, worthless, incompetent, inept, good-for-nothing, ne’er-do-well), but none-the-less charming. The author was able to deduce this as he had researched the man’s war diaries, held by the War Museum in Canberra.

His wounds in the nation’s revered campaign were serious enough to have him removed to England. There part of his recuperation was spent at Glamis Castle in Scotland, the seat of the Strathmores. Here the Thirk was under the charge of the Earl and his wife. Their daughter, Bongiorno reports, was ‘..a great admirer of men in uniform.’ and she and the Thirk became friends. I was interested to know if there was more to it that just friendship, as around this time this particular man in uniform was starting to garner some sort of reputation with the ladies. This blue-blooded daughter was none other than Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, a comely seventeen year old who would no doubt have attracted other desires in the charismatic Taswegian. As we all know, this lass later went on to marry the future George VI, himself having to be rescued by the Firm from the clutches of an antipodean temptress, causing the necessity to find a sweet diversion of a more suitable nature – Elizabeth. Our future Queen Mum, one would imagine, would have had to have been pure and unsullied to wed a prince – but as, at that stage, he wasn’t the heir to the throne, would that have mattered so much? I resolved to delve into cyberspace to see if there was any evidence of ‘impropriety’ between the two.


What I discovered was that Elizabeth’s family became so enamoured of our Hobart charmer that, once his wounds had sufficiently healed enough for him to depart their care, he was constantly invited back for sleepovers – a break from encampment life on the Salisbury Plain. There was a brief taking of leave back to Australia, but from his base on the Plain the Thirk made many forays to London. His newly acquired connections provided entry into the high society of the capital and there he attracted the eye of many a bejewelled damsel. His eventually fell on one belle, Hinda, who had French royal blood in her veins. There is all sorts of innuendo of what he got up to with Hinda in his diaries – references to dalliances in the back seat of taxis and when she was left in his ‘…tender care…’ by her ever-trusting parents. Why the feckless fellow even described the nature of her knickers, presumably as comfort for what lay ahead in the trenches of the Western Front. All this was occurring whilst he was receiving mail from his sweetheart back in Hobs. Then, towards the last year of the war, the Thirk met Angela McInnes and Borngiorno moved on to other matters. But I needed to know what became of the Tasmanian thereafter.

The ether told me that McInnes was a soon-to-be divorced woman, mother of two sons and it seemed a very rushed business her meeting of, squiring by and marriage to the Thirk. But then it was war-time, one never knew what was around the corner, so time was of the essence. The now Angela Thirkell was soon to become a noted author, far more in the limelight, on-line, than her husband who, after 1918, recedes into the background. He became a mere footnote to her. But we do know that the marriage was a disaster, as so many were, organised in such haste in uncertain times. Angela herself was of prominent stock, being related to Edward Burne-Jones of New Romantics fame, as well as Rudyard Kipling and PM Stanley Baldwin. In 1911 she was wedded to Campbell McInnes, a man with a reputation for promiscuity. She divorced him in 1919, citing his adultery, alcoholism and wife-beating. With the Thirk she was obviously on the rebound.

angela thirkell

In 1920 the couple left Old Blighty for the Thirk’s homeland. After a brief stay in Hobs – maybe too provincial for Mrs Thirkell’s tastes – they settled down in Melbourne and proceeded to have a son of their own, Lance. But it all soon soured. The Thirk’s missus was never one to withhold her abhorrence of her new environs and its denizens – uncouth colonial clods. It was only a matter of time. The draw of her own drizzly birth-land was eventually too much and she headed for home with their son. Her husband did not follow. They never saw each other again nor divorced – although she was not adverse to later affairs. With her return came literary fame. She, in thinly veiled form, recorded her time with the Australian in her novel ‘Trooper for the Southern Cross’. Her son, Colin, later added to the descriptions of their years together in his seminal ‘Road to Gundagai’. Neither were entirely unfavourable to the man, but obviously the distance between husband and wife was not aided by his own shortcomings. A noted historian stated, ‘The fevers of sex and war had done their work.’ on the relationship.

And its with their parting that cyberspace ends its recollection of the Thirk. Most of the above was garnered from various biographical articles on Angela. Of course, what I also desired to know, given there was still a long life ahead of the man, was how it all turned out for him. And here Michael Roe, my old lecturer, as well as the ‘noted historian’ from the previous paragraph, rides to the rescue. One of the aforementioned articles came with a reference to an article the good professor had written for the Meanjin Quarterly in December, 1969 – the year before I commenced my university studies at today’s UTAS. The excellent ladies at the State Library delved into their archives for me and produced what I required, for, with ‘Thirk: A Tragic Australian’, Roe takes the tale through to its conclusion.

From his account I discovered the Thirk completed his war as a captain and witnessed the end of Baron von Richthofen – in his diaries recording he believed the great German ace to have been shot down from the ground by a fellow digger. He also enlightens on just how our colonial lad met his future ‘…archetype of the English upper middle class..’ of a wife. He even pinpoints the date of this occurrence – September 9th, 1917. Roe refers to the man’s diaries, stating how the Thirk found his future stepsons to be ‘…two dear little kiddies.’ whilst referring to her ex with the words ‘…it beats me how a fellow can neglect such a lovely little soul (Angela) and such glorious kids.’ One of these kids later wrote of the occasion that his mother was entranced by GAL Thirkell’s looks, he being, in her view, ‘…a handsome captain with dark brown hair and freckles in the irises of his eyes.’ His ‘…strange, twangy lilt.’ helped win her over; not the only time the Aussie accent has worked its magic on hearts from the other hemisphere.

But, as we have seen, the rosiness of the couple’s first meeting was not to last. On the way home Thirkell displayed some gallantry in defusing a mutiny by fellow troopers at the conditions on board their ship. This placed him in an admirable light as far as his wife was concerned. In Melbourne, though, he soon went to seed. Angela herself won few friends with her reported peevishness and putting-down of most souls the couple came in contact with socially. The Thirk sought solace in the whiskey bottle. He spent most of his free time away from his shrewish wife, either at his club or with his nose buried in his stamp collection – a lifelong infatuation. As the bitterness between husband and wife increased, so did the Thirk’s girth. He, for a time, did okay in the workforce, being the managing director of an engineering firm – he is credited with patenting a tennis net stretching mechanism as a claim to fame. But, as with so many, when the Great Depression hit, his business closed. It was at this time Angela signalled she had had enough and deserted him. With these combined failures Roe reports he became ‘…an increasingly pathetic figure.’

Angela’s son Graham continued to remain in contact with him, stating that throughout his troubles his charm won a few favours back from old army mates in the form of some employment. By nature, it seems, he remained extremely generous with what little monies he was still able to accrue. But, eventually, his lack of funds started to show. His suits were shiny with age, his cuffs frayed, his homburg hat ancient and stained. One day stepfather and stepson met for lunch in a Melbourne hostelry. Over plates of oysters the younger informed the elder that he was next off to Canada to search for his real father. On hearing this the Thirk reached over and placed his hand on Colin’s arm and asked of him that, after chasing down his parent in the land of the maple leaf, please could he ‘… go on to see …(his) Mother (in the UK)… and just tell her I want her to come back.’ McInnes left with a vision of ‘…his sad brown face and long bloodhound nose…’ watching him go.

But a tragedy Michael Roe? Had his life continued its downward spiral then, yes, that would have been the case. But sometime during the years of the second worldwide conflict last century the Thirk found a soul-mate. Roe wasn’t forthcoming with many details – perhaps there was simply not any historical record pointing to her identity. But they were together, in one form or another, for nineteen years – up till his death in 1959. The woman inherited his estate of around one thousand pounds – his beloved stamp collection went to Lance. He suffered from diabetes, as well, in his final years. At least he seems he had someone by his side to share his life. So a tragedy? No, I don’t think so.

Still it remains that the days of his pomp came early during those years he helped defend the Empire. The Hobartian had hobnobbed within the top echelons of the English upper classes for a blissful period, although undoubtedly the fighting on the Western Front provided a sobering counter. He married a woman, destined for fame, with top-notch antecedents, if somewhat on the hoity-toity side when it came to her view of her station in life. And as for the initial reason for examining my fellow islander’s life? Well there was no hint of anything improper between a future Queen and the ‘feckless’ Taswegian. But it does seem to me that, as with another lad from Hobart who cut a swathe through the international jet-set a little later in the century just past, the Thirk deserves a bit more exposure. And it’s the type of synchronicity I just love that it was Michael Roe who rounded off his life for me, providing a Tasmanian yarn to savour.


My Old Professor