Tuesday, March 22, 2011


I first recall Kings Cross in the late 1930s, regularly visiting my aunt Elaine Wagstaff in Challis Avenue. We would almost immediately be sent for a walk! My aunt was quite fastidious and you know how children are, touching everything! She lived with "Uncle" Kurt Hervig who was an émigré from Vienna, he had a beautiful white grand piano which we were only allowed to look at. He was a pianist in the music department for the ABC. In the photo they are wearing matching suits which is quite extraordinary. She already had a daughter, from an earlier relationship, who was at boarding college. I suppose it was easier to live in a more "Bohemian" area, where living out of wedlock would be more acceptable at the time. I think there was some Chinese in the family from the gold rush times but I was never able to find out. So I would say, it was another reason to reside in the area. We had heard that you could go and get your newspaper in your dressing gown and slippers, which was, we thought, just amazing. Very Bohemian!

I was attending National Art School from around 1951, three nights a week for four years. We girls would go away for weekends and at a dance on one of these trips I met a man named Eric Turton who was an interior decorator. I said to him "How do you get to be that"? And he said "you go to art school" - next thing I was enrolling. It was that easy! The first night I remember I had this yellow rayon duster coat on, of course I was very out of place and totally unsuited to an art school life! It wasn't too long before I was trying to look more the part, but soon I realised, I didn't have to do anything. I really was a Bohemian. This was really the end of my childhood and knowing only a family life. I met people who became friends like Kevin Tenney and Ken Muggleston 1, He worked at Metro Goldwyn-Mayer during the day. from there I got to know people in the editing department at MGM. We didn't use the word "gay" then and it wasn't until later we realised that quite a few people we went to art school with were. I knew the gay scene well in the 60's but we called it "camp" then.

You only know your family and then suddenly you go out into the world and meet people from all sorts of different places.

Occasionally we would cross Darlinghurst Road to "Repins". It was a long narrow café which I chiefly remember you got a second cup of coffee free. There was a block of flats, called St. John’s Flats (they’re still there) opposite St. Johns Church (120 Darlinghurst Road), and I would gaze at them and think "how wonderful it would be to live here!"

In 1953 I moved into “Rosary Villa” at Darling Point. My Aunt Elaine had arranged it through the Parish Priest at Edgecliff. It was an old Hordern mansion that was run by the Sisters of St. Joseph of California for country girls who were in the city. I lived there from 1953 to around '57. By then I was about 22, working as a colour consultant at Taubman's. Most of my peer group by then were living in boarding houses like Birtley Hall and Wyldefeld gardens.

We could get a late night pass from the nuns and take the 369 bus and hang out at the Cross. There was a lot of a lot of socialising , and also a lot of balls during this time; the "Artist's Ball" and the "Art Student's Ball" were mainly at The Trocadero (near the corner of Bathurst and George Streets). Afterwards we would be in the Cross, there was a café near Springfield Plaza where we would have, of all innocent things after a ball, a bowl of porridge! Another favourite haunt in Challis Street, "The Boomerang" served "Viennese Coffee" with cream on top, and cinnamon toast - this was considered very exotic at the time! We also used to go to "The Arabia", where we would meet Bohemians - we knew Frank Howards, he was a poet. I remember he read us a poem -

Roads cannot be said to exist

Nor can they be said not to exist

But when many people pass one way

A road is made.

I've remembered it all these fifty or more years. we thought it so surreal at the time!

This advertisement is from the "Home Cafe" in Victoria Street, which was a very desirable venue between 1953-57. the lighting was candles in Chianti bottles and we thought this very modern. There was a Hungarian café run by Magnus where "The Landmark" is now. They served peppers stuffed with rice in a tomato sauce - those were the first we had seen, for the time it was very different and very interesting! "Sweethearts" (a famous cafe at 45 Darlinghurst Road) was one of the first to serve espresso.

I have always been a person who was interested in ...things, so I knew of Chica Lowe 2 a good ten years before I met her. She had a place in Elizabeth Bay after Merioola 3 in the 1940s, a boarding house and we knew Ray Blaxland who had lived there at some time in the 1940s. However he was behind with the rent and he came home to find that Chica had put him in an old motor car crate in the garden. She'd painted it pink. "I've moved you out to Lolly Lodge", she announced. She was a raconteur. I was invited to a dinner party at her place in Bondi Junction once.

The 1920's in the Cross were absolutely wild, we heard from the older people we knew. There were big parties in the William Street area with free love, as they called it, and Cocaine. We had heard about both Roie Norton 4 and Dulcie Deamer 5, they were part of our discussions. Roie's William Street cafe was later a Jazz hangout, about 1961 I recall. Dulcie I did know. At the time we belonged to the Australian Society of Writers in Clarence Street. It was a place we could get a drink after 6 O'clock Closing. We had all these haunts worked out! Dulcie would have been a member given her profession, so we probably met her there. This photo of my friend Mary McGahey and myself with Dulcie was taken around 1962 when Dulcie was in her old age, at the Art Student's Ball. And yes, I saw her do her famous splits at this event! you can see I am wearing low jeans and a rope belt. About this time I remember making and wearing my first pair of hipsters - I wore them over to Mary's house, her husband John Auld opened the door and just gaped. He quickly said "Oh...they're very...nice..." he was clearly shocked!

We associated with artistic people - painters, potters, sculptors. Folk singing was fashionable during this time. Artists I remember are John Passmore 6 , John Perceval 7, Matcham Skipper 8 and of course John Olsen 9, whom I knew very well during this time - between 1953 and about 1956. I probably met John through "The Push" 10. A friend of mine took me to the "Tudor Hotel", on Phillip street, which was one of the early "Push" pubs where they would shut the doors at 6 O' Clock and you could drink after closing. A lot of us were on the fringes of the group. I have this painting by him which is dated 1954, so that indicates the period. I saw the painting in his studio in the attic of "The Witches House", in Victoria Street, sitting on a chair and to me it looked like virgin and child. I liked it so much John gave it to me.

Later I went to England, New York and Canada, I worked at the United Nations in New York, I was away for four years. It was a chance to see some art and experience life.

When I eventually returned, about 1961 and got back to Kings Cross it was changing. in the 1950's it was really the innocent years in a lot of ways. The world was changing, so it filtered down.

I moved in with a friend of mine Ann Thomson 11 , who was also working at Taubman's. it was a converted garage around the back of Brown Street, Paddington that was dubbed "The Dustbins" by her mother! She was a very...superior sort of woman - she hated the idea of her daughter living in Well, Paddington was very cheap at that time! By the '60s artists were starting to move in - quite a few. Richard Neville 12 lived next door, and Martin Sharp 13 nearby, Charles Blackman 14 across the road from us, so it was becoming fashionable. I spent quite a bit of time living in Paddington, into the '70s.

Now I am back at the Cross, living here at the Gazebo. It's nice and level, perfect for older people really! I want to be here for the rest of my life. It's an area where things have always happened, and will continue to happen!

1 Ken Muggleston (1930, Australia) Set decorator. Won an Academy Award for Art Direction, "Oliver", 1970.

2 , 3 The Merioola Group was named for the colonial mansion in Woollahra, Sydney. Managed from 1941 by Chica Lowe, an exceptional character; she was interested in creative people as tenants, forming a Bohemian community including Donald Friend, William Dobell, Loudon Sainthill.

4 Rosaleen (Roie, Rowie) Norton (1917-1979) was a writer and artist. Her public scandals of the late forties and fifties for obscenity charges made her a household name as "The Witch of Kings Cross".

5 Dulcie Deamer (1890-1972 Deamer was an influential writer known as "The Queen of Bohemia" and notorious for doing the splits in her leopard skin, on tables at parties.

6 John Passmore, (1904- 1984) Australian painter.

7 John de Burgh Perceval AO (1923-2000) Australian artist, surviving member of a the Angry Penguins group who redefined Australian art in the 1940s. Other members included Nolan, Boyd, Tucker.

8 Matcham Skipper (1921-2011) Australian sculptor and jeweller strongly associated with Melbourne artist colony "Montsalvat". Works are represented internationally.

9 John Olsen (1928-) Australian painter, see first blog interview.

10 "The Push" was a loose group, born from forces within Sydney University, who had a rebellious approach to life that was in opposition to the conservative values of the 1950s and '60s. Most were involved in creative endeavours. Famous members: Barry Humphries, Germaine Greer, Clive James, Robert Hughes.

11 Ann Thomson (1933, Brisbane) Australian painter, has mostly lived and worked in Sydney since the mid '50s after completing studies at the National Art School in 1962. She won the Wynne Prize in 1998.

12, 13 Richard Neville (1941), Australian author who along with Pop Artist Martin Sharp, came to fame as a co-editor of the counterculture magazine "Oz" in Australia and the UK in the 1960s - early '70s.

14 Charles Blackman (1928-) Australian artist, member of the Antipodeans, a group of Melbourne painters that also included the Boyds, Perceval and Clifton Pugh.

Transcribed from an interview conducted in person with Elaine Ellis on 18 March 2011.

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