Wednesday, April 27, 2011


"Annabella's" anniversary party imagined, illustration by Darian Zam

Marien Oulton Dreyer (1911-1980), was an award-winning , prolific writer and journalist. She won the Walkley Award in 1959 for non-fiction Best Magazine Story article with ‘The Day I Wiggled My Big Toe’. Her satirical play, "Bandicoot on a Burnt Ridge", won her the Journalists’ Club award for 1962-63. A figure who was very much part of Bohemian circles in Kings Cross, she was renowned for giving annual parties for "Annabella', her wooden leg. I was privileged to be able to talk to her son Louis Cooper about her fascinating career and life, and his memories of the locale in the 1940s and 50s.

I was born in 1940 in Melbourne. We all moved to Sydney when I was about five months old, into “Harvard” at the corner of Kings Cross Road and Craigend Street. My brother Joe was born much later in 1955. The birth certificate says my parents were married 1938 . I later requested the marriage certificate and received a reply saying there was no record. My father Rod Cooper had already been married to the daughter of Sir Henry Parkes1 and presumably his quote forms the title of Marien’s more successful play-writing, "Bandicoot On A Burnt Ridge", and was an inside joke.

The period being discussed was a fairly relaxed society. I was growing up at the end of the war and King’s Cross was still essentially a village; still small enough that people knew you. I knew the area and the trouble spots; I felt comfortable and I suspect my parents didn’t worry.

People had gone through a war and wanted to make something of their lives, but they also wanted to have some fun. Ships came into the dockyard in Pott’s Point with several hundred sailors on the loose. In the early to mid 1950s the Vietnam War was underway and US forces were also in and out; Sydney was a recognized R&R centre. It seemed to be accepted, except by those who actually lived there, that The Cross was Sydney’s “red light” district. My bedroom window overlooked the street which had deep doorways . They were used for quick sex, mostly by uniformed people. The building opposite had several hookers residing and at least one bisexual man. French sailors often showed up for a romp . Windows were left open and curtains undrawn; it was a very practical sex ed class!

King’s Cross, when I was growing up, was more “raffish” than “rake-ish”. It could be that many of the “characters” one saw on the street were there because it was The Cross. In other words, they played up to the image. I wasn't aware of police harassment. I felt their attitude in King’s Cross was “so long as you don’t frighten the natives, have a good time”.

The Harvard building where the family lived, in 1966.

As a young child, I really didn’t make the connection between “regular” and “Bohemian” life. I guess I thought everyone lived that way. I was introduced to Dulcie Deamer 2, Ken Slessor 3, Tilly Devine 4 - but no memory of where or when. My memory of (Dame ) Mary Gilmore 5 is of an old, gentle lady dressed in early floating 19th century-style clothes. She had a soft voice and a somewhat salacious twinkle in her eye. “Bumper” Farrell 6 I knew later when I was a court reporter and he’d ask after Marien. Later on in my career, working for TV Week, I had free access and meals at the Chevron-Hilton on Macleay Street and interviewed many performers; Nat King Cole , Mel TormĂ©. Raymond Burr, Ricky and David Nelson. Diana Dors. The Ink Spots.

I knew Chips Rafferty 7 modestly well. He told me I had my first bath in Sydney in his kitchen sink at the Cross! Dorothea McKellar 8 was old when I met her, and she lived in a cluttered and crowded couple of rooms with lots of mementos. I seem to recall she read the first verse of "My Country" to me as a treat. I sensed Marien visited these people as an equal. She was either looking for memories to make real, or she was seeking character traits to use.

I later came to know and understand that everything was grist for her writing. Marien was writing a column for the New Idea named 'This Week with Marien Dreyer" (1955-62), which was, in effect, a “reality” column about our lives, including using our real names. She didn’t read her work out loud to us that I can recall. I did sometimes see the published result, but I didn’t often read it - why would I? I'd already lived it!

The sixteen jobs she supposedly held between 1937- 1939 (which is lore, and mentioned Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, Melbourne University Press, 1996), I have no knowledge of. I suspect she wanted and needed money. But if it is true, I’m certain all the jobs provided excellent fodder for her later writing. Background and ideas for situations - she took them from anyone and anywhere.

Marien did write a lot, or at least, to me she seemed to spend a lot of her time on a typewriter. It’s one of the reasons I suspect Rod took me out of the way while "the muse was hot". I remember Rod was working as a journalist on a magazine in a loft office and I went with him. I assume it was to get me out from under Marien and her writing. To be honest, I don’t know exactly what he did and who he worked for during much of my early life. I knew he was at AWA when television arrived in 1956, and also worked for GE. I think he was described as a “design engineer”. He seemed to have skills in aesthetics as well as practical knowledge. He didn’t talk very much about it.

Studio publicity shot of Marien, probably the late 1940s.

Rod was tall and handsome man, artistic - painting, drawing - and loved sailing. They mostly seemed to enjoy each other’s company. He was given to sudden, explosive rages and I later discovered these happened when he had been drinking. With both parents creative, some of that energy was bound to boil over into rows. In later years Rod’s drinking and Marien’s hatred of it caused a great many conflicts. I think Marien buried herself in writing.

"Annabella" the wooden leg was part of my entire life. Marien walked slowly and when I was with her I had to walk slowly too in case she needed help. Bending down to pick up something off the floor from a standing position was impossible. I can recall one or two occasions when Marien would go out to a cafĂ© or perhaps a bar to celebrate Annabella’s “anniversary”.

The most common version of how she came to lose the lower part of her leg was she had a knife thrown at her by a Chinese cook in a kitchen. The wound became infected and at that time medicine was still pretty rough and ready. It was around 1922 and in rural Victoria amputation must have seemed the best solution. Many details were sketchy but having told me Grandpa had beaten his wife almost to death (his violence and cruelty towards his wife was mentioned in a family letter), it’s possible Marien was being very creative at a young age. Did she tell the story for sympathy? Not in my hearing. She told it to explain why she had a wooden leg and did it with humor and panache. It seemed as natural to Marien as writing. It slowed her down somewhat, but it never stopped her and enjoying life. She made a feature of it which is probably one of the best ways to get over such a traumatic incident. I don't know much about my grandparents and relatives and their life in New Zealand or later Melbourne, her father Joseph Dreyer talks about his younger brother Fred, “the writer”, in a note, so there was a literary history (bios incorrectly quote Joseph Dreyer as having had a journalism career).

What was her process for "inspiration" and writing? She certainly smoked a lot. She rolled her own cigarettes and it was a “gimmick” she used at meetings and such. Former UK Prime Minister Harold Wilson used his pipe in much the same way: it was a public prop. I think it fair to say she wrote mostly at home. She would start at eleven and write till five. She wrote when she could “fit it in” and I’m sure other household elements went by the board.

Marien with Louis in the apartment at "Harvard" in the early 1940s.

It seemed just about everything was fair game. She wrote a magazine column. She wrote short stories. One act plays for children. Kid’s stories for ABC Radio. Three act plays. She’d get an idea and almost without thinking, she was writing it. Marien had no office, unless you regard the table on wheels at home as an "office". The main area of the apartment was divided in half with a bookcase . On one side was a sofa, chairs and the mobile table which Marien used to write. She made carbon copies of everything and the sofa, which also doubled as a bed, would often seem to be buried under paper. While she might not have all the accoutrements of an office, it was there she seemed happiest and it’s there she wrote the most.

She did spend an awful lot of time at the typewriter. She enjoyed it and it made money; not much to start with but she worked hard at it and seemed to be starting to come out ahead when she died. Apart from actually writing for anyone who would print or publish or perform her work, Marien wrote for the money and what I think might have been the pure sensual love of words and how to use them. The shading of words. Mentally picking just the right word get the thought or idea across. I always felt she was very self-assured.

She did short stories for The Sun, and took me with her when she was delivering work. I have warm memories of the main newspaper floor - I also got to see the inner workings of the ABC children’s show on radio. Marien had written a couple of short plays for them. So those experiences were instrumental to me becoming a journalist.

She liked to have several projects on the go to keep her mind active and alert and could switch fairly easy from one to another. Marien was certainly attentive to detail. You only have to read the production notes for “Bandicoot On A Burnt Ridge” to understand that -but ironically was often slapdash about either finishing a project or how the project looked. If Marien was ever worried about a deadline she never showed it and I suspect she enjoyed writing under that kind of pressure. As a journalist, I wrote under the same pressure and it never worried me and I suspect I got that from Marien. I write better and sharper and I think she did too.

Marien with her trusty typewriter, Rod and Louis looking on, late 1940s.

For the most part she was very outgoing. She enjoyed meeting people and was enthusiastic about lots of “things”. She would take up people - help them in their chosen field. Marien was known for the many letters to the editor in an attempt to sound off on a social injustice. Marien genuinely did not like seeing people being screwed ( she was publicity officer for the King's Cross Protection Association, on the board of the NSW Commission of Peace) and she knew that a letter to the editor was often the best way to get the situation out into the open. I think Marien felt you could catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, so she used humor to take any potential sting out of her complaint, but she also wrote it in such a way that the message came across loud and clear. Like many Australians of that period, I think she did not trust government or politicians to look after the population and as she got a name, people came to her for help. talking to a great many “little people” she got ideas for stories.

"Story of a Lame Duck" (1951, which had a theme of disabled issues and was autobiographical in basis) was a play I’d never heard of nor knew that Marien had written it. "Bandicoot" I knew because it was clearly set in “Harvard”. I sense Marien got a lot of her personal frustrations out of her system simply by writing about them. While much of her writing was “fiction” it was often heavily based on real events. The lines about softening the butter and yelling out over the balcony came straight from within our family. Rod and my brother and I knew where they came from. The painter character was a real person living in our building. The apartment block opposite which I've already described, was real with the bright light in the window– the hooker would sometimes pull down a blind when she was “working” but the light was left on all day and night. Marien listened to the police radio at home and we knew many of the voices of policemen , and it gave heft and weight to what she wrote in the play. I don’t think any of us worried about it or even commented on it. You live with a writer that’s what happens. She dominated our lives.

Marien's invitation for the "Walkley Award" in 1959, which she won.

There was substantial drama at certain times. Marien knew when she had to “give a performance” and did it well. She seemed not to care how she dressed or looked, except for one thing: her fingernails. I was fascinated when she put on polish (author Audrey Tate mentions her signatures of 'careless dress in skirts and sweaters, but a passion for ornate drop earrings and exotic perfumes'). The “unusual” homemade outfits all contributed to the “Dreyer Mystique”. I don’t think she hammed it up; she simply gave people what they were expecting. Marien enjoyed the theatre and had a great many friends in that industry (early on she had aspirations to go on the stage but because of her leg this wasn't possible). With her I saw a great many shows and learned much about the craft and production. I know we went to a lot at the Minerva Theatre in Pott’s Point, Which was all red plush with excellent acoustics. I later worked there first with an over-shoulder tray to sell ice cream pots and chocolate bars; later as an usher.

At 14 I went to work as a summer-time copy boy at The Sun. and within a few months I was appointed a first year cadet reporter – at that time the youngest The Sun had ever promoted. So from 1955 to 2003 I worked fulltime in the news business; the bulk of it in network TV news as a producer. I was independent at quite a young age even though I still lived at “Harvard”. But because of my working hours, I saw little of my family. And within three years I’d moved away never to again live in Sydney.

Later when I was living in Melbourne, Marien would send me copies of stories and essays and plays for me to read and comment. I think I wrote back offering some thoughts, but not very often; I sensed she was doing it to kind of keep me in the family loop not because she was looking for constructive criticism. Frankly, I don’t think Marien took advice or criticism rather well!

We’d stayed in touch by letters and occasional calls. In 1974 I was sent, in a defence aircraft with other news people to Saigon; I used that trip to visit to my parents and took them out for supper. I think they were more nervous about the meeting than I was. But it was low key and there were no sour moments. They came to Sydney Airport to see me off. I have this memory of my walking down this long ramp to boarding. just before I turned, I looked back and they were standing at the top waving; Marien waved her stick and Rod waved his arm. We waved for two or three minutes. I turned and walked onto the ramp. That was the last I saw them alive.

1 Sir Henry Parkes GCMG (1815-1896), known as" the "Father of Federation" was a politician and journalist and is generally considered the most prominent of the Australian Founding Fathers. He appears on the Australian five dollar note.

2 Dulcie Deamer (1890 -1972) was an influential Australian novelist, poet, journalist and actor. She was a founder and a committee member of the Fellowship of Australian Writers. Known as "The Queen of Bohemia", she was notorious for doing the splits in her leopard skin on tables at parties into her old age.

3 Kenneth Slessor OBE (1901 –1971) was an Australian was one of Australia's leading poets and journalists, notable particularly for the absorption of modernist influences into Australian poetry. The title of this blog is taken from a line in his poem "William Street."

4 Matilda 'Tilly' Devine (1900 –1970) was a prominent Sydney crime figure, involved in a wide range of activities, but most notable as a madam. She became one of Australia's most famous female criminals.

5 Dame Mary Gilmore DBE (1865 –1962) was a prominent Australian socialist poet and journalist. who was widely read. She appears on the Australian ten dollar note.

6 Frank "Bumper" Farrell (1916 - 1985) , who earlier had a career as a celebrated footballer, was employed in the NSW Police Force 1938-1976. During his long tenure as sergeant of the 21st Division Darlinghurst (Kings Cross) police station in Sydney he was outwardly respected, but his enforcement by harassment and violence was legendary.

7 Chips Rafferty MBE (1909 –1971) was an iconic Australian actor. Called "the living symbol of the typical Australian", he appeared in British, American and Australian productions. Rafferty's career stretched from the 1940s until his death,

8 Dorothea Mackellar OBE (1885-1968) was a poet who published her first work in the London Spectator 1908, and quickly became established and well-known. She is best remembered for her poem, "My Country", with the immortal line "I love a sunburnt country".

Transcribed from an email interview conducted with Louis Cooper in March 2011, and excerpts from a memoir written by Louis especially for this blog.

© 2011 Darian Zam. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be used, reproduced, photocopied, transmitted, or stored in any retrieval system of any nature,without the written permission of the copyright owner.