The Lab, the Slab, and Other Things: Rocky Horror Before The Picture Show


Reg Livermore (right) in the 1974 Sydney production of The Rocky Horror Show.

Rocky Horror, the musical stage show and the film it spawned, are so ubiquitous that it’s difficult to imagine a time when it was unknown and nobody had any idea what to expect.

But so it was in the Australia of early 1974. The original live production had opened in London a year before, and the film that we now know so well wouldn’t come into being until later in 1974 and premiere pretty much unheralded and unloved late the following year.

It was great when it all began, as Little Nell sang in both the London production and the film, but nobody was yet a Frankie fan. They would be, they most certainly would be. The world would be eternally transfixed by the most famous sweet transvestite ever created, and by Tim Curry, the actor who would forever be associated with the role.

But at that moment in time, in early 1974, the universe was stumm. Australians were preoccupied with other things. While youth revolt and social progressiveness had local matrons clutching their pearls, Australia was still a largely quiet and well-behaved corner of the British Commonwealth.

Heart-warming family shows, such as The Waltons (and, later in 1974, Little House On The Prairie) dominated television ratings, and the biggest radio hits came from Perry Como, Tony Orlando, and The Carpenters. We could hear music but we couldn’t see it just yet; Countdown and Sounds wouldn’t start airing until late in 1974.

Tim Curry will forever be known as Dr Frank N. Furter

There were, however, glitches in the matrix, disquieting early indicators of where society was heading. Number 96, with its nightly serving of nudity, sex and drugs, was the highest rating local television show. The Rolling Stones were in the music charts and Suzi Quatro was having the first of many hits. Queen arrived at the Sunbury rock festival for its debut Australian performance, and was booed off the stage. And the socially progressive Labor Party under Gough Whitlam was in charge of the country after decades of conservative political leadership (but that would soon crumble).

If you lived in Sydney, and scoured the local newspapers and magazines, and maybe had a few friends in the arts, you may have been aware that a new musical would soon be opening. But the name, The Rocky Horror Show, offered very few clues. And in the early 1970s, with four televisions channels, a handful of newspapers and no internet, that was about all you could find out.

It wasn’t The King And I or West Side Story. It wasn’t your maiden auntie’s musical. About all anybody knew is that this Rocky Horror thing was being produced by Harry M. Miller, who had become quite the local celebrity by mounting Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar.

Whereas, Harry had parked his previous hits in some of the largest theatres then available in Sydney – Hair at the Metro in Potts Point, and JC at the Capitol Theatre, edging Chinatown – the venue for this new musical was, to say the least, unconventional.

It was a small, grungy, rat-ridden 1940s-era former cinema called the New Arts. It was mid-way up Glebe Point Rd, in the very middle of where very few people ever went voluntarily and certainly not at night.

The first hints of what would be Rocky Horror emerged via newspaper ads.

So The Rocky Horror Show was something of a mystery. Newspaper editors scrambled for answers, sending forth entreaties to UK correspondents for more information.

I have a clipping from one Sydney newspaper but no way of identifying which. I’m leaning towards the Sunday Mirror, the weekend edition of a Sydney afternoon newspaper fashioned on the UK’s News Of The World. It didn’t quite have a Page 3 girl on every page but its editorial tone implied such. Prurient is probably the best word to describe it, with its breathless coverage of salacious divorce cases and sex trials.

The article appeared in the weeks before the premiere of the Sydney production in April 1974. Reporting from London, journalist Graham Bicknell opined The Rocky Horror Show “…is certain to rock the wowsers of Sydney’s theatre scene.”

It was, he continued, “…complete with nudity and simulated sex acts (some natural, some not)…” He called up comparisons with Alice Cooper, saying “The stock-in-trade…is blatant shock and this show, as the title suggests, has plenty in store.” Still, he noted, “It’s high-camp teetering near the edge but never quite reaching vulgarity.”

The general tone, as well as a few details, eluded Bicknell, who may have downed a few too many pints of warm lager before the show. He identified the main character as Frank-N-Further, and backgrounded him as “…a David Bowie in silk stockings, black suspenders and corset.”

Tim Curry in the LA production.

By now, it’s easy to imagine the grand dames of theatre-going tossing their newspapers aside in alarm. And reaching for the telephone to book tickets.

The article featured photos of Philip Sayer, who took on the London role when Tim Curry  transferred to Los Angeles production. Sayer, and the subsequent actors who rotated through Rocky on the London stage at various theatres, are now all pretty much forgotten and it’s near impossible to find their presence on-line.

But from Bicknell’s article, it appears the raw sexuality that Curry engendered in the role, went with him to sunnier climes. Sayer looks more like ZaSu Pitts than Joan Crawford.

In the meantime, preparations continued for the Sydney production. The cast was virtually a who’s who of Australian theatre and entertainment. Kate Fitzpatrick played Magenta while Arthur Dignam took on The Narrator. Other cast members included Maureen Elkner as Columbia, Jane Harders (Janet), John Paramor (Brad), Sal Sharah (Riff-Raff), David Cameron (Eddie/Dr Scott), and Graham Matters (Rocky).

But the star of the show was Reg Livermore as Frank. Those of us who saw that production in the 18 months it ran within the art-directed demolition site that was the New Arts Cinema at Glebe, experienced something very special. I was one of those, returning numerous times.

Frank assesses his latest creation (Kim Milford).

I’d been intrigued enough by the print ads that began to appear, in mainstream newspapers as well as whatever indie and youth press existed at the time; Honi Soit, the student newspaper of the University of Sydney, which itself knew a thing or two about scandalising uptight Sydney society, offered up discounted tickets of just $AU2.00 (regular tickets were $AU3.80 to $AU$4.50).

The tag-line for Rocky Horror: “A transvestite science-fiction rock’n’roll B-movie award-winning musical” was intriguing. Especially for a teenager fresh from the sleepy suburbs who had only recently discovered what life could offer in the big, bad city.

It would be another 18 months before The Rocky Horror Picture Show started in Sydney (in December 1975; a very slow roll-out for a film that had quickly been written off as a huge flop by the studio. It had premiered in the UK in August and the US in September) so nobody in Australia knew of Tim Curry or had any prior references to draw on.

So Reg Livermore blew audiences away, so incandescent was his characterisation. What we didn’t know is that Reg was also very much in the dark about the role and its predecessor.

As recounted in his autobiography, Reg Livermore – Chapters and Chances: “Nobody knew anything much about the show; reading the script didn’t help, and the scant information dribbling our way only added to the intriguing sense of bamboozlement.”

The Rocky Horror Show at LA’s famed Roxy in 1974.

Reg already came with considerable recognition from previous roles. In 1970, he’d taken over the character of Berger from Keith Glass in the Sydney production of Hair. Two years later, he took on Herod when Jesus Christ Superstar transferred from Sydney to Melbourne. It was a very small part, barely more than one song, yet Reg insisted the part be expanded which still only took the amount of time he spent on stage each night to just nine minutes.

Reg became good friends with JC’s director, Jim Sharman. Sometime later, Sharman approached Reg about a new musical. Sharman had directed the London production of Rocky Horror and played Reg the soundtrack. Sharman wanted Reg for the lead – Frank N. Furter.

This new project was certainly a world, or rather a universe or two, away from JC. He immediately signed on and rehearsals began. Sharman purposely kept his cast in the dark on the matter of characterisations, instead allowing them to find their own paths.

Tim Curry, unbeknownst to anybody in Australia, had drawn on Joan Crawford as an inspiration for Frank N. Furter. Reg went the full Grand Guignol, calling up an entirely different old-time screen queen – Bette Davis. But this was the Bette Davis of Whatever Happened To Baby Jane rather than Dark Victory.

It wouldn’t be the first time he would channel Bette; later, for his inaugural one-man show, The Betty Blokk Buster Follies, Betty was also very much Bette Davis but this time with the authoritarian undertone of a Nazi prison warden.

Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

Once Reg settled on a suitable role model: “…it quickly opened the right doors, filling out the performance in ways that had been eluding me. It was the licence to kill; it gave me the walk, the strut, the stance, the voice, the delivery, and I think in the end I took the venerable Miss Davis where even she hadn’t dared go.”

In Reg’s Chapters and Chances, he wrote: “The role of Frank is obviously a gift for the right actor. I took it with both hands and shook the life out of it.”

Previews began and word soon spread that Rocky Horror was unlike anything ever seen before on an Australian stage.

The final preview started at 9pm, Friday 19 April, 1974, with the official opening following at midnight. Reg owned the show immediately and the rest of the cast weren’t too far behind. The sonorous Arthur Dignam was perfect as the narrator, Kate Fitzpatrick and Maureen Elkner shone as the sexy, conspiratorial alien handmaidens, Sal Sharah (who was on the cusp of gaining national attention for a series of television ads for Uncle Sam deodorant) was suitably creepy, and Graham Matters, who Reg had appeared with in Hair, nailed Frank’s “latest obsession”.

The auditorium was festooned with plastic sheeting, scaffolding and a long runway down one side, giving the impression that bulldozers would soon begin demolishing the theatre. The actors clambered up, down, across and though the audience at breakneck speed. It was a gruelling schedule with most nights having sessions at 7.15pm and 9.30pm.

For the first few months, Reg played Frank exactly as the script demanded. Once he’d settled in, the ad-libbing began. Initially, it was just bits and pieces, then became increasingly lengthy and bizarre.

Although I have no idea how many times I saw Rocky Horror on its initial Sydney run (if you lived through the 1970s and can’t remember much about it, you really WERE there), Reg’s serpentine, Byzantine meanderings were one of the true delights. What Frank said and did often changed from performance to performance, and the audience was never quite sure what would happen next.

The Sydney season ended after 18 months, closing October 4, 1975. Reg had bowed out, burnt out if truth be known, after nine months, and Frank N. Furter was henceforth portrayed by Trevor Kent, Andrew Sharp and Max Phipps. It wasn’t the same. Eric Dare, who owned the New Arts Cinema and leased it to Harry M. Miller for Rocky (as well as being an investor in the show), then bankrolled Reg in a one-man show at another rundown movie palace he owned, The Bijou at Balmain.

The Betty Blokk Buster Follies opened on Wednesday April 16, 1975, while Rocky Horror continued at the New Arts. Reg wrote a series of characters, backgrounded their foibles and largely ad-libbed them to life. The show was seeded with songs by Lou Reed, Elton John, Paul Williams, Charles Aznavour, Billy Joel, Leo Sayer and others. The soundtrack double album went gangbusters.

Betty was the first of Reg’s one-man shows, continuing on with Wonder Woman, Sacred Cow and Firing Squad. Most ran at Eric Dare’s Bijou.

Rocky Horror went Hollywood with the addition of Susan Sarandon and Barry Bostwick.

Meanwhile, Rocky Horror transferred to Melbourne and the venerable Regent Theatre, opening Friday 24 October 1975. Max Phipps was Frank. Sal Sharah and Graham Matters were the only original cast members to make the trek south. It was another great hit, running in Melbourne for 17 months until closing Saturday May 28 1977.

Rocky looked to be part of the Australian national theatrical landscape for some time to come. Then the unthinkable happened.

Adelaide happened. Rocky opened in August 1977 but the response from the fair burghers of the City of Churches was far less than enthusiastic. It closed two months later.

Let’s dwell on this a moment. South Australia, home to the Truro serial killings; the Snowtown murders; the Family – a well-connected cabal responsible for the kidnapping, abuse and murder of teenage boys; the local police known to have bashed gay men before throwing them, often dead, into the Torrens; the disappearance of the Beaumont children; and various gangs of local teenagers who regularly broke into the Adelaide Zoo to massacre the animals.

Salmon Rushdie, someone who recognised darkness better than many, called Adelaide: “…the perfect setting for a Stephen King novel or horror film.”

Adelaide, the City of Churches, didn’t warm to depictions of degenerate sex and violence on stage. In real life, however, it was a different matter.

But Australia wasn’t finished with Rocky Horror. The first regional production of Rocky occurred in 1978 in Wagga Wagga. And within a few years, it was back in the capital cities. The 1981 Sydney revival saw Daniel Albineri played Frank for the first (though not the last) time. It was also the beginning of a trend for the Narrator role to be a revolving door for local celebrities; the 1981 revival featured Stuart Wagstaff, Molly Meldrum and Noel Ferrier. Subsequent revivals have seen such narrators as Gordon Chater, Bernard King and Kamahl.

By the mid-1970s, though, the cat was well and truly out of the bag as far as Tim Curry was concerned. Australia had been shielded from Curry’s career-making characterisation of Frank N. Furter with the exception of the London cast recording.

Jim Sharman was there from Day One. He directed the inaugural production of Rocky Horror in London, assembling a cast that included Curry, Patricia Quinn, and Little Nell. New Zealander Richard O’Brien, who wrote Rocky Horror, played Riff Raff.

The Rocky Horror Show opened small, in a 60-seater studio space above London’s Royal Court Theatre in Sloan Square. It ran there in June-July 1973 before word of mouth and skyrocketing ticket sales necessitated a larger venue. In August 1973, it moved to a 230-seat disused cinema in the Kings Road, Chelsea. Then, in November, a few streets away to the 500-seat Kings Road Theatre, where it played for five years. In April 1979, it moved to its final London home, the Comedy Theatre in the West End.

Curry would become the definitive Frank N. Furter although that would be a little way into the future. He left the London production during the Kings Road Theatre residency. He was replaced by Philip Sayer, who would be referenced to Australian theatre goers via the Sunday Mirror newspaper article, published in the run-up to the opening of the Sydney production.

Curry transferred to the Los Angeles production that opened in March 1974 at the Roxy nightclub on the Sunset Strip. Record company executive Lou Adler had taken in a performance in London in the winter of 1973 and immediately obtained the rights for an American production.

It opened Thursday March 21 1974 (three weeks before the Sydney production) with Meat Loaf as Eddie and Kim Milford as Rocky. It ran for nine months and attracted celebrities and movie stars backstage after every almost performance. Meat Loaf recalled meeting Elvis one night.

Adler obtained funding for a film adaptation and, in October 1974, Curry returned to the UK to commence filming. He starred alongside Patricia Quinn, Little Nell, Richard O’Brien, and Meat Loaf with Jim Sharman again directing.

Curry then went back to the US. On March 10, 1975, Curry opened at the Belasco Theatre in New York City. Rocky Horror had finally made it to Broadway after being a runaway West End hit. Yet something went wrong and it’s difficult to know just where. It closed on 5 April after just 45 performances. New York City and Adelaide. What to make of such indifference?

Perhaps Rocky’s appeal was over-estimated. The stately Belasco Theatre, erected in 1907, seated just over one thousand people. It was obviously a tough ask filling the theatre each night. Maybe it needed a smaller, more intimate venue.

As confronting as it was bombing on the Great White Way, another shock was in store a few months later. The Rocky Horror Picture Show premiered in the UK on Thursday 14 August 1975 to almost universal critical disdain and miserable box office. The studio, which admittedly hadn’t known what to do with the movie, failed to promote it.

It opened in the US on September 26 to similar reaction. Australia had to wait three months. It premiered in Sydney at the Ascot Theatre on 19 December. It did better than in many markets, showing for almost a month and closing on January 15 1976.

And although it was initially written off by the studio as a flop, we now know The Rocky Horror Picture Show to be one of the most screened films of all time. Somewhere in the world, it’s still showing and audiences are just as enthusiastic and committed as they ever were.

As much as I loved the Sydney production, I love the movie even more. I must have seen it hundreds of times. Curry is the ultimate Frank, a sweet transvestite of unparalleled excellence.

The big surprise, certainly for Sydney audiences who knew Reg Livermore’s Frank so well, was in confronting Tim Curry’s interpretation.

That surprise extended even to Reg himself.

As he noted in Chapters And Chances: “Some years after I quit the show, I finally succumbed and saw the movie version; I was shocked and surprised to observe how beautiful Tim Curry was. Nobody ever told me Frank N. Furter was supposed to be attractive; I went out of my way to make myself as grotesque as possible.”

Different strokes, as it were, for different aliens. Regardless, Rocky Horror continues to dazzle and its appeal cuts across generations who will always be ready to do the Time Warp. Again. And again. And again.

Postscript: Inevitably, Frank N. Furter became a favourite subject for fancy dress parties.

Photos courtesy of the Glenn A. Baker Archives

Chick Flicks: Rock Goddess Conquers All In The All-Female Heavy Metal Rock Scene


Shake a tree in any UK locale and it’s a pretty safe bet that a rock music connection or two will fall out. The most notable difficulty with the inner London borough of Wandsworth will be, firstly, to find a tree. However, once you do (having taken a breather with a pint of bitter, a pork pie and a cork-tipped Pall Mall or thirteen), the rock links come thick and fast. The Battersea Power Station and its association to Pink Floyd, for example.

 

Or what passes these days as a vaguely quaint medical centre nearby that, in 1973, was a storage building for The Who’s equipment. An out-of-work circus troupe were hired to transform it into a recording studio (as you do), initially named The Kitchen and then Ramport Studios.

 

It was there that Quadrophenia was recorded, although the control booth had not yet been completed. The Who positioned Ronnie Wood’s Mobile Studio in the street outside to facilitate recording.

 

Ramport Studios were later utilised by Bryan Ferry, Joan Jett, Sparks, Thin Lizzy, and the Sex Pistols. Supertramp recorded Crime Of The Century there.

 

The studio was located at 115 Thessaly Rd, on the corner of Corunna Rd, and these days it is known as the Battersea Fields Medical Practice. For a glimpse into the studio, check out The Who’s video clip for Who Are You, shot in 1978 for the documentary, The Kids Are Alright.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PNbBDrceCy8

 

The UK release of Hell Hath No Fury, the 2nd album from Rock Goddess.

 

Wandsworth was also a hotspot (maybe THE hotspot, considering its rather limited reach) of the all-female heavy metal band movement. 1977 was the year in question and the band is Rock Goddess. Sure, the blank expression is perfectly understandable; Rock Goddess is barely remembered these days by even the most anally-retentive heavy metal genealogists.

 

But, surprisingly, in a genre where quality is generally in pretty short supply, this band was something special. Rock Goddess formed in 1977 when 13-year-old Jody Turner, influenced by The Runaways, decided to start a band. With Jody on lead guitar and vocals, she enlists schoolfriend Tracey Lamb on bass. While they search for a drummer, Jody’s nine-year-old sister, Julie, filled in and never leaves.

 

The Turner’s father, John, was a former musician who owned a record store on the Wandsworth High Street. It was in a back store room that the fledgling band initially gather to rehearse.

 

Years of hard slog, shitty gigs and frustration followed. Their talent, along with a dogged perseverance, began to pay off. They headlined the Marquee club, mounted their first UK tour and, in 1982, played the Redding festival where they were scouted by A&M and signed to a record deal. The first self-titled album was released in February 1983 with ten songs all penned by Jody Turner. The second, titled Hell Hath No Fury, appeared in the UK later that year.

 

Inbetween, a fourth member, Kat Burbella had been added but she didn’t last long. Tensions, which had been building between Tracey and Jody, finally came to a head and Tracey left the band. The bass spot for the recording of the second album fell to Dee O’Malley.

 

The US release of Hell Hath No Fury

 

The UK release of Hell Hath No Fury contained ten original Jody Turner tracks. By the time, it appeared in the US the following year, the track listings looked a little different. Two of the UK release tracks were dropped. Replacing them was Hell Hath No Fury (not a bad idea considering it was the album title) and a cover of Gary Glitter’s I Didn’t Know I Loved You (Until I Saw You Rock and Roll).

 

The most successful singles of the period, Heavy Metal Rock’n’Roll and My Angel (from the debut album) and the Gary Glitter cover didn’t so much graze the charts as gaze longingly at them from across the abyss, waving forlornly.

 

They did, however, get lots of attention which led to gigs and offers of tour supports. The one problem they run into in the early 80s is that Julie, as a high school student (and technically a minor) could only play limited dates. Eventually, though, they toured as support to Def Leppard and Iron Maiden.

 

In the meantime, Tracey started her own band, She, followed by The Perfect Mothers, which never played live. And numerous other projects which, in the way of rock history generally, ended up like numerous other projects throughout rock history.

 

Eventually, Tracey joined Girlschool, another all-girl heavy metal band that started in Wandsworth in 1978 (hence the 1978 Wandsworth connection) but had a tad more commercial and critical success via its association with Lemmy from Motorhead and Lemmy’s own GWR Records.

 

 

The early 80s were the glory years of Rock Goddess. Despite developing quite a huge fan following, the band sputtered along as best they could before eventually breaking up in 1987. Since then, they’ve been on-again, off-again, on-again ad infinitum (with Tracey almost but never quite coming back).

 

Jody has been alternately pursuing numerous other projects which, in the way of rock history etc etc. Julie married, became a fitness instructor and relocated to Spain.

 

Around 2015, a big thing was made of Jody and Julie Turner reuniting with Tracey Lamb under the Rock Goddess banner. By 2018, Tracey was out; she later rejoined Girlschool. A mooted and heavily-publicised Rock Goddess album never eventuated although a three-track EP of new material became available in 2017.

 

That’s rock’n’roll, kids. The promise that burns so bright leaves a mountain of ashes. A third album, Young & Free, recorded while still under the A&M contract but never released at the time, appeared via a French label in 1987. It featured the Turner/O’Malley line-up.

 

If you want to experience a time capsule of prime early 1980s all-girl heavy metal exotica, you can’t go beyond Rock Goddess. For the historic progression, the trifecta of The Runaways, Rock Goddess and Girlschool will provide everything you need.

Tretchikoff’s Retro Legacy: The Man The Art World Loved To Hate


It was said, by the artist himself, that the only painter who exceeded him in wealth was Picasso and the two certainly had many other things in common, including an excess of self-confidence and an appreciation of the female form. But while Picasso was always the art world’s darling boy, revered and feted by critics, Vladimir Tretchikoff could never temper the derision of the establishment.

Yet, while critics maintained their apoplectic outrage, Tretchikoff quite happily turned his undoubted talents towards making money. In the process, he captured the imagination of the middle-classes throughout the western world in the 50s and 60s. His most famous image, Chinese Girl, sold in the hundreds of thousands and seemed to be on every suburban lounge room wall; by the late 90s, urban hipsters revived the craze, pushing the price of vintage prints to extraordinary levels.

And still the art world carped. While no major art gallery in his South African home ever acquired a Tretchikoff, the Iziko South African National Gallery in Cape Town drew sell-out crowds to a recently concluded retrospective of his work. The exhibition brought together 92 original works including Chinese Girl, on show for the first time in 50 years.

The Dying Swan

While the public were delighted, there were those who couldn’t resist the opportunity to put the boot in; South African art critic Lloyd Pollak, who spoke at a panel discussion during the exhibition, was quoted in the Cape Times as saying: “An academic recently stated that Tretchi’s paintings ‘represent the worst kind of prejudice, voyeurism, crass racial stereotypes, sexism, cultural paternalism and white colonialism’ and I heartily concur.

“[The exhibition] has resoundingly vindicated the judgement of critics of the 50s and 60s who dismissed Tretchi’s work as excruciatingly vulgar and beyond redemption. The general consensus is that his style was crass and without technical or artistic address and his content vapid and maudlin. The ideas underpinning his paintings are of a heart-breaking banality and his work has no intellectual significance whatsoever.”

Tretchikoff, who died in 2006 at the age of 93 and whose obituary appeared in the New York Times and a range of British newspapers, would hardly have been surprised.

Moira Lister

Tretchikoff was born in Petropavlovsk, Russia. His family fled to northern China following the outbreak of the 1917 revolution. A gifted artist from an early age, at 15 he made his way to Shanghai where he worked as an illustrator. There, he met and married another Russian exile, Natalie Telpregoff, then moved on to Singapore.

With the outbreak of war in the Pacific, he loaded his family onto a ship headed for South Africa. He later followed but his ship was sunk by the Japanese. The survivors rowed first to Sumatra and then to Java where he was interned in a prisoner of war camp. While working in Jakarta, then still under Japanese occupation, he met Leonora Schmidt-Salomonson, otherwise known as Lenka, who became his mistress, muse and most famous model.

When the war ended, Tretchikoff was reunited with his family in South Africa and his career as an artist gathered full steam. He held his first exhibition in 1948 and his fame spread, first to the United States where he had sold-out exhibitions that attracted thousands of people, and to England, where similar scenes ensued.

Lisette

The brightly-coloured, almost photorealistic Chinese Girl was painted using a local model, the daughter of a Cape Town laundry owner (who earned about R20 for her work), but the original was damaged in 1953 during one of his frequent absences touring and he repainted it with the inspiration of a San Francisco model. The blue-green tinged portrait struck an unconscious nerve, quickly becoming one of the best selling prints of all times.

Prints of other Tretchikoff works, including Miss Wong and The Dying Swan (featuring British ballerina Alicia Markova, who joined Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes at the age of 14), had similar success.

Tretchikoff’s Chinese Girl was one of the first fateful breezes in the far-off rumblings of pop culture. In terms of defining a popular zeitgeist, it achieved for the mid-20th century what Howard Carter’s discovery of King Tutankhamun did 30 years earlier. To those closeted homogenous 1950s minds, Tretchikoff’s exotically-coloured Asian women were romantically erotic symbols of lands and cultures far away and beyond their understanding.

Self-Portrait

So pervasive is Tretchikoff’s better-known and widely-circulated works, it’s difficult to find a comprehensive example of his oeuvre. A prime resource for collectors is his 1950 self-titled book, published by Howard Timmons Cape Town for George Allen & Unwin Ltd London; aside from the inevitable nudes, often featuring Lenka, it includes skilful and exacting portraits, self-portraits, allegories (including a stunning Art Deco-like representation of a space-age aviator and an atomic bomb exploding on a modern city), landscapes and still lifes. Although never reprinted, it is possible uncover copies in good condition via the Internet and the illustrations in this blog are drawn from this volume.

And for the ultimate Tretchikoff collector, what better than a huge mural to decorate their achingly ironic 50s homestead? A 3.6m by 2.4m version of Lady Of The Orient is available from Surface View in the UK for a very reasonable £450 – www.surfaceview.co.uk/two/index.php?C=110&P=363&DESC=_Large_Murals/Lady_of_the_Orient_by_Vladimir_Tretchikoff

www.vladimirtretchikoff.com

http://tretchikoff-central.blogspot.com/

Words © David Latta

Nancy Wake – Bravery, Bullets and Bouillabaisse


Years ago, I worked as a wine steward in the dining room of a Milsons Point club, virtually within the shadow of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. With big windows that looked out across Lavender Bay to the Harbour, it was a popular place with locals and visitors alike. Brett Whiteley lived in one of the old houses just across the road and some of his most famous paintings took in these same views.

Amongst my regular customers was a lovely old couple I knew as the Forwards; John Forward and his wife Nancy. She looked like a grandmother from Central Casting, he a little like Jimmy Edwards. They loved good food, lots of wine and stimulating conversation; they were often the last to leave and Nancy’s booming laugh bounced off the walls like cannon fire. I served John and Nancy regularly and we became fast friends.

One day, they asked me to organise the bar for a function at a house on the Upper North Shore. When I arrived, the place was packed. Most of the guests were French and, intriguingly, they were treating Nancy like she was one step down from God. I soon found out why. The occasion was to celebrate the release of Nancy’s autobiography and my vivacious, larger-than-life club regular turned out to be Nancy Wake, war-time heroine, member of the French Resistance and scourge of the Nazis.

Russell Braddon had written a biography about her in the mid-1950s but she was virtually unknown in Australia despite being one of the most highly-decorated women of World War II. The French had awarded her three Croix de guerre as well as making her a Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur, the British the George Medal and the United States the Medal of Freedom.

Nancy was born in Wellington, New Zealand, in 1912 but settled in Sydney with her family at an early age. By her early 20s, she was living in Paris and working as a journalist for the Hearst press. She travelled widely through Europe and saw first-hand the spread of Nazi ideology; she was horrified by the treatment of Jewish residents in Berlin and Vienna.

In 1939, she married French businessman Henri Fiocca and settled in Marseille, where she lived the privileged life of a socialite. With the fall of Paris in 1940, France was split into two zones – the Occupied Zone and the so-called Free Zone in the south governed by a collaborationist regime based in Vichy.

She made friends with many of the Allied POWs who were interned at the harbour-front Fort Saint-Jean and, before long, was acting as a courier and assisting in the organisation of escape routes. She came to the attention of MI9, a department of British military intelligence devoted to assisting prisoners of war. During this time, she helped more than 1,000 Allied personnel escape France.

By late 1942, the entire country was controlled by the Nazis, who were actively seeking a mysterious dark-haired operative of the French Resistance, nicknamed the White Mouse for an almost superhuman ability to escape detection.

By early 1943, however, such extensive resources were being put into capturing the White Mouse that Henri persuaded Nancy it was time to leave France. Although she was arrested on her way to Spain, she managed to escape and made it to London.

What she didn’t know until after the war was that Henri had been arrested by the Gestapo but refused to give away her secrets. He was executed later that year.

Nancy initially attempted to join the Free French Movement under General Charles de Gaulle but instead was recruited by the super-secret Special Operations Executive (SOE) which had been formed by Winston Churchill to finance, equip and train Resistance forces in Europe.

She was a member of F Section under famed spymaster Colonel Maurice Buckmaster. Trained in such necessary skills as unarmed combat, silent killing and how to make explosives from common kitchen ingredients, she was parachuted back into France in February 1944. It was her exploits during this period that grew more legendary with each retelling. The truth, she maintained, was more than enough. “I’ve read articles where I led 8,000 men into battle, just like bloody Joan of Arc,” she told me with a hearty laugh.

She was trained to kill and kill she did, with no hesitation or remorse. In one instance, she threw a grenade into a dining room full of Gestapo officers. She organised the supply and equipping of Resistance forces and was often at the forefront of battles with German troops. While she was dedicated and resourceful, she also exercised a fierce sense of humour that earned her enormous respect among the men she led. That she was a women and a foreigner made that regard even more remarkable.

When the Germans were routed from France, and her own war was at an end, she returned to Marseille and discovered the heart-breaking truth about her beloved Henri. As a small measure of comfort, she was reunited with Picon, the wire-haired terrier she’d adopted when she first arrived in Paris.

Nancy eventually returned to Australia and married John Forward, a retired RAF bomber pilot and settled in Sydney. By the time I met her, her fame had receded into an obscure historical cul-de-sac; she was simply Nancy, the hearty, earthy woman who loved a big glass of wine, making jokes at her own expense, and cooking up huge batches of rich saffron-tinged bouillabaisse for her friends.

I knew her for a few more years before she and John moved to Port Macquarie and we lost touch. After John’s death in 1997, she relocated to London where she lived at the Star and Garter Home for ex-servicemen and women. Her death, at the age of 98, on 7 August 2011, closed the final chapter on a remarkable life.

Her story was told by Russell Braddon in 1956, by Nancy herself in 1985, and by Peter FitzSimons in 2001. A television mini-series, based on Braddon’s book, and starring Noni Hazlehurst as Nancy, appeared in 1987. Upcoming is a planned biopic to be directed by Bruce Beresford.

The things you enjoy today are often the result of the influence of others. When I heard of Nancy’s death, I made up a Pernod just the way she first showed me, a generous shot in a tall glass with a full measure of ice and water. As I sipped, I reflected on the stories she told in her self-deprecating but forthright way. And I thought, I bet she’s sought out Hitler in some corner of the afterlife and is devoting a fair proportion of eternity telling him just what she thinks of him.

They don’t make dames like that anymore.

Words  © David Latta

How To Survive The World’s Great Cities


There are a few destinations in this world that it’s no use rolling up to and expecting them to conform to your expectations. They’re just too sprawling, ambitious, multi-faceted and, ultimately, exhausting.

On this list, I’d include New York, Tokyo, London and Paris. Maybe even Los Angeles, although there’s really only parts I visit and I already know them very well indeed.

The world’s great cities can never be fully explored in one visit. Not even several, maybe not ever. They are constantly evolving, changing from visit to visit, always presenting differing tangential aspects like a slowly shifting kaleidoscope. They forever intrigue and spellbind, confound and delight. Visitors can never expect to completely understand them. They are spectres glimpsed fleetingly in your peripheral vision, slipping off into infinity and lost forever.

The first time I visited New York, I had a list of things I wanted to see and do. At the end of a week, I hadn’t explored beyond mid-town. To this day, much of the list remains. There is just too much and too little time. I still haven’t been to the Statue of Liberty although I’ve glimpsed it from all angles with my favourite being from Battery Park. I haven’t explored the boroughs and I’ve never been to the top of the Empire State Building.

Whenever I’m there, I often revisited the Metropolitan Museum for the recreated Frank Lloyd Wright room from Wayzata, Minnesota; The Paley Center For Media (if I have a spare day) to settle in and watch those obscure television programs I can’t find anywhere else; a martini in the Oak Bar of the Plaza Hotel to relive a North By Northwest moment (overlooking the point that the scene was filmed on a Hollywood soundstage); shopping at Bloomingdale’s (although I don’t think I’ve ever bought anything there; I have more luck at Macy’s), and testing the limits of my baggage allowance at the Strand Book Store.

I’ve moved beyond the disappointment of not ticking off the entire New York list and that’s probably the key component to surviving the world’s great cities. Don’t get too ambitious. It’ll always end in tears before bedtime.

Harry's New York Bar, Paris

I was just as ambitious when I first visited Paris. Again, I had The List; I spent more time on the Metro, criss-crossing the city, than actually experiencing what I wanted. On subsequent trips, it occurred to me that a far more logical way of dealing with Paris was to stay in a different area each time and just explore within that arrondissement.

In the 2nd arrondissement, I’d stay at the InterContinental Paris Le Grand, preferably in a room overlooking the Opéra Garnier, which is always worthy of a few idle hours to marvel at the understated decor. It’s a short stroll down the Avenue de l’Opéra to Harry’s New York Bar for le hot dog and a Bloody Mary, which more than a few of those in the know claim was invented right there. Sitting within the cosy wood-panelled rooms, where Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald and other members of the Lost Generation congregated, it becomes a literary pilgrimage on par with Shakespeare & Co.

In the 6th district, around Saint-Germain, there are so many small hotels with similar charm and pricing, it’s difficult to choose just one. And there’s much to do in the area. An outdoor table at Le Deux Magots, pointedly ignoring the tourists, or a short walk down the Boulevard Saint-Germain-des-Prés to the jazz clubs or a movie (preferably Woody Allen or Jerry Lewis, in VO). Or the small restaurants that seem to proliferate like lapin between the Boulevard and the Seine, where the mixed-priced menus are very reasonable, if you feel like French onion soup, duck and crème brûlée, as good a meal as any if the fancy takes you. And, afterwards, a browse through the Taschen store on the Rue de Buci.

So the key to survival is simple: don’t even think of compiling The List. Just take your time and enjoy what’s happening around you.

Le Deux Magots

Words and photos © David Latta

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