At 15 you don’t leave school and become a novelist. It was all I wanted to do since Dorothea Mackellar told me at age seven to put the stories I made up into a book one day.
I left school at 15 as so many of us did back then. I floundered around doing a bit of modelling and acting till my uncle Jim Revitt, an ABC foreign correspondent, told me I should tackle journalism. So, I started as a copy girl on The Australian Women’s Weekly. It changed my life in that it gave me skills that have served me well all my life.
My first day I walked along Martin Place, up charming Rowe Street (what a loss), dawdled past the posh shops of Cornelius Furs, Steiner’s Jewellery and David Jones to the large ACP (Australian Consolidated Press) building on the corner of Park and Castlereagh Streets; the media empire owned by the mighty Sir Frank Packer.
I stepped into an empty ground floor lift just as a large austere man in a double-breasted dark suit strode in and harrumphed to me, “Push three”. Brightly I turned to Sir Frank Packer and said, “Oh, do you work here too?”
I passed him in a corridor two months later and he growled at me, though with a bit of a twinkle, “You still here, are you?”
The 10th floor dedicated to The Weekly was an oasis of orderly calm compared to the ratbaggery bolshie goings on below in The Daily Telegraph. In the basement, the pounding clatter of the composing machines and the dock where the papers were trundled out in noisy trucks seemed a world away. (Though I did once spend time down there when I was seconded to help look for Lady Packer’s lost diamond earring!)
The Weekly was ruled with calm authority by Mrs Esmé Fenston and a senior staff of extraordinary and talented women.
As a copy girl I made tea and ran messages, hoping to make an impression.
I dropped little stories onto news editor Dorothy Drain’s desk, which she read but made no comment. She was a delight and made us laugh (as did her regular column, It Seems To Me).
Adele “Tilly” Shelton Smith was deputy editor and in charge of the “homemakers” department. She was warm and caring. Both Miss Drain and Miss Shelton Smith were early female war correspondents.
Betty Keep, the fashion editor in her Chanel suits and trademark hairdo with the large “behind the head bow” and classy jewellery, seemed to live in another world as she described the “shows” and new looks. She was not shy at sharing her opinions either.
But I became attached to Kay Melaun, the chief sub-editor, who cut and edited our copy. Kay told me stories of her life and that of her European nobleman husband who was still suffering war trauma. She was a gentle guiding hand with good advice on life and journalism. (When I did publish books and was invited to the Sydney Writers Festival many years later, she arrived and sought me out. Still stylish in that European way of older women with silk scarf and dark glasses, and so proud of me “getting there”. That meant a lot to me, that somehow my dreams and talk had been vindicated.)
We shared the office with the TV writer, Nan Musgrove, whose acerbic wit and no-nonsense attitude always made me smile. And in the corner, dear old Mary Coles, the social editor, made sure only “top drawer” people made it into The Weekly’s society pages. She coughed horrendously from her ciggies (we all smoked then!) and was frail. The photographer chaps helpfully carried her handbag when needed. Mary’s ill health forced her to resign and she was replaced by Ita Buttrose, who was soon to make a rapid rise through the publishing ranks while managing a family as well. Later, when I was an American diplomat’s wife, Ita became the youngest female editor of both The Weekly and Cleo. (Remember those so very tasteful male centrefolds?)
Ita and I had a lot of laughs and shared a lot, though we came from very different backgrounds. Ita’s father was Charles Buttrose, a war correspondent and journalist who later became an executive at the ABC. She had three fabulous brothers and lived in Sydney’s eastern suburbs.
My father and baby brother had drowned at Pittwater, my mother was a war widow and we lived in a fibro cottage on the Northern Beaches.
Yet Ita and I bonded and have stayed friends all these years. As have Kirsten Garrett and Patricia Rollins.
The girls of The Weekly became my first real girlfriends.
My daughter particularly loves to be invited to get-togethers with Kirsten and Tricia as she thinks they are the most amusing, bright, irreverent and smart women who are still a hoot!
Swashbuckling Tommy Hughes, who ran the art department and teased the copy girls, had a flock of young male artists and layout people who made us feel shy and embarrassed. Mr Hughes always insisted on a pink donut with his cuppa.
But I liked talking to Mr Moody (Theo) during his stint on The Weekly. We talked about books, and he told me to always write straightforward and simple English. Don’t use fancy words. Much later I learned he was an alcoholic with a complicated family life. (After I’d left The Weekly his daughter, Mary Moody, joined the staff and worked as a reporter but later became known as an author and a TV presenter on Gardening Australia.)
Shy Robin Adair was a sweet young man who was a master of puns in his columns. They were all an inspiration to me.
When I was told I was being given a four-year cadetship to prove myself worthy of becoming a D grade (bottom of the rung) journalist, Mrs Fenston said to me: “This is your lucky day, dear.” How right she was. Though I loathed having to go to the Pitman shorthand classes … except there were some terrific blokes from the Tele there too! Some went on to have very significant careers.
Life brightened up considerably with assignments for Teenagers’ Weekly, as advertisers woke up to this lucrative new market. We were often called on to model for the magazine, which was great fun.
In a rush, we girls were interviewing pop stars, bands and TV actors from abroad. Kerry Yates got The Beatles, Jayne O’Flahertie got The Beach Boys, and I got Al Martino and Trini Lopez! I also interviewed Wayne Newton and stayed in touch with him, catching up over the decades still.
We occasionally wrote columns, under pseudonyms. I wrote (i.e. made up) the horoscopes once and also wrote a music column for Brian Henderson who went on to be a venerable newsreader for yonks at TCN 9 (“Brian told me so”). I knew Hendo, as I had been a hostess on 9’s live Saturday music show Bandstand for a year or so, which Brian hosted.
Once, Dawn James (later Swain) a senior writer who was later to become editor after Ita moved upwards, asked a gaggle of us to go to a cocktail party with her on a submarine full of handsome French officers who were in Sydney for a month.
I learned a lot about wining and dining and how to kiss before waving them au revoir. Jayne, however, kept in touch with Yves – pronounced Eve, whom her dad called “Wives” – and later went to France and married him. Betty Keep was quick to tell her she’d “be chained in a kitchen”! Jayne has only just moved back home to Australia to live, with her children and grandkids in tow.
Miss Sibyl Dowse, who oversaw the interstate social pages, was a sweet lady who never forgot her WWI beau who had been killed somewhere in France and remembered him scrupulously with a military stance at 11am on the 11th day of the 11th month ever after. She wore powder-blue suits and the most beautiful lacey camisoles.
Crusty, funny (unintentionally) Dolly Baverstock, head of the homemaker section, strictly applied the rule that in a recipe “her girls” were never to mention lamb’s balls, or balls of any sort; “Social” had to deal with the balls issue.
Betty Nesbitt, The Weekly’s fiction editor, sadly had MS, but Theo Moody had her on his “quite a girl in her time!” top 10 list. Tilly Shelton Smith was another one on that list!
There was always a scramble when Sir Frank came to visit Esmé Fenston, a woman and editor he admired considerably. The word of his approach would spread like wildfire because Sir Frank was known to peer into wastepaper baskets to check if we were squandering copy paper.
Other times Kerry Packer, always at a loose end, would wander in and hang around with The Weekly girls. His brother, Clyde, was being groomed to replace Sir Frank until one day Clyde put on a caftan and disappeared into a radically different life in the US. Kerry inherited the mantle and his life took a big swerve.
I met up with him years later when I was living in Guyana and we had tea. He seemed a sad and lonely man. Well, that day anyway. He told me he was there seeing Clive Lloyd doing something with cricket, in which I had no interest. This turned out to be the birth of World Series Cricket.
We young women didn’t socialise as much as working people seem to now. Maybe because I was an hour bus ride to and fro, and it wasn’t till I moved out of home into a dingy basement in Sydney’s (then) untrendy Paddington that I saw how the other half lived.
Looking back on the people I interviewed, met, and worked with, how lucky I was! Though I never travelled out of Sydney, some pretty big stories came and went. I met people in all manner of circumstances I would not have otherwise ever crossed paths with. And I later worked on The Daily Mail in Britain’s famous Fleet Street, well equipped from my time at The Weekly.
We all had great bonds with the staff photographers – Ken Barlow and Ernie Nutt mostly in my day. They were big brothers to we “Weekly girls” and on reflection it was a time when courtesy, care, sharing and politeness ruled the office. The senior staff were always addressed as Miss, Mrs and Mister. We dressed well, even on occasion with hats and gloves!
We were polite and truthful. We were taught that we represented The Australian Women’s Weekly, and our manners, actions and words reflected on the institution which The Weekly was – and remains.
The magazine has moved with the times but holds core values dear, which keeps it the best-selling women’s monthly magazine in Australia. I am proud to have been a small part of its life.