Bio-picks

When the photographer asked Governor-General, Field Marshal Sir William Slim to smile, he protested: ‘Dammit, I am.’

Sir William Yeo, a federal president of the Returned Soldiers League, dismissed the members of the British Commonwealth as ‘a polyglot lot of wogs, bogs, logs and dogs’.

Australian-reared Kenneth Wheare, Oxford professor of politics, notable adviser to new nations, used to say over his breakfast paper: ‘I see they’ve torn up another of my constitutions.’

Unfortunately, among the 673 entries in this last volume of the fourth series (1940–80) of the ADB, such memorable vignettes are too infrequent. However, before anyone suggests that this could be due to having too many tame biographers—there are 569 authors—it must be remembered that alphabetical flukes can dull any part of a series like this. Among the political leaders, for example, the first volume (13) in the period featured Beazley, Calwell, Cain, Casey, Chifley, Curtin and Dedman; the second (14) had Evatt, Fadden and Holt; the third (15) had 14 columns on Menzies by his distinguished biographer, Alan Martin, and seven on Sir John McEwan by that admirable journalist, the late Clem Lloyd. The best-known politician in this volume is Eddie Ward, the pugilistic dissident, who broke all records for being ‘named’ in  federal parliament. Asked when he felt his health was failing he said it was the day he ‘took a swing at Gough Whitlam—and missed’. To make further political weight there are the conservative minister, Sir Thomas White, and, separately, his wife, the Red Cross advocate Lady Vera (née Deakin), and Labor Speaker (1943–49) Sol Rosevear, who was ‘frequently drunk in the chair’ but adept at concealing it.

Within a few pages there are portraits of the last man to be hanged in Australia, Ronald Ryan, and (with Sir Henry Bolte) his virtual co-executioner, Victorian Attorney-General, Sir Arthur Rylah, who was also distinguished in his hypothetical ‘teenage daughter’ whom he protected from reading such filth as Mary McCarthy’s The Group. Otherwise, Rylah was a social reformer in matters of betting, drinking and Sunday movies, but his biographer refrains from suggesting poll-driven cynicism. He does not, however, shirk reference to the first Lady Rylah’s strange death and precipitate burial. More explicit is the entry on the ruthless, impartial political ‘advertising executive’, Solomon Rubensohn, who knew the skeletons in all the parties’ cupboards, but who was trusted because he was ‘utterly discreet’. To his staff he was ‘an utter and complete bastard’.

Political figures should not, of course, be the pre-eminent interest of a national biography. This volume begins most appropriately with a model entry on the first editor of the ADB (Vols 1–5), Douglas Pike, by its second editor, Bede Nairn (ed Vol 6; co-ed 7–10), biographer of Jack Lang (1986) and author of the most sagacious book on the Labor Party, Civilising Capitalism (1973). Nairn summarises the problems faced in establishing the complex production system of the ADB, which required a versatile and highly literate office staff, the co-operation of working parties from the Commonwealth States and Armed Services, and unpaid writing from a miscellany of authors, academic and otherwise, whose output varied from the meticulous to the slipshod and needed close checking for accuracy and bias. A clergyman, Pike jested that, as there were no adjectives in the Psalms, they were not needed in the ADB. He favoured lean prose, an ideal which has generally been kept in mind in this volume, but his prejudice against qualifiers might have been confirmed by ‘dam-buster’ F.M. Stafford’s ‘open face’ and Stephen Schnaar’s ‘good-natured face, and with a wide mouth and large ears’. Less goofy but just as unhelpful is E.H. Rembert’s architectural style: ‘Dudokian forms were suffused by Rembert’s own idiosyncratic spirit.’ Also, stressing economy of words, Pike may have found it superfluous to say that G.C. Remington, having ‘access to prime ministers and premiers … made extensive use of telephones and cables [really!] as he [both?] developed and cultivated an impressive network of allies’.

Any reservations, however, should not be allowed to detract from the interest of the bulk of the entries, with ‘standouts’ such as anthropologist Donald Thomson; ‘linguist’ T.G.H. Strehlow (but was he not also an ethnographer or, better, an ethnolinguist?); poet Kenneth Slessor; the greatest of wartime public servants, Sir Frederick Shedden, who put over 2400 boxes of his official papers in the archives; Lieutenant General Sir Vernon Sturdee who burnt his private papers; Sir William Slim of the wintry smile; and Baron John de Vere Wakehurst, the last ‘imported’ governor of New South Wales (1937–46), whose mother believed him ‘to be the incarnation of Pharaoh Thotmes III and encouraged his interest in Egyptology’.

For old-timers there is pleasure in resurrecting the memory of somewhat forgotten identities. In music, for example, there is the accomplished ‘second-string’ conductor, Joseph Mozart Post, whose enthusiastic father had two other sons, John Verdi and Noel Schumann. Under ‘Spivakovsky, Jascha’, a renowned pianist who settled in Australia, there is space not just for his noted violinist brothers, Tossy and ‘Issy’, but for the singing maestro, Adolf, mentor to Sylvia Fisher. For nostalgic Sydney Catholics, there is a formidable trio: Dr A.M. Woodbury, founder of the Aquinas Academy, a theologian who ‘lacked the capacity to engage with those holding contrary views’ and who had been named ‘Bismarck’ when a seminarian; Fr Paddy Ryan, whose anti-communist methods were described by B.A. Santamaria as ‘cowboys and indians’ but who in the Split stayed with the ALP; and Dr Leslie Rumble, whose Question-Box publications sold seven million copies, mainly in the US, and whose voice at ‘ninety words to the minute’ sounded less like his name than ‘like worn sandpaper’. For Melbourne Catholics there is an authoritative piece on Archbishop Justin Simonds. Less rewarding is the entry on the Jesuit provincial, Jeremiah Sullivan (1877–1960), coming in part from the constrained ‘official’ Australian Dictionary of Jesuit Biography  rather than being appropriately fresh­—and, as needs be, fearless.

Among outstanding women there are the two Wedgwoods: Camilla, ‘anthropologist and educationist’, descendant of the great potter, and Dame Ivy, who was married to one. The former made her mark in New Guinea and the Australian School of Pacific Administration; the latter was the third female elected to the Senate and the first from Victoria. Joan Rosanove (née Lazarus) qc, admitted to the bar in 1919, had to wait until 1965 to take silk. Her husband Mannie said that ‘as a cook, she was a brilliant lawyer’. The early death of Lilian Roxon (1932–73) of the eponymous Rock Encyclopaedia, made it possible to include an up-to-date feminist who graduated from the Sydney ‘Push’ to earn a double-edged dedication in Germaine Greer’s Female Eunuch. Perhaps even more spirited was Olive Rowe (1888–1979) whose future husband (c.1910) wooed her by tossing ‘Milk Kisses’ in her direction at MacRobertson’s chocolate factory. ‘Lonely and depressed’ after his death, she took up ballroom dancing at 62, won gold medals galore and at 67 the International Dancing Masters’ Association’s gold statuette and ‘added the cha-cha to her favourite tango’. Still dancing on her 91st birthday, she was finally quelled in a motor car accident.

The fourth series of the ADB attempted to redress to some extent the imbalance of entries between the sexes and to boost the inclusion of Australian Aborigines. So there are entries on some 80 women and perhaps 10 Aborigines. Unfortunately, some of the entries, and their subjects, have been too lightweight to justify such compensatory treatment, even allowing that by representing some particular avocations they may illustrate the complexity of Australian life.

‘Millicent Eastwood’ in Volume 14 as a representative ‘landlady’ was a dreary, trivial case in point and raises a question as to how she was chosen. Likewise the inclusion of the infant, Azaria Chamberlain, in Volume 13 was risible and suggested that the ADB needed closer supervision by its national editorial board.

It is also surprising to see demeaning suffixes such as ‘aviatrix’ and ‘tailoress’ still being used.

Not that male entries do not need paring as well. In spite of the ADB’s splendid achievement since the 1960s—and with the serious illness of general editor, John Ritchie, during this volume’s production, great credit must go to Diane Langmore and staff—there is a need for a comprehensive review of all ADB policies. For example, should the quantity of entries be reduced and more space be given to important entries, and how should authors be chosen and supervised? To take even major entries in the past written by reputable historians: how did the author overlook the remarriage, at 75, of the first headmaster of his old school, Melbourne Grammar, to a schoolgirl aged 16 (see J.E. Bromby, Vol 3); how could the entry on Sir John Latham (Vol 10) avoid a frank account of the jobbery involved in his resignation as Federal Opposition Leader (and next PM) in favour of Joseph Lyons in 1931; how could the entry (Vol 7) on William Baillieu give such a bland account of his notorious swindle in 1891–2? The ADB does not need the honoured maxim: De mortuis nil nisi bonum (speak only good of the dead). Sturdy William Cobbett got it right: De mortuis nil nisi verum (the truth), he said—and then plenty of it. 

Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, 1940–80. Pik–Z, John Ritchie and Diane Langmore (eds). Melbourne University Press, 2002. isbn 0 522 84997 0, rrp $82.50

James Griffin has contributed to earlier volumes of the ADB.

 

 

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