First lady of the airwaves

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What to call her, the Australian actress, journalist, broadcaster and prisoner of war who had much of Sydney, and men around the world, transfixed by her charms and her audacity for more than half a century? Dorothy Hetty Fosbury Gordon? Mrs Murray Eugene McEwen? Mrs George Onesiphorous Jenner? By the time she made her way onto Sydney radio in the 1950s, and became probably Australia’s first woman talkback presenter in 1967, she preferred to be known simply as Andrea. But still the epithets came, among them the Queen of Radio and the Baroness of Broadcasting. Journalists were (understandably) uncertain about her age, and the billowing files of press clippings she inspired featured more and more inaccuracies; Dorothy was variously said to have been the daughter of a police commissioner, to have grown up in India and to have pioneered talkback radio in 1951.

Born in 1891, the daughter of William A. Gordon, a station manager from western New South Wales, Dorothy attended the exclusive Ascham School in Edgecliff before setting up a dressmaking business in Sydney and then trying her luck in Hollywood. She worked as a stuntwoman, an extra and then as a stock actress with Paramount Studios, where she obtained a role in The Sheik opposite Rudolph Valentino—the only man, she claimed, who ever turned her down. By 1925 Dorothy had added two failed marriages to American ne’er-do-wells to her résumé. Although there would be no more husbands, the suitors were plentiful. One, rhapsodising about her luminous dark eyes, her grace on the dance floor, and her vitality, detected an elusiveness: ‘You should be pictured on a cliff edge, wind tossed, [w]ith eager eyes questioning the world.’

In the years before World War II Jenner moved between the United States, England and Australia, working on Victor Longford’s Hills of Hate and the landmark production of For the Term of His Natural Life, and writing a weekly column for the Sydney Sun. She adopted the nom de plume Andrea, chosen from a numerology list which ‘had everything on it from cirrhosis to vagina’. A brilliant concoction of pungent gossip, character sketches, royal news, fashion reportage and theatre criticism, her column simultaneously delighted in and  satirised the snobbery of society in London and elsewhere.

‘You are a rather rare draught, heady, potent, and exceptionally permeating, and believe me it would take a man’s man to appreciate and handle you without feeling that he was at times outclassed … I doubt that you will find all that you want in any one place, atmosphere or person,’ wrote an unusually perceptive psychic in November 1940. Within a year Jenner was off again, intending to dispatch reports on the Far East and beyond for the Sun and Woman. One letter of introduction declared: ‘Mrs Jenner’s venue appears to be the whole habitable globe. I never knew anyone so ubiquitous!’ Sir Frederic Eggleston, Australia’s first minister to China, thought her a ‘boisterous, florid woman’. In Asia, Jenner experienced the best and the worst of times: she had a brief liaison with a British wing commander, her one true love, but was then interned in the Stanley prisoner of war camp. For three-and-a-half years she kept a diary on toilet paper, recording the rigours of her confinement, including debilitating illnesses and the ever-present fear of rape, and drily profiling her fellow internees. Haunting her, too, was the memory of the last time she had had a ‘vanilla soufflé’, a reference perhaps to her airman, whom she later discovered had returned to his wife.


After her release in 1945, when she hit the headlines for describing the camp as a ‘hotbed of immorality’, Jenner joined the speaking circuit in Australia, returned to journalism and was the subject of an Archibald Prize entry by Judy Cassab. Jenner served on the Phillip Street Theatre board and good-naturedly went along with Gordon Chater’s performance as Andrea to the tune of Little Lady Make Believe, even though she maintained, with considerable justification, that she really knew most of the people whose names she dropped.

Always immaculately groomed, Jenner put on a beauty spot each morning and had a facelift. In the late 1950s, just as the Daily Mirror proposed that she retire, she moved to 2UE to host a morning show with Tom Jacobs. Along with her stable­mates, Gordon Chater and Ormsby Wilkins, Jenner was, in the Bulletin’s vernacular, an early ‘talk jockey’. They occupied a middle ground between the disc jockeys who emerged in the 1950s and the ‘dial-in’ talkback hosts who emerged in the 1960s. Nor was Jenner a radio ‘aunt’ in the tradition of the homely and comforting figures who had dominated the airwaves for decades. Her abrasive, sometimes ribald conversational manner unnerved 2UE’s management and in 1963 she was lured to the Macquarie Network’s 2GB. Here she secured a secretary, a hefty salary and a promise of £10 a week in retirement, bringing her the financial security she had long craved.

Needing a foil, Jenner broadcast alongside John Pearce between 9 and 10am, increasing the session’s ratings. ‘Hello, Mums and Dads,’ delivered in a throaty contralto, was her trademark. Jenner would rise at 6.30am and study newspapers and magazines before recording the next day’s show, featuring sophisticated patter—‘Bobby Kennedy obviously hasn’t heard of the Pill’—and interviews with celebrities. ‘Entertaining, highly provocative, shrewd and penetrating and terribly self-centred,’ declared the market research in 1964. But although Jenner’s experiences allowed her to transport her session into ‘a world remote from the ordinary housewife’, it was already apparent that she was of little appeal to audiences under 35.

Later that year, Macquarie’s managing director, Stan Clark, visited the US and studied the success of ‘conversation’ programs hosted by strong personalities. In 1967 the Australian Broadcasting Control Board finally acquiesced to industry demands to overturn a ruling prohibiting recording telephone conversations for broadcasting. This Day Tonight was there on 30 October to capture the Queen of Radio’s first live encounter with her subjects. Jenner growled at her listeners, described some of the women who rang in as ‘stupid’ and criticised producers for vetting her calls. She was also unhappy with the television crew’s lighting: ‘They made me look a fright.’

Waspishness may have been a core component of her persona, but it was deemed too dangerous when live to air. By early 1968 Macquarie had decided to revert to pre-recording Jenner’s program. No friend of Labor or of trade unions, she had already been lambasted in Parliament and had attracted libel writs from the Whitlams and Jim Cairns. In 1969 Jenner’s crown lost its lustre when she was dumped by Macquarie; her program was deemed to have too little appeal to younger listeners and to audiences beyond Sydney. As talkback entrenched itself as an integral part of the Australian radio landscape, her program was also said to lack sufficient topicality. For the first time in her life, Jenner had fallen behind the pack. She had brief spells at the ABC and 2CH before leaving the industry in 1972.

By now Jenner had been working on her memoirs for a decade: ‘It’ll take two volumes, of course.’ Various co-authors fell by the wayside before Darlings, I’ve Had a Ball!—written with Trish Sheppard and widely serialised—appeared in 1975. Armed with a whisky, Jenner continued to hold court in her Potts Point flat as journalists came to pay homage and speculate, often incorrectly, about her exploits. She died on 24 March 1985, aged 94.

Twenty years after Andrea’s death, two figures dominate Australian talk radio, broadcasting from the two stations that made and unmade her broadcasting career. Alan Jones has never been regarded as too Sydney in his appeal, and Andrea’s old friend, John Laws, seems to be encouraged to court rather than shirk controversy.      

Bridget Griffen-Foley is a historian at Macquarie University and is writing a history of commercial radio in Australia.

 

 

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Thank you for your informative article about Andrea. I have been trying to track down her book for a long time now with no success as I couldnt remember her real name ( sadly my original copy fell to bits.) I know Andrea helped me through many years of raising my family in the poorer days of my life at that time and I will always be grateful to her for that!
Margaret JOHNSTON | 11 September 2014


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