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First lady of the airwaves

  • 25 April 2006

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