Madeleine, page 1
Helen Trinca has co-written two previous books: Waterfront: The Battle that Changed Australia and Better than Sex: How a Whole Generation Got Hooked on Work. She has held senior reporting and editing roles in Australian journalism, including a stint as the Australian’s London correspondent, and is currently managing editor of the Australian.
A LIFE OF MADELEINE ST JOHN
Photographs supplied by: Felicity Baker: Madeleine and Chris; Madeleine at Swinbrook Road; Madeleine with Puck, by Felicity Baker. Florence Heller: Madeleine in London, by Frank Heller. Nicole Richardson: Feiga and Jean Cargher; Sylvette in Sydney; Ted and Sylvette with John and Margaret Minchin; Ted with baby Madeleine; Madeleine with Sylvette and Ted; Madeleine and Colette ‘smiling for the camera’. Deidre Rubenstein: Madeleine with Swami-ji. Sydney Morning Herald: ‘The Octopus’ at Honi Soit, by B. Newberry/Fairfax Syndications. Madeleine in 1998, by Jerry Bauer. St John family, by Margaret Michaelis. Cover photo: Madeleine in the snow in Trafalgar Square, 1968, by Daniels McLean.
The Text Publishing Company
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Melbourne Victoria 3000
Copyright © Helen Trinca 2013
All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright above, no part of this publication shall be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior permission of both the copyright owner and the publisher of this book.
First published by The Text Publishing Company, 2013.
Cover and page design by W. H. Chong
Typeset by J&M Typesetters
National Library of Australia Cataloguing-in-Publication
Author: Trinca, Helen.
Title: Madeleine : a life of Madeleine St. John / by Helen Trinca.
ISBN: 9781921922848 (pbk.)
ISBN: 9781921961137 (eBook)
Subjects: St John, Madeleine, 1941–2006.
Dewey Number: A823.3
for Ian Carroll
Introduction—A Night to Remember
1 A War Baby
2 ‘Pickled in Love’
3 Sylvette’s Despair
4 A Mother Lost
5 Flower Girls for a Stepmother
6 Sydney Uni and the Octopus Girls
7 Adrift in Castlecrag
8 Till Death Us Do Part
9 American Dreams
10 Letters Home
11 An Expat in London
12 To the Edge and Back
13 A Room of Her Own
14 Madame Blavatsky
15 Colville Gardens
16 The Women in Black
17 Dear Ted
18 A Moment in the Sunshine
19 The Essence and the Booker
20 A Sense of Betrayal
21 A Stairway to Paradise
22 A Tourist in Athens
23 Friendships Lost and Found
24 Her Own Story
25 After Madeleine
A Night to Remember
The Booker Prize dinner in London’s Guildhall is a flash affair. The wine flows as hundreds of publishers, authors, agents and critics crowd around their tables to hear which book has won the award for the best novel of the year from the British Commonwealth and Ireland. There is glamour, gossip and apprehension. The Booker brings prize money, but the real value comes from the cachet, which translates to sales and profile. Someone’s life will change tonight.
In October 1997, a birdlike woman, Madeleine St John, was perched at one of the Guildhall tables. Her third novel, The Essence of the Thing, was on the shortlist. St John had struggled for decades to survive in London—she was financially and physically stretched, already suffering from the emphysema that would claim her life. Scarcely known by the literary critics, she had enjoyed plenty of attention since the nomination, with journalists trooping up the stairs to her Notting Hill council flat for interviews.
At home, a surprised media reclaimed her as the first Australian woman shortlisted for the Booker. St John was furious. She had spent her life reinventing herself and avoiding the Australian tag, even taking British citizenship in 1995. All but one of her novels catalogued the lives of inner London’s professional class, not the bush and the beach. The last thing she wanted to be was Australian. But as the Channel 4 cameras panned across the Guildhall and millions of Britons watched the event live, Melvyn Bragg announced St John was from Australia.
The bookmakers had her as the outsider at eight to one, but writer A. S. Byatt told Channel 4 that The Essence of the Thing was the novel that excited her above the others. St John was nervous but hopeful of what the night would bring. Winning the Booker would be a vindication of the choices made a lifetime ago, proof to the extended St John clan, whom she loved and loathed, that she had succeeded in spite of them. The sweetest victory of all would be over her father, Edward St John—politician, barrister and pillar of the community. Ted had died in 1994, but his daughter still had scores to settle.
A War Baby
Madeleine St John was a war baby, conceived after her father signed up for service and born five months after he was shipped out with the AIF to Palestine. Ted St John did not know that his wife was pregnant when he left. Indeed, Sylvette St John appeared to have been unaware she was carrying a child until five months into the pregnancy.1 She scarcely had time to get used to the idea before her baby was born, two months premature, at 8.40 p.m. on 12 November 1941, at the King George V Memorial Hospital for Mothers and Babies in Sydney’s inner-suburban Camperdown. The baby weighed just 4lb 2oz. When news of the birth reached him in the Middle East, Ted knocked on the door of a convent of French nuns in Bethlehem and bought from them a tiny lace collar as a gift for his firstborn.2
Back in Sydney, Sylvette, who had come to Australia from Paris just before the war, registered her daughter as Mireille. Mother and baby spent a few days at a specialist Tresillian centre, the custom after a premature birth, before going home to the flat at 22a New South Head Road, Vaucluse, which Sylvette shared with her parents and her teenage sister Josette. It was not quite the perfect start for the baby girl: an absent father and a mother who had been in denial for months before her birth and who seemed unable to decide on the name. Mireille remained on her birth certificate but she was called Madeleine almost from the start.3
Yet Madeleine’s babyhood was not unusual. Normal life had been on hold since Prime Minister Robert Menzies took Australia into the war against Hitler on 3 September 1939. Children across the country were being reared by their mothers and extended families and friends.
Ted enlisted as soon as he finished his law degree. He was an impatient young man who was desperate for ‘some kind of an adventure’, but his parents persuaded him to qualify first.4 By the time he signed up at the Victoria Barracks in Paddington on 25 May 1940, he was working as a judge’s associate. Ted was excited about the war but he must have had mixed emotions: he was in love, infatuated even, with the young Frenchwoman he had met through mutual friends in a Sydney restaurant.
Sylvette Cargher was not part of Ted’s university crowd. She was more exotic and stylish than the young women he mixed with in the city. She was small, with dark hair and eyes, distinctive rather than beautiful, unlike the robust, fair-haired, sunburnt girls Ted had known in the bush where he had grown up. He was drawn to the young European woman who seemed so worldly with her deep voice
The St Johns were from a proud ecclesiastical family with a lineage detailed in those bibles of class stratification, Debrett’s Peerage & Baronetage and Burke’s Peerage. Ted’s grandfather Henry arrived in Australia from England in 1869 ‘rather conscious of his family tradition, to make his fortune in NSW’.5 He did not make his fortune but he left his mark. His eldest son, Frederick de Porte St John, Ted’s father, was born in 1879 and grew into an excellent horseman who seemed destined to be a farmer. But a wealthy clergyman cousin in England sent money to Australia and Frederick, along with his younger brother Henry, was enrolled at St John’s Theological College in Armidale.6 The brothers spent their lives as Church of England pastors, with Frederick ministering to bush towns throughout the Liverpool Plains and New England.
Frederick was an imposing and handsome man and he cut a fine figure as he galloped on horseback to tend to his scattered congregation. He married Hannah Phoebe Mabel Pyrke in 1908, and the couple lived first at Boggabri, where Ted, their fifth child, was born, on 15 August 1916. The family moved soon after to Uralla and stayed there for sixteen years before moving to Quirindi in 1932 when Ted was a teenager.
Life was tough. In the 1930s depression, the family often sat down to an evening meal of bread and one boiled egg. Frederick always got the egg and his children took it in turns to get the very top of the egg as he sliced it open.7 Despite his genial public face, Frederick often beat his children, especially the boys. While Hannah was usually the one who ordered the strapping, she always regretted the way her children were ‘thrashed so savagely’. Her life with Frederick was not always easy, and by the time Ted was a young man his parents’ relationship had deteriorated.8
The poverty of a rural vicarage was alleviated only somewhat by the St Johns’ sense of being special, with a heritage stretching back to the sixteenth-century Baron St John of Bletso and a succession of Bolingbroke earls. Australian society accorded clergymen and their families a certain deference, but the St Johns were stuck halfway between the aristocrats of early twentieth-century Australia—the squattocracy—and the wage earners of the country towns.
The St Johns created their own small social group ‘without being able to feel a complete identification with any of the other groups’ in the country towns where they lived. It was a world in which you hung on tightly to the things that marked you out.9 In the St Johns’ case that was intellect, education and a belief that while they could never afford to visit England they were still entitled to call it home. Ted’s older brother, Roland, recalled that the children read their way through the Arthur Mee encyclopaedia in the long, cold winter evenings in the bush. It was their ‘window onto the world’.10 Their parents encouraged them to consider high achievement as their destiny as well as their duty.
Hannah devoured copies of Grit, a popular American magazine that focused on building patriotic, religious and family values.11 She was convinced that Ted would achieve great things. He was a good-looking, bright, lively and confident child, and he had been a brilliant student at Armidale High School. But he almost missed out on university because of a lack of funds. In the end a university grant, known as an exhibition, paid his fees, and a scholarship and bursary covered his living costs at St Paul’s College at the University of Sydney.
In his second year of law he met fellow student Gough Whitlam. The two became friends, and remained friends even after they moved into legal firms in the city. Ted loved the legal life. He came to know John Kerr, a young lawyer already demonstrating the intelligence that would take him to the highest level of power in Australia.12
The St Johns had a sense of security about their place in Australia. Not so the Carghers, the newcomers who were expected to adopt the customs of the dominant class and culture. Sylvette’s parents were Jews from one of Romania’s biggest cities, Jassy, in Moldavia, but both left their families as teenagers and travelled alone to newly industrialised Paris, which offered work and a measure of safety.
Sylvette’s father Yancu, or Yaakov, was the son of a rabbi, but in France he quickly shed his religion and presented himself as a Frenchman named Jean Meer Cargher. He worked in weapons and aircraft manufacturing during the First World War and learned metalwork. On 30 September 1916, at the age of twenty-four, he married twenty-three-year-old Feica Avram, a machinist in the clothing trade.13 She was scarcely five feet tall, dark-haired with brown eyes and always elegantly dressed. Feica could barely read or write, but she had a good eye and a sense of style that made her an excellent seamstress.14
Sylvette was their first child, born on 19 August 1917. They had a son, Leon, who died from meningitis in 1921 at the age of two, and a second daughter, Josette, born in 1926. Jean was successful in Paris, setting up the Cargher & Leibovitz metalwork shop and producing cots and baby cradles at 7 Passage St-Bernard, close to the Bastille Metro. Madeleine St John was well into her sixties before she discovered that her grandfather was ‘no more French than I am’.15
Sylvette, almost a decade older than Josette, was spoilt by her parents and was ‘made much of by her family in contrast to her younger sister’.16 But Cargher & Leibovitz struck financial trouble and Jean began to worry about the political tensions in Europe. He convinced his wife, now known as Feiga, that Australia was the answer and that he should head for Sydney, with the rest of the family to follow.
The details of his immigration are unclear. Madeleine always believed that her grandfather and Sylvette arrived in Sydney together in the mid-1930s, and that her grandmother and Josette followed a couple of years later. But the records suggest Jean came to Australia alone in 1929, arriving on the S.S. Orama on 29 August.17 Left alone in Paris with twelve-year-old Sylvette and three-year-old Josette, Feiga worked as a dressmaker.
Sylvette saw her future in Australia. In 1934, not yet seventeen, she went to Marseilles to board the French packet boat, the Cephee. She had given her profession as typist and indicated she was going to settle in Victoria, but she did not disembark when the ship arrived in Melbourne on 3 June.18 In Sydney, five days later, and with a knowledge of English acquired during the two-month journey, Sylvette reunited with the father she had not seen for five years. Feiga went into business in Paris running an atelier de couture.
In Sydney, Jean worked as a dealer in second-hand clothes, with a shop in Oxford Street, and father and daughter moved into a two-bedroom flat in Wallaroy Road, Woollahra. Sylvette helped in the shop, found work selling cosmetics for Helena Rubinstein, and gave French lessons. She advertised in the Sydney Morning Herald: ‘French taught by cultured French young lady. Beginners or advanced pupils.’19
Two and a half years later, on 3 December 1936, Jean and Sylvette welcomed Feiga and ten-year-old Josette to Australia, and the Carghers settled into life in pre-war Sydney, where the locals were more indifferent than unkind to the migrants in their midst.
Australia was still a predominantly British society. The Carghers had all but erased their Romanian origins in Paris, but now they had to adjust again. Jews were often regarded with suspicion, but the Carghers had left the synagogue behind and they spent little time practising their faith in Sydney.20 Feiga was well turned out and vivacious, and her neighbours quickly granted her a special status, calling her Madame. Sylvette had already established a group of friends, some of whom lived in Kings Cross and Potts Point—the bohemian quarter where actors like the young Peter Finch hung out. Perhaps it was due to one of these contacts that Sylvette had a small article published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 22 June 1937. Under the byline Sylvette Cargier, she wrote about Romanian students living in the Latin Quarter in Paris. The article suggested first-hand experience: ‘A Rumanian girl attending the Paris University explained to me…’ she wrote.21
Ted and Sylvette met in 1939. Sylvette was the girlfriend of Paul Lawrence, a lawyer a little older than Ted. In August, she and Paul took part in a debate at St Catherine’s School in Waverley, where t
Sylvette proved to be the star attraction at the informal dinner party held in the school’s new domestic-science room before the debate, which was chaired by Gough Whitlam. Cadet journalist Ria Counsell, who was there that night, recalled: ‘Ted was fascinated with Sylvette. She was charming.’ Ted’s sisters noted her smart clothes and perfect makeup. She was different.22 But Sylvette seemed cautious and ‘was not such a willing participant at that stage’. Ria thought her very conscious of the class difference between them, but Ted won out and soon he and Sylvette were much more than friendly debating rivals.23 Ted and Gough sometimes swung by the Carghers’ flat to collect Sylvette for a drive,24 and Ted called her his ‘sweet Sylvette’.25 By the early months of 1940, he was insisting he wanted to marry her.
This prospect caused a crisis at the vicarage: Sylvette was not seen as a suitable wife for Ted, and Frederick and Hannah made the 450-kilometre journey down to Sydney to talk their son out of the marriage. But Ted was stubborn and prevailed, and Frederick performed the nuptials in his own parish church of St Alban’s at Quirindi. It was 3 August 1940, ten weeks after Ted had enlisted in the AIF. He moved in with his new wife and in-laws to their two-bedroom flat in New South Head Road. The Carghers, regarded as ‘enemy aliens’ by the authorities, had recently moved there from Wallaroy Road after obtaining permission from the local police station.26
Ted was pleased with his new family. He was a man of below average height but he towered over the Carghers—Sylvette was even shorter than her mother, at four feet, ten inches—and was a powerful physical and emotional presence in their lives. He was their bridge to the new world of Australia. Sylvette had married ‘in’ as well as ‘up’.