25 July 2017

Harold Holt - 50 years since the Australian PM disappeared

Harold Holt (1908–1967) completed high school in Melbourne and a law degree at Melbourne University. Holt worked as a solicitor, and pursued his interests in sport and politics. He won a seat in parliament in 1935 for the conservatives, and first became a minister at  the young age of 30!

Harold Holt had met Zara Dickins when he was a student. Unable to persuade Holt to marry before his income grew, she departed on a round-the-world cruise to England where Zara met & married British army officer James Fell in 1935. For the next four years they lived in India and had a son. After the birth in 1939 of her twins, she lived in Melbourne.

Because the family all knew the twins were Holt’s sons, the Fells were amicably divorced in 1946. In Oct that same year, she married Harold Holt, now a well established solicitor and Parliamentarian. Is it an exag­geration to say that he was already being touted as a future leader of the conservatives? Certainly he had well placed friends, including Sir Norman and Lady Mabel Brookes, and Robert Menzies, then Victoria’s Attorney-General.

In opposition from 1941-49, Robert Menzies was elected prime minister in 1949 and young Harold Holt became a high profile member of his cabinet. Holt held senior port­folios during the next 16 years of the Menzies government including Minister for: Immigrat­ion, Labour and National Service, The Melbourne Olympics and finally Treasurer. Holt was ready for the prime ministership in 1960, but he had a long wait. Menzies did not retire until 1966!

Harold Holt (right) with President Lyndon and Mrs Ladybird Johnson
Oct 1966
Photo credit: National Archives

Channel 9 News wrote the definitive analysis of these events. It was a very hot day in Dec 1967 when the Prime Minister Harold Holt went for a swim, and vanished. A fit, keen swimmer and spear fisherman, he loved the rough waters off Victoria's Cheviot Beach behind Portsea, off Victoria’s Port Phillip Bay.

Holt's former Press Secretary and close personal friend, Tony Eggle­ton, remembered it was a very hot afternoon in Canberra when a phone call from a journalist came. There was a report of a VIP missing at Portsea. Eggleton phoned the Prime Minister’s Lodge, and the housekeeper at Holt's holiday home at Portsea, but noone knew anything. Finally he phoned the police in Melbourne who said they did believe that the missing person in the water was the Prime Minister.

Someone had to tell Harold's wife, Zara, who they tracked her down at a Christmas Party in Canberra. Soon Zara and Eggleton flew to Mel­b­ourne where police were lined up, providing them with a fast escort on the 200 ks journey to Portsea.

By this time the news that the PM was missing became public. Hor­des of people on the Mornington Peninsula headed to the beach or lined the streets. All the media were waiting outside the army bar­racks. Zara was escort­ed down to the search zone, accompanied by her three adult sons.

Police divers, who leaped into the waters scouring the area for any sign of the Prime Minister, were joined by helicopters. Regular media conferences kept Australian and the world updated on the search. The search continued for 20 days but even by Day 2, everyone concluded that the tides had carried Holt out into the open ocean.

As the mystery deepened, another story emer­ged: that the PM had been at the beach with his lover Marjorie Gillespie. Mrs Gillespie later told the police that she looked back, wishing Harold would come out of the water. The water suddenly became turb­ul­ent around him and  swamped him. She did not see him again and even Holt’s two personal body guards could add no useful information.

Front page coverage in every newspaper
The Sun, 18th Dec 1967

According to the newspapers later, Holt was Australia's answer to John F Kennedy during the sexually permissive 1960s. Both men were spirited, charming, adventurous and handsome. Strangely, the PM's staff said they had never been aware of Holt’s affairs but Zara said she was very clear her husband was a womaniser. Nonetheless, she said, it was love that kept the Holts together. They had a nice holiday home in Queensland, and hoped to eventually retire there.

Because the disappearance was a tragedy Australia had never seen, conspiracy theories were rampant. Many people thought Holt was whisked away by a Chinese submarine near Cheviot Beach and had become a Communist spy. Others suggested that, at the height of the Red Scare, he'd been spotted in Russia as a defector. And there were many dark rumours of suicide.

Note that I have added pub­lished histories about Zara’s pregnancies and Harold’s many mistresses, in case there was a personal (as opposed to a political) element to the PM’s death. Note that  Channel 9 News did not mention any personal misbehaviour by the prime minister or his wife.

Holt had been Prime Minister for less than two years when he van­ished. He had campaigned for election on the basis of the Vietnam War, proudly declaring to his American allies that Australia was a staunch friend that would Go All The Way With L.B.J. It was a phrase that would go down in history. And Holt had formed a close personal friendship with Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Holt led Australia out of imperial measurements and into decimal currency. Plus he held one of the most historic referenda in Aust­ral­ia's history, guaranteeing Aboriginal Australians the right to vote. Most importantly he abolished the White Australia policy. The one thing the prime minister wanted to do (but died before he achiev­ed it) was to visit European capital cities; he’d show that South-East Asia & the Pacific were going to be The Powerhouse Of The Future.

Holt's memorial service in Melbourne in Jan 1968 was an honour roll of world political leaders and heads of state. Soon after Zara left for a two-month world trip, during which time she lunched with the Queen at Sandringham and stayed with the Lyndon Johnsons at the White House. Her autobiography, My Life and Harry, was launched in 1968 and she was created a dame that same year. In February 1969 Dame Zara married another federal politician, Jeff Bate.

Memorial plaque
Cheviot Beach

38 years after the disappearance a coroner finally ended all conspiracy theories in 2005, declaring that although his body was never found, Harold Holt probably drowned. A memorial plaque now lies on the sea floor in Cheviot Beach.

22 July 2017

Mae West - anyone for sex?!

Mae West (1893–1980) was born in Brooklyn, the daughter of a professional boxer. She made her first ap­pearance in Vaude­ville at 14, under the name Baby Mae. But although she always wanted to work in show business profess­ion­ally, her parents had her trained for a career as a garment worker instead. Per­haps that was why underage lass and the vaudeville song-and-dance man Frank Wallace were secretly mar­ried by a justice of the peace in Milwaukee in 1911.

Mae West got her big break in 1918 in the revue Sometime. Her character, Mayme, danced the shimmy, a brazen sexy dance that shook the top half of the female body. As more parts came her way, West began to shape her characters, often rewriting dialogue or character descriptions to better suit her roles. She eventually began writing her own plays, initially using the pen name Jane Mast.

Fame arrived with the play Sex, a provocatively titled Broadway production that “Jane Mast” wrote, produced and starred in. Mae cast herself in the role of a prostit­ute named Margie La Monte who wanted to improve her life by finding a well-to-do man to marry. 325,000 people flocked to the theatre to see Sex, once the season debuted in late 1926.

One night in Feb 1927 the puritanical New York city authorities decided to raid the theatre and arrest West and some of the other actors. Apparently fearing that Sex corrupted the morals of the youth, West was charged with obscenity, and sentenced to ten days in gaol on Welfare-Roos­ev­elt Island. She travelled there in style, garlanded in roses and riding in a limousine.

The sentence went re­m­arkably well: She dined with the warden, who she charmed; excited the press with cheeky tales of how she wore her silk undies in her cell; and was even all­owed out two days early for exemp­lary behaviour. In fact, she attracted so much media attention that her career was greatly enhanced, not diminished by her prison days.

Her great gift was her ability to satirise the prevailing soc­ial attitudes then, particularly America’s prudish public att­itude towards sex. That West had become a glamorous American sex symbol of the inter-war years suggested that she never shied away from taboo-breaking naughtin­ess. And got away with it!

One of Mae West's spectacular costumes in the film
I'm No Angel, 1933

West found further notoriety from her three sub­sequent plays: a] Drag 1927 (later renamed The Pleasure Man for Broadway), a play dealing with homosexuality; b] Diamond Lil 1928, which established her signature character in her later career; and c] The Constant Sin­ner 1931, which was shut down after just two performances by the district att­orney. The Pleasure Man ran for only one showing before also being shut down after West and the cast were arrested for obscenity, but this time getting off thanks to a hung jury.

Her plays showed how West could claim power within the con­fines of being a woman and a sex worker in the 1920s. In the plays, every woman was reduced to offering sex – that’s why it her first play was called Sex. But claiming power was not only ON the stage. Mae West was such a big star that she really did control­ her own image. If she could hold control in her own hands, then other women stars could do it too. Iron­ic­ally her naughty plays made the rising star not only fam­ous, but also one of the highest paid women in the USA.

Her controversies and successes soon drew the attention of Hol­lywood executives and it was only then that she took her bawdy app­roach across the country to Hollywood. Despite being 38 at the time, when glamour actresses started to wind down their car­eers, West found herself starting a movie career. Para­mount Pic­tures off­ered her a contract at $5,000 a week!! They also let her re-write her lines in the films.

Mae West looked wonderful and sounded witty

Night After Night, her first film, started in 1932.  A young handsome Cary Grant was her leading man in her second film, She Done Him Wrong  (1933) I'm No Angel (1933) was Mae West's third motion picture, again with Cary Grant. West received sole story and screenplay credit! Made before the "Hays Code" landed with a shudder in mid-1934., these were the three Mae West films that were not heavily censored. Thus it was on the silver screen that West reached the greatest heights of her fame.

Even on radio in the mid-late 1930s, her clever double-entendre lines and sly delivery got Mae West into trouble eg when she appeared alongside Don Ameche and Charlie McCarthy in 1937 in a popular NBC radio variety programme. The Radio Act had given the Federal Communications Commission the power of grant­ing licenses to broadcasters, which in turn largely controlled content. Featuring Mae West on a Sunday evening radio show tested the limits of what The Legion of Dec­ency and others were prepared to tolerate. In response, the FCC opened an in­vestigation and reprimanded NBC on the grounds of indecency. So NBC barred West from ANY network programmes; she would not return to radio again until 1950.

Nonetheless Mae West was still performing in her old age, with her last major production being the 1978 Sex­tette musical. She died in 1980 at 87 from a stroke.

Her sex appeal influenced culture all around the world, and can still be seen today: her image appeared on the cover of the Beatles’ album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band; her lips inspired Sal­vador Dali’s iconic Mae West Lips Sofa; and during WW2 the life vests worn by Allied Air Force personnel were nicknamed Mae Wests. I love the name of her 1959 autobiography - Goodness Had Nothing To Do With It. And I loved her explanation for her success - “I climbed the ladder of success wrong by wrong”.

18 July 2017

Who should own the Koh i Noor Diamond - Britain, India, Pakistan, Iran or Afghanistan?

Britain and India are not the only nations making claim to the amaz­ing Koh-i-Noor diamond. Half the nations in Central Asia have been, or will be in court over this treasure.

Up until 1304 the diamond was held by the Indian Rajas of Malwa. By 1304 the diamond came into the possession of the Emperor of Delhi, Allaudin Khilji. Then in 1339 the diamond was taken to the city of Samarkand (now in Uzbekistan), where it stayed for centuries.

Clearly the diamond variously belonged to all the Indian and Persian rul­ers who fought bitter battles throughout history. In 1526 the Mog­­ul ruler Babur mentioned the diamond, gifted to him by the Sultan Ib­rahim Lodi of Delhi, in his writings. At 793 carats, it must have looked superb.

Shah Jahan (1592–1666) was the ruler who commissioned the Taj Mahal mausoleum. But he also commissioned the very glamorous Peacock Throne, the Mughal throne of India in Delhi. The Koh-I-Noor was mounted on this very special piece of furniture. When he was imprisoned by his son Aurangazeb, Shah Jahan could only ever see his beloved Taj Mahal via the reflection in the diamond.

Aurangzeb might have been cruel to his own father, but at least he protected the diamond by having it cut down by a Venetian specialist to 186 carats, then brought the Koh-I-Noor to the Badshahi Mosque in Lahore. Aurangzeb passed the jewel on to his heirs but Mahamad, Aurangzeb’s grandson, was not a great ruler like his grandfather. Sultan Mahamad lost a decisive battle to Nader.

Queen Alexandra's corontation 1902, 
with the Koh-i-Noor in the centre of her crown

Emperor Nader Shah, Shah of Persia (1736–47) and the founder of the Afsharid dynasty of Persia, invaded the Mughal Empire, event­ually attacking Delhi in March 1739. So Nader Shah took the diamond back to Persia and gave it its current name, Koh-i-noor/Mountain of Light. But Nader Shah did not live for long, because in 1747 he was assass­in­ated and the diamond went to his general, Ahmad Shah Durrani.

The defeated ruler of Afghanistan Shah Shuja Durrani brought the Koh-i-noor back to the Punjab in India in 1813 and gave it to Ranjit Singh, founder of the Sikh Empire. Durrani made a deal: he would surrender the diamond to the Sikhs in exchange for help in winning back his Afghan throne.

Most of the Punjab region (including Delhi and Lahore) was annexed by Britain’s East India Company in 1849, and then moved to British cont­rol. The last Maharajah of the Sikhs, the 10 year old child Duleep Singh, wept when land and treasures of the Sikh Empire were confiscated by governor-general of India, Lord Dalhousie, and taken as war compen­sat­ion.  The diamond, the most tragic theft of all, was formally transferred to the treasury of the Brit­ish East India Co in Lahore! Even the Treaty of Lahore specifically discussed the fate of the Koh-i-Noor, in writing.

The diamond was proudly shipped by Lord Dalhousie to Queen Victoria in July 1850. It was a symbol of Victorian Britain's imperial domination of the world and its ability to take the most desirable objects from across the Empire... to display in British triumph.

And then it was exhibited at the Great Exhibition of 1851 in Crys­tal Palace, in the south­ern central gallery. World Fairs were of­ten used to display a country’s greatest treasures. So, as expected, there was enormous excite­ment in Crystal Palace when official com­mentators and the general public first saw the jewel. Although there were 100,000 other exhibits displayed in Crystal Palace, the queues to see Queen Victoria’s diamond were the longest of all.

In 1852 the Queen decided to reshape the diamond and it was taken to a Dutch jeweller to re-cut it. The Koh-i-Noor had originally been one of the world’s largest uncut diamonds, but by 1852 the size had been reduced again, this time down to 106 carats. Queen Victoria wore the diamond occasionally afterwards. She wrote in her will that the Koh-i-noor should only be worn by queens.

After Queen Victoria died, the Koh-i-Noor diamond was crafted into the Crown Jew­els and displayed at the Tower of London.

The Koh i Noor diamond, set in the Maltese Cross at the front of the crown
106 carats during Victoria's reign.

In 1947, the partition of India led to the Punjab being divided into the newly created Union of India and Dominion of Pakistan. This partition has influenced the cases brought in Brit­ish courts over the last few years. Recently the descendants of the last Maharaja of the Sikh Empire said they were forced to hand over the Koh-i-Noor diamond to the British; they launched a court action in the UK to get the diamond back in Sept 2012. The case depended on the diamond being one of the many artefacts taken from India under ugly circumstances. The Indian lawyers claimed the British colon­isation of India had stolen wealth and destroyed the country’s psyche. Their court case failed.

But India was not the only nation with a historical claim to the diamond – it had passed through Persian, Hindu, Mughal, Turkic, Afghan and Sikh owners centuries before it was seized by the British in the C19th. So expect the British to face another legal battle, after a Pakistani judge accepted a petition de­manding that the Queen hand the $200 million stone back to them. Mind you, in 2013 the Prime Minister David Cameron said that returning the stone was out of the question. Will the next prime minister say the same to Persia/Iran?

Historians last question is "what is the proper response to imperial looting?" Read the brand new book Koh-i-Noor: The History of the World's Most Infamous Diamond by William Dalrymple and Anita Anand, published by Bloomsbury in 2017. The history of the Koh-i-Noor, that was accepted by the Brit­ish, is no longer a glorious piece of the nation’s colonial past. That history is finally challenged! The resulting version, now pub­lished, is one of greed, murder, wars, torture, colonialism and approp­riation.