Poor Fellow My Dinner Party

When  you see a movie’s leading lady lovingly preparing a dinner-party meal, there’s a disaster in wait. The guest of honor, usually drunk, creates a horrid scene. Candelabras fly. The  laden tablecloth is snatched away or the table is upturned. Our hostess, who meant so well, cries a bucket amid the smashed crockery.

An equivalent in real life occurred at Bellevue Avenue, Dalkeith on Wednesday, April 29, 1964. The hostess was Mary Durack, 51, (later Dame Mary and AC), noted author of Kings in Grass Castles. This was the epic history of her family’s seven million-acre Kimberley cattle holdings.

There were two guests of honor. One (good), was Paul Hasluck, 59, at the time and Menzies’ defence minister, also a fastidious man of letters and later our 17th Governor-General. The other (bad), was Xavier Herbert, 63, ratbag narcissist and ham actor. He was author of the pre-war prize-winner Capricornia and future author of the 1463-page Poor Fellow My Country, often cited as Australia’s longest novel.

Other guests included Hasluck’s historian wife, Alexandra, Mary’s sister, the artist Elizabeth Durack, author and Patrick White Award winner Randolph Stow (To the Islands, Tourmaline), historian-author Henrietta Drake-Brockman OBE who ran the local Fellowship of Writers and dived on the Batavia wreck using an aqualung, and eminent naturalist Vincent Serventy.  There were two youngsters, Mary’s daughter, Patsy, and her pal David Haselhurst, a reporter and crony of mine at the time.  He later achieved fame as “Speculator” in The Bulletin where over decades his penny-dreadful stock picks outperformed the annual index by ten to thirtyfold.

At this point alert readers will complain that I mentioned this dinner party already in my Quadrant Online piece about Herbert  last October, recalling how Herbert climbed a gum tree and wouldn’t come down. In my defence, this new account is much more detailed than the former mere mention. It is cross-checked from three sources: Mary Durack’s diary, daughter Patsy Millett’s recollections (she still lives at the Bellevue Avenue address) and Haselhurst’s account in the Bulletin  of January 17, 1995. Haselhurst had promised Mary not to disclose what happened, and gallantly waited 31 years until her death before going to print a month later. It is remarkable that any large-ish and chaotic dinner party is so well documented by participants.

The background is that Herbert (above) had just published his autobiography, Disturbing Element, with its bush-braggart fantasies of an ever-successful Lothario.  Herbert was doing a Adult Education Board (AEB) lecture tour of his old WA haunts. AEB boss Hew Roberts had to fire him  for abusing genteel audiences. In turn Herbert gave me an interview insulting Roberts, his well-meaning host. Roberts recorded whimsically how Herbert would let Roberts’ cat eat off his plate during their meals.

Mary Durack, who ran a salon for artists and literary lions at her  home, organised a gathering for Herbert “before he leaves to spread terrible stories of inhospitable old Perth.”

Hasluck was scheduled to arrive late, flying in from Canberra.  But Herbert seemed a no-show. After an hour and a half of  drinks Mary began serving soup. Close to 10pm, a motorbike’s roar heralded Herbert’s arrival – down the drive and up the ramp to the wide veranda. The French doors to the dining room fortunately were open and Herbert braked with his front wheel protruding inside. It was his second grand entrance that day, as he’d come at lunchtime by mistake and taken Mary for a spin on the pillion.

Mary Durack at about the time Xavier Herbert stopped by.

Mary, as dinner hostess, was gracious but Herbert wasn’t. His drunken state was probably aggravated by amphetamines and methyl testosterone. “Why did you invite all these people to my dinner?” he complained. He rejected soup, demanded beer and rounded on the gentle soul Henrietta Drake-Brockman, shouting, “Get out of my way you ugly old bag, I want to talk to the beautiful Elizabeth”. He called the AEB’s Roberts a liar and, leaving his plate half-finished, organised a trunk call to a mistress in the East, loud enough for the intimacies to titillate or repel the guests. Thereafter he made frequent exits into the darkness. Randolph Stow found him urinating against the house wall. Griping to Stow, Herbert “rubbished just about everyone at the party and in the country and in the world”.

The Haslucks in Canberra some four years before the dinner party from hell.

The evening’s high point was Hasluck’s late arrival with wife Alexandra. He took his top place, greeting Herbert politely. Herbert snorted, and turning to Henrietta, accused her of plagiarism. She burst into tears. So did Alexandra. Mary as peace-maker said,  “Now, Xavier, you don’t mean that.”

But Hasluck lost his temper. He stood menacingly and announced to Herbert, “I should punch you in the nose.”  Haselhurst remembers, “We all expected the worst – and I secretly thought (as the only newspaper journalist there) what a terrific scoop it would be.”

Both Hasluck and Herbert had cred for fisticuffs. The dapper Hasluck had courage and staying power. At 21 he was police roundsman for The West Australian, he recalled in Mucking About. One night half a dozen larrikins stalked two girls from a funfair back to St George’s Terrace, where the girls were rescued by two young coppers.

The youths felled one of them, booting him in the ribs and head. Hasluck pushed through and stood over the fallen constable, trading punches with the larrikins, who were “kickers not fighters”, he said. He held the jeering mob at bay, “in an intoxication of excitement” until  reinforcements led by a burly sergeant saved the day, or night. The police said Hasluck fought like a tiger. “I had never been compared to a tiger before,” the modest Hasluck said.

Curiously, Herbert tells a similar tale of  defending a prostrate sergeant, “silvery bullet-head gushing blood” as a savage mob whacked him with pickets. This was the day after the Fremantle inter-union wharf riots in 1919 where wharfie Tom Edwards was killed – the ‘how’ still subject to debate. Herbert says he became the centre of the reprisal violence “taking blows from all round, going down, getting kicked up…” until a copper fired his revolver into the air: “The smoke cleared to reveal the mob struggling in frantic retreat.” (I’m not sure a revolver actually generates a smoke cloud).

Herbert thereafter proudly called himself Broken-Nosed Sam, at least until 1946, when he got it fixed from fear the misalignment was putting a hex on his sex life and giving him writer’s block.

 After this form guide for the pugilists, let’s return to Haselhurst’s account.

Confronted with the undoubted integrity of the Cabinet minister’s proposal, Herbert also burst into tears and fled to Mary’s backyard. There a ladder stood against a gum tree. In the fork of the tree  was a substantial cubby house in which Mary did most of her writing.

Herbert shinnied up the ladder and pulled it up behind him. The entire dinner party was now assembled in the garden. Despite all Mary’s entreaties, he would not come down, although he lowered a rope for a bottle of Swan lager to haul to his makeshift eyrie. He also demanded that we stand back while he lowered the ladder for  Patsy to join him in the loft.

Eye-witness Patsy says everyone had their own perspective on the night. Her mother’s diary doesn’t mention Herbert up a tree. In another account, Hasluck grabbed Herbert by the foot, the shoe came off and Herbert fell onto the defence minister. Patsy: “I don’t have a strong memory of going up the tree to join Xavier. I think that’s BS. I do remember finding Xavier crouching behind our incinerator.”

 Mary diarised that whether the night was a success or disaster, it was certainly memorable. As for the Hasluck/Herbert match-up, the winner was Hasluck by forfeit. Mary Durack’s soiree obviously qualifies as the dinner party from hell. I’m bidding for the movie rights.

Tony Thomas’s new book The West: an insider’s tales, is available here from Connor Court.

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