|Interviewer: Robin Hughes
Recorded: January 28, 1992
This is a transcript of the complete original interview conducted for the Australian Biography project. Each transcript page covers one videotape (approximately 35 minutes). There is also QuickTime video of the full interview available. To play the video, click on the icon in the right hand column. In addition, each question in the transcript is linked to the video. Clicking on a question will play the video from that point. (Help with this feature.) Optionally, you can download the video file for offline viewing (approx. 10MB).
The interview has been left it in its original state so that you can get a sense of how the conversation developed. The repetition of some questions, or a question followed by another question, is often due to the end of a particular tape or some other interruption, and has been indicated at the appropriate place in the text. There has been minimal tidying up of the text so that the flavour of the encounter has been kept.
Dame Joan, you were born in 1912, what kind of a family were you born into? What were your parents like?
Oh dear ... [laughs] ... They were very nice ... [laughs] ... But ...
Describe your ...
... I was very lucky that my mother was interested in music, I was fortunate that up ‘til about the age of seven or eight, that I heard classical music simply because of Mother. Once we were growing up and going to school, of course, then my brothers had all the jazz in the world and ... being played and ... my family — my father said that he used to sing in Westminster but I ... I doubted that all my life, and all ... the time I knew him, because he really didn't have a voice at all. Mother did ... [chuckles], she used to hum and sing around the place but ...
He liked to think he had a voice?
That's right ... [laughs] ... I think he wanted to interest me, and they were wonderful really because we had a ... a lovely background, to grow up with them and a family that up ‘til many years was united, and we did have our troubles later but in the early days of my youth we were a happy family, and as I say, my parents did everything to encourage us, musically.
What did your father do?
He was what he called a general merchant, but in London where he was born he was in the electrical trade, and he used to do very fine work too, and when he came out via New Zealand where I was dropped off and I think I ...
Yes, you were actually technically born in New Zealand ... or that you came straight over here?
Well I ... the more I like ... I explain it now is that I was conceived in England, born in New Zealand and brought up in Australia. I think that's the only way I can put it, but he ... changed, I ... I haven't ... really not sure. He went on doing electrical ... in the electrical trade when he came here, and then later branched off he ... he ... I think that's the description, a general merchant, which seemed to cover a multitude of things that he was in involved in.
And reasonably successfully because you had a pleasant, comfortable childhood with support from the family and you went to PLC Pymble ...
... the school on the North Shore of Sydney?
Yes. I had a wonderful youth, really, up ‘til what was known as the Lang Government and Mr Lang was called the Liar Liar Liar — ha! I can remember that so well, and my father came in with, well, unfortunate results in that period and we suffered, we had to sell the home up at Killara and do in another way but we were grown up by then. Well I was, I think, about 17, 18.
Right, this was during the Depression years?
Yes. So your family was affected by that?
Oh yes, yes.
But when you were at school you started developing some remarkable abilities, didn't you? It became fairly obvious that you weren't quite the run-of-the-mill child. And you showed great physical coordination in relation to sport. How did that come about? How did that first emerge — that you were a bit of a sportsgirl?
I ... I think that's a rather difficult question because I sort of grew up, it was a natural thing. I've ... I played all games at school, and loved them — I should have really loved doing more homework and studying what I should have been studying, instead I was often swimming in the pool at PLC when I should have been at class. I think it was nearly always maths, and I hated maths. So I ... in fact one day the teacher sent for me and ... and another girl had to find me and I was in the pool, and this came back on my report, and was read out at the breakfast table with all the reports ... [laughs] ...
So you ...
And my father wasn't very pleased ... [laughs] ...
So you had a mind of your own about how you were going to spend your time even then?
Oh, I couldn't stand maths, I really couldn't, and if I were not in the pool, I was certainly playing the violin or practising in one of the practice rooms — music. So ... to your question, I should say again, through my mother who was very active and loved games evidently, so she told me, and I ... and I just ... it was like swimming or anything, they say a duck to water or something like that ... well, ha, that was how I was. I loved tennis, I loved all ... all games. Anything with move ... movement, just as I loved my music. I really couldn't separate them at that stage.
And eventually in relation to sport you settled on golf. How did that — how did that get chosen out of all the rest?
... [laughs] ... Well, we had a weekend place at Palm Beach, north of Sydney, and there again my father gave me a little set of golf clubs, as ... a miniature set, at first to try, and we ... our place was right on the golflinks and the ninth green — it was a short course, only nine holes, and the ninth green was right by our front verandah, but the ... our old home is now the clubhouse, and I used to just hop over and practise on the ninth green, and putt and chip and do these things, and then I got a full set. Not only, I think, as we said in those days a driver — you don't call them that today: they're numbered one, two, three and four, etc — but I had a driver, I had a clique, I had a machet and a putter but they were the full, and ... eventually, friends of my father, three very well-known Sydney men who used to come to Palm Beach, I can remember them now, there was Percy Hunter, Alan Box and a Mr Moses, I never knew his other name, and these three men one day they called over and said, ‘Would Joan like to join us and make a four?’ So I did. And from that time on, I made a four when I came back from school in the holidays, this time of the year, Christmas always, I played with these three men, and so my game ... I never had a lesson, but I learned from watching them, and hitting just as they did, and Alan Box was a very good golfer, Percy Hunter was ... not that I knew it, I didn't, I just knew Mr Hunter and Mr Box and ... just played the game and enjoyed every moment of it. That was another thing, I was very naive, and I went on being very naive for many many many years because I don't know whether they had bets on the go ... on the side, but I expect they do — all the men did evidently — and I never knew anything about having bets, and even in my championship, when I was winning the championships, there the caddies would be betting, and my ... evidently my opponents were betting and I ... betting was going on everywhere, but I didn't know, and for some ... reason, nobody even thought of asking me to put money up or would I play for so much or anything. I had ... I was never asked, they must have known that I wouldn't know what they were talking about anyhow. So my golf improved because of playing with these men, and that's really how I learned to hit through and, you might say, put some oomph into it.
Did it reach a point where you were beating them?
... [laughs] ... Well, I was a good partner, let me put it that way ... [laughs] ... Because we played foursome, you see.
I was just wondering how these men would take it if a young schoolgirl started beating them.
Well, it was wonderful really because once I left school I was at the Conservatorium in Sydney and playing then in golf matches for teams and my club wanted me always, of course, naturally, to play. And our foursomes at Palm Beach gradually had to stop because my life were ... had changed so tremendously, but these three men used to come out and watch me play. I know at Royal Sydney and, well, Percy Hunter was a member there, so was Alan Box, and I didn't know that of course, when I was playing with them, you know, and they would come and watch me then as a champion. And I'd always said I would never be here if it hadn't been for these three men, really, possibly, [and] that's the way life goes, that's the part of the pattern.
Now although you obviously had natural ability with, I suppose, the eye-hand coordination or the physical coordination there, you also actually had a physical disability by this stage didn't you?
What was that?
Oh, an accident — car, and I was on a bike, and we had a collision, and I pulled the handlebar around to the right, and my left arm got caught in ... in those old-fashioned spoke wheels, of that period, and I'm very lucky to have the arm because the first doctor was going to amputate it straight away, but the ... evidently the pulse was beating and the second doctor that was called in was a surgeon, and he said, no, I'll try, which he did and there was a long ... I was out of everything for a year, and anyhow it all knitted up, but it's much shorter, my arm. The left arm.
And how did that affect your ability to play golf?
Well, I had a natural two-hand grip they called it, the two-handed grip, whereas most players use the overlapping grip, which I couldn't do — one, the short arm made that impossible, the ... would've hurt. But after I did it naturally and of course that's the ... just the natural grip that I've possessed, and I had no idea that it was not the right grip. I just knew that's how I would play the game and many times, you know, people'd come out and so that ... especially some of the pros, just to see this strange grip of this girl, and I ... afterwards when reading golf books, I found out that three of the great Scottish early players — one was James Braid and another was Taylor and Vernon or Verdon [actually, Vardon] — something like that, anyhow, Taylor and Braid both used this straight-hand grip. Why, I wouldn't know of course, they were long before my time so here ... [laughs] ... am I now, thinking back to my youth, so it was an interesting fact for me to read that.
Yes, that you weren't the first ...
Unlike ... no no, not by ...
... to develop this unorthodox sort of grip ...
... and they were champions up in Scotland, so I felt oh well then, ha ...
So how old were you when you became a champion and ...
I think round about 30, 31, 32 ... I'll let you work that out, yeah, I told you about my mathematics.
But I did have trouble counting my card. I could count it and I made quite sure that I got the right totalled in. But I ...
Your maths came good when it really needed it?
... [laughs] ... It wasn't something I enjoyed ever.
So at the same time as you were developing along as a natural young golfer, and eventually to be a champion, you were also developing music interests, but they were a little more affected by the accident weren't they — you had a sort of shift of direction after the accident in the musical front?
Oh, my interest and love of the violin. Yes. But it was, again, a very extraordinary thing because in having that, it helped me to concentrate more on the singing although it was a wonderful thing that I didn't oversing.
I wasn't tempted to.
Let me ask ... let me just ask that question slightly differently so that you can give us the background of the violin, I'd like to ... to ask you: do you remember when it was that you yourself became really interested in music and started learning?
I think I used to sing right from the beginning almost, and at school, my first sort of kindergarten, they'd always ask me to sing for them, I didn't know why, but the teacher would also have me stand up and sing a song or give a tune to the others because I sang in tune, (a), and (b), because I ... had the good fortune to have rhythm, a natural rhythm, and I think those two combined to ... make the teacher hold me up in front of the class to ... say try and emulate Joan.
It is unusual for very small children to sing in tune, isn't it?
I don't rea ...I expect so, yes.
And so right from the beginning you were able to do this just naturally?
Hmm and ...
... and there was the quality of the voice that had an attraction. I realised that later on. But at that stage not ...
But you enjoyed singing?
Oh I loved it. I loved it. I loved everything I did actually ... [laughs] ...
Has that continued for 80 years?
Yes, hah, when I'm asked about what I like in the way of music or anything I said I always did what I liked, and I loved what I did.
So you were singing and then you started to learn an instrument?
Well, I had begun to learn the violin when I was very young, just a ... I loved the violin ... and then ...
What was it that attracted you to the violin rather than some other instrument?
Now that is an interesting question, because I can't tell you that. I really don't know. It may have been listening to a record or recordings of violinists because mother had one or two old 78’s, no what were they in those ... I can't remember, but she had some. And I remember hearing Chrysler, and at that time Heifetz, and Heifetz was my absolute joy and I thought ... I'll aim at being a Heifetz, you know playing like Heifetz ... [laughs] ... and he was my first sort of violin idol, and I think in those days you rather worked and you thought, oh yes, I'll even practise. You see, I've spent a lot of time practising the fiddle, and this stopped me over singing when ... it was wonderful really, I was very lucky, because all the hours I put into the fiddle I might have been putting into the voice and ruining it at the same — tiring it. But I sang whenever I wanted to and when ... if I was asked to. But I did put all the hours into the fiddle and to learning naturally theory ... harmony, doing the other side of it. But it was ...
So you were becoming very musical which is very important?
Yes, and then going straight to the Conservatorium of ... the only, the only prize I ever won at school ... [laughs] ... was to do with music, never anything else ... [laughs] ...
Although ... except for sport.
Oh, oh yes, yes I ... there was the swimming championships. Yes, ha, yes.
Trophies for sport and prizes for music. But your schoolwork did get a bit neglected in all of this?
I wasn't that interested, except in geography, yes, history, but I found sitting you know at a desk and that sort of thing, and I wanted to be out and ... bursting my boiler on the hockey field or somewhere like that. I really found sitting for a long time at a desk quite a chore, and a bore.
These days we quite often tell children that they need to specialise a little bit, I mean, you seemed to do such a variety of things, you had all these sports, you had your violin which you were developing to a very high standard, you had your singing — was it ever thought at the time that maybe you were trying to do too much?
No. No, no-one ever suggested that either.
And you ...
Just as well because I don't think I would have taken any notice.
Do you think there was any disadvantage in spreading yourself across so many things when you were developing ...
Oh no. In retrospect, looking back on life, yes, I would say that I would have been a lot better if I'd concentrated on one or two things, perhaps.
Better at them, but maybe not so good at life?
No, ha, no.
How old were you when you had that bike accident?
Twelve I think, 12, 13.
Yes, so it's ... so it was a big thing to happen to you?
Hmmm. It was at that stage, yes.
Do you remember ... did you feel that this was going to be the end of all the things you enjoyed when it happened?
No, no. I just ...
... It never occurred to you?
I just knew that I ... I was in a lot of pain at that stage, and of course I had several operations to it and ... in those days the ... it was called a skin graft, it was taken off my thigh here, and the ... actual, well, you can really work out the pattern that this ... he was a Frenchman who knew he'd come to Sydney, and ...
... the surgeon?
... he was called in to do this skin graft, which was a separate thing from what had happened in the first place with the surgeon who had to connect all the tendons and everything when I had ... they had to wait because both bones were broken, of course, and that had to ... they had to wait for that — bones to knit first — but this man was brought in as this, as the specialist, to do this particular part of the ... the getting of my arm right, and trying to cover the scar a bit. And the scars of ... but of course, as I say, you can match them, you can tell where they are, it's a ... and I hid it; as you can see my arm's much smaller altogether. And I lost movement of course. But that ... site on my thigh here, which is from there to there with these scars left by the skin graft, I always felt very embarrassed when swimming; that was ... came later of course. And I didn't know then that I would, that my movement ... hand movements would be restricted, which they were, they were very restricted. But in order to help me get back, you see they ... the hand had to be pulled up like this with a glove glued on it, and rings at the end and a contraption on my bed, and I was so fearful when all this was happening I ... oh, they don't explain, and I think it would've helped me tremendously if they'd just said, ‘look with ... of these sacks of weights here and weights there, and all this, all that we're doing is only a matter of trying to open, to open up your hand, because it was in a set position.’ And I was terrified by these things when one ... it took them quite a long time as you can imagine. And it took a long time for my hand to gradually be brought up into that position. Then worse was to ... [interruption] ... come in trying to get it movement, in the massaging of the fingers and I think that ... all that was more painful because at least with an operation you’re put out ... but this was something I had to sort of sit and watch and feel.
But that's your fingering hand for the violin?
Yes. Yes. And then they said, oh, this all was after a year, ‘try to use the fiddle again and get your fiddle through your hand, and your fingers moving.’ It was painful, but I was determined to do it, and I did. I spent hours in ... at first it was down here, and then eventually I got it around, but I couldn't get it around ... I quite ... can't ... it could never get back into that position, that's why I knew I'd never be able to play properly again, and holding it here, was also an effort. So it all pointed in one direction — that the violin was not the avenue that I would be pursuing.
And yet you continued to play it?
Yes I continued ... I got as far with ... was in the orchestra again, I played in that, and ...
The Sydney Symphony, as it was then, in those days, the early days of the Sydney Symphony.
So despite this handicap ...
You got good enough again to play in the SSO ... But you knew you wouldn't ever be as good as you were ... you weren't going to be Heifetz?
Oh no ... and I had to keep on putting my fiddle down, because it made my arm ache so much. But the conductor knew. They were very forbearing with me and put up with it because I was so keen, I suppose. I only got into the second fiddles, I ... never got to the firsts.
And so if you couldn't be in the firsts, you thought you'd better concentrate in another direction and ...
Well I was ... I was studying singing at the same time. But not ... nothing serious ... and not ‘til I was about 17, 18, and ... I was just singing, and I very fortunately ... I was not learning ... [interruption] ... I was just a natural.
Now, I want to ask you, did it ever occur to you to give the violin away altogether because it was so hard and painful for you to keep going?
No, I was told that if I could keep it going it would strengthen my hand all the time. You see that strengthened it, ... well the golf was all right-hand, which is something that still amazes a lot of people, that it's all right-hand. I'm still hitting balls you know and they ... into a net, down the back there.
Oh, so you're still playing?
Yes, an old duck, you know, really. But I do that in order to keep my hands and my my my body's ... I do exercises every day, it's like cleaning my teeth, I have to. I ... once you start you know ...
And if you ...
Well, I know that it's something I've got to do to keep supple and to keep myself going, this is ... I'll do it.
Well, in all these various ways throughout your life, your body's been your instrument, and the greatest instrument of all was the one that you were developing then, in your throat, that was going to be your quite extraordinary singing voice. At what point did it begin to occur to you that your singing voice was indeed an extraordinary gift? Something special?
... I think perhaps when I was about 18 or, yes, 17 or 18 ... 19 because again at the Conservatorium they were doing the orchestra for one of their symphony concerts, they were doing the Vaughan Williams. It has a solo, a difficult ... well on a couple of pages or so, but it's unaccompanied, and I was a complete amateur then, I hadn't started any professional work, but it was after all the students ... the student orchestra and the ... and the conductor, he could not find a singer who could start this in tune and end in tune, because it was the Shepherd's little solo, and the voice comes in off stage, you're not seen, and of course the orchestra have to pick it up so it was very important that he could find a singer who could start it in tune and end in tune. And they were getting rather anxious because the time was coming on and they still hadn't found anybody, and someone told him to go to my teacher's room and ask for a singer there, ask for one of the students, he thought ... that there was one that this man had among his students who could cope, and of course they just came along and asked me would I sight read this and go along and see if I could do it there and then while they were rehearsing in the main hall.
And I was ... you know, I just did it because I was asked, I didn't know what it was for or anything at all, and my teacher said, ‘Well you go Joan, take this, you can cope with this.’ So I did and I finished in tune, and the orchestra came in and there was claps in the hall, and I didn't know what it was for, had no idea all, and I waited there in the wings having sung what I'd been asked to sing, and ... so this . ... conductor said, 'She'll do it, she's the one,' and it was on their ... I think I had three days, it was a Wednesday and the concert was on a Saturday. It was like ... I mean it was just two pages, it was easy, easy sight reading, and easy for me to learn for the Saturday, and as I didn't have to appear on stage I could just have the music there anyhow, and ... I ... I didn't realise what it all meant, I just ... here I was asked to do something and so I did it. And ... of course that was really my first professional ... not that I was paid, so it wasn't really ... professional then, but it was my first appearance of any importance.
And what did it lead to?
I suppose it led to a few things, not again that ... I couldn't specify a particular engagement because I was there as a student and ... playing my golf as well of course ... so really I don't know that I could honestly say it led to a certain second engagement, no I couldn't.
At this stage of your life, on the brink of your life, you were aware that you were a very good golfer, by this stage it was very obvious that you were a very good golfer, you'd also just made this discovery that you could sing something that they'd had a lot of difficulty finding a professional singer to sing properly, and you had all the other possibilities opening up to you, you — what were you earning your living as at that time?
... [laughs] ... Yes, because I had to by this time ... [laughs] ... the things had gone all wrong with the family and that was that. It was ... oh yes, because of my golf, not because of my musical ability, but my golfing ability. I was asked to cover the golf and write for first — I know The Bulletin was second in Sydney — Sydney Morning Herald, I was only on it for a short time because The Bulletin was part of that, and I went on to The Bulletin to do it, to write up the golfing results, and of course I couldn't ... cover my own matches at all ... someone else had to do that, but I covered all the local, the sort of club, results on a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Fri, had to ring them all up and get their results in, and write any little special caption or if there was a championship on then I had about a ... they gave far more ... to golf in those days, far more space in the paper than they do today.
Yes that's true, it was big wasn't it?
Oh yeah. Well not that ... it was really not big until I came on the scene and my friend Odette [Lefebvre], 'the fave', who was later Mrs Tom McKay — young people didn't play golf then. It was an old person's game and, in fact, I wouldn't have known that only from my three men down at Palm Beach, and that's how I came to play because they were all, they ... it just wasn't a game for youth.
So these two young girls brought a bit of glamour ... [interruption] ... in the scene.
Oh, and the papers were full of it, we had tremendous publicity ... [laughs] ...
And yet ...
And the golfers didn't know that I was ... anything to do with music, just as the musicians didn't know I was anything to do with golf.
And so you were a sports journalist really?
Did you cover the men’s games?
No, no, I can remember that Hector Morrison was one of the ... because I went to the Telegraph, I didn't stay long at all with The Bulletin, the Telegraph offered me a very good salary and I was only learning then what a salary was ... and I just went along with it and I used to cover the hockey, or any of these sports that I knew about, I could ... they would send me out on occasions to cover them, and I was once sent out to cover a social event, that meant writing up what women were wearing, and I hated that, I thought it was so rude to link ... [interruption] ... and looking at their ... what, jewellery. Of course it came to me later on, I mean, I was looked at and I could see a ... you know, when I was being interviewed, later when I came on tours and things, to see whether it was diamanté or a diamond. .. [laughs] ... so it all came back to me, and I said to the Editor please don't send me on any of those jaunts again ... [laughs] ... He didn't.
It's ... is this something that you notice very much with the height of your fame, when journalists were covering you, did they sometimes irritate you even though you'd once been one of their number?
Rarely because I realised that they had a job to do. And I saw their side, but I remember being met in Darwin on my first trip back in 19 ... 46, having been away for 10 years, and there was this young chap sent out to me, meet me at the plane to get a story, and he kept asking me where my parents lived, and my mother, because it was my first trip home, and tremendous publicity ... I was even sort of knocked back by it myself, I had no idea that there'd been this publicity and I ... that I was as well-known as I was. And that of course came from the O My Beloved Father, the popularity of that one aria, and he ... kept saying, 'but surely you know where they live?' I said, 'Yes I know where they live, but I'm not telling you,’ because mother had written me a very pathetic letter saying how she'd been bothered by people ringing up, and asking her where's Joan, and when's she coming back, and what's she doing and all the questions, and she didn't like it, and she also didn't like them ... pestering her, and she said would I just keep quiet, and I'd write back and say of course I will, I wasn't staying with them, and naturally they had no room, we ... they were in a small flat ... mother and father, and so this boy, the next thing I hear when I arrive in Sydney — 'So you don't know where your parents live?' It had all been twisted around, and it was ... it came out in such a nasty way, and I remember a teacher at the Conservatorium, I could ... tell you his name right now but I won't, he said, ‘Fancy one of our students who's gone away and made a name — famous.'
But back there at the beginning of your career, you had this choice, there you were a journalist, getting established that way. You were a golfer, with a ... obviously a very fine career opening up ...
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