WOMAN April 2, 1951
THE CURTIN STORY
HIS GREATEST TRIUMPH
John Curtin is
elected Australia's Prime Minister.... he and Lord Gowrie formed
a lasting friendship.... anonymous letters criticise him and his family these
are highlights of this fourth instalment of his life story, told by his wife.
When war broke
out, "Dad," as Leader of the Opposition, was busier still. His
letters were even more infrequent, but he rang nearly every day.
He was in Canberra
when the votes were cast for the 1940 election. He arrived
home the following Saturday, believing like most of the rest of Australia, that
he had lost the Fremantle seat to Roy Lee.
following his usual custom, made plans to go to the football. An hour or
so before he was to leave he received a telephone call saying that he had won
the seat. The preferences and the soldiers' votes had made him safe.
While he was at
the football the news, "CURTIN HAS WON FREMANTLE," was posted on
* * *
I went to Canberra
the following month to stay with "Dad" for a while and
returned home just before Christmas.
year was a disturbed one politically. There was a coalition
Government formed by the Country Party and the United Australia Party, with Mr
Menzies as Prime Minister. Mr. Menzies resigned the Prime Ministership early in
August and Mr. Fadden, the Country Party leader, took over.
Late in September
Mr. Fadden introduced a Budget. Dad moved an amendment which
amounted to a vote of no confidence.
On Friday, October
3, 1941 the day before my birthday the vote was taken.
The fate of the Government was in the balance.
A telephone call
from a friend brought the news to me that the Independents had
voted with the Opposition, the Fadden Government was out, and "Dad" was about to
become Australia's Prime Minister.
Later that afternoon
I received a telegram from "Dad," He rang me from Canberra
that night and we discussed what difference the new situation would make to us.
He told me he
intended shifting into the Lodge and that we would, of course,
still maintain our Cottesloe home. It was in his electorate. Elsie was working
in Perth and John was in the RAAF, stationed at that time in Geraldton. "Dad"
didn't want me to leave the house or the children indefinitely.
He moved into
the Lodge at Canberra, and late in October I went over to join him
for a few months. I remember my first official function as the wife of the Prime
Minister was to open a big garden fete at the Lodge.
* * *
The Lodge is a
beautiful place, with 26 rooms, including six bedrooms, large
reception hall, lounge, dining-room, billiard room and study and staff quarters.
It had been renovated only a couple of years before "Dad" moved in, had been
painted throughout and new carpets had been laid.
The staff consisted
of a housekeeper, cook, housemaid and parlormaid and Tracy,
the Prime Minister's chauffeur.
and Tracy used to play billiards together whenever "Dad" could spare
time. He was very keen on the game.
would come in twice a week and the laundry was sent out. I always
did my own personal washing.
It was a rather
difficult time for me when I first went over there. It was
strange to me to have such a big place to run, and well-meaning people confused
me by trying to tell me what I should do, what I should wear and how I should
act as the Prime Minister's wife.
I had never had
my hair permed, but I was told that I should have it done. I was
told that I must have a hat for every occasion, and a selection was sent to the
Lodge for my approval.
I'll never forget
"Dad's" reaction. He walked into the bedroom one day and saw
me with my hair permed and hats ranged all over the place so that it looked like
a milliner's shop.
what have you done to yourself? And what on earth are all these
hats doing?" he said.
I replied laughingly,
"I've been told that I have to be smart now I'm the wife
of the Prime Minister."
said, "What a lot of nonsense. Don't take any notice of them, and I'd
certainly rather have your hair the other way."
I felt better after that.
We had to entertain
a lot, but, being wartime, it was mostly quite informal. I
was very fortunate in our housekeeper, Mrs Pincombe, whom we engaged soon after
I arrived. She's a very fine woman and I never worried about "Dad" when I wasn't
at the Lodge, because I knew she'd look after him well.
I learnt that when important people came to the Lodge the staff loved to nip
down into the hall and try on their hats or caps for a moment, just to say
they'd worn them. I turned a blind eye. I'm sure the people concerned would have
taken it as a compliment.
I saw a lot of
Lord and Lady Gowrie, who were in Canberra when "Dad" first moved
into the Lodge. They are a charming couple and I still get letters from Lady
Gowrie and snaps of her grandchildren.
and Lord Gowrie formed a very real, lasting friendship. I still have the
letter he wrote to "Dad" after having ended his term as Governor-General.
He wrote: "I
know I need not tell you how really sorry I was to say goodbye to
you, and I shall never be able to thank you properly for all your kindnesses and
thoughtfulness ever since we worked together.
look back on our association as one of the happiest and most
interesting experiences of my life of 72 years.
a real friend. I have been filled with admiration for the calmness and
courage with which you have tackled your many difficulties and problems in the
most critical period of Australia's history.
"I know what
a severe mental and physical strain this must entail, and I do hope
your health will not suffer. Take care of yourself as much as you can, for the
country's sake as well as your own.
"With love from us both, yours ever, Gowrie."
I was in Canberra
to meet the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester and their two
children when the Duke came out as a Governor-General. I visited their home
several times and found them a delightful family. I have a photograph of the
Duke and Duchess and their two sons, signed "Henry and Alice," which the Duchess
sent me after "Dad" died.
I didn't meet
General MacArthur in Canberra I wasn't there during his visits
but I met him and his wife and small son in Melbourne and in Brisbane.
and General MacArthur met a lot and they became firm friends. I
have a photograph of the General which he presented to "Dad," inscribed, "To the
Prime Minister who saved Australia in her hour of deadly peril. With the
admiration and affection of Douglas MacArthur."
never told me anything confidential about his job. He felt it was no good
distributing posters saying "Don't talk" and not obeying that instruction
I know he was
terribly worried when our troops were recalled from the Middle
East after Japan came into the war. He hardly slept for nights while they were
on the water.
I was in Canberra
when HMAS Sydney was lost. "Dad" didn't tell even me until it
was made public. Yet at midnight one night a man phoned from Adelaide about it.
thought the call must be important and had it put through upstairs to him.
The man swore at him on the phone and said, "Everybody knows the Sydney is lost.
Why don't you say so in the papers?"
At that time other
ships and aircraft were still searching for any trace of the
Sydney and "Dad" didn't want to make any announcement until there was no hope of
The phone call upset him terribly, but he didn't let it influence him.
He received letters
from all sorts of people some anonymous expressing all
sorts of sentiments.
There was one hand-written letter that took up a whole pad!
Elsie, too, received
letters from people she'd never heard of. One asked, "Can
you, his daughter, give the Prime Minister a push in the right direction?"
Some of the letters
were abusive. I myself once received a letter saying, "One
of your family will be killed."
and I refused to let these letters worry us. We just laughed the threat
The letters of
this type which really hurt me were those which arrived at the
Lodge when "Dad" was dying.
Some writers doubted
that he was really sick. One woman wrote that he had only
an attack of "Menziesitis," and when he got over that he'd be back in the House.
I was in Cottesloe
when rationing was introduced. I didn't know it was
contemplated until I read about it in the paper.
I'd been to the
grocer's the day before and he asked me was I sure I didn't want
to buy any more butter. I assured him I had a couple of pounds at home and that
would be enough for the present.
rang up the night rationing was announced I said to him, "You're a
fine one. You might have told me." He just laughed.
Later I heard
from the grocer that the woman had told him I knew all about it
and had a refrigerator full of butter at home.
I didn't even have a refrigerator.
I visited Canberra
several times between 1941 and 1944, usually staying a few
months each time.
When I was on
my way to Sydney in 1942 to launch a ship "Dad" met me in
Melbourne and we celebrated our silver wedding together there.
One Monday in
April, 1944, "Dad" rang to say that he wanted me to accompany him
to America and that I must catch the train on the Wednesday night.
. NEXT WEEK: The
Curtins visit America and Canada... Mrs Roosevelt's dilemma...
Princess Elizabeth looks after John Curtin... Last days.