elsie banner

Visiting North America

In 1944, the Curtins' spent April to June overseas. They embarked from Sydney by ship, with fellow passengers including General Sir Thomas Blamey, the Commander of the Australian Forces, and Sir Frederick Shedden.

On the voyage, Elsie fell ill, with a high temperature, which was thought to be a reaction to vaccinations, and was forced to spend several days in bed. She complained of the 'rich American food' on the ship and rejoiced when plain cheese sandwiches were served for afternoon tea. During Elsie's illness, John took care of her, bathing her face and combing her hair as well as reading to her and supervising her food. 78

On their arrival in San Francisco, Elsie initially declined to be interviewed. The party travelled across America by train, via Chicago, to Washington, where they stayed at Blair House, the residence allocated to Presidential guests. On the six-hour stop in Chicago, Elsie went shopping for nylon stockings, but was unable to buy any. The shop assistant, of whom she enquired, said, 'Lady, if there were any round, I'd grab them'.

Despite later suggestions that Elsie was left behind at the last minute when the party travelled to London, the Melbourne Herald's reportage of 24 April 1944 indicates that it was already determined that she would not accompany her husband to London. 'It has not yet been decided where Mrs Curtin will stay while the Prime Minister is in London, but she will probably be a guest at the Australian Legation'. 79

While in Washington, the Curtins flew with Eleanor Roosevelt to meet President Franklin Roosevelt at his vacation house in South Carolina, where they were invited to lunch. The President was very ill at the time, a fact that was being kept quiet in the press. Eleanor Roosevelt also invited them to stay for two nights at the White House, where she hosted a dinner in their honour.

In Washington, Elsie gave her first press conference to 20 women journalists. She talked about life in Australia, including wartime rationing; American cooking; the difficulty of eating using only a fork, and high prices. She expressed concern that many Australian war brides would be very homesick, and would encounter 'a rude awakening'. 80

The comments about the war brides and her observation that 'twiddling the food around with a fork makes it go all over the place' and in future she would eat with both a knife and fork, are examples of Elsie's somewhat blunt style. But she revealed political acuteness in her hope that women would have a greater share of public life after the war, including at the peace negotiations. She also advocated a Federal divorce law and 'stricter laws to control [entry into] marriage'. It was 'easy to get in' to marriage but 'hard to get out'. 81 While Curtin was in Britain, Elsie held a joint press conference with Eleanor Roosevelt, at which she told journalists that Australian women workers usually joined unions and took part in union and political meetings. 82

Although she must have known about it well in advance, Elsie was reportedly very upset by being 'left behind' in the US; however, she made good use of her time during the four weeks that John was meeting the royal family and the Prime Minister of Britain. She enjoyed a trip to Wyoming and stayed in the hometown of Mrs Nelson Johnson, the wife of America's ambassador to Australia.

Elsie also visited the Senate and the Congress during sittings, was guest of honour at a number of Washington luncheons, and was present at the final sessions of the International Labor Office convention in Philadelphia. She was impressed by the modern gadgets and conveniences that she found in American homes, such as a bath tap that could be turned one way to fill the bath and another way to empty it. She also noted differences in fashion, with which she was able to entertain her audiences back in Australia. 83

Elsie arrived in Canada on 30 May, a few hours before John. As she emerged from her comfortable special car on the train from Washington, journalists from the Montreal Gazette described her as 'a short, motherly-looking lady with a kind smile'. After receiving a salute from two 'giant, red-coated Mounties', she was formally welcomed at the Ottawa Railway Station by Lady Glasgow, the wife of the Australian High Commissioner, Sir William Glasgow, and the wives of four Canadian Cabinet Ministers.

She 'looked sharply' at a reporter who asked her, 'I suppose you'll be glad to see Mr Curtin when he arrives here?', and responded, 'Well, that goes without saying'. She said she was glad to be in Canada at a time of the year when it was winter in Australia. After walking through the station concourse 'surrounded by Mounties and officials of the External Affairs Department', Elsie was taken by car to Lady Glasgow's home for lunch. 84

John arrived from Britain tired and tense after a long journey by seaplane and train, and noticed that his hair was 'whiter and thinner' than previously. He had left just before the D-Day landings and this seemed to affect his mood for the three days they were in Canada and a further four days back in Washington.

The Curtins arrived at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in New York as the D-Day armada crossed the channel. The next evening they attended a Broadway performance of the musical Oklahoma! which John obviously enjoyed because he sent his press secretary off to find a copy of the music from the show. John was unable to sleep so, they 'stayed up all night with Elsie playing music from Oklahoma! on the hotel's piano.' 85


John and Elsie leaving by ship
John and Elsie Curtin leaving by ship for the USA, 1944.
Records of Australian Consolidated Press. JCPML00410/14

Elsie arriving in Canada
Mrs Elsie Curtin, Canada, 1944.
Records of the Curtin Family. JCPML00381/32

John and Elsie in Washington

John and Elsie Curtin in Washington, USA, 23 April 1944.
Records of the Curtin Family. JCPML00376/66

John and Elsie with Mackenzie King

John and Elsie Curtin with Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King examining the Book of Remembrance in Memorial Chamber, Peace Tower, in Parliament Buildings, 1944.
Records of the Curtin Family. JCPML00376/104