Classic Ellis: Dame Pattie Menzies, September 1995

(for The Guardian)

In her last years Dame Pattie Menzies was to many, but not all, Australians a figure somewhere between the Queen Mother and Dame Vera Lynn, a link with former glories and simpler times. Well into her nineties her ability to address vast audiences without notes and beguile awed visitors with her disarming table talk prolonged and sweetened the Menzies legend even as, historically, it fell into disrepute. Last week, as a measure of her eminence, an affectionate nation farewelled her in the first state funeral ever given a Prime Ministerial wife.

Born in 1899 the daughter of a professional politician, and married from 1920 to 1978 to the longest serving Prime Minister since Pitt the Younger, Pattie Maie Leckie was a woman of her time, her class, her country and her husband’s arduous calling.

Ever at his side, in later years with an arsenal of pills and medicaments that she force through his mountainous reluctance, she was a constant caring presence, ever anxious for his revival. She is was who persuaded him of the possibility of his resurrection, after what seemed like his political extinction in 1941, in a party-room revolt. ‘Leave me alone,’ he famously cried from the back benches, ‘it is a dreadful experience to be exhumed.’ She it also was who cautioned him against the long trip to war-torn England that occasioned the coup, a visit during which he busily fantasised replacing Winston Churchill as British Prime Minister, and took steps to do so. A wiser political head than he, a better judge of character, a fiercer hater, a more efficient deflater of reputation, she was also marvellously able to smooth in the aftermath of quarrels those feathers his famed arrogance - and considerable drunken spleen - had ruffled.

It was her example at his side that during his most surprising achievement, the forced creation out of bickering political dregs and splinters of the shrewdly misnamed Liberal Party after electoral debacle in 1943 and its achievement of power with a mighty majority in 1949, set the style of the subsequent party organisation, a determined flurry of middle-aged ladies in blue rinses running social evenings with an iron will and slowly, efficiently, over coffee, cake and a match-making waltz or two mustering the numbers for their lords and masters, the men.

A woman of her time, Dame Pattie kept chooks in the backyard of Yarralumla, the Prime Minister’s lodge, and at least once with soap and brush scrubbed its wooden floors herself. An expert driver, she served as well in those days before white Commonwealth cars as her husband’s lifelong chauffeur. She gracefully coped with his astonishing alcoholic intake — three full bottles of Houghton’s white burgundy with every evening meal, preceded by several sunset martinis - his twenty-stone girth, his cultural philistinism - he never read a new book after 1941, though he annually reread Shakespeare, much of it aloud — and his noisy afternoons round the broadcast football and the barbecue. The marriage survived at least one major infidelity (with the wife of a newspaper proprietor, who editorially thereafter advocated a vote for Labor), the serious injury in a trivial backyard incident of a young son who was thereby intellectually impaired, and her husband’s frequent public protestations of love for Her Majesty the Queen.

She was patient, and loyal, and played her part. At his side (a gentler Lady Macbeth, some said, for the Rexona Age) she presided over the period of Australian McCarthyism, the attempted introduction of a police state (in which any two cabinet ministers could at will declare any citizen a Communist, and then at will imprison him), narrowly defeated in a referendum, the barbarisation of the Australian broadcast media, the blinkered protectionism that eventually wrecked its economy, the death by slow starvation of much of its vigorous culture, and the soured emigration of its finer talents overseas. It was a period too of that suburban banality - monarchist, conformist, quietly racist, Protestant, sun-drenched, smiling, timid, lawnmowers on Sunday mornings, the last grim unbelieving years of church membership and supposedly virgin brides — that enflamed the rage of both Barry Humphries and Patrick White, an age when everything was possible and little worthwhile came to pass, an age that erupted into rock ‘n’ roll and psychedelia and sexual experiment and set a generational gulf that was never bridged. Dame Pattie was the grand role model of this ladylike brave-face hypocrisy, a woman of her time who spoke no evil, kept smiling and thought of England.

In Menzies’ final wheelchair-burdened years after his massive stroke she was virtually his prisoner. ‘I can’t go out,’ she whispered harshly to a visiting publisher. ‘He won’t let me leave the house.’ Freed by his death she became in his absence an icon in her own right, a lingering fount of hope for her husband’s fractious party in its long decline. Her years of dedicated social work and charitable organising were sincere and, in a local way, effective. She was a good woman, and liked by all her knew her.

For many Australian women she provided a sustaining fantasy of what a woman’s life should be: helpmeet, solace, friend, hostess. It was not her fault to be born when she was, or to play her allotted part with such loyal and determined energy. History will judge her husband, while probably forgiving her. The flags are flying at half mast over Canberra this week, and she will be missed.

  1. Of course suburban banality is heroically carried on by those brave souls slowly replacing the 6 foot timber paling fence by the Zinc-alume or Colour bond fence. I noticed that rockeries and petunias are also being replaced by pebblecrete and sturdy mono-grasses.
    Fortunately the worn rubber tyre still surrounds many an Azalea. There is still hope!

  2. Another good piece of writing by Ellis.

    Many things could have changed; yet we are still a monarchy, we are not so quietly racist, we are openly so, the lives of our Aborigines have not improved, we are even today busy pulling out foreign grasses from our lawns, our kids are separated into private and public schools, we still look up to people like Gina and Palmer because they have made it, we talk about class envy in a so-called class-less society, Humphrey is still valid and White is the our best, but most neglected author, the priests are still busy molesting innocent boys and getting away with it…
    And our politicians are not agreeing on anything,so things stay the same, bipartisan is a dirty word to them…

  3. As much as I enjoyed this peice, it does strike me
    as a rather tasteless and misjudged way to attack her husband.

    Demonizing a great PM by overblowing questionable details about his private life - even speculating that the wife
    herself was oppressed by the tyrant and only liberated by his welcome death - is very poor form. Whatever you might say about the man’s politics, such wild, cruel speculation about his marriage, veiled by a eulogy for his other half, is distinctly distasteful

    Is nothing sacred?

    Read Letters To My Daughter and tell me that Menzies at heart wasn’t a warm man with a touching regard for his family that was generously reciprocated.

  4. That’s a sustaining fantasy of what a woman should be for men, not women. For women, it is a lingering vision of horror at what society would have them be. A proper sustaining fantasy would involve fun things, like driving through Paris in a sportscar with the warm wind in your hair or paragliding in the mountainous regions of Pakistan. Being a solace and administrative assistant to some whinging, prattling nonce does not count as fantasy. Resignation is more the word.

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