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Saturday, 06 June 2020

Treasures from a Suitcase: a niece’s story

Written by Sherryn Danaher


When Zoe Caldwell died in New York on 16 February 2020, the Covid-19 epidemic was beginning to unfold and her family in Australia was unable to fly to America to attend her memorial. Sherryn Danaher remembers her aunt and shares with us some of the pages from the scrapbooks assembled by Zoe’s mother chronicling her daughter’s early stage and radio appearances in Australia and subsequent fame in England, Canada and America. See also: Zoe Caldwell’s Many Faces by Desley Deacon»

Zoe CaldwellZoe Caldwell, 2004, a shot taken during rehearsals for Limonade Tous Les Jours, a play she was directing. Image courtesy of Charlie Whitehead.Facing melbourne easter in Covid-19 lockdown I decided to open the cream suitcase which had been lying in my study for years. It held my grandmother's considerable collection of scrapbooks, photos, programs and publications charting her daughter Zoe Caldwell’s seventy year career: a treasure chest of memorabilia and prompts for writing this account of times spent with my dear aunt. Zoe died peacefully in her home in New York in February this year.

It had been my intention to tackle the job of sorting through and documenting Old Zoe’s collection before handing it over to the Australian Performing Arts Collection. It was not only the sheer volume of the task that held me back but a large part of me hasn’t been ready to let go of this very personal material which I love to dip into from time to time.

Zoe’s parents loved theatre and, realising their daughter had talent from an early age, started her career with singing and dancing lessons. She also competed in South Street Ballarat, Bendigo and suburban elocution and calisthenics competitions. The family, though not well-off, soaked up Melbourne theatre, from their seats in ‘the gods’. When taking applause, Zoe always raised her head to patrons in the uppermost seats of the theatre. Under the tutelage of Winifred Moverley Browne, Zoe learned elocution, how to use her diaphragm to develop her voice and was exposed to the classics. At thirteen she had her own radio program as News Editress of 3DB’s ‘News and Interviews’ which she co-presented with fifteen year old News Editor, David Wittner. She was on her way to becoming an actor.

Zoe was born on the 14 September 1933 to Zoe and Edgar Caldwell when her brother, Bert (my father), was eleven years. She was doted on. Family history has revealed that the name Zoe has been handed down from Zoe’s Mauritian maternal great great grandmother whose name was Zoe. To avoid confusion, my grandmother was known as Old Zoe and her daughter was Young Zoe, with the affectionate pronunciation of Zoey. Long after, an older generation of Melbourne theatre-goers, who followed Zoe’s career from her Melbourne beginnings, would still ask me about Zoey. Old Zoe had been a singer and dancer travelling by ship to India, China and Japan in 1909 when she was thirteen and without her parents. She was part of the Bandmann child opera company.

I started work on a timeline as I combed through the material. Just when I thought I’d completed the timeline, another production would pop up. Zoe was involved in over fifty productions before she left our shores in 1958 at the age of 24 to take up a two year scholarship to Stratford-upon-Avon to walk-on, study and play under the direction of Glen Byam Shaw.

Aunty Zoey, as I called her as a child, left Australia when I was seven. She was always full of energy and fun to be around in staid post-war Melbourne and I loved seeing her shows.

Zoe has been a constant in my life through her many trips back to Australia and mine to visit Zoe and the family in their home in New York, from 1972 until May last year. I still have the toy teddy bear she gave me when I was born. It sits in my window along with the millions of other bears sitting in windows around the world as part of the children’s teddy bear hunt distraction throughout this Covid-19 pandemic.

While Zoe was working overseas building her career, she sent gifts, postcards (few letters), material from her performances and tape recordings to her parents. I learned about the places she visited through a stream of parcels. There were Babushka dolls from Russia, a pretty French floral enamelled alarm clock, a doll’s house chair from London, rock from Gretna Green, embroidered cap from Portugal, pottery dish from Norway and a North American Native Indian beaded, chamois doll and girl’s chamois good-luck pouch enclosing a coin and which I secreted into school exams.

From New York, she sent LP recordings of Broadway shows including a favourite, an original recording of Beyond the Fringe with Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Jonathan Miller and Alan Bennett. My brother and I had the skits off pat as we played the parts. Years later I discovered that the Whiteheads could all quote from the same LP at the drop of a hat. It’s now part of the family repartee.

These treasured gifts, her visits and stories have left me with a life-long passion for travel and to dive in and experience whatever it may bring.

I first visited New York in August 1972 at the end of a twelve month ‘discovering the world’ trip. Zoe had married Robert Whitehead and they had two sons, Sam born in 1969 and Charlie who was just three months old.

When I arrived at JFK a driver met me holding a board with my name and saying that he was to drive me to a restaurant in the city where I’d meet my uncle for lunch and who would then drive me up their house in Pound Ridge about an hour’s drive away. I’d never met Robert before and only knew that he was an important Broadway producer. My mother, who was living in the Netherlands with my Dutch step-father, packed a box of Dutch cigars into my suitcase which she knew would be a fitting gift for a man of his status.

The driver took me and my green vinyl suitcase and cigars to Sardi’s restaurant in Manhattan where Robert greeted me and introduced me to three luncheon companions and business associates. They were Arthur Miller, Elia Kazan and Harold Clurman. As a very naïve young Aussie traveller who’d spent the past year keeping body and soul together ‘temping’ in London to save up for a European camping trip with friends in a tiny tent, fine dining was unfamiliar to me. I had no idea who these men were. I was very polite, calling them Mr Miller, Mr Kazan and Mr Clurman. I addressed Robert as Uncle Robert, as I had always been taught.

Dressed in my best purple tie-dyed miniskirt and hand appliqued purple t-shirt I knew I looked good, although quite out of depth with the theatre conversation around the table. From the Italian menu, I managed to find a familiar dish, spaghetti bolognese, and my charming Uncle Robert bailed me out by ordering my wine. All seemed to be going well until I spilt half of the spaghetti down the front of my favourite outfit. The rest is a blur. I only know that, shortly after, Robert drove us to their house in Pound Ridge where I fell into in the arms of my dear Aunty Zoe.

While staying in Pound Ridge Arthur Miller, his wife Inge and daughter Rebecca came to the house for a barbecue and to further discuss the upcoming production of Arthur’s play, The Creation of the World and Other Business which Robert was producing. After I left New York, and with some casting changes, Zoe stepped into the lead role of Eve, taking over from Barbara Harris. The play opened in the Shubert Theater on Broadway in December for a short season.

Zoe found time to show me New York City, took me to museums and galleries, shopping on Fifth Avenue, The Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall and gave me a lesson in what to do if I looked like being mugged—‘Sing “The Star Spangled Banner” at the top of your voice and they’ll think you’re mad and leave you alone’. ‘That’s alright for you Zoe,’ I replied, ‘you’ve got the voice.’ We had a ball and we connected for the first time as adults.

This was my first taste of the incredible world of New York Theatre that had become my Aunt Zoe’s life. It was my first connection with the family, with whom I have had a close relationship for fifty years. Zoe and Robert welcomed me into their home for the three week stay and were interested in my life, although it was so insignificant compared with what they had achieved—it was family.

On that first trip I met another identity of New York theatre, Doris Blum (Gorelick). Doris helped me navigate her city as she answered my myriad questions. She has become a lifelong friend. Prior to being hired by Robert as his assistant and production associate from 1968 until his death in 2002, she had herself stage-managed and produced New York productions. For 33 years Doris was head of the Neighbour Playhouse School for children and teenagers. Doris, or Aunt Doe, knows New York theatre inside out and has always been considered part of the family. I have never forgotten her kindness towards a very naïve 22 year old on that first visit and we meet over dinner each time I re-visit. Today, Doris misses her daily morning phone calls with Zoe.

Grandpa Caldwell, Edgar, was also visiting on one of many annual trips to stay with the family. Old Zoe and Edgar had made their first and only overseas trip together to visit Zoe while she was working at the Tyrone Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis in 1965. Sadly Old Zoe died in 1969 without seeing her daughter married and with a family of her own.

In 1984 Zoe, Robert, Sam and Charlie came to Melbourne for Zoe to open the new Playhouse theatre at the Victorian Arts Centre with Robinson Jeffers’ adaptation of Euripides’ Medea. Robert directed this Melbourne Theatre Company production. At that time he was also producing Arthur Miller’s Broadway show, Death of a Salesman starring Dustin Hoffmann, about which he had concerns.

While in Melbourne, the family received a letter from their old friend and Robert’s tennis partner, Katharine Hepburn. She told Robert not to worry about being away from the production in New York. She was pleased that things were going well with Medea and in her words she said, ‘… Go to Sherbrook [sic] Forest and try to find the Lyre Bird—It is thrilling …’.

Zoe was working but I drove my uncle Robert and young cousins to Sherbrooke Forest for a picnic but we didn’t see a lyrebird that day.

When Zoe left Melbourne she gave me Kate Hepburn’s handwritten letter as a momento. I puzzled over why Kate had suggested they visit Sherbrooke. This led me to research the background. This is the story behind the letter.

In 1955, when in Australia on tour with the Old Vic theatre company, Katharine Hepburn took Robert Helpmann to Sherbrooke Forest to see the lyrebird’s mating dance on its mound. Some time after Helpmann claimed to have had a dream of seeing Hepburn dancing naked on a mound surrounded by lyrebirds. The dream inspired his fascination for the bird’s mating dance and he choreographed The Display, his first production for the Australian Ballet and performed in 1964. It is dedicated to Katharine.

The story of The Display  centred around a bush picnic in which a bunch of young footballers start drinking and fight over a girl. She is chased by the young men and left lying exhausted on the ground after having been raped. The ballet opens with the dance of a lyrebird behind gauze and the bird reappears in the final scene dancing around the girl with its tail fully displayed until he folds her in his fanned plumage.

Helpmann engaged Sidney Nolan for set design and Carlton Football Club coach, Ron Barassi, to coach the dancers’ football moves.

Katharine had visited the Dandenongs several times during that Melbourne tour where she spent hours watching the birds in the company of a Sherbrooke Forest local, a young boy, who told her of their habits and where to find them. This very Melbourne story and Katharine’s letter sent when Zoe and Robert were working on Medea, was the impetus for a poem which I later wrote and which I titled The Display.

Zoe was always a hard worker and enjoyed the challenge of taking on new roles. When she returned to Melbourne it was mainly to work. Occasionally, between productions, she would sneak home, incognito, to spend time with her Mum and Dad and the family away from the hungry gaze of the Australian press.

After a happy marriage of over thirty years, Robert died in 2002 in Pound Ridge where Zoe nursed him up until his death in their home.

A grieving, deeply sad Zoe made one last visit to Melbourne in 2003 when she was asked to perform Dürrenmatt’s The Visit at the Arts Centre to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Melbourne Theatre Company. It is a story of revenge and greed. She gave a strong performance as Claire Zacchanassian, a successful, rich woman from humble beginnings returning to save her poverty-stricken home town while exacting revenge on the now influential mayor. He had denied paternity of the child she bore when she was young and had driven her from town. Like Claire, Zoe returned to her home town, not to exact revenge, but once again, to work.

Zoe knew that I understood how vulnerable she was and I knew that it was my turn to watch out for her. After the season finished, we flew to Broome where she could rejuvenate while soaking up warm rays of the Kimberley sun and we could share new travel experiences away from Melbourne, the press and theatre. We could dag around in old clothes and an old hire car, relax, eat, drink, laugh, take camel rides, swims, massages and experience the splendour of the Kimberley landscape as shown to us by the locals. We could also chew over family stories, our lives and memories as she regaled me with the doggerel she wrote, as always.

One day, as we talked over lunch in a Broome cafe, Zoe told me that a woman was staring at her. I said that she was imagining it and that no one knew her in this town. The woman then stood up to approach our table. I forbade Zoe to open her theatre mouth and said I’d do the talking. The woman apologised for interrupting but would we mind if she asked us a question?  It transpired that this woman had an old friend who was needing help cleaning her home and she asked us if we were looking for work. After telling her that we were in Broome on holiday and not interested in work, we left the café in fits of laughter.

To complete the lesson in humility, we walked around the corner to buy a couple of kit bags for Sam and Charlie. The very helpful shopkeeper asked if we were staying at the caravan park. We drove back to our small but beautiful, garden-set resort hotel where we shared the day’s moments of mirth over glass of wine by the pool.

On the beach at Lombardina in the Kimberley, Zoe mentioned that she had one last official engagement in Melbourne before returning home to New York: she was to be presented with an honorary doctorate in law at Melbourne University for which she had to write a speech. As we tossed over ideas, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s skit about the legal profession Sitting on the Bench from Beyond the Fringe sprang to mind and from our lips. We played with the words until we finally decided that it wouldn’t pass muster and dropped the thought of sun-baked speech writing.

When I accompanied Zoe to the official ceremony at the University, I had no idea of the content of the speech she’d been writing. I saw a tiny, sad, grieving woman clad in academic robes with her face and ‘boss’ eye peering out from under a large, floppy hat, ready to accept her doctorate. She was dwarfed by very tall, handsome professors of law and words looking extremely elegant in their academic garb. They gave suitably erudite speeches.

From the moment she approached the podium, Zoe’s audience was entranced. She spoke of not having any degrees, although I knew she had lectured in theatre studies in universities across the United States, but she considered that every major production was like getting a university degree. She followed by saying how she spent her early professional theatre career at Melbourne University in the 1950s as part of the University Theatre Repertory Company at the Union Theatre and  forerunner to the Melbourne Theatre Company. She indicated that today, through gaining this honour, she had come full circle back to the University. She enthralled the gathering with her presentation and depth of understanding of the importance of education. As always, she delivered her speech from the heart, with humour and making full use of her diaphragm.

Zoe returned to America where she continued to work on the stage in another five productions, in benefits, the feature films, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close and Birth and in the Lilo and Stitch animation series from which a younger generation know her as the commanding voice of Grand Councilwoman.

Zoe held a large part of Australia in her heart. It was the work opportunities that took her away from her country. Zoe’s great passion was for the stage, for the thrill of the live audience and to be part of the ensemble. She never forgot those Australians who nurtured her early career and she made a point of visiting them whenever she returned to her home country.

© Sherryn Danaher April 2020




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