Remembering friends who lunched

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Luncheon of the Boating Party, 1881

Tributes to some of my dearest friends who I won’t being seeing ever again. But this is not a tear-grabbing set of obituaries, rather a celebration of memorable lunches with journalist Frank Crook, actor Arthur Dignam, trade union leader Jack Mundey and judge David Levine. And it ends with a piece on rock’n’roll legend Little Richard.

When life was a long lunch

Enforced self-isolation has benefits. One of them is remembering old friends who have just died and recalling some of the great moments we spent together.

With ABC Radio’s Classic FM playing in the background, I decided to write heartfelt farewells to a group of dear friends I will not see again. I can’t attend their funerals, wakes or memorial meetings, so what better way to remember them than to write about them?

I was struck by the fact that most of my best stories about them originated at lunch, a rather inglorious chapter of my 50-year newspaper career. This is dedicated to my partner Judith White and children Laura, Lachlan and Scott. They must have been mystified by the unusual amount of time I spent at lunch. I would arrive home somewhat dishevelled and declare: “I’ve been to lunch cementing contacts – getting plastered.” And then retire to the bedroom to sleep it off.

Please regard the following pieces as celebrations rather than gloomy obituaries.

Frank Crook

Frank Crook

A colleague at Sydney’s Daily Mirror in the early 1960s, he loved journalism, jazz, epicurean long lunches and his family (probably in that order).

Last weekend he was having lunch with his son, Ben Crook, at Circular Quay when he suffered a heart attack and later died at St Vincent’s Hospital, aged 81.

It seems not long ago that every few weeks mine host John Webb assembled a group of newspaper veterans for lunch in Chinatown at the Emperor’s Garden. Frank and I shared the table with a band of other old hands and talked about “the good old days”.

Frankie was a great raconteur who dressed immaculately and represented the image of what used to known as a gentleman journalist: courteous, well-mannered, erudite and thoroughly professional. He told me he left school at 14 with one ambition – to become a journalist.

Of course, things would change rather dramatically after Frank threw himself into a long drinking session, but let’s not dwell on that.

Mark Day, one of Australia’s most respected media professionals, captured the Frank Crook we all knew with a tribute that described him as “old school journalistic irascibility”.

“You could point Frank at anything and you knew he would come back with a story and it would be beautifully written,” Day said. “No need to check spelling or punctuation or anything like that … he was a writer’s writer.

“I was lucky enough to have been around in that era when I had Frank and a few other greats of the journalistic world in my newsroom. We used to descend on a story like a swarm of locusts. Our motto was ‘get it right, get it fast and beat The Sun’. And Frank in particular was a reporter you could point at anything and he would come back with something magnificent.”

Always on the move, Crook worked for the Daily Mirror and The Sun, both now defunct, edited TV Week, became an ABC drive announcer, 2GB’s overnight host and wrote about cricket and jazz. Former Sydney radio colleagues summed him up: “A genuine lovely bloke.”

He played football in the 1960s for a Mirror team called “The Bloodstains”. We always gave the game our best shot but it was never quite good enough for some of our snooty colleagues across town.

Arthur Dignam

Arthur Dignam

A great actor, he also died last weekend, on 9 May 2020, of a heart attack in Ultimo where he lived. He was 80.

The dates of our spectacular lunches are somewhat blurred by age and time. I knew of Arthur before we actually met because friends were always saying: “Dear Arthur … he is so talented.” And he was.

One lunch took place in London, I believe, in the late 1960s or early 1970s, another in Sydney in the 2000s and we also met at a dinner organised by Leon and Margaret Fink at the very swish Quay restaurant for Germaine Greer’s 70th birthday.

Why was Arthur at Germaine’s 70th? “Every male invited to this party has been fucked by Germaine,” confided one of the guests. “Not me!” I snorted angrily. It was also true. My then partner, Joy Pinnock, and I knew Germaine in our days in London, but no sex was involved.

At the London lunch Arthur and I talked at cross purposes: I wanted to know about acting and Arthur was determined to talk about Marxism and the Vietnam war, so it ended up in a mixture of both.

The second lunch was at our house in Edgecliff when Arthur was incredibly shy and withdrawn. The long veranda table was dominated by authors, politicians, lawyers and journalists. Amid the rowdiness Arthur sat silently and listened carefully.

I asked Arthur to tell the story about Germaine’s birthday party. In his best Shakespearean voice, he told the lunch guests: “Margaret Fink came up to me and said, ‘You are the best thing in Australia’. What a recommendation. Fame at last. I felt very pleased with myself. Then I realised that she was referring to my fleeting performance in Baz Luhrmann’s movie Australia.

Born on Lord Howe Island on 30 September 1939, Arthur was a border at Newington College and then studied at Sydney University where he was the “star” of the Footlights Theatre crowd.

Arthur’s son, actor and arts activist Nicholas Gledhill, posted a loving tribute saying: “My father was taking his morning constitutional and, as he waved to a friend, he was felled by a massive heart attack. He passed away surrounded by his friends from his neighbourhood.”

Film reviewers always mention his memorable role in The Devil’s Playground (1976) but I remember his superb acting in We of the Never Never (1982) as well. Tasmanian actor/director described Arthur: “Tall and stately, refined in voice and feature he was a real ‘presence’ on stage.”

I think of Arthur quite differently: more as a teacher, philosopher and lunch companion. His ‘presence’ was in his ever-questioning eyes.

Jack Mundey

Jack Mundey

Born in Malanda on the Atherton Tableland in North Queensland, Jack was a renaissance trade unionist who introduced the concept of “green bans”. (In deference to the emerging activism of indigenous Australians, the name was changed from “black bans” to “green bans”).

After his mother died at the age of 42, Jack became a primary school boarder at St Augustine’s Marist Brothers school in Cairns. The school’s “notable alumni” are listed on its official website – but not John Bernard Mundey! Is it because he was once a building worker, a trade union leader and a Communist?

An obituary in The Sydney Morning Herald – which ignored or criticised him for decades – said: “He didn’t like boarding school and he was frightened by what he saw as authoritarian Catholicism, ‘all that mortal sin and venial sin stuff’. His father was a ‘relaxed’ Catholic. Jack became even more relaxed. He ran away.” (SMH, 12 May 2020).

A great sportsman – he boxed, played cricket and rugby league – he was recruited by a talent scout to the Parramatta Eels where he trained under Vic Hey but never rose above reserve grade. He read voraciously, joined the Federated Ironworkers Association (FIA) and then the Communist Party of Australia.

In 1965 he married left-wing activist lawyer Judy Rimmer and they shared his rise to fame in Sydney, Australia and then internationally. He encouraged unions to look beyond local industrial campaigns and adopt positions on Aboriginal rights, anti-apartheid, the war in Vietnam, saving the environment, women’s rights and gay rights.

When community-minded women – denounced locally as “13 bloody housewives” – tried to save a swathe of bushland at Hunters Hill called Kelly’s Bush, BLF members at an AV Jennings site endorsed a resolution saying: “If one blade of grass or one tree is touched at Kelly’s Bush, this half-completed building will stand forever half-completed as a monument to Kelly’s Bush.” Jack later said: “It was the first time the enlightened working class teamed up with the enlightened middle class to fight for the environment anywhere in the world.”

At the 1978 State Election Mundey stood on a Communist Party ticket for a seat in Parliament and came within a whisker of winning.

When his health began to fail in the 2000s Judy asked family friends, Jennice and Raymond Kersh, the restaurateurs who pioneered Indigenous cooking, for a special favour. Could they hold a lunch at their Redfern home with Mike Carlton and Alex Mitchell as guests? Jack wanted to meet both of us while he was still alert; and Mike and I immediately agreed to take part.

The dinner table was laden with Raymond’s superb food, Jennice opened bottles of champagne, wine and beer and the conversation canvassed political, union and media subjects. Mike did splendid imitations which were a highlight of his former radio show every Friday. He did Bob Hawke and Alan Jones to perfection: our laughter became deafening.

During his life Jack had been a ticket-holding Communist, a Labor man and a member of the NSW Greens. His political career and his trade union career overlapped and complemented each other. But he has a lasting place my memory as a North Queenslander who came down from the bush and taught the city folk a lesson or two.

Who is going to carry on his fight against the developers? Not anyone I know from the current lot. Jack was hardly pushing up daisies when The Australian reported with a banner headline: “Cut green tape delay on projects, say miners”. The article read: “Australia’s six peak mining and resources groups are pushing for a major overhaul of environmental laws, calling for the removal of  ‘unnecessary duplication and complexity’ to provide greater certainty for business.” (The Australian, 11 May 2020).

One of those behind the “push” is Minerals Council of Australia CEO Tania Constable.

David Levine

David Levine

Born in Sydney on 12 October 1944, he died in Sydney on 11 May 2020. To give the former NSW Supreme Court judge his full moniker – The Honourable David Levine AO, RFD, QC – he practised as a barrister on 12th Floor Wentworth in Philip Street before moving to Blackstone Chambers. Following in the footsteps of his father, Aaron Levine, David Levine was a District Court judge from 1987 to 1992, Supreme Court judge from 1987 to 1992, and subsequently chair of the Serious Offenders Review Council which meets lifers, murderers and other long-term prisoners to manage their incarceration. He then became inspector of the Police Integrity Commission (PIC) and the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC).

He once disqualified himself from seeing a murderer on the grounds that when he was a judge he had knocked back the prisoner’s appeal for a lighter sentence. When the lifer was told, he complained bitterly shouting, “I want to see Levine – I don’t trust you other bastards.” David saw him one-on-one. He was so chuffed he told the story with great enjoyment.

When most judges, barristers and lawyers push off upon retirement to sprawling beach houses on the NSW South Coast or homes in the hills of Tuscany, David Levine chose public service; it was his way of “putting something back”. In 2017 he wrote: “Like my parents, I consider public museums, galleries and libraries to be essential components of civilised life.”

My partner Judith White has noted: “David Levine served on the Council of the Art Gallery Society of NSW from 2005 to 2014. He had been a member since 1958, when his parents – Justice Aaron Levine and his wife Libbie, a former violinist with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra – gave their schoolboy son his own membership.

“Theirs was a household that treasured the arts. The family visited the Art Gallery several times a year, the artist William Dobell was a family friend, and the young David and his sister were keen listeners to the art component of The Argonauts on ABC Radio.

“A bibliophile whose Paddington home was lined floor to ceiling with books, he also joined the Friends of the State Library, of which he became chairman, and was a generous patron of the Library’s Foundation.” (Read the tribute in full here.)

When my London colleague Marcel Berlins, a qualified barrister and former legal writer for The Times and The Guardian, and his American-born partner Lisa Forrell, planned a visit to Sydney, I sprang into action and arranged a “Wig and Pen” lunch at Susie Carleton’s Paddington hotel, The Bellevue. I had long believed that lawyers and journalists were a natural match because of their many shared interests, mainly involving crime, jail, sport, decent wine and cheese.

Towards the end of the lunch when David was drinking his favourite single malt, international politics came up for discussion. Lisa, a former New York resident, cautiously asked: “What happened in Australia after September 11?”

While everyone else was dumbfounded and trying to remember whether the twin towers catastrophe was a “JFK” moment or not, David gave his well-known judge’s pause and then said: “September 12.”

There were many such moments. David and his partner Agnes were admirable dining companions. One of our memorable delights was attending his son’s Jewish wedding in the hinterland of Byron Bay. I drew the line at dancing to the Yiddish song Hava Nagila. David came over to me and murmured: “It’s okay. You’re thinking of the Palestinians, aren’t you?” He knew.

Bush Blue Poles at our former Eviron Road home near Murwillumbah, NSW.                        Art work and photo by A Mitchell

Little Richard forged a life through music

The wisdom of Little Richard (1932 – 9 May 2020), pioneer of rock and roll who fought racism and homophobia when both were tolerated or hidden from view. Four of his best remarks were these:

“I’d like to give my love to everybody, and let them know that the grass may look greener on the other side, but believe me, it’s just as hard to cut”;

“Gay people are the sweetest, kindest, warmest and most thoughtful people in the world. And since the beginning of time all they’ve ever been is kicked”;

“I think God made a woman to be strong and not to be trampled under the feet of men. I’ve always felt this way because my mother was a very strong woman, without a husband”;

“Greed has taken over the whole universe, and nobody is worried about their soul.”

Born Richard Wayne Penniman and admitted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, he was kicked out of home by his rabidly anti-gay father when he was 14. It was the start of his music career: his father wasn’t so lucky – he was shot dead outside a bar when Little Richard was 19.

During his Australian tour in 1957 he briefly quit live shows and disappeared into a fog of drugs, alcohol and religion. His most popular hits were Tutti Frutti (1955), Long Tall Sally (1956) and Good Golly Miss Molly (1958). His hit, Tutti Frutti, was banned by Robert Menzies Government because it contained the lyric “I wanna rooty”.

When Menzies was told the rock and roller was actually saying “aw rooty” which was African American slang for “all right” the public protests were thrown in the bin … and more singers, artists, actors and academics packed their bags and left for London or New York.

Little Richard died last weekend, Mother’s Day, aged 87.

Macquarie University lecturer Rebecca Sheehan, my elder son’s partner, has written a wonderfully thoughtful and well-informed article about the man and his influence, concluding: “His gift lay, through music, in transmuting [his] otherness into a transcendent, shared permission to be free.”

PS: Any reader wishing to expand the above list of recollections, please feel free to do so.

6 comments

  1. A lovely set of “obituaries”…thank you Alex! I did not know of Frank Crook’s passing…such a sweet man! The only time I have ever rung 2GB (!)…was when he had a weekend overnight show ..some 15 years or so ago. It was always just to discuss old classic films which he loved too….Vale….all the nice ones are going down fast…..

  2. Great tributes, Alex. Just this week a message from a mate – Ian CAMPBELL – whose mother was one of the Kelly’s Bush women (also with the National Trust). There was definitely a presence in Arthur DIGNAM’s performances. I was raised a Seventh-day Adventist – of which Little Richard was on-and-off a Pastor – Frank Crook a name I dimly recall and David Levine, too. Your sketches are warm and honest and reveal something of the breadth of your own friendships and character. Jim K

  3. 5 great remembrances, Alex…particularly the one on Jack Mundey whom I too knew quite well. Cheers & Regards,

    PETER C.

  4. Thank you Alex. Jack was the most wonderful and the wisest of men who supported me during my younger days in the Green movement. I was lucky enough to see him last September and shared the most profound moment. He was thinner and silent. He reached out and held my hand and those knowledgeable dark eyes, full of ‘language” stared into mine. Nothing was said but the shared resonance deeply touched my soul. I think of that moment often. I felt his universal humility and love. Vale Jack

  5. Thanks Alex for such a wonderful wrap-up of the lives of such great personalities. We saw a death notice in the SMH on Thursday for Frank Crook but until your blog appeared no one had published an obituary although he was one of Sydney’s most prominent print journalists during a colourful era populated by many of his type. He reminded me of other ‘gentlemen journalists’ such as contemporary Ced Culbert who was chief police roundsman on the tele during frank packer’s days – he too was a hat-wearing well-dressed journo whose unassuming nature belied a sharp mind. Jack Mundey was a real hero and his battles to save the old terrace houses in Victoria St Kings Cross and the Rocks are vivid in my memory. It’s so good that you can provide such personal insights into all these characters.

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