The Prime Minister and the Showgirl – A Night on the Town
SYDNEY, Tuesday, July 2, 1967 – At 21, nightclub entertainer Liza Minnelli was well on the way to become a famous celebrity. Not in her own right, however, but because her mother was Judy Garland, the most popular female celebrity of the 20th century. She was more famous than Marilyn Monroe, Queen Elizabeth, Shirley Temple, Eleanor Roosevelt or Madonna.
From the moment The Wizard of Oz was released by MGM in 1939 in ground-breaking technicolour, Judy Garland became “the world’s sweetheart”. Playing cherubic Dorothy Gale from a farm in Kansas, Ms Garland, wearing pigtails and short stockings with a pet terrier called Toto, became America’s pin-up.
In the depth of The Great Depression, with the rise of fascism in Europe and dark clouds gathering for a new world war, she was mass marketed by Hollywood as the “wholesomeness” and “innocence” of white womanhood. GIs went into battle in WW2 carrying her photograph in their wallets. Asked what they were fighting for, a majority replied, “Mom and apple pie”. The family movie captured America’s fantasy image of itself. When it was re-released in the 1950s it became the most watched film in motion picture history.
Judy Garland and her second husband Vincente Minnelli celebrated Liza’s birth on March 12, 1946. But behind the perfumed image-making of Hollywood, Ms Garland and her husband were mismatched and deeply unhappy. They divorced in 1951 by which time Ms Garland was gripped by severe psychological, drug and alcohol problems.
Liza was five years old when her parents separated and the split affected her intensely. However, Ms Garland and Mr Minnelli, a talented film and theatre director, were too consumed by their own careers to take much notice or care.
As a child, then as a teenager and later as an adult, Liza was always known as “Judy Garland’s daughter”. She could never escape her mother’s celebrity status – later notoriety – and she could never succeed in establishing her own identity. She would always be identified in the media and then in public consciousness as “Judy Garland’s daughter”. Thus Liza’s accident of birth became a cross she had to bear throughout her life. Even when she rebelled, fled home and set out to make her own way as an actress, singer and dancer, she could not escape from being tagged as the daughter of her famous mother.
Judy Garland was born Frances Gumm from the small logging town of Grand Rapids in the mid-Western state of Minnesota but changed her name at the insistence of her agents and impresarios. When Liza Minnelli was pressured to change her name to Liza Garland to capitalise on her mother’s fame, she told them to go to hell. To be perfectly honest, Liza’s robust reply probably made reference to sex and travel.
The stormy relationship between mother and daughter went on for decades. Every tawdry nuance of the tragic soap opera was captured by gossip columnists who made a generous living by selling snippets, true and untrue, about the two women. When Liza Minnelli played her mother in a stage production, Judy Garland instructed her: “Now you can’t do all the same things, you can’t do all the same movements that I do all at once, you have to spread them out. Now at the end of so and so, I do this.”
Even after she was forced into medical retirement Ms Garland never gave up promoting her daughter’s career, telling the author Wendy Leigh: “Liza is going to be big one day, she is going to be a big star. How could Liza go wrong, with me as her mother and Vincente as her father?” (LIZA: Born a Star by Wendy Leigh, published in 1993)
In 1967 Liza Minnelli had already captured Sydney audiences with her uninhibited style of singing and dancing at popular nightspots in Kings Cross and her refreshingly “hip” appearances on commercial television. She received offers to present her own TV show. When she was billed to appear for a limited season at Chequers, the city’s premier cabaret venue, bookings flooded in. Her appearance was a coup for the owners, Keith and Dennis Wong, Chinese Australians who made a fortune by bringing US headline acts to entertainment-starved Sydney.
In 1963 the Wongs signed a partnership agreement with Harry M Miller, the New Zealand-born entrepreneur. Their deal brought Pan-Pacific Promotions into existence and Chequers into the frontline of nightclub entertainment. “Harry Em” (1934-2018) and the Wongs promoted tours of Australia and New Zealand by Louis Armstrong, aka “Satchmo”, Mick Jagger’s Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, Herman’s Hermits and acclaimed classical pianist Arthur Rubinstein. Other prime-time performers on the Chequers circuit were Shirley Bassey, Dionne Warwick and Sammy Davis Jnr.
David Hickie, one-time editor-in-chief of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Sun-Herald, wrote: “During the mid-1960s Chequers was the grandest club in Sydney. Morris Lansburgh, the Miami and Las Vegas hotel millionaire, visited Sydney in 1965 and said Chequers was better than either the Copacobana or the Latin Quarter in New York. Another authority on international fleshpots rated it the sixth best in the world. Chequers paid fees of £7,500 a week to Sarah Vaughan, £6,000 to Tony Martin and Shelley Berman and £5,000 to Frances Faye. Other star attractions included Shirley Bassey, Leslie Uggams, Nelson Eddy and Gail Sherwood. At Chequers in its heyday a staff of 120 served a room that held 550 patrons at a time.”
Hickie’s description captures both the high and low life of Chequers. Politicians from NSW Parliament in Macquarie Street concluded their debates promptly at 10 o’clock so they could cross the city to start drinking, dancing and chatting up female staff. In today’s world of infantile prurience, MPs and other professionals would be crucified on social media for their after-work indulgences. Founded in 1959 – originally in Pitt Street before opening in Goulburn Street in the 1960s – Chequers shut its doors in 1970. Today the site has moved with the times to become a reflexology clinic and massage parlour. Such is “progress” in lock-out city…
In its peak years, Chequers boasted a clientele of crooked cops, politicians, media proprietors, lawyers and local underworld heavies like “Big” Lennie McPherson, “Gorgeous” George Freeman and Milan “Iron Bar” Petricevic. American Mafia figures including Chicago mobster Tony Testa visited Sydney in 1969 to arrange territorial boundaries and to divide the loot from illegal businesses so as to avoid any conflict between the “families”. They celebrated their agreement at Chequers. It became an attractive night spot for US officers on R&R leave from the war in Vietnam, and Lennie McPherson held the contract to supply crates of bourbon imported from the US by illegal booze syndicates. “All human life is here”, said the masthead of the now-defunct News of the World: it could have applied to Chequers.
Liza Minnelli’s booking at Chequers coincided with a surprise visit to Sydney by the new Australian Prime Minister John Gorton who flew to Sydney in July 1968 on what politicians call “a charm offensive”. He would chair Cabinet before meeting local Liberal Party bigwigs from the party’s powerful NSW division to discuss policy and the prospect of a Federal Election.
Some senior Liberal grandees resented the party room victory by the senator from Victoria. Although Gorton had grabbed The Lodge from the Sydney front-runner, Billy McMahon, the millionaire MP for Lowe, they remained stubbornly undecided about his leadership of the party. Gorton had been parachuted into prime ministership in quite bizarre circumstances: his predecessor, Harold Holt, disappeared into the surf at a Victorian beach on 17 December 1967 and his body was never found.
After a productive Cabinet and a relaxed lunch with party powerbrokers, including Jock Pagan and John Carrick, both later knighted, Gorton retired to the Commonwealth’s official residence at Kirribilli House under the shadow of the Harbour Bridge and across the water from the sails of the Sydney Opera House. He showered, changed suits and ordered pre-prandial drinks to be served on the terrace overlooking the harbour.
According to custom and tradition, the prime minister and his wife, Bettina (“Betty”), received an official invitation to have dinner with the NSW Governor, Sir Roden Cutler VC, and Lady Cutler, at historic Government House, alongside the Royal Botanic Gardens. The other dinner guests were David McNicoll, editor-in-chief of Sir Frank Packer’s Australian Consolidated Press which published The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Telegraph, The Australian Women’s Weekly and The Bulletin, and his wife, Jean. Packer, who hated formal dinner parties, was a late no-show. On this particular occasion, however, his non-appearance was quite deliberate. He had backed Billy McMahon to succeed Holt and never approved of the surprising victory by the maverick interloper from Melbourne. So a grumpy Packer sent his liegeman McNicoll to the dinner in a calculated breach of the vice-regal social etiquette of the time.
After supper the Gortons were walking to their official limousine when McNicoll whispered in the prime minister’s ear: “What about coming down to Chequers to hear Liza Minnelli?” Mrs Gorton suggested they first return to Kirribilli House to invite their other house-guests, the married actors John McCallum and Googie Withers, and Lady Janet Harrington, widow of the former Chief of Naval Staff, Sir Hastings Harrington. The late “Arch” Harrington, a long-time friend of the Gortons since the Pacific war, was known among sailors as “Buggery Grips” because of the furry whiskers on his cheeks.
McNicoll phoned Chequers nightclub and asked owner Denis Wong to clear a centre-stage table and lay on chilled champagne for the prime ministerial party. After a few more drinks, the Gortons, McNicolls and McCallums crossed the bridge and drove through the semi-deserted city streets to the ritzy Goulburn Street nightclub. Chilled champagne was waiting for them … and so was fate.
Next week: Chequers scandal threatens to end John Gorton’s prime ministership
© Alex Mitchell
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