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Celeste –Memoirs and Memories of Celeste de Chabrillan La Mogador.

September 19, 2016
Photo by Jacqueline Mitelman

Photo of AW by Jacqueline Mitelman

What a delight it is to see the heroine of my 1983 film and TV treatment back on the radar of the French presence in Melbourne. At the time I had spent over a year (1982- 83) researching the life of Celeste de Chabrillan the First French Consuls wife from 1852- 58 and saw the story as a potential film/ TV project.

I put my research in front of our friend Tim Burstall the film Director and he was immediately taken with the possibilities. We went on to write a film and a TV scenario together. We submitted the film scenario to the Australian Film Commission but Australia at the time had no co production agreement with France and I had facilitated a French company to be involved as half the film was to be shot in France.

After months of meetings and negotiations with the Australian Film Commission I then arranged for Bernard Ledun French Consul General in Melbourne to take our scenario to one of my favourite French writers Marguerite Duras in France


Collage from diary, October 1983

It seemed we were at an impasse with the Film Commission because of the lack of a co production agreement between France and Australia in 1983 and the fact that we would have to use some French actors. Tim and I then turned the material into a TV series and submitted the project to Film Victoria with my name, and Tim using the non de plume Digby de Maistre.

In 1984 I submitted my research on Comte Lionel and Celeste de Chabrillan andphotographs for display in the exhibition The French Presence in Victoria 1800- 1901 that was shown at the Victorian Artists Society.


I subsequently took up the position as cultural attaché at the French consulate responsible for publicity and promotion of $25 million cultural program that France gave to Australia for the Australian Bicentennial.

The French played an important role in the history of Australia and certainly the Comte and Celeste de Chabrillan provided some very colourful moments in that rich cultural past. Melbourne University Academic and award winning translator Patricia Clancy and Jeanne Allen translated Celeste’s second memoir Un Deuil au Bout du Monde in 1998 with a fascinating introduction. The bereavement to which the French title refers is that of the Comte’s death in 1858.

Last week at the Alliance Française in St Kilda a new book on Celeste’s final memoirs was screen-shot-2016-09-19-at-2-22-33-pmlaunchedCourtesan and Countess translated by three Melbourne University French Academics Jana Verhoeven, Alan Willey, and Jeanne Allen.. These memoirs hidden for 80 years were found by Jana in a Chateau in France once owned by Celeste.
“Courtesan and Countess tells the story not only of her struggle as a creative artist to survive and earn a living, but also of her fascinating life at the centre of the bohemian circles of Paris, surrounded by friends such as Alexandre Dumas père, Georges Bizet and Prince Napoléon. Courtesan and Countess paints a portrait of a remarkable woman and of the turbulent world of Paris during the Belle Epoque.”

The following are pages from my personal diaries that I have mentioned in my blog:

Jours Pour Se Souvenir – Days to Remember

JULY 16, 2012


screen-shot-2016-09-19-at-1-02-30-pmAs a committed Francophile with a passion for fashion and French Culture Bastille Day evokes memories of early travels in France, and in the late 1980’s spent as cultural attaché at the French Consulate in Melbourne. As part of my research when developing my film The French Consuls Wife in 1983 I discovered that Dianne Reilly La Trobe Librarian had located the grave of my principal character Melbourne’s first French Consul, Comte Lionel de Chabrillan, a member of one of the oldest aristocratic families in France. This unruly and neglected grave was located at the Melbourne General Cemetery


In 1984 frantically trying to write my film script The French Consuls Wife it seemed to be a perfect opportunity to throw a cemetery party with Melbourne’s Alliance Francaise and celebrate the hero of my film Comte Lionel de Chabrillan. Throwing a party is probably not the first thing people think of in connection to a cemetery. The French flag draped the austere grave. There was fine French champagne, strawberry pastries, a string quartet and readings from the French poet Baudelaire – all of this among the headstones.


In 1986 we celebrated the graves restoration with a much grander party. I organised a splendid French lunch at the leading French hotel Le Meridian for 35 people. I recreated with the assistance of the chef the menu of the 1848 Café Anglais, gathering place for the Paris dandies, where the Comte first met his future wie. We then all went on to the Melbourne General Cemetry. It was a bleak gray winters day, the French Consul General the elegant Isabelle Costa de Beauregard Robertson gave an eloquent speech. As I spoke about Lionel and the love story with his wife Celeste, the famous dancer La Mogador, a clap of thunder echoed around the tombstones as a huge black crow let out a raucous craw swooping low over the restored grave, as if it had been scripted from a scene out of a Ingmar Bergman film. To this day whenever we see a big black crow we think of Comte Lionel de Chabrillan.


Collage from my diary

Feminism – A Bra Burning Issue – A myth since the 70s

May 23, 2016

Gloria Steinem in conversation with Virginia Trioli.

A chilly night at Melbourne Town Hall with a hot topic

At the Gloria Steinem meet and greet I had an Alice in Wonderland moment and dropped down the


rabbit hole into the midst of an assembled group of vibrant women’s right advocates, women who have long held Gloria Steinem’s work over the decades as an inspiration.

This iconic American feminist has lost none of her power and passion about women’s issues and in her long campaign to expose the inequality in the areas of race, class, age and ethnicity. Nor has she neglected her sense of elegance and style. Tall and slim she wore simple black trousers, a long black-sleeved t-shirt topped by a scarlet silk scarf. Her youthful looks belie her age. Her natural grace alludes to her passion for dancing. Her delivery and gesture reinforcing every word. Her wisdom has been honed over decades of listening intently to the lives and limitations that have confronted women strongly reinforced by her detailed studies of matrilineal societies particularly those found in India and North America. She is a combination of charisma and gravitas.

I met the inimitable ABC presenter Virginia Trioli, a normally fearless woman who said “I am as nervous as a kitten.” Christine from Readings, was a remarkable host of this meet-and-greet. I was reintroduced to the amazing Mary Crooks of the Victorian Women’s Trust by Dur-e Dara convenor of the Victoria Women’s Trust, a passionate woman and civil rights activist and icon in Melbourne’s food culture. I also met up with the man behind Gloria Steinem’s visit to Australia Morry Schwartz the head of Schwartz Media, and the influential publishing house Black Ink.


Gloria was extremely generous to everyone, especially to the Fitzroy High School Girls who aim to put a feminist collective in every high school in Australia.

The town hall was a buzz with about 2,000 women and only a sprinkling of men. Before the lecture began, we all held up our signed copies of Gloria’s book as a sign of solidarity. As the dynamic Christine from Readings, in an introduction to the lecture told us Gloria signed literally a tonne of books that very afternoon.


Christine went on to say that Gloria was ‘a trailblazer in the second wave of feminism who came to prominence working undercover as a Playboy Bunny’.

In fact Gloria burrowed beneath the glamour and glitz of the Playboy culture and exposed the horrendous working conditions and appalling wages. Her article was called ‘A Bunny’s Tail’ (1963). Unbeknown to the Playboy Club Gloria was not just beautiful but all things bright and beautiful -she graduated Phi Beta Kappa, mane cum lauda from the prestigious liberal arts institution Smith College.

Untitled 2On stage Gloria in conversation with Virginia Trioli about her book and her life responded to Virginias question about Gloria’s own mother “I suspect that like many women here I am living out the unlived life of my mother. And this is a huge step forward. We should be proud of this, but it’s also true that we need to move forward.”

In reply to Virginias question about ageing and female invisibility: “I feel very, very alive and very, very happy but not sexual, thankfully,” “The brain cells dedicated to sex are now free for other things.” As for the bra burning issue in the 70s she said it was a total myth – “it never happened”.

Gloria said her big realisation early on in the Feminist movement was “that telling of the inner-equality of women’s rights as well as the civil rights movement, didn’t do a damn thing. The power hierarchies weren’t interested in the injustice. They were part of the exploiters for moneymaking and gender control. We were just too damn nice.”

The last time I encountered such wonderful solidarity with women was at one of Maria Prendergast’s fabled, Fabulous Female Friends Party. I introduced myself to the woman to my right. Her name was Marieke Brugman, her advice to young women is, “Believe in yourself and the roots of your own authenticity. Prepare to stand out from the group. Don’t be afraid to be passionate about what you do, and excel at it”.

“If you are not doing what you are doing now, who would you be”?

Alison’s Proustian Interviews

April 9, 2016

‘A glimpse into the minds of Creative People’

For over 12 years I have had the privilege of interviewing and exploring the minds of many high profile Australians with a particular focus on the mindset of senior business figures in the corporate community.
I have now turned my attention to profiling prominent Australian Artists in the arts and its many disciplines.

The renowned French writer Marcel Proust was known for his insight and exploration into the personality of his characters. The purpose of my Proustian interview is to create a snapshot of a series of questions that will give the reader an insight into the personalities and character of my contemporary subjects.

The enigmatic artist, sculptor and photographer Sonia Payes is my first subject for this new series of Proustian Interviews.


Q Who do you most admire?

A My husband.

Q What is your most pleasurable journey?

A My journey as an artist, being free to express my creativity.

Q What in your life do you most regret?

A Not finding out sooner about my body’s intolerances to certain food groups. My life would have been so much healthier and more enjoyable.

Q What in your view is your greatest achievement?

A Being able to create – both my family and my art.

Q What of your possessions do you treasure most?

A The love of my family, and my iPhone.

Q What is perfect happiness to you?

A Is there such a thing? I guess a balance in life. I’m not sure, but seeing both of my daughters have children of their own is the greatest happiness of all.

Q What quality most characterises you?

A I am a woman and therefore complicated. Resilience, persistence and self-belief.

Q Which virtue do you consider overrated?

A  Caution is overrated. One has to live life with some risk.

Q What do you fear the most?

A The future of humanity.

Q What characteristic in others do you most dislike?

A Insincerity.

Q What quality do you most admire in a woman?

A Strength, determination, and a sense of pride.

Q Is there a special place you would like to live?

A Somewhere in the sun preferably near my family.

Q What quality do you most admire in a man?

A Brains, compassion and a cute butt.

Q What are the words you most overuse?

A ‘Yes, I’ll do it’.

Q What do you perceive is your current mind set?

A Speedy, excited, tired but very focussed.


Sonia Payes exhibited her award winning work Re: Generation (2014) at Cottesloe, in Perth. Sonia was a finalist in the 12th edition of Western Australia’s Sculpture by the Sea.

As the winner of the McClelland Achievement Prize in 2014, Sonia Payes has been planning her forthcoming exhibition Parallel Futures at McClelland Gallery July 3-6  Nov 2016

This exhibition will provide an insight into the evolution of Sonia’s work from photography through to sculpture, and how she has made the 2D image a 3D reality.

Sonia has held 12 solo exhibitions and been included in over 50 group shows and many prestigious art prizes in Australia and overseas including Shanghai, London, Auckland and Los Angeles. Her works are held in numerous public, corporate and private collections. Sonia Payes is represented by Fehily Contemporary, Melbourne.

Melbourne Set to Loose Heritage Haven for Women

February 16, 2016

Melbourne is set to loose another iconic heritage building. A haven for women, the Princess Mary Club is under imminent threat of demolition. Not only will the building be lost but ninety years of women’s history in Melbourne will disappear.
Don’t let this happen!
Sign the petition here:

A Joyous Time of Remembrance

February 9, 2016

Ali and John at Sue Cecil’s wake

Suzanne Jocelyn Cecil 1921 – 2016

The wake for Sue Cecil was a joyful and family focused affair. Much was said about the extraordinary life of this woman who was very much a part of the iconic Henry Bucks gentlemen’s outfitters Group. This impressive, handsome and disarmingly humorous woman was eulogised by her loquacious elder son Timothy and his brother Jonathan. There was an atmosphere that was wonderfully light-hearted and upbeat as only Rachel Cecil could have a created. The air was filled with music from opera and ballet, the room decorated with copious bunches of beautiful home-grown roses in many colours, all brought together with strings of paper butterflies and the frivolity of bubbles celebrated with a Mumm or two.

Branches of butterflies

Branches of butterflies


Heartfelt dessert

Heartfelt dessert

Mt Eliza Boathouse

January 20, 2016

The swimming pontoon at Ranelagh Beach has long gone but the ambience of the Italian Rivera remained. Appearing in the 20’s and 30’s these colourful Port Philip Bay boathouses were amongst the first in Australia. Based on the English model – quaint little mini houses that sat on the edge of the sand – they were used as changing rooms and shady havens for swimmers and sunbathers.

Gulls screeched overhead, children dug in the sand and waded at the waters edge.

We had the boathouse for well over 20 years – it was a wonderful way to spend lazy summer days on a secluded beach with our own private dining room for long lingering lunches, beautiful sunsets and candlelit dinners with close friends. The lapping of the waves soothed away all the stresses of the city – and no beach house maintenance.

At dusk we lit the candles, wound up the phonograph, and tangoed to ‘La Cucaracha’ and then settled back for a delicious alfresco dinner. An old 40’s plywood surfboard painted a deep sea green was creatively recycled to become a feature dining table for 10 with teal and burnt orange deckchairs adding the final touch.

Our 1930s colourful Mt Eliza boathouse was beautifully positioned on a pristine sandy beach shared with the exclusive Ranelagh Club. The fully lined inner walls were a vibrant sunny yellow covered in hats and we hung wooden dagger boards, flotsam from the sea, sculpture on the wall and polished the timber floors. A delicious fond memory of the past.

Women’s Destiny or Demolition? The Princess Mary Club

December 17, 2015


I was fortunate enough through the Women’s Trust of Victoria to attend a preview of Suffragette movie with Dr. Helen Pankhurst – great granddaughter of British suffragette Emmeline Pankhust leader of the British suffragette movement. Emmiline Pankhurst was famous for saying ‘I’d rather be a rebel than a slave’. The Suffragettes endured violence and cruelty to further the rights of women – equality and the right to vote. They shaped an idea of women for our time.

Mary Crooks Executive Director of Women’s Trust said in her eloquent introduction to the Q&A that Victorian women received the right to vote in 1908 but indigenous women were not given full voting rights until 1967 along with indigenous men. There was a substantial petition for women’s suffrage in Victoria in 1891 that was signed by thirty thousand people. Given the population of Victoria at the time this represented one tenth of the population – it was called The Monster Petition.

Doctor Helen Pankhurst told us about the rally attended by her great grandmother held in London in the 1920s – it was one of the biggest rallies London had ever seen. Dr Pankhurst is also an activist and feminist and gave expert advice to this production as well as playing a minor role in the film. She reiterated that gender and power are still aspects of society that women are still grappling with.

Fascinating that in the film the wealthier women in the Suffragette Movement tried to bail out the working class women from jail but they could only do so by their husbands signing the cheque – most husbands refused to do so even though they had married women of wealth. At the end of the movie there is a list of countries in order of when women achieved the vote, 1893 – New Zealand, 1926 – Britain, 1944 – France, 1970 – Switzerland and in Saudi Arabia they have only finally won the right to vote this year.

As Emmiline Pankhurst said, it is “Deeds not words” that count. This is an immensely moving film.

The Princess Mary Club

The Princess Mary Club

The splendid art deco building above is the Princess Mary Club at 118-122 Lonsdale Street built in 1926 with the strong support of the founder of the Aspro company Alfred Nicholas. Alfred Nicholas was passionately committed to the construction of this building especially for the women of Melbourne and country Victoria.

At present this historic building, purpose built for women in 1926, is under threat of imminent demolition by Leighton Construction who intend to develop the site with a 39-storied office tower.

This superb building is an example from the heyday of ‘Marvellous Melbourne’. What was once a place of refuge and an inspiration for young Australian women from all walks of life is now destined for the wrecking ball.

Can Melbourne go on losing its inner city heritage in this wanton manner? We say not.

39 storied building proposed by Leightons

39 storied building proposed by Leightons

There is a concerted and passionate effort being mounted to keep this priceless piece of Melbourne history as a functioning reminder of what women have been actively fighting for over the last few decades  – independence and equality. One of the staunchest supporters for the preservation of this vital element of the social fabric of Melbourne is Sophie Paterson – great granddaughter of Alfred Nicholas.

At a time when there is a strong focus on the need for a sanctuary and community for women in Victoria, the Princess Mary Club represents an unbroken link with pioneering women who helped make Victoria and indeed Melbourne the centre of cultural life in Australia.

Women’s history matters
Women’s lives matter
We have a right to keep our club
We have a right to keep our history

We fought hard for justice and equality
The time is now
To take back our heritage
Let the Princess Mary Club again be our sanctuary

– Protest song for the Princess Mary Club