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Eternity series: Jenny Kee
A conversation with Jenny Kee and Roslyn Russell
Recorded at the National Museum of Australia, 19 August 2007
GABRIELLE HYSLOP: Thank you very much for coming to this very special event. Welcome to the second in our Eternity series. One of the most popular galleries at the National Museum is the Eternity gallery, which is organised by emotions rather than themes of history or other ideas. We are very lucky that some time ago Roslyn Russell, a well-known historian and curator of exhibitions in Canberra, was asked to curate a story for the ‘chance’ component of Eternity. She thought it would be a very good idea to link up again with her friend Jenny Kee. Ros is going to explain a bit about that story, and then they will talk about their conversations in relation to ‘chance’, that they have been having for quite a few years.
ROSLYN RUSSELL: As Gabrielle has mentioned, a couple of years ago I was asked by Amanda Reynolds, one of the Museum’s curators, to curate a story in the Eternity gallery on ‘chance’. The first person I thought of was Jenny, because when we lived in the Blue Mountains nearly 30 years ago. Jenny told me her amazing story of how she and her daughter Grace had survived the Granville train disaster of 1977. She will be talking about that in more detail later on today. Amanda agreed with me that Jenny’s story would be absolutely perfect for the Eternity gallery. So I contacted Jenny and asked if she would be happy to do it. She said, ‘Hold on a bit. I’m writing an autobiography. Wait until the book comes out, then we’ll have more to talk about.’ I am really glad that we did. I bought the book, A Big Life, when it was published last year. I sat down at the kitchen table one weekend and virtually didn’t move for two days while I read the whole book from cover to cover. I was riveted. It was a wonderful read and a jewel of a book.
I now have the privilege and pleasure of talking to Jenny and to all of you about Jenny’s life and her experiences. She’s going to share some of them today. We can’t talk about all of them as it is a 400-page book about 60 years of her amazing life and extraordinary experiences. She has faced both triumph and disaster in what has truly been a big life. It is a significant Australian story that clearly merits its inclusion in the Eternity gallery. Jenny, over to you to talk about your life. First of all, your Chinese-Australian ancestry and your father Billy Kee is one of the first things you would like to talk to us about today.
JENNY KEE: Yes, I thought I might read you a little passage from the book. I had an absent father. He was always out gambling and I hardly ever saw him. So he becomes a romantic figure in one’s life when your mother is there by your side doing everything for you - I think we might all have a few stories like that - and your father is never there. Somehow his story is fascinating and romantic to me. I am going to read you a tidbit to give you a flavour of this extraordinary man called Billy Kee:
In 1908, seven years after the White Australia Policy was introduced federally, Maggie gave birth to her fifth child, my father, Billy, in the gold-mining town of Charleston [in northern Queensland]. As a tiny boy of five Billy was put to work in the family’s store, which sold everything from a needle to an anchor. In the frequent absences of his father, who was an alcoholic, Dad’s eldest brother, Jimmy, became the patriarch. Jimmy ruled with an iron fist …
When he was 12 and his brother Charlie 14, they ran away from home to become a drover’s cook and a drover respectively in north Queensland.
Dad was a brilliant cook, even as a kid, and the drovers loved him. He shot pigeons, goats and pigs and was renowned for his kangaroo-tail soup and pigeon pie. [A little boy of 12.] He gambled and played cards with the drovers and always won. Every night he slept in a swag under the stars. When we were kids he told us stories of sitting around Aboriginal camps. He had a pet dingo that travelled with him. Once it wrestled a huge kangaroo and the pair toppled over a cliff. The dingo landed on the kangaroo and survived. Dad was chased up trees by wild boars and had skirmishes with nine-metre-long crocodiles in the Normanton River. On one occasion he had to rescue old Grandfather Yip Hoy, who had wandered into the wilderness carrying provisions suspended from a yoke across his shoulders. Yip Hoy was looking for a fabled gold reef, which he swore he’d seen 30 years earlier.
Northern Queensland was a vibrant Wild West culture, teeming with Aborigines, Chinese, Malays, Indonesians, Kanakas, miners and missionaries.
I am sure that is why they brought in the White Australia Policy in 1901, because they didn’t want us to be a multicultural country then and it was heading that way.
ROSLYN RUSSELL: There are many more interesting stories about Billy Kee and his life in the book. Your mother though has an interesting ancestry as well.
JENNY KEE: Mum’s father, Cesare Giovanni Marchionni, came from Sondrio on the top of Italy by the Swiss Alps. Poppy left his little town and said to his Mama, ‘Mama, I have to leave home or the mountains will close in on me.’ He was 13 when he went off to Paris and worked as a chef. He had his Escoffier cookbook and he learnt to cook. I am just amazed that I have the father who was a brilliant cook, and the grandfather. My grandfather worked on boats around the world and sailed into Sydney Harbour in November 1910 where he met the Australian grandmother on my mother’s side, Olive Love - Italian married Anglo-Saxon - and then they were very upset when Mum married a Chinaman. At school Mum used to be called a ‘dago’ and Olive Love, Mum’s mum, used to say, ‘You go and tell them that their pope is a dago too,’ but they in turn could not cope with Mum marrying a Chinaman.
Mixed marriages didn’t happen in those days in the early 1900s: Chinese married Chinese, Italians married Italians, Anglo-Saxons married Anglo-Saxons. We are talking about a very racist country. So Mum was a rebel in her own right. Is it any wonder she produced three amazing children - one of them was me?
ROSLYN RUSSELL: Jenny, you are growing up in Bondi, the quintessential Australian suburb by the sea - both of us are growing up into teenagehood with the whole surf culture burgeoning in the 1960s. What about a story from your Bondi days?
JENNY KEE: I was a rebellious wild child. It was all from Mum and all from Billy. I will read this passage:
Once art, my only creative outlet at school, was closed to me I rebelled. At 12 or 13 I was secretly reading Peyton Place, which I’d found hidden in Dad’s wardrobe. Sexuality became my chosen form of expression in the years that followed. I became sex-obsessed. I had recurring dreams of being a slave girl, imprisoned in a cage in ancient, torch-lit catacombs, doing the Dance of the Seven Veils while surrounded by hordes of Victor Mature types clawing at the bars. They could look but not touch.
I discovered that boys liked me, and that entirely changed my self-image. … Then came spin the bottle and the teen pashing parties. I knew instinctively what to do and the boys responded. It was a revelation. For the first time in my life I began to feel comfortable about my Chinese appearance. Indeed I was coming to see being Asian as an asset. Boys, I learnt, found ‘exotic’ girls ‘sexy’.
Suddenly I had the confidence to cope with troublesome teachers, bullies and racists. Going up to Bondi Junction I’d always been conscious of being part of a minority. I had always looked over my shoulder prepared for a racist taunt … Now I was ready to hurl a jibe back, or a punch. If anyone tried to mess with me they’d get a rock in their face. Along with my father’s will I’d inherited his temper. My attitude was, I’ll show you – I’m going to go out and get it all. I wasn’t going to be like most of my Chinese family: sedate, pious and conservative. I was going to break free, and I wasn’t going to do it by halves. Nothing, ever, by halves.
ROSLYN RUSSELL: The best-known symbol of your having everything and going out for it was, of course, your encounter with the famous musician John Lennon.
JENNY KEE: Yes, that was when I was 17, a whole five years later. We managed to get into the Sheraton Hotel at Kings Cross. How we ever did it, I don’t know, but we did. Then we jammed the lift and they had to come up the stairwell after their concert, and there we were waiting in the stairwell. John took one look at me and said, ‘Come up for a party’ and somehow we got in. We got in the lifts and were going up and down but, as soon as the lift opened, it would be wall to wall with police just pushing you back in the lift. But somehow Derek Taylor, John and the boys must have said, ‘There are some cute girls we’ve met, single them out.’ He actually must have said ‘Chinese girl with black glasses’ because Derek Taylor came out and he ushered me in with my girlfriend Vikii. That’s how we got into the party and that’s how I got to spend the fabulous night with John Lennon - it was just one night - but I was 17 and it was fantastic. It was the reason for me to go to London. We were all crazy little mods and then to see these Beatles. Beatles mania started that year. They went to America and then came to Australia in 1964. That was the beginning of Beatles mania, and it didn’t stop for 10 years or whatever. What John Lennon became in my life later and had an enduring, lasting effect on me, is what he stood for.
That’s how I got to London. As soon as I met the Beatles I knew that I had to get out of this place. We used to dance at a place called the Gas Lash down at Central, where Martin Sharp had done cartoons on the outside walls. We would go in there and stomp to The Animals: ‘We gotta get out of this place, if it’s the last thing we ever do.’ At 17 I was out of Sydney on my way to London on the good ship Australis nearly a year and a half later. I am going to read you one little bit about London, 1967:
What a rainbow fantasy world I and the other market girls lived in, floating around Chelsea in our Poirets and Fortunys or dressed as Jordanian peasants or Romanian gypsies: Sheherazade on acid. Children regularly mistook us for princesses.
Because the fashion industry was in chaos everyone, from hip young students to those we’d now call fashionistas, went to the Chelsea Antique Market to find out what those crazy kids were wearing and why.
You have to understand that this was the very beginning of wearing vintage clothes and of wearing retro. Now 40 years later we look at all the young ones wearing everything: retro, vintage, 60s, 70s and 80s. This was the beginning of going into the attics of the stately homes of England and getting down these incredible clothes because they were from the aristocrats. They were all label dresses, and that is what we sold in this famous place called the Chelsea Antique Market.
I called it my university of fashion and life, because it was like working in a museum. But we wore the clothes, we wore the Poirets. There is an exhibition on at the Metropolitan Museum in New York right now on Poiret. We had Poiret dresses, we had Fortuny dresses, we had Callot Soeurs, Mainbochers, Vionnet chiffons and Chanels - that is what we collected. It was extraordinary.
But what I actually loved was ethnic. I had this dress, my Pakistani peasant dress, which I wore and wore. In my book there are three photographs of me in it because I was never out of it. I dressed it up with other things but I absolutely loved ethnic. It was beginning of my love for Guatemalan, African and Indian embroideries. There were two things I loved. The other thing I loved was prints. It didn’t matter whether it came from the 20s, the 30s, the 40s or the 50s, I was absolutely entranced with unusual prints. The first thing that I ever collected at the Chelsea Antique Market was unusual knitwear. For 50 pence I bought what was called ‘my Richard Attenborough fan club’ jumper, which had his signature knitted in. It had his Brighton Rock and all his films knitted into the back. I was fascinated by that jumper.
Then I went on to collect vintage beautiful 1930s Fair Isles, but everything was unusual. Did I know that I was going to become a designer? I had no idea at that time, but this is what I collected. That was a little aside, because I want to talk about the people that came through the market:
The market was a pressure cooker for fashion. Every young designer in Europe passed through it - among them Claude Montana, Jean Paul Gaultier, Kenzo Takada and Issey Miyaki ... Vern [Lambert] swore that Kenzo’s folkloric look was inspired by me. He said Kenzo always scrutinised what I had on and how I layered myself like a Babushka doll. [That is because I got a little bit fat while I was in London. I thought I would just pile on the clothes so no-one would notice.] …
At the market we didn’t just flog frocks and style ourselves: we styled everyone who came in. And what extraordinary subjects we had. It was like directing wardrobe on a movie set called the sixties.
Mick Jagger, Marianne Faithfull, Keith Richards and his girlfriend, Anita Pallenberg, liked to sit in the Terrace Café, which adjoined our stall and was run by a middle-aged beatnik couple called Bob and Pearl, who wore black and played the French existentialist radio ... The Stones’ entourage would spend entire Saturday afternoons eating toasted sandwiches and wandering in and out of Vern’s stall to try on coats and frocks. Marianne loved Victorian clothes. Keith and Anita were more ethnic inspired. Mick favoured sequins and beading because they looked good on stage. He adored Schiaparelli jackets, but he could never understand why he had to pay £10 apiece for old clobber. Jagger wore the gear because it was right for his image; Brian Jones and Jimi Hendrix actually appreciated the design.
Jimi Hendrix was always one step ahead. … He was a bird of paradise and nearly always dressed by the market.
ROSLYN RUSSELL: What an extraordinary range of people to have encountered in those years.
JENNY KEE: That was one little snippet of a time that was so precious, because it can never be again. All these clothes are now in museums.
As for me, I was gaining the freedom and confidence to express myself (although it never occurred to me that I could become a designer). And I was loudly and defiantly Australian. My mantra was ‘I come from the land of Oz and Bondi is in my body.’ While everyone around me was supercool, I had the energy of the sun. And I needed it because I was living my life at fever pitch.
ROSLYN RUSSELL: Part of this extraordinary life that Jenny is living in the 1960s is a new relationship with the man who became her husband.
JENNY KEE: Yes, I met Michael, a beautiful artist, in London in 1969. It was love and visual and style - just creativity. From the pop world and dressing all those pop stars when I met Michael there was a different take: we were moving into 1969-70 and there were such amazing Australians living in London then. There was Martin Sharp who was like the king of psychedelic art in the 1960s. In every book from Paris to Italy to New York to London, Martin is acknowledged as the king of psychedelic art. His painting of Jimi Hendrix is like the ‘Blue Poles of psychedelic art’. There was Richard doing Oz magazine. There was Germaine Greer writing The Female Eunuch. There was Bob Hughes, I think he was working for the Independent and different magazines. All these people were writing for Oz magazine. Michael and I, Martin, Philippe Mora, we were the visual team from Oz. There were lots of young artists including Jamie Boyd.
Phillipe Mora made a movie called Trouble in Molopolis, and we were all in it. Eric Clapton put up £3,000. Arthur Boyd put up £3,000. The movie started in 1969 and was made for £6,000. We, of course, were paid nothing. Germaine Greer was in it, Martin was in it. Michael was the star of it and I was Shanghai Lil, his goodtime gal. It was through meeting Philippe that then Michael was asked by Georges Mora to come back to Australia and have a show at the Tolarno Galleries. That is how we came back to Australia at the end of 1972. By then the London magic was drying up for us and we were now with Whitlam, the creative country. It was so exciting. Michael went down to have his show. We stayed with Mirka Mora. My goodness me, we knew that Australia was the place to be now. In the 1960s it was get to London. But now we had absorbed all the creativity we could ever get in London and we were bringing it all back home. So that was how we got to come back to Australia and how I got to meet Mirka.
ROSLYN RUSSELL: This is the story behind the object that we have in the Eternity gallery for Jenny, which is a calico doll. I urge you all to go and have a look at this doll and the whole display in Eternity, because this doll plays a very important part in Jenny’s creative development and perception of herself as an artist.
JENNY KEE: There I was living with Mirka Mora. She could see this very stylish girl all dressed up in amazing clothes and vintage in the way I put myself together. But she kept looking at me and saying, ‘You are more than that - come,’ and she made me do a doll with her. That doll for me - it was Mirka pushing in me and believing that I had more to give than just being a style girl and a fashion girl. She could see this artist that I didn’t know existed and she got me to do this doll - so I created this Jenny Kee doll. I had no idea that was going to become the caricature signature for Flamingo Park and my signature. I created this doll with the clothes that I was wearing. I had one big tit on the doll. Mirka was so naughty - she made this penis to go with it.
I feel that that doll was my transformation into me as an artist, but also it was from that time spent in Melbourne that we knew we had to stay in Australia. We spent three months with Mirka and constantly my mind was going. After working in the Chelsea Antique Market I knew that I had to do something. There I was living with Michael who was the artist. I was supporting us, so I thought I better open a shop. It has to be the most unusual shop because I have worked in the market, which was the most original place. So this shop has to be like nothing else and has to have art as its centre.
We called the shop Flamingo Park after a painting that Michael did in London in 1971 – his exotic Pink Flamingos. At the beginning the shop had the art feel, and I knew the clothes had to be like nothing else. Then I met Linda Jackson and the rest is really history. The shop opened just seven and a half months after I arrived back in Australia - God knows how! It was so quick, because three of those months were spent down in Melbourne thinking about it. It opened on 27 August 1973 and there was a sign on the door that said, ‘Flamingo Park Frock Salon: Step into Paradise.’ And paradise it was. It had metallic blue sand-blasted walls and sand-blasted beautiful glass mirrors with flamingos etched in. It was a treasure house of exotica. Michael did all the decor. I had just met Linda and her clothes opened with the shop. It was a magic time in Australia’s history.
Now everyone has a marketing plan that goes 10 years ahead, but we all worked on the spur of the moment with our creativity and spontaneity. January 1974 came round I knew I needed something warm to have for winter. So thinking, thinking, all my knits from London, what will I do? Hand knits, pure wool, Australian icon - that was the beginning. I went on an afternoon women’s TV show and said, ‘Is there anyone out there who can knit?’ One day later this beautiful English woman, Jan Ayres, walked through the door of Flamingo Park and she became the knitter. Those jumpers - Kanga, Kooka and Koala - were born in May 1974. They took two minutes to knit and five minutes to sell. They were instantly popular; just amazing.
Then in November 1974 the headline in the Sunday Telegraph was ‘New nationalism inspires Aussie gear - our lovely ockers go for the true blue look’, with photographs of Robyn Macbeth, a beautiful model at the time, wearing a Koala cardie, Bib and Bub shorts and recycled flour-bag pants. This was the birth of a national style in clothing, which was very special.
ROSLYN RUSSELL: Not long after that there was another birth, wasn’t there?
JENNY KEE: Oh, yes. There was all of this going on, and I fell pregnant. I knew that there was never going to be a right time to have this baby because my baby was the shop, so I said, ‘Bring it on, I am having this child,’ and on 10 March 1975, little Grace was born. She just had to fit in. I was there with the shop, there with Linda. Mum came to work for the shop while I was in hospital and she never left for 21 years. We talked about the father, but that mother was like the quality control. She was the greatest asset. Flamingo Park could never have been as good without Mum. She was the one at 2 o’clock in the morning packing up the wool to send off to the knitters. I say my mother is the greatest love of my life. The men have come and gone, but Mum was with me. It was only the seven years I was in England that I wasn’t with my Mum. She was extraordinary.
I have to now read you a bit about the amazing relationship of Linda Jackson and me, because it was a very special relationship:
Linda and I were such an intense designing duo. We needed to be within each other’s creative radar. She looked to me for style signals, flashes of originality: a quirky way of tying a bow or draping a scarf, a combination of two outrageous colours or fifties satin shoes with thirties draped chiffon - the style knowledge I’d gleaned from working with Vern in the Chelsea Antique Market. Linda had the cut, the drape, the dedication to superb detail and finish, and I had the ‘it’. Each one’s ideas sent the other into a flurry to make the next concept even better - design one-upmanship all the way to frock heaven.
The Mondrian dress was one of my design inspirations that we realised together. This evolved as a very simple shirtmaker in crisp white poplin, rather like a nurse’s uniform but with a twist. Linda, with her impeccable attention to detail, piped all the edges in red, making the dress look like a cut-out, with four odd-shaped pockets in pink, yellow, blue and green. The ultimate was the Mondrian hat. ‘Oh, Jen, a girl’s got to have a hat to match her favourite frock,’ she said, those currawong eyes dancing with delight.
That was Linda. She took a design to the max - nothing was too much. That was her talent, that was her pleasure. I respected her perfectionism, I was excited by her steady energy and I loved her serenity. Linda paced herself and flowed. Her workroom was like a sanctuary, with her workers quietly sewing under her direction …
The designs continued to stream from Linda’s vivid imagination in every conceivable shape, fabric and style. For summer beachwear she used fifties polished cottons and chintzes in a tremendous assortment of colours and prints. There were bloomers, pedal-pushers, cheongsams and sundresses with names such as True Blue, Coppertone, Bondi Bathers, Coogee, Maroubra, Bronte Beauties, Clovelly and John Dory. Our local beach culture was immortalised in these outfits. We were proud of where we came from and we wanted to the world to know. This was Australian fashion! …
Those early years with Linda were like being in an extraordinary dream. We were such dynamic lovers - so entwined, so obsessed, so harmonious. And this great love had nothing to do with sex. Our passion was fashion.
ROSLYN RUSSELL: Here you are celebrating beach culture with those wonderful names that are so evocative for all of us, particularly of the beach culture of New South Wales, but then you make a decision to go somewhere else, to leave the shore and go to the mountains.
JENNY KEE: We could never afford to buy a flat in Bondi - even then. Michael was spending a lot of time with Richard Neville up in the mountains. Richard was nursing his Mum and he had this vision of us living on a property rather like Jeffrey Smart and Ian Bent in Tuscany. He had this grand vision that we would live this stately life, and I of course would have to commute. So five weeks after we moved to the Blue Mountains …
ROSLYN RUSSELL: It was 18 January 1977 and Jenny and Grace were running late for the train. I am going to let Jenny tell the rest of the story because this is the most awe-inspiring story I have heard in many a long year, and Jenny can tell it so very well.
JENNY KEE: I was in my pink caricature cardie. I can remember everything that I was wearing. I was carrying Grace who was 22 months old. We were late for the train. Michael actually hailed the train down, because it was starting to move out from the platform. And because it was country they stopped for us. I ran down the stairs and ran along the platform. The stationmaster, Bill, said, ‘Get in there’ and pushed me into the first carriage. I was running to get into the third carriage, because in the five weeks that we had lived up there I liked to be in the middle, because if there was ever an accident I didn’t want to be in that first carriage. But there I was being forced in there with Grace and the bags.
Grace was 22 months old. By the time half an hour has passed, the sandwiches have all been eaten and the books have all been read, she is running up and down the carriage. After one and a half hours I just got her – and this chance - I sat her down and I said, ‘Don’t move. Don’t move.’ One minute later the train that was moving suddenly went from one side to the other. It was the most terrifying thing. Everything that you think about an accident, everything went into slow motion. I can still actually remember it vividly. That little girl was in my arms. If she hadn’t been, there was no way that kid when that train … I felt like it was going on for hours. I had this mantra going through my head, ‘We’re not going to die. I have just moved up to the mountains. I have all this work to do. What’s going on! She’s only 22 months old. We’re not going to die.’ It felt like it was going on but it was only minutes.
Then this jolting and this moving stopped, and I looked up and there is the sky. We were in the first carriage, the carriage that brought the bridge down. The stanchion was one seat behind me. I just have to say when the biggest jolt happened Grace fell out of my arms. With the wood and the glass that was flying through the air never touching us, it is the most extraordinary thing because I felt like I was in a bubble. Why wasn’t this glass touching me? It is not like you consciously did anything but I could see it passing me and it wasn’t touching me. I was listening to moans and screams, but it wasn’t touching me. I felt like I was being protected. I don’t know if anyone else has had a life and death experience, but that was mine. When that little girl fell out of my arms and I pulled her back and she had blood just pouring out of her head.
When that carriage stopped and I looked up at the sky, all I could do was just get the hell out. People were standing around saying, ‘Lady, lady, watch out,’ with all the electrical wires hanging down alive. All I could think of was to get that little girl up those stairs into an ambulance. The things that I saw in that train carriage: the devastation, a man without his face, a man with a leg that was just – it was horrific. The little girls that Grace was playing with were in the ambulance with us - they were twins, I think, about eight years old. One little girl was fine but the other little girl had maybe 100 cuts on her face, that dear little girl sitting in that carriage. It was horrific. It was like seeing war in a flash.
ROSLYN RUSSELL: Jenny, what happened to the third carriage that you would normally have got into?
JENNY KEE: In the third carriage there were no survivors and half of the fourth carriage was gone. Eighty-three people were killed and 213 people were injured. I still have injuries that I didn’t even feel for that day and the next day. I got pain the next day because the shock was so huge. But the amazing thing was that all through it I never ever felt that I and my daughter were going to die in the train crash. And recollecting now, in the place where I am now, I find it extraordinary that I never for one moment thought that I was going to die. That was Granville and that’s why I am here today.
ROSLYN RUSSELL: But there was another outcome from this, apart from your miraculous preservation. Something happened to you after Granville in terms of your creativity and your artistic practice?
JENNY KEE: For me it seems like shocks spur me on - thinking all the time why did we survive, why did those 10 people who were in our carriage die and why did we survive? Constantly that question. There was no post trauma counselling in those days. We just had to deal with it the way we could. They wanted to operate on my jaw. They wanted to operate on my sacrum. I went to acupuncture. I found an incredible osteopath, after many trials trying to find any other alternative way so that I didn’t have to an operation, and I am so pleased that I didn’t have an operation. That’s why I swim and I do yoga because, if I didn’t, I would be crippled. I found ways to deal with it.
The biggest thing that I started doing straight after Granville was that I started painting. It was all I could do. Walking through the healing bush and crying - I used to cry and cry walking through that bush, my nerves were so shot. And the painting was like a turning point for me. Up until then I had done my motifs on my cardies and jumpers, but it was then that I started moving into doing complicated work.
The Granville train crash was the catalyst for me turning into a much more serious artist, and that is the way I dealt with it. I didn’t take any forms of drugs or Valium, which is what they prescribed me - with my nerves being really shot I just painted. That is what helped to heal me. The work never stopped. It is incredible. Other people were paralysed by the actual event of Granville, but for me it was like a creative awakening. It is extraordinary that, out of that devastation, one can use it to transform themselves. It is the story of my life really.
ROSLYN RUSSELL: From your recovery from Granville, we all know the development of Jenny into a cultural icon of the late 70s and 80s, with the tremendous success of Flamingo Park, international acclaim, and your marvellous parades and things like that that became significant events in the Sydney fashion scene. Jenny, you are the girl that did have it all, as you had promised yourself in Bondi. Do you want to comment about that now?
JENNY KEE: I can’t really talk about all of that incredible, heady time. That will be another talk if I get invited back because the detail of our fashion parades are just extraordinary events. People came from near and far - all across Australia and internationally - would come to see our fashion shows. It would take too long, because I would like to talk about other things as well today.
I wanted to sum up what started to happen in the later 1980s and where I was then. I wanted to fit everything into a perfect package: the dazzling career, the high profile marriage to an artist, the role of adoring mother to a creative mother, the rich spiritual life. I felt like a juggler with too many balls in the air and sooner or later one or more of them were bound to drop.
ROSLYN RUSSELL: And they did?
JENNY KEE: Oh yes.
ROSLYN RUSSELL: The triumph followed by the disaster.
JENNY KEE: I went from being an artist - this amazing PR woman said, ‘It is cottage craft, you’re too arty and too quirky. We have to control you and pull you in.’ I listened to all of this; I also lost half a million dollars doing that. My empire that I had set up in this most exquisite way with the beautiful hand knits, the beautifully-made silks from Italy all hand sewn - all those beautiful clothes when I tried to go commercial, it didn’t actually suit me. Whether the timing was wrong or whatever - up and down - that’s the story of my life. But I have no regrets with what happened to me and my business. It is what happened. And shit happens. It is as simple as that.
I am going to move along now. We’re now in the Blue Mountains and it’s 1996. There are a lot of jumps here, so you have to go and buy my book.
ROSLYN RUSSELL: That’s true.
JENNY KEE: My marriage and my business are finished, and I am with my new partner Danton Hughes - big jump. Danton wanted me all to himself:
From that time on we stopped going out almost entirely. We refused so many invitations that nearly everyone ceased asking. The less they called, the more insecure I became, to the point where I felt that even longstanding friends were avoiding me. It seemed that everyone had loved Jenny Kee with the international reputation, two houses and a store in the Strand Arcade, but I couldn’t believe anyone cared about Jenny Kee struggling with self-doubt at her Katoomba kitchen table.
More and more of my life was consumed by Danton. Living with a depressive takes its toll. By now he was in shocking black holes three-quarters of the time, from which I could only rescue him by days of talking. I was so in love, but it was an obsessive devotion. His emotional need was a vortex, which drew me in until I was in danger of losing myself.
Danton’s depression was aggravated by the fact that he was smoking dope again. This was someone who’d smoked marijuana heavily and had had his first joint with his mother in Jamaica at the age of twelve. Marijuana and depression don’t mix, and in Danton’s case it was a lethal combination. His father was a depressive, his mother was a depressive. Genetically he was fighting an uphill battle to begin with. He used marijuana to self-medicate, but instead it magnified his problems.
When Danton was depressed those eyes that I adored would die. Every part of him shut down. He was like a walking corpse. He couldn’t help it. It was an illness, as physical as diabetes. Yes, his dark moods could be triggered by his father, by me, by any number of things, but they were just as often inexplicable.
Even at his worst, however, there was one week in a month when Danton was up, and that time made it all worthwhile. I lived for that week. I lived for the sight of him coming in the door at night with a bag of his favourite Kettle chips. He’d tramp in from a building job, covered in dirt, still wearing his boots, with a roll-your-own stuck to his lip. He’d come to bed with sawdust on him. All his jumpers were full of holes from welding. In the end I decided if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. I started wearing flannel shirts and boots too. He liked me natural, without make-up - I stopped wearing it. So long, Yohji! So long, Manolo! I was his Jen, darning his jumpers at night. No-one had ever been devoted to Danton like that and he craved devotion.
Once he’d dragged himself out of the pit he was always eager to show me that he loved me. When he said, ‘I love you’, he said it softly, with every part of his being, because he didn’t waste words. Danton was so sure of himself as a lover - he was my god-king. I was loved for every inch of my body and that nourished me. At times like those I believed we could get through anything, that there was nothing I couldn’t do to make it right, that we would stay together until the end of time. For all our problems, this was a great love story.
ROSLYN RUSSELL: And it’s a great creative partnership as well - I went to Jenny’s house when we did the interview for the Eternity gallery - and the house that Danton created for Jenny at Hat Hill Road, Blackheath is a masterpiece. It is a beautifully made house. Jenny calls it her ‘gal’ house, a galvanised iron house. It is the most wonderful creation and is a lasting tribute to Danton’s creativity and craftsmanship. He was a craftsman artist.
JENNY KEE: Michael and Mirka all brought out the artist in me, and I brought out the artist in Danton. At this time of my life I was taking a back seat. Actually the new Home Beautiful magazine contains nine pages of the house. It’s a lovely spread. It was such a joy to work with him. His mantra was ‘live simply so others can simply live’ and that was Danton. We took down over 200 pines and holly bushes and we turned the property into a bush-scape. Now that he is not here - he committed suicide in 2001 - I decided that I wasn’t going to run from that house. That was the house that we had built together with our love.
The pain that I suffered - Granville was one thing - this was something else but I wasn’t going to run. I opened The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying and it became like my bible. I had had that book for 10 years but I didn’t read it. But when Danton committed suicide, I could not stop reading it. It gave me relief from the pain I was in. I am not in pain any more. Buddhism, which I had been introduced to a lot earlier, has helped me enormously. That sort of suffering was so hard for so many years because I lost my Mum six months after Danton. But there was such blessings in his death in some ways. I didn’t shut down; I opened my heart. The lamas and teachers that I met from engaging in Tibetan Buddhism put me on the path of transforming something.
One incredible teacher looked into my eyes with such kindness and said, ‘When you think of Danton and his pain, don’t just think of him, think of all the young men in the world that are suffering this pain.’ That was the key for me really understanding compassion, for not seeing it as my pain and my Danton left, but as a universal suffering. It took it out of my pain into just being the pain of humanity. It was a huge awakening for me to understand the path of transforming this suffering and to sitting with it, not to move from it, not to run, not to go and get another house and live somewhere else and start another life again. I sat with it. Sometimes I couldn’t even move all day; just to get up and stoke the fire. But I did it and I am proud of it.
I am a girl who experiences things. I just say to you all: keep your heart open - it doesn’t matter whether it is Tibetan Buddhism or whatever - keep your heart open. It is the greatest thing that I have learnt, and I really believe that I have kept my heart open. Now I have this amazing little grandchild in my life that keeps my heart very open because it is ‘Kee-Kee, what are you doing?’ and follows me around like a bad smell but she is the biggest joy. I can see a lot of white hairs here and I know we all have grandchildren but, my goodness me, the joy that that little girl has brought into my life. The lamas, the Tibetan teachers - the combination of them and Grace have got me to where I am now six years later, and my creative self is alive.
I am raring to go. You are going to see a lot of my designs coming out. I can’t talk about it but it’s really exciting. I feel humbled for the experiences I have had in the 60 years of my life. I have one beautiful scarf that I have just designed. I just want to show it to you because I am so excited. It’s the first scarf I have done. I have done it for my Tibetan teacher that has a program in Cambodia educating the young girls of the sex trade, some as young as five. I feel it’s a very worthwhile thing that I am able to do my very first design after producing my book and to give it out. You see, things aren’t for me any more. I am very proud of it and I would love to show it to you because you might want to purchase one. I had to do it in black and white because it is like my life - up and down, black and white. The organisation is called Lotus Outreach. One design is like my white waratah and it is morphing into lotuses, which is a little indication of where I am heading. I just wanted to show you so you can enjoy and know that Kee-Kee is back again in the world of design. Thank you very much everyone.
ROSLYN RUSSELL: I am sure you will all agree that that was a most powerful emotional experience. Every time I read and hear Jenny’s story I have the same response. I can’t believe that anyone can be so open and so generous with their emotions and their experiences. Thank you, Jenny, for an extraordinary rendition of your life story. Those of you who want to read more, and I am sure you all do, the book is called A Big Life and as you can see it has been a very big life. There is vastly more in Jenny’s story than she’s been able to convey today.
JENNY KEE: I can’t tell you all in an hour.
ROSLYN RUSSELL: Thank you very much, Jenny, for sharing your story with us and for sharing the story with the entire country of Australia in the Eternity gallery of the National Museum, because that story is going to be there for people to come and see for years to come and to experience one of our great Australian women.
GABRIELLE HYSLOP: It is my great pleasure to thank both Ros and Jenny for an extraordinary morning. I am sure you will agree we had the most amazing time. At the National Museum we like to tell stories but I don’t think I have ever experienced a story quite like this one.
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Date published: 29 October 2007