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A Bohemian Wife: The Life and Death of Olga Penton

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 February 2016

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Olga Penton died of heart failure at her home in Sydney one evening in 1973. She was found the next morning sitting upright in an armchair, with a plate of cold chicken half-eaten on her lap, a knowing smile on her face, and looking a lot younger than her 76 years. This is an image that captures the cheerful stoicism of her last twenty years of life. Fifty years earlier, another sedentary image captures an earlier self: the image is of Olga sitting naked in a bath, presiding over an intellectual salon of writers and free-thinkers in the Brisbane flat she was sharing with her new husband, Brian Penton. It is hard to be sure whether this second image exactly corresponds to reality — neither of my informants was personally present at any of the bathroom salons, and both reported them as a spicy rumour rather than an observed fact — but whether true or not, we can say that the rumour expresses the ambience of intellectual sophistication and sexual daring that seems to have surrounded her at the time.

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1 My informants were Miss Kathleen Campbell-Brown (interviewed Brisbane 1986) and Mr Jack Kenny, a Courier colleague of Brian Penton's in the 1920s (interviewed Sydney, 1987).

2 Olga, Penton MS, Brian Penton Papers, UQFL 230, Fryer Memorial Library, University of Queensland.

3 Galmahra, August 1924.

4 Penton Papers, UQFL 230. School records, New England Girls’ School, Armidale.

5 Penton Papers, UQFL 230.

6 Kirkpatrick, Peter, The Seacoast of Bohemia: Literary Life in Sydney's Roaring Twenties (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1993).

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7 See Hatherell, William, The Third Metropolis: Imagining Brisbane Through Art and Literature 1940–1970 (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2007), 1–12.

8 The MusesMagazine: A Monthly Review of the Musical, Artistic, Literary and Intellectual Life of Queensland (Hall of the Muses, George Street, Brisbane), 1 (1 November 1927): 1.

9 Galmahra, May 1924.

10 FL MS 5/317, University of Queensland.

11 Telephone interview with Professor A.K. Thomson, Brisbane, July 1987.

12 This paragraph draws on Lindsay, Jack, Life Rarely Tells: An Autobiography in Three Volumes (Ringwood: Penguin, 1982), 127–35; and Craig Munro, Wild Man of Letters: The Story of P.R. Stephensen (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1984), 12–28.

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13 Rickards, Jocelyn, The Painted Banquet (London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1987), 12.

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14 The drawing was at one time in the possession of Mrs Joan Burke (formerly Joan Lindsay, Ray's widow), but its whereabouts are currently unknown. Interview with Joan Burke, 1987.

15 The source of this information is not Olga's extensive correspondence — all of which, unfortunately, has been lost, with the exception of some business correspondence in the 1960s — but rather interviews with her friends and relatives, and her husband's daily column, ‘The Sydney Spy’, in the Telegraph in 1933–35.

16 These figures are drawn from a privately compiled index of the Red Page which is currently in the author's possession.

17 Information from the James Branch Cabell Library website, Virginia Commonwealth University,

18 I refer to the London Aphrodite, the radical cultural magazine published by the Fanfrolico Press and edited by Jack Lindsay, P.R. Stephensen and later the Pentons. This was mainly billed as an alternative to the London Mercury, but its livelier American counterpart was also often mentioned, and Norman Lindsay, then and later, often referred to Brian Penton as potentially ‘an Australian Mencken’.

19 This novel also exists only in typescript (Penton Papers, UQFL 230). Entitled ‘Outrageous Fortune’ (or in an earlier version, ‘Waste Paper'), it circulated quite widely as a bound typescript in Sydney in the late 1920s, but was never published, though both Brian and Olga tried very hard to find outlets for their novels in London, through the literary agent Curtis Brown. Letters of Norman Lindsay, ed. R.G. Howarth and A.W. Barker (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1979), 263. See also Philip Lindsay, I'd Live the Same Life Over (London: Hutchinson, 1943), 115.

20 Carl Van Vechten is probably best remembered today as the author of a popular and controversial early novel about the Harlem Renaissance, Nigger Heaven (1926). This aspect of Van Vechten's work does not seem to have interested Olga.

21 Telephone interview with Angus McLachlan, October 1991.

22 We Prometheans’, MS, 134ff. Penton Papers, UQFL 230.

23 A disgruntled member of the House, for example, read into Hansard in 1927 the charge that Penton's ‘wife supplied the wit, while he put in the venom’. Commonwealth of Australia, Parliamentary Debates, vol. 116, First Session of the Tenth Parliament (Third Period), 26 October, 1927, 767.

24 For sympathetic and unsympathetic descriptions, respectively, of Penton's ‘effeminate’ and ‘feline’ qualities, see Donald Horne, Confessions of a New Boy (Ringwood: Penguin, 1985) and David McNicoll, Luck's a Fortune: An Autobiography (Melbourne: Sun Books, 1980).

25 Lindsay, Life Rarely Tells, 652–53.

26 Interview with Marion Miller, 1987.

27 Interview with Elizabeth Riddell, 1987.

28 Interview with Enid Parsons, 1987.

29 Interview with Zélie Macleod, 1988.

30 Griffen-Foley, Bridget, The House of Packer: The Making of a Media Empire (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1999), 153.

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31 Interview with Zélie Macleod, 1987.

32 Buckridge, Patrick, The Scandalous Penton: A Biography of Brian Penton (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1994), viii.

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