They met when both were working in the Commonwealth Bank in the 1930s. Alan became a writer for the Argus, the Australasian Post and much later an art critic for the Melbourne Herald for 30 years. In New York he crafted her wedding ring out of cigarette paper and wire, which Susan and Emily treasure. “I’d much prefer being given this instead of some huge diamond ring,” says Emily as she opens the pink velvet box where this delicate organic sculpture lies. “I just love jewellery. I mean, look at that!” We both sigh as the light drifts through the large windows into this wonderful Whistlewood space in Shoreham surrounded by books and art. The home was left to both of them by Ellen, who bought it herself. Hard to imagine when you know from where this stylish beauty came, but this smart bird had entrepreneurial instincts, the guts to pursue them and the grunt to see her vision through to fruition where others may have failed.
Ellen, or Ella as she was known on stage and will be known henceforth, was born in Footscray on August 12, 1908. Both her parents were dead by the time she was 18 and she went to live with an aunt who proceeded to pilfer all her worldly goods. She began performing in her 20s and loved to sing, play the piano and act. Susan explains. “She was very serious about acting. She did Shakespeare and musicals while she worked in the Commonwealth Bank in town. She performed with the Cairns Memorial Players. She met her first husband, the US-based Tobias Moscovitz, who was a businessman, around this time. He had lost all his family in the Holocaust and she had lost hers. She was living in various places in Melbourne with her piano when she was performing.”
Emily joins in. “She always had her piano. I think she moved around 20 times and she always took her piano with her.” Much laughter falls between us and on to the table to caress the photos full of love, laughter, bike-riding and ladies’ lunches in all their visual glory spread out before us.
“She lived in a house in Port Melbourne for a while and shared a car with 18 other people,” continues Susan. “Times were tough back then and she had very little money. I think it was called the Green Monster . . . I’m not sure, but I know they ventured down to Sorrento in that car.”
It was when Ella was performing on stage that she was ‘discovered’ and given a role in the 1934 Centenary Films black and white 56-minute film called Secret of the Skies. Filmed in the Kinglake Ranges near Melbourne and in Cinesound’s new studio in St Kilda and to be distributed by Universal, it received bad reviews. Susan continues. “It didn’t do very well, unfortunately, but when she married Toby she moved to America and did try out in Hollywood, which she later described as the ‘den of sin’.” And the laughter begins. “That’s when she realised acting wasn’t for her. She had great principles and was interested in politics, art, literature and music. When she went to the cinema and they used to play those Nazi propaganda movies, she’d stand up and state, ‘This is not on!’ and leave the cinema. She was never afraid to voice her opinions.”
As a businesswoman, Ella worked for mentor Elizabeth Arden and set up salons across the US. She was also a Red Cross nurse. She came back to Australia for a while but returned to the States with Alan hotly pursuing her. “Dad chased after her back to America and they drove across the country together. He wrote two travelogues: the first was called Highway 40, about the trip across America, and the second was titled Trial by Tandem, which was inspired by the tandem bicycle ride they made from Paris to Positano. Mum had me in London when she was 41 years old. We came to Shoreham when I was two in 1951, but I think it was a difficult adjustment for her here — but she was saved by some great local friends who became lifelong soulmates. We also had heaps of international and Australian artists, writers, musicians, dancers and other stimulating people visiting. Dad had returned to look after his mother and Mum would listen to the ABC on the radio all day and argue out loud. She was part of the music society and had concerts in people’s houses.”
“She also loved feminist and Australian literature, which she introduced to me,” says Emily.
“I had two sets of godparents — Dorothy and Oscar Hammerstein and war correspondent William Winter. Mum was an adventurer and had a strong belief in equality for all. She loved anything to do with culture,” Susan concludes.
The gift she’s passed on to the two remaining generations of determined McCulloch ladies making their way in the world from deep within Whistlewood.