IN 1973, the club was going well. It was thought good to have a president who was well known, one who had the ability to attract top speakers. Pat Tennison managed to attract an impressive array of politicians, including Don Dunstan, Premier of South Australia; Rupert Hamer, Premier of Victoria; Gough Whitlam, Prime Minister; Don Chipp; Billy Snedden; and Bill Hayden.
The speakers list also included Sir Hugh Cudlipp, chairman of the International Publication Corporation, and of course, the power of the Daily Mirror. Pat had two cables from him reporting when he would arrive. Ultimately his plane was delayed, but, undeterred, Sir Hugh hired a helicopter to get to the lunch on time.
Eventually Patrick, the first president, retired. He had gone freelance in 1972 and there was a legendary line, which described him perfectly: "He made freelancing respectable. He is the only freelance journalist who can afford to go on holidays."
He was the first Melbourne producer for This Day Tonight on the ABC; he was producer for the Norman Banks TV Show; he was the morning announcer on 3AW for two years; he wrote for The Australian and, if this was not enough, he ran a journalism school for the Council of Adult Education for 20 years.
Patrick was a very heavy smoker. He loved his Temple Bar no-filter cigarettes. At 11am on 25 June 1988, he called his doctor and complained of pains in his chest and a feeling of pins and needles in his left arm. The doctor said: "Don't wait a minute, don't even call an ambulance. Get Olga to drive you straight to the hospital."
Pat's wife Olga didn't have the chance. He died of a massive heart attack while the doctor was still on the phone. He was 59, a few months short of his 60th birthday.
Rohan Rivett was the new president. The club was lucky to get him. He was one of Australia's most respected journalists. He was a war correspondent in Singapore when the Japanese captured him. He wrote one of Australia's most celebrated war books, Behind Bamboo.
Rohan was editor-in-chief of News Ltd in Adelaide for nine years. In 1960, he proved to be a little too radical for the 29-year-old Rupert Murdoch and was fired.
Rohan used to say: "Rupert came to me as a left-wing young graduate from Oxford. I was astonished how quickly Adelaide managed to change his opinions."
The club continued its eternal search for a permanent home: Hosies, the Graham and the View Room in the Fitzroy Gardens. When one looks back on it the deals struck were amazing.
The View Room gave Rohan a quote for the lunch on 18 March 1975. One could have veal and mushrooms, the smorgasbord of turkey, ham on the bone, and baked snapper, followed by chocolate mousse or cherry pie and cream, plus coffee for $3.50 a head. However, Rohan was not impressed. He thought the food was "poor".
The favourite eating place right through the 1970s and 1980s was the Venetian Court at the Hotel Australia, $5 a head and $6 for guests. This included red and white wine. The rule was one bottle of each for every table, but there was always more for the asking. Bruce Matear, the Australia's managing director, was unbelievably generous. His best chance was a small mention if there was a news story next day. Or if the event was on television, there was the hope that viewers might spot the Australia logo on the lectern.
There was shock, horror, in July 1974 when the Australia upped the price to $5.80. Rohan thought there was only one way around this. You couldn't expect poverty-stricken young journos to pay this price. So the cost to members remained at $5 and the fee for guests went up to cover the difference.
There was always the problem of making sure that members looked respectable, particularly for lunches at the Victorian Club. This notice raised a few eyebrows: "Victorian Club rules require jacket and tie. Women are not compelled to wear anything."
Rohan reported that Dr Bill Cook was badgering him "mercilessly" about doing a deal with the old University Club on the north side of Collins Street with the prospect of a permanent 24-hour lease. There was no chance; the club did not have enough money.
Rohan was president during 1974 and 1975. Keith Dunstan was president in 1976 and 1977. Keith, who wrote the column A Place in The Sun for The Sun News-Pictorial, was not a foundation member, but he came in on the first draft and he was number 22 on the books. Keith was a useful back up for Rohan, because he always knew who was coming to Melbourne and also every press secretary they could pressure into offering a choice speaker.
And there were some good speakers. One was Lang Hancock, the mining magnate, a tough speaker and a tough one to get to the podium. There were appeals, there were telegrams and the club had to endure at least three postponements. He heralded his actual arrival by sending a 24-page quarto brochure with a picture of himself on the cover, looking aggressive. Under the picture was the message:
"West Australia's future? Does Canberra leave us any alternative to secession?" Mr. Hancock made it clear that without WA, Australia's foreign earnings would be almost zero.
Neale Fraser on 17 September 1974, was wistful about all the money he might have earned had he been a professional. Why, young players these times could make a good living just by being first-round losers. He told us: "Last week there was a $50,000 tournament in New Jersey. They asked me to play. I said, I don't have the time.' They replied, 'We really want you to be with us.'
“They make use of your name. The fee for a first-round loser was $400. So I took a $10 taxi to New Jersey, played two strong sets, lost both, had a shower. I went and collected my $400, came back by bus and my day was over at 7 o'clock."
James Michener, perhaps the biggest selling American author of his time, spoke on 1 April 1976. He gave the wry comment, "If you ever write a book it's a good idea to have Rodgers & Hammerstein read it". Of course, he wrote the book Tales of the South Pacific. Rodgers & Hammerstein made him a fortune by turning it into the musical South Pacific.
Michener was on the U.S. Bicentennial Commission and he was getting ready for America's 200th birthday on 4 July. He remembered talking to a Sioux Indian about the 200 years of independence. The Indian replied contemptuously, "We've got a drum at home older than that."
Glenda Jackson on 4 March 1975, gave one of the best half hours. She announced she wouldn't give an address at all. She would just take questions. At first there was silence. She put her hands on her hips: "For God's sake ... Melbourne people are so shy. They call me Genghis Khan at the theatre because nobody comes to see me."
The first question, when it did come, was about the comparative merits of appearing on television or in the theatre. She detested TV, a most unsatisfactory medium.
"The cameras would be just as happy photographing each other," she said. Live theatre was her real love. She liked the immediacy of it.
As for the cinema, a classic example was the making of The Music Lovers. She had just been married to Tchaikovsky, alias Richard Chamberlain. "We are in this train," she said. "The carriage has no wheels and outside men are rocking it to give it the right action. I am rolling around on the floor, comparatively naked, as usual. There are bottles of champagne, glasses, ice bucket. And up in the luggage rack there’s a man with a hand held camera. The light is swinging all over the place. The champagne goes over, smashes the glasses, falls on me. Blood everywhere.
“The director shouts ‘Clean her up. Clean her up for God’s sake!’
“We start again. Luggage falls off the luggage rack. Falls on me. Bruises everywhere. ‘Clean her up,’ shouts the director."
“Ye-es,” added Miss Jackson, “the glamour of the cinema.”
Barry Humphries spoke to the club for the first time on 15 August 1974. It was the young Humphries, hair long, utterly unpredictable. He just talked, no notes, and revealed many things we hadn’t heard before. There was a desperate time when he had just failed his law course for the good reason, "I yawned my way through law, and I was more interested in revues."
He won a job with the EMI record company in Flinders Lane. "They put me in a room with no windows. My job was to break up the old, no longer saleable 78-rpm records. Heartbreak it was. Those beautiful records. I wanted to sneak away with piles of Mahler, Debussy, Sibelius and ... oh yes, Ronald Frankau and the Inkspots.
"I went at it with a sort of inane frenzy. An executive said I wasn't fast enough. 'Hit the record to the right of the hole,' he told me. There was something symbolic in that."
There was the time he first began to dress as Edna Everage. I approached well-ordered, well-behaved stores like Myer with fear. I would say, 'I need some clothes for my sister. She's sick in hospital so I have to buy for her.'
“ ‘What size, sir?’
"Well, oddly enough she's exactly the same size as me."
He tried the same routine in a shop in Oxford Street, London, and a girl with raised eyebrow replied, "Oh, don't worry dearie, all the boys buy clothes from us."
Top journalists such as Max Newton, Michelle Grattan and Laurie Oakes told their stories. Laurie Oakes was a brilliant observer of the Whitlam and Fraser governments. He had a lovely story about the Minerals and Energy Minister, Rex Connor, known as "The Strangler."
Laurie said that in September 1975 Rex Connor went into Canberra Hospital with bronchial trouble. Rex had a reputation for telling the press nothing, so Jim Scully, secretary of the Minerals and Energy Department, put a ban on all statements. The hospital was issuing bulletins about Mr Connor, but still the Connor men were issuing denials and saying he was home resting.
Finally, a desperate journalist telephoned Bob Sorby, Connor's press secretary, and asked, "Is it true that Mr Connor has been dead for five days?"
"I can't say," replied Sorby, "I'll have to call you back."
A celebrated guest speaker was Gough Whitlam. His first visit was on 16 March 1973. He made his address and said nothing that could possibly ruffle the headlines in the Saturday newspapers.
However, as he was speaking, one of his ministers was conducting a little activity that would not only make the headlines but would also appear on every poster in the nation. The club president, Pat Tennison, was the first to hear the news and broke it to Gough Whitlam. He said: "Did you know that Lionel Murphy just conducted a raid on ASIO headquarters?"
Whitlam was furious. "Where's the phone? Where's the phone?" he said.
Whitlam's next visit to the club was on 10 November 1975. It was an amazing coup to have him before the club's microphone on this day. His Government was reeling after a series of loan scandals.
The Liberal Opposition under Malcolm Fraser was making lethal use of its majority in the Senate. For several weeks it had refused to pass Supply, and it had just delivered its ultimatum. It would pass the Supply Bill if the Government agreed to an election within eight months. Whitlam haughtily refused.
At 12.45pm there was a huge crowd, plus a battery of photographers, waiting for him on the steps at the Hotel Australia. Footpaths on both sides of the road were filled.
One woman joined the crowd and asked: "Who are we waiting for?"
"The Prime Minister," was the reply.
"Oh, that scum," she fumed. But she waited just the same.
Whitlam arrived to what The Sun described as a moderately good reception. He received 80 per cent cheers and 20 per cent boos.
Alan Trengove, who reported the lunch for The Sun News-Pictorial, could not believe that this was the man who was in the centre of one of the greatest constitutional crises in Australia's history. Trengove said: "Mr Whitlam looked confident, relaxed, almost jubilant. On this form the Fraser connections will be hard put to nobble him." His speech was polished, but it made no reference to the Opposition and why it was refusing Supply.
The club tackled him with a constitutional crisis of a different kind. There was a photograph of him accepting a football guernsey from ruckman Polly Farmer, in honor of his becoming number one member at Geelong. Then there was a photograph of him taking another guernsey from Ray Gabelich at the Collingwood Football Club. What an act of perfidy or even vote-getting that he should swear allegiance to two clubs at the one time.
Whitlam said it was true he did accept a Geelong footy sweater from Polly Farmer. However, at Collingwood he only held the sweater in the air for the photographers and he did not become a member. If they would have him, he hoped to remain a member at Geelong. However, the real story came from Margaret Whitlam. She said: "Gough gets invited to become a member of football clubs all over the country." As for the guernseys, she said their daughter loved to wear them.
Whitlam's happy mood continued. He went out to Broadmeadows to lay the foundation stone of the Broadmeadows Club, and that night he went to the Lord Mayor's Ball where he actually met Malcolm Fraser. They shook hands together for the photographers.
Next morning at 11.45 Whitlam was summoned to Government House where the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, gave him the news that he was sacked. At 12.45pm Malcolm Fraser went to Government House where Sir John Kerr appointed him as the caretaker Prime Minister.
After this the club developed a reputation for the political kiss of death. Talk to the Melbourne Press Club and you might be out of office the next day.
Gough Whitlam attracted a record 250 to his lunch. Malcolm Fraser, as the stand-in Prime Minister waiting for a coming election, spoke to the club on 2 December 1975. He scored 214 for lunch.
This is an excerpt from Informed Sources, written in 1991 by former Club president and legendary columnist Keith Dunstan.
The online version has been updated by Rick Swinard, a former corporate affairs manager of the Herald & Weekly Times, chief of staff of The Herald in Melbourne and Managing Editor of the Christchurch Star.