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Beware - names will be dropped!

Suzanne Donisthorpe

I guess you are all here because of the title of this session and you want salacious gossip. There can be no other explanation. So here are two names that you will all know that I can drop: Jerry Hall and Jeffrey Smart.

I met Jerry Hall when she was still young and single- 2 years ago, before her unbelievable decision to marry the Lizard King. She was here to play Mrs Robinson in a production of the Graduate and I was interviewing her for Books and Arts on Radio National. We met at a hotel room in the Docklands where she was staying. She had just done an interview with Virginia Triolli for TV so there were a dozen people buzzing around. Then they all left, including Ms Hall who wanted a moment to prepare. That’s the kind of interviewer I am.

So I was left alone in the sumptuous room for about 20 minutes- I took a bottle of water from the mini bar, I used the fancy hand soap and I bounced on the bed, as you do. I also kept looking at myself in the mirror because of course I was fretting about what I was wearing. It had taken me hours to decide on the basic black I ended up in.

Eventually she arrived, wearing jeans and a purple jumper. I looked far more glam!

She’s tall but not as tall as you’d think and she really should reconsider the blonde. By the way- she’s not that old either – she’s two years older than me.

We sat down and she was as charming as cherry pie as she told me the story of her beloved grand- parents who were chicken farmers and her twin sister Terry Kaye- she’s Jerry Faye. Apparently Terry is in real estate these days and is obviously not the evil twin.

Anyway she talked about Mick and their kids and modelling and acting and Mrs Robinson and we had a fine old time. But the thing that really impressed me was the fact her two front teeth cross slightly. She must have had some balls to resist pressure to have her teeth fixed all those years of being a super-model.

And my theory of the whole Mrs Murdoch thing? She is a Texan- the folks who invented Texas Holdem. It’s a pretty sure bet that she will be the last Mrs Murdoch- so last wife standing takes all.

Jeffrey Smart was in Melbourne a few years ago and he was scheduled to do an interview with Julie Copeland. Julie had been at the ABC for many years and was a bit of a legend.

I was producing her - which means she did 45 minute interviews and I cut them to the 15 minutes of allocated air time.

Anyway Julie was very excited to be interviewing Jeffrey, and met him with lots of enthusiasm and mentioned that she had been at his house in Tuscany- where a lot of Australians have stayed apparently. He looked right through her and said- no he couldn’t remember.

Poor Julie. Then she asked him about the haunted surreal figures in his landscapes- were they an embodiment of the existential despair of the 20th century? Pause. No says Jeffrey- they are there for scale. And on it went, he was difficult talent as we say.

When the interview ended, he came up to me and said he needed to get to a luncheon in Sth Melb

- could I drive him? – I said yes- my car is in the carpark next to the ABC. Why not?

So in we get, last minute- Julie Copeland piles in the back, desperate to be invited to lunch. I have a collection of superheroes and creatures with bouncing heads on my dashboard. Jeffrey looks at me as says- “you’re a very strange girl”. I drive in my usual manner, quite fast. After one tight corner, he looks at me again and says with quite a bit of admiration- You dive like a Roman!

Of course when we get to the house, Julie is left in the back seat like a sad puppy. Mean old Jeffrey. 

It was lots of fun at the ABC- I started in the good old days before the internet- I had a typewriter but no computer, there was no email and we cut tape with razor blades and white chalk.

I started my career at the ABC working on a 30 minute daily comedy show called Kaboom with Wendy Harmer and Laura Waters – who went on to be the super producer behind the Chris Lilley phenomenon.

I’d been there two days and I was sent to record a monologue with Campbell  McComas.

I was still working in public radio doing the union program- the Stick Together show- and here I was working alternate days on Kaboom.- So my week went Monday-  Stick Together- Tues – Kaboom. Wed Stick Together… Thurs - Kaboom etc..

Anyway, I’d recorded hundreds of intvs on tape at 3CR so of course I didn’t need an operator to help me. When I listened back to start cutting the tape for air- there was nothing there.

 Holy crap. I thought my ABC career had gone Kaboom before it even started. 

Then Wendy pipes up- “You didn’t record Campbell-? Really? 

“Fantastic”- she says “that will really piss him off. Well done Suzanne”  I was in.

When I first worked with Robert Dessaix on Books and Writing- my next gig after Kaboom exploded (not my fault- another story) he was very cold and supercilious. He ordered me to go out and get a new diary so being a good public radio girl I found a very cheap one on sale. He looked at it like I’d brought in some piece of utter trash and actually sniffed. I found out that Books and Writing had an artist fee budget that was more than my entire salary at 3CR and it was to pay other people to do the work. You got paid as well and the ABC footed the phone bills! Luxury.

Anyway- all would have been lost with Robert until the moment he lit up a cigarette at his desk. So bugger it, I thought- if he can- so can I. So I lit up, and we were buddies ever after. He was lovely to work with and so funny, but he always made me cut out any jokes on air, which I thought was a shame. Anyway- he left after being diagnosed with HIV years ago and Ramona Koval – at my suggestion - took his place.

And Robert as you know, went on to become a much respected author and  is still writing books and living in Tasmania. And Ramona is another story that the laws of defamation prevent me from telling.

It was a great gig- I was part of every books and arts program ever re-invented for 23 years.

 I worked with wonderful people and some real divas- a dear colleague and friend of mine, coined the phrase Diva Wrangling as our job description- which in some instances was very apt.

And so it went until the end of 2014 – just after I’d recorded a wonderful interview with Roger Moore (yes 007 himself) - name dropper!

We were all brought into a meeting to be told the news that the writing was on the wall and one of the Books and Arts team had to go. And it had to be one of the senior producers, because you only have to pay a junior producer three bananas and a peanut – therefore you can get two young ones for the price of one old one.

So it was either me or another producer, who had been there even longer than me, but had managed to win a Walkley award. So I went to HR and looked at my options. They told me what they’d pay me. I gasped. And then I signed on the dotted line. I went home and got into a bath filled with bubbles and fifty dollar notes and posted my photo on Facebook.

Of course, its not all champagne and fun. Losing your job is tough. Even though people were lovely when I left and on my last day, they applauded me as I left the building, it still hurt.

So 2015 dawned- there were other reasons why I decided to take the redundancy.

My daughter is doing VCE and my mum was getting more and more frail. When she told me that she was sick of being sick, that she was tired of struggling, and wanted to come home and die, I said that I would nurse her. Without a job to go to, suddenly you have acres of time.

So we brought Mum home and became the palliative care squad. She took herself off her medication and the doctors prescribed valium and endone. Then we put her in a proper hospital bed in the sun filled room my brother had designed out the back of her house looking over her beloved garden. Her little dog could sit on the bed anytime she liked.

My sister in law and I did the nursing, my sister, the caterer provided the food. The boys ran errands and cracked the bad jokes. Mum wrote a list of all the people she wanted to say goodbye to and they came to visit over the course of the weeks as she slowly got weaker and started to drift away.

She organised for herself a 5 star death. And having the time to be there and help her do what she wanted to do, was really something.

Well we buried Mum late last year and since then we have been busy with all the things that you have to do when someone passes away.

In the meantime, I’d started volunteering at the ASRC refugee kitchen, which is a lot of fun and gives something to do and people to do it with. I met the Persian Dream Team, the volunteer members who come to kitchen and are not only gorgeous but are wizards in the kitchen.

One of them, a young man called Abbas, asked me to teach him English, which I’ve been doing ever since. I’ve also employed him to help me paint my house and Mum’s house too. Now he is a part of the family. We call him Chef.

So painting with Chef kept me busy for a few months after Mum’s death, and last Dec, Frank my husband and Grace my daughter and I, spent a month wandering around Europe, staying in endless Airbnbs - which was wonderful, but I was dreading what would come next.

I was dreading those acres of time.

When I first left the ABC I went out to lunch a lot with all the women who I had formed friendships with over the years. I went out a lot, we had a lot of fun, but it began to pall, and it was costing me a bomb.

I came to realise lunch is actually not a career option.

Then a miracle happened.

Frank and I have a place up in Taradale near Castlemaine. We spend most weekends there and are pretty much involved in the community. Frank is a sculptor and he and I have been collaborating for a few years now, and he’s made a bit of a reputation for himself- and I help him think of concepts and apply for prizes and strategise and do the publicity etc-  but again, that’s not actually a career for me.

We were at the fabulous Lot 19 Sculpture prize in Castlemaine when two women approached us. They had been presenting ArtSwank- the art show on the local radio station Main FM - for three years and had had enough and would I be interested?

Hell yeah!

So that’s what I’m doing now- that and the kitchen - which is just wonderful. Central Victoria has more artists per square kilometre than anywhere on earth so there is an abundance of people for me to talk to. Also having worked with Frank over the years, we have established a real network so it just a pleasure to be back on air doing what I love which is talking to creative people.

They may not all be as famous as Jerry hall or Jeffrey Smart, but they have great things to say and Frank and I are having a ball.

I am also out of purgatory at the ABC- you can’t do work for 12 months after you accept a redundancy, so I am planning to pitch some stories to them too.

And finally-  as for money- well I’m old enough to get my ABC superannuation pension which gives me a small income for the rest of my life, but the redundancy payout got rid of the mortgage and we have just opened up our bungalow in Footscray to Airbnb which is going off like a frog in a sock and so now our house is full of gorgeous back packers who are bringing the world to us and adding to my bank balance and address book so that next time we travel, we will have plenty of people to meet up with. And Grace is doing well in school and that is truly wonderful.

So in short- I have – touch wood- got it made.  Thank you all for listening.

Suzanne produced every incarnation of the books and arts programs on ABC Radio National for more than 20 years before Tony Abbott made her an offer too good to refuse in early 2015. Her novel getting Up, featuring a week in the life of a 1980's Melbourne teenage graffiti artist was published under the nom de plume SD Thorpe in 2013. Suzanne also works in collaboration with her partner sculptor Frank Veldze and has just started broadcasting Artswank- her own arts radio program on (Castle) Maine FM.  

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