Easton-Cook’s War, or The Man Who Never Was Part 3: 1941-1942

Part 2 told how in 1940 the Australian Army’s Military Intelligence Directorate continued to employ Easton-Cook as an agent – as did the Japanese Consulate. By late 1941 his activities as an intelligence operative were almost over; nevertheless he would trade on them for the rest of the war, easily evading the attempts of the military authorities to conscript him.

By 1941 the fact that Easton-Cook was conspicuously failing to engage in the war effort was starting to prompt a string of anonymous denunciations to the authorities.

One, signed by ‘Wellwisher’ on 2 June 1941, sets the tone: ‘It is my duty to notify you of a person who I think should bear investigation … he claims to have been in the Navy, but has never been seen in uniform … he spends much time in the Australia Hotel … continually in conversation with Air Force and Army officers.’  In another such letter, the informant said that Easton-Cook had had told him that he was learning Japanese but even more damningly, the author knew that Easton-Cook’s mother had ‘coloured blood in her veins’.

But to Easton-Cook, anonymous denunciations like this were just water off a duck’s back: he would keep up this lifestyle for years. And this is what fascinates about Easton-Cook: the flagrancy with which he avoided not just war service, but even anything resembling real work.

Throughout 1942, when the Japanese threat to Australia was at its height and Sydney in a state of panic-stricken siege, Easton-Cook’s nominal occupation was manager of his Newsreel Theatrette at 85 Darlinghurst Road Kings Cross – but this didn’t take up much of his time. The intelligence agencies devoted considerable effort to trying to find out exactly what it was that Easton-Cook did do, but all they could come up with was that he spent a lot his time in pubs, telling anyone who would listen that he’d had a sensational relationship with the Japanese Consulate (now closed after the outbreak of the Pacific War), that he had worked for intelligence, and that he was just about to be called up into the Navy.

In fact, he was working himself up to get married.

Easton-Cook’s theatrette started to attract attention. In April 1942 an angry member of the public complained about a display of Japanese books in the foyer. When investigators from the Commonwealth Security Service (CSS – a new federal intelligence organisation which had taken over the functions of MPI) called at the theatrette they found Easton-Cook’s sister Joyce, who had evidently been well briefed by him. She stated that she was the manager and she denied any knowledge of her brother’s whereabouts, saying that ‘as far as she was aware’ he was ‘in the Navy’. The CSS ‘were not impressed with Miss Cook’s attitude’.

The CSS stepped up its efforts to track down Easton-Cook. In June the Navy, responding to an inquiry from the CSS, said that while Easton-Cook had formerly passed on some information to them, he ‘is not, and was never at any time, a member of the Australian Naval Forces’. Then in August the CSS finally ran Easton-Cook to ground in his theatrette, where he ‘made extravagant claims concerning the value of information he had supplied to Naval Intelligence’. Next, the CSS grilled the landlady of the boarding house where he lived, who said that she thought he was a suspicious character. When asked why, she said it was because he stayed out all night, kept Japanese books in his room, and was continually saying he was just about to be called up into the Navy.

In September the CSS interviewed a man who had been an interested observer of the construction of the theatrette in Darlinghurst Road. According to him, Easton-Cook had ‘financed the venture by not paying any of the Contractors. Subsequently the builder commenced proceedings and he was finally paid by Easton-Cook’s mother … The mother and daughter are now running the show … Easton-Cook is a complete rogue who would do anything for money …’

By October 1942, the CSS decided that Easton-Cook was of sufficient interest to put him under continual surveillance. A team of watchers found that by day, he frequented ‘the William Hotel, William Street … often in the company of Military or Naval personnel …’ According to the publican of the William Hotel, Easton-Cook ‘frequently boasted of his intimacy with the Japanese and his knowledge of Japan’ – although by now Military Intelligence had ascertained that his command of Japanese was actually ‘negligible’.

His nights also followed a pattern: he would arrive at his Darlinghurst Road theatrette in the early evening and then, after the cinema had closed, go on to a flat in Rose Bay ‘accompanied by a young woman … These premises were kept under observation until an early hour in the morning but he was not seen to leave’. The CSS report concluded on a somewhat defensive note: despite this intensive surveillance, it had been unable to ‘definitely establish where Easton-Cook’s (political) sympathies lie’.

But the CSS didn’t give up. They kept in touch with his landlady, who on 15 December told them her boarding house was positively alive with rumours that Easton-Cook’s enlistment in the Navy was now absolutely imminent. Another source told the CSS how Easton-Cook had persuaded a ‘young lady’ to go to a party with him by using the argument that he would be conscripted into the Navy on 17 December – and so that it was her patriotic duty to make his last days as a civilian as pleasant as she could. And in fact on 17 December Easton-Cook did do something – but it wasn’t to join the Navy.

Rather, he got married to a Miss Jill Scouller, she of the Rose Bay flat, who – in what would later become a significant detail – had been working for him as an usherette. The couple went off on honeymoon to Kiama. The Commissioner of NSW Police William MacKay, who had served briefly as head of the CSS and thus had a personal interest in Easton-Cook, instructed the Kiama Police to keep an eye on the couple. The Police observed that the newlyweds had ‘put in most of their time fishing from the rocks’, but had been unable to find any evidence of their ‘having acted in a subversive manner’.

Mr and Mrs Easton-Cook had become exemplars of one the most striking statistical spikes in Australian social history. A lot of things happened in 1942 – the Fall of Singapore, the Kokoda Trail – but it was also the year of Peak Marriage. In that year Australia’s crude marriage rate – the number of marriages per 1,000 people – hit 12, the highest ever recorded (in 2017 it was 4.6). As a result there would be a spike in divorces at the war’s end and once again, Mr and Mrs Easton-Cook would be on trend.

The CSS again concluded their coverage of Easton-Cook for the year on a puzzled, defensive note: ‘it is difficult to comprehend how (Easton-Cook) has so far evaded military service’.

They hadn’t seen anything yet.

Next: Easton-Cook dodges the bullets

(Nick Hordern is the co-author, with Michael Duffy, of two histories of the Sydney underworld: ‘Sydney Noir’, which covers 1966-1972; and ‘World War Noir’, which covers 1939-1945. Both are published by NewSouth Publishing.)

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