In Part 3 we learnt how, despite the intelligence agencies having severed their relations with him, Easton-Cook had continued to claim a connection with them as an excuse to avoid joining the armed services. Throughout 1942 he had been thriving as the proprietor of his Kings Cross theatrette, and in December that year he had married a woman who had worked there as an usherette.
As Kenneth Easton-Cook settled down to enjoy married life, the authorities became increasingly exercised over his evasion of military service.
During World War II the lives of Sydneysiders were subject to an unprecedented degree of control by a militarised bureaucracy. This bureaucracy used a language which, grotesque though it was, wielded power of life and death over people – it could, for example, send them to a combat zone, or an internment camp. Because its eyewatering terminology was such a characteristic feature of wartime life, in recounting the following brief episode from the authorities’ struggle with Easton-Cook, I use the words that were used at the time.
In early January 1943 agent 111 of the Commonwealth Security Service (CSS) reported that they had asked the Army Area Officer of Area 1A, in which Easton-Cook lived, why they had not yet succeeded in compelling him to enlist for military service. The Army Area Officer’s reply was that Easton-Cook ‘was a hard man to contact’. One month later Easton-Cook’s former employers, Military Intelligence (MI), took the matter up with the Area Officer’s superior, the D.A.A.G. (R & M). In turn, this functionary referred the matter to the Area Brigade Major of the 9th Australian Brigade Area, who replied that ‘as the M.P.O. has a slight recollection of interviewing the U.S.P. (Easton-Cook) and the U.S.P. stated that he lodged an A.A.F. Mob. 40, we will at this stage have to give the U.S.P. the benefit of the doubt …’
Translated, this meant Easton-Cook had outwitted the system.
Then the Army moved decisively to conscript him. This time they failed because the newly wed Mr & Mrs Easton-Cook had moved from Rose Bay to Elizabeth Bay, which was in a different area for the Army’s administrative purposes. This move resulted in a three-week delay before a final, irrevocable call-up notice was sent to Easton-Cook. But as luck would have it, on the very day his call-up letter was sent out the Army received official advice: as Easton-Cook was the ‘Manager and projectionist’ of the Newsreel Theatrette, ‘thereof he comes within the exemption from Military Service provided in Circ. 58 (c)’. Translated, this meant that the showing of patriotic newsreels served a propaganda purpose important enough to keep him out of uniform.
The Australian Army gave up its unequal struggle with Kenneth Easton-Cook.
But not the spooks, who had gone from being Easton-Cook’s patrons to something like his enemy. In June 1943 the CSS reported that Easton-Cook was still ‘generally carrying on pro-Japanese activities’. If he were to be investigated anew, they argued, ‘possibly sufficient grounds will be found to justify the issuing of a restriction order’ – which would limit his movements. So they looked again and found that while Easton-Cook claimed to be the projectionist at the theatrette, in fact he ‘only rarely’ went near the machine. In fact there were three other men of military age claiming to operate it – all presumably claiming exemption from military service on those grounds. Of Easton-Cook’s general demeanour, the CSS reported ‘he is very suspicious and appears to be expecting to be “shadowed” at all time’. It was all very suspicious, and given his pro-Japanese record the CSS recommended that Easton-Cook be removed ‘from the coast line area to a district where he would not be in a position to obtain information of Naval or Military importance’.
The national security justification for such action was pretty thin, but what really got up the spooks’ nose was that while ‘absent from his theatrette for the major part of the day (Easton-Cook) spends considerable time in the William Hotel and other hotels in the Darlinghurst district’. His refusal to join in the war effort was just too flagrant, and so the authorities planned to resort to their extraordinary wartime powers to punish his behavior which, even if it could not be shown to be actually illegal or treasonable or a threat to national security, was nevertheless outrageously unpatriotic. And at this point Easton-Cook’s file falls silent, but there’s no record of him being either conscripted or exiled from Sydney.
We conclude the Easton-Cook saga for 1943 with a mention of Joyce Easton-Cook, who in 1942 had covered for her brother when the CSS had come in search of him at the theatrette. In March she had sailed to Canada on her way to the United States, where she was to marry her American fiancé, who lived in San Francisco. But when she got there she found out he was already married. Poor Joyce. To add insult to injury, the CSS deemed that as an ‘alleged Japanese associate’, her brother was such a contaminating influence that Joyce was compromised by her association with him, and thus a security risk herself. They warned the Canadian authorities to keep her under surveillance.
Probably the low point in Kenneth Easton-Cook’s otherwise very good war came at 3 a.m. on 23 June 1945. This was the moment when his wife Jill turned up, with a group of male supporters, at his theatrette, where he had wooed her. One of her friends broke into the building, opened the front door, and the group went upstairs to the office where they found Easton-Cook on a makeshift bed with one of his current usherettes. Her dress, which was draped over a nearby chair, was seized by the posse.
As well as obtaining this evidence, his wife took another sensible precaution: when suing for divorce she retained Harold Munro, the celebrity criminal lawyer who represented criminals like Tilly Devine. When the case came to court Mrs Easton-Cook said in evidence ‘he only had a collar and tie and a shirt on … the girl had on a cardigan – that was all’, whereupon Munro brandished the usherette’s dress – inevitably, it was red. This was the clincher: Easton-Cook didn’t contest the divorce.
Easton-Cook remained a Kings Cross identity, seemingly thriving, for three decades. He married again in 1949 but his new wife left him almost immediately, and later he married for a third time. He had political connections with the hard Left: a friendship with the radical unionist Jim Healy saw him awarded the franchise to show the 1955 documentary ‘The Hungry Mile’, produced by the Waterside Workers Federation, from which he made an £800 profit. In 1961 ASIO noted his theatrette was showing a Soviet propaganda film. Then in 1974 he was injured in the hit-and-run accident on New South Head Road which he said was an assassination attempt by ASIO. Easton-Cook retired to Condoblin and died in 1987.
Plenty of Australians evaded military service in WWII; we only know Easton-Cook was one of them because he couldn’t stop telling everyone about how clever he was.
Next and final part: Easton-Cook – writing the history
(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.)