Shanghai Demimondaine: Wartime Brisbane

This is the 3rd of three excerpts celebrating the recent publication of Shanghai Demimondaine. It is is published by Earnshaw Books and you can find out more about all Nick Hordern’s works here.

(After eight years abroad, Lorraine Murray returned to Australia in late 1939. She was intending to stay for only a few months, but because of the outbreak of World War II she was unable to return to China. She was devastated at being cut off from the people she regarded as her Shanghai family, particularly her great friend the American writer Emily Hahn. However, in the following years Lorraine  gradually accustomed to the austere conditions of wartime Australia, including the necessity of regular employment …)

In mid-1943 Lorraine made a fresh start, moving north to Brisbane and going back to work for the American Army.

Of all Australian cities, Brisbane was the most affected by World War II. During its course over two million service and civilian personnel passed through the city: mainly Americans but British, Dutch, Indonesians, Canadians and Chinese as well as men and women from all over Australia. When Lorraine arrived, there were over seventy thousand Americans in and around the city, about one for every five Australians – ten times the ratio in Sydney. Twenty five thousand Australian civilians, many of them women, were employed in clerical, administrative and labouring jobs in support of the Allied military.

Quiet, provincial Brisbane had never seen anything like it. Wartime aphrodisia was rampant, the black market ubiquitous, opium and amphetamines freely available. Prostitutes and criminals flocked to the city. There was an explosion of Chinese restaurants, jitterbug competitions shook the dancehalls, and illegal gambling rooms popped up everywhere. The artist Donald Friend, terminally disenchanted with Army life, had been posted to a disciplinary labouring unit in Brisbane as punishment for continually going absent without leave. Friend, who was gay, described his experience in the city as being one of ‘too much drink and sex and general promiscuity’. This was not the outcome his infuriated commanding officer had looked for, but it bears out that for a while, Brisbane was the liveliest place in Australia.

The party began in mid – 1942, when General MacArthur had moved his General Headquarters to Brisbane, taking over the top floor of the AMP Building on Edward Street. For living accommodation he and his senior aides moved into Lennon’s, Brisbane’s newest hotel. The Americans requisitioned buildings and vacant land all over the city: Victoria Park, on the city’s northern outskirts, became the site of Camp Victoria, an administrative and accommodation complex occupied by the United States Army Services of Supply (USASOS). This was the logistics organisation responsible for the infrastructure that paved the way to the Allied victory in the South West Pacific Area and Lorraine would live in Camp Victoria, working for USASOS, for about a year.

Now having moved away from Sydney, Lorraine resumed writing letters to her mother Laura, and one of these explains how she managed to get hired by the Americans in Brisbane despite having been sacked by them in Sydney. She identifies the officer who had used his influence to get her a new job, and who was now her boss in USASOS: his name was Lieutenant Colonel Douglas Mapes, and it seems he was besotted with her. But throughout their non-relationship Lorraine played him perfectly; as she would later boast to Emily: ‘To tell you the truth, Mapes was one of my Promotion through “Friendship” victims’.

Lorraine had to negotiate with Mapes to get and to keep her job. When he saw Lorraine’s security file detailing her relationships with prominent Japanese and Italians, he like others considered these  made her a security risk. As she later explained to Emily, Lorraine resorted to telling the truth: ‘in desperation I told Mapes that I’d been “kept by men” & everything I’d done had been for economic reasons … So we became friends’. But she was also, she told Emily, careful to keep her relationship with the married colonel on the right side of propriety: ‘I was an Honest working girl & never heard him say I’ll give you a present. Got the raise in salary which was on Uncle Sam & never cost that guy a penny …’

With Laura, Lorraine was more circumspect. ‘I’ve had to handle the colonel situation very tactfully,’ she wrote:

I let him take me to dinner at Lennons the other evening and he told me he is infatuated with me and will be getting a divorce so wants to marry me, and every time he steps into this office about some business, he gets a goofy look on his face and acts silly. Anyhow I’m quite master of the situation, and Brisbane is a very safe place to be in as hardly anyone, no matter how high ranking, except the generals have billets of their own and the Col. is in a hotel, and a very strict rule is that no women are allowed in their places at all, and everywhere you go you are in crowded areas and under the eyes of military police … (nevertheless it is) uncomfortable to go down town the streets are thronged with soldiers and sailors of all forces on leave …

In fact, the habit of senior American officers keeping Australian concubines was one of the scandals of the day, the most flagrant example being set by MacArthur’s Chief of Staff General Richard Sutherland. His mistress was the socialite Elaine Clark, whose soldier husband was serving overseas. Sutherland installed Clark as a receptionist at MacArthur’s office and then later, when General Headquarters moved north to the war zone, he made her an officer in the US Army’s Women’s Army Corps and took her with him.

Lorraine would recall how the American top brass – she mentions Generals Kenney, Krueger, Chamberlin and Donaldson as well as Admiral Halsey, naval commander of the South Pacific Area – were frequently to be seen in Brisbane with ‘fluffy blondes’. Most of these,  she judged, were so common that Madam Louise would never have employed them in her brothel. They ranged from moneyed socialites to working class belles, and Lorraine remarked on how their American paramours were oblivious to the differences in social rank which were so keenly felt by the women themselves – a theme that Dymphna Cusack played up in her panoramic novel of wartime Sydney Come In Spinner. As Lorraine said:

At some parties, the socialites used to feel very insulted & one general had a milk bar girl as the girl friend – I used to be very amused at the snobbishness on the part of the girls & the man not giving a dam about it …

Like all Australians, Lorraine was astonished at the resources that the Americans could conjure up. The staff accommodation in Camp Victoria was criticised for its lavishness by Australian inspectors who were shocked to find the temporary facility had hot water and sewerage systems, paved roads and lawns – all quite at odds with the spirit of Prime Minister Curtin’s Austerity Campaign. Lorraine found Camp Victoria ‘more comfortable than any other place I’ve lived in Sydney … being by myself in the office and a lovely view from the window, is quite something’. She had fallen on her feet.

She described her daily round to Laura. ‘We work six full days a week. After breakfast I get to the office about 8 am, dust and tidy up the desks, an hour break at lunchtime, and then working until 5:30, once a week we have a rest day. For Australian girls we are paid considerably well …’. Wartime workplaces USASOS brought women together, creating bonds of companionship some of which  –  in Lorraine’s case  –  would last for decades, and it’s from this point in her correspondence that we start to hear more about female friends. She had found her tribe.

Soon she was having the most fun she’d had in years.

I’m getting too many invitations … Last night I was invited to Lennon’s hotel dinner dance. This is a regular Friday night specialty and they limit the number through bookings, have a good American orchestra too and a lovely floor … My partner was Captain Jo. Henderson, a very popular and charming fellow …

All and all, Lorraine felt that her life in Brisbane was ‘reminding me very much of China’ – and there could be no higher praise than that. One of the reminders was the Hollywood star Phyllis Brooks, who arrived in Brisbane to entertain the American troops. Brooks had recently appeared on Australian cinema screens in Joseph von Sternberg’s The Shanghai Gesture, playing the demimondaine Dixie Pomeroy.

The tagline for the movie was ‘Shanghai  –  Where Women are Weak!’.

(In early 1947 Emily was about to publish her novel Miss Jill, about a young Australian prostitute in China. The character was obviously based on Lorraine and she worried that, living in Australia, her life would become untenable if she was identified; as a result Emily helped her move to the United Kingdom. In Britain Lorraine reconnected with Dee Dee, the businessman who had persuaded her to leave the Shanghai brothel twelve years earlier, and they got married. Lorraine and he lived in London for decades, and she eventually built a new and rewarding life for herself as a librarian and archivist for learned societies.)

You can order Shanghai Demimondaine: From Sex Worker to Society Matron via this link.

Discover more about Nick Hordern’s other books via this link.