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Happy 100th birthday to a great Australian. By Mark McGinness

Blog | By Mark McGinness | Dec 21, 2020

Robin Dalton in 1950

Robin Dalton, journalist, party girl, spy, literary agent, film producer and author, arrived in London from Sydney seventy-four years ago and has lived at or near the centre of its cultural and social life ever since. On December 22nd, she celebrates her centenary - still as sharp as she ever was; firing off emails and taking calls. Her life would fill at least three memoirs. In fact, fortunately for her legions of fans, it has.

Her first, Aunts Up The Cross (1965), opens with,

“My Great-aunt Juliet was knocked over and killed by a bus when she was eighty-five. The bus was travelling very slowly in the right direction and could hardly have been missed by anyone except Aunt Juliet, who must have been travelling fairly fast in the wrong direction.”

Aunt Juliet wore dark glasses, a silver fox jacket and an osprey-feather hat - in bed - and kept her diseased appendix in the drawing room. In fact, she did not die until the end of the book by which time Robin was in London. She received a cable from her father, “JULIET SKITTLED, LOVE, DAD’. There was also Auntie Jan, who died from blowing up a balloon. Aunt Bertie, who could never bring herself to write the words "Roman Catholic", but instead inserted a large black cross. Robin had ten great-aunts, only half of whom she knew.

Then there was Uncle Ken, who died "leaving the imprint of his teeth in the sugar” and Grandfather, who fought bare-knuckled against the Kelly Gang, and Rosa the Cook, who came to work each day with her life savings in a suitcase.

Robin’s beloved father, Dr Robert Agnew (‘Jim’) Eakin, a Northern Irish Presbyterian, ran his surgery from their house, the only private house in Sydney’s bohemian King’s Cross. He did not speak to his mother-in-law for the 35 years that they shared a house. Why?

“I found early in my married life, that I could not take my trousers off without turning around and finding your grandmother watching me.”

Robin’s mother, Lyndall Solomon, a Polish-Australian Jewess, caught between handsome husband and meddling mother, smoked 100 cigarettes a day, cooked lavish and extravagant meals, thought nothing of inviting strangers in to stay if they had nowhere else to go. One morning she killed the plumber:

One summer morning the servants were busy elsewhere, the house was for once empty, and my mother emerged naked from her dressing-room en route to take a bath. At that moment the plumber (he was a new one) came up the back stairs and met her on the landing. He promptly had a heart attack from which he never recovered. My mother always felt that the fact that death was not instantaneous detracted from the impact of her nudity and the dramatic possibilities of the story”

Her friend, Clive James, upbraided her (in 1996) “for having written no more than one perfect book”. As he put it - in his introduction to Aunts - “She grew up in a house full of life; a house full of lives…..there was drama on every floor”

An only child, young Robin Eakin took in everything. She was enchanted by the tarts’ cries on the street of ‘Thirty bob — strip to the earrings’. By twelve, she had read most of Hardy and Meredith. At eight, she had written a book My Relations (1929) a work “of fiction about relations I never had.”

I have an aunt whose single-blessedness has soured her to the world. Aunt Alenia, like many other unmarried ladies, is always trying to bring up her sister's children. …….. I always dread her visits, for no matter how well I behave she always finds fault with me. She means well, I am sure, but she doesn't mean much. She is a dear, good, lady, but I often wish she had some children of her own.”

As the Telegraph’s Elizabeth Grice put it in a lively profile, “Pretty much untamed by school, Robin embraced the outbreak of war as an adventure: it spared her the boredom of having to go to finishing school in Lausanne.” Instead, at 18, she wed 32-year-old barrister, John Spencer, who turned out to be an alcoholic sadist. He abused and then divorced her after five months. As he was in the army, it was in reality only five weekends of hell.

He falsely named three co-respondents. although local legend upped the assignations to eleven. The Sydney press headlines cried, “Young Socialite Wife: Army Husband Finds Telltale Diary In Flat." Robin quipped, “I knocked the war off the front page.”

Freed of Spencer, she learnt to type and took a job as secretary to the commanding officer of the ordnance department of the south-west Pacific area – working for the Americans by day and partying with them by night. Then she met - and fell in love - with David Mountbatten, 3rd Marquess of Milford Haven, Prince Philip’s first cousin and best friend. Neither family approved. Dr Eakin thought he was “lightweight” and his widowed mother, Nada, daughter of Grand Duke Michael of Russia, would not accept a divorcée for a daughter-in-law. “And so we had to make up all sorts of stories. I’m terribly ashamed to say this, but I got engaged to somebody else [a Scottish paratrooper] so that my father would allow me to leave Australia.”

She was thought to be the first Australian woman to leave her country for England. After being off-loaded in India an arduous flight in a converted bomber, she arrived in a converted bomber, in April, 1946. “All my luggage – not just clothes but my dowry – had gone to my fiancé’s mother in Glasgow and his family were waiting for me with open arms. It was terrible.” A fortnight later, she confessed and re-joined David Milford Haven in London.

“We had five lovely years together and remained lifelong friends. In those days, any direct descendant of Queen Victoria [he was a great-great-grandson] could not marry a divorcee. David could have ignored it, I suppose, but that was not the way he was brought up.”

Of course the austerity and seemingly endless rationing was oppressive, but for Robin, post-war London was heaven. She had the gift of two old Australian friends of her mother: that grande horizontale, Enid Lindeman Cameron Cavendish Furness (by then Lady Kenmare); and twenties It Girl, Sheila Chisholm Loughborough (by then Lady Milbanke but later Princess Dimitri Alexandrovich). It would be a travesty to dub them godmothers – and Robin needed no mentors – but she must have enjoyed their company and their links with home.

With an allowance from her father and a little money writing for newspapers and magazines, Robin plunged into a belle monde of aristocrats, artists and socialites. “One was unthinking, just living every day as it came and having enormous fun……With David I got to know quite a few kings, ex-kings, and almost-kings.” John F. Kennedy became a friend.

As his cousin, Philip’s best man at the wedding to Princess Elizabeth in 1947 the attention on the young marquess and his future romantic life was intense. Robin’s passion was waning as she fell for a “divinely attractive Swede”, Lars Schmidt. (Ironically, David Milford Haven would marry, briefly, an American divorcée in 1950)

Finally, she met the love of her life, Emmet Dalton, a handsome young Irish doctor, son of Major General Emmet Dalton. As Robin relates in her second memoir, An Incidental Memoir (1998), Emmet had a sub-aortic stenosis. This meant a short life, which Robin knew even before she met him. The other impediment for the staunchly Catholic Emmet was Robin’s status as a divorcée. He sought the counsel of the Jesuits at Farm Street and the Papal Nuncio but there was no solution within the Church and a lengthy annulment was impossible. She described their wedding day in 1953, “My husband left his home and his weeping Catholic mother and unspeaking Catholic father at 9 a.m. one morning, to meet his divorced Presbyterian future wife at Caxton Hall.”

On her honeymoon in Cornwall, Robin was approached by her friend, an almost-king, Prince Chula of Thailand, to become an intelligence officer for the kingdom. Officially, she was a press attachée. As with most opportunities proffered in her long life, of course she said yes. She worked from London and seemed to have been expected to gather intelligence on communist influence in the British press. “What went on taught me that every single crazy thing you see in a spy film or book is true.”

She was blissfully happy with Emmet. He became seriously ill during her first pregnancy with their elder daughter, Lisa, but recovered. Seamus was born, but a sudden collapse and unsuccessful heart surgery led to his death at thirty-three. This is heart-rendingly told in An Incidental Memoir, “Without the blessing of having been married to Emmet. I would be a different, and indifferent, person. My marriage to him, and my children, are my life. Everything else is icing on the cake.” She would say in her nineties, “He’s still my anchor in life, the measure by which I judge everything.”

Within a day of Emmet’s death, Lisba (Princess Chula) had offered to pay for Lisa’s education and Sir Steven Runciman, the Byzantinist and great friend of both Emmet and Robin’s, pledged to do the same for Seamus. He would later give her the lease on his house in St John’s Wood. The Savoy delivered hampers and her old friend, the US President, sent Lisa a beautiful coat. An envelope of banknotes was stuffed anonymously through her letterbox.

Somehow, that mighty spirit rallied and Robin became a literary and theatrical agent. Soon she had a legendary client list - John Osborne, Edna O’Brien, Iris Murdoch, Sonia Orwell, Margaret Drabble, Arthur Miller, Peter Weir and Arnold Wesker (even Joan Collins) - most of whom became good friends.

As she told literary editor, Murray Walden,

“It was always intense, often fun, sometimes creative - I did give some of my very famous clients ideas for plays and books. And doing the deals was wonderful, one was able to change people's lives and they nearly all became my best friends. (But) I was never outside the reach of a telephone - I could never take a holiday without guilt. And I very badly wanted to see one particular book made into a movie, Madame Sousatzka, which no one was taking up. I believed in it so much I thought 'I'm bloody well going to buy this myself'. That's what really pushed me into producing.”

And she did produce Bernice Rubens’ Madame Sousatzka - with Shirley MacLaine, Peggy Ashcroft and Twiggy in 1988; Emma’s War with Miranda Otto and Lee Remick in 1986; Country Life in 1994 with Sam Neill; and Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda (1997) with Cate Blanchett.

The last great love of her life was the film writer, William Fairchild, who entered her life in 1963. They married in 1992, after three decades together. Bill died in 2000. Robin recalled “thirty-seven years of true companionship, laughter, shared interests, and the luxury of a shoulder to lean on.”

In 2013, Robin released 'Dead' is a 4-Letter Word: Living Life at 92 as a Kindle, looking at death head-on – plain, simple, good old death. Not ‘passing away’. She produced a compilation of brief vignettes: having her eyes tested; passing a test for Alzheimer’s with flying colours; battling with technology; calling for plain-speaking about mortality; and ending with a flourish - the jolliest deaths and happiest funerals.

In 2017, she published One Leg Over, a briefer version of An Incidental Life (she had wanted to call it No Hard Shoulder – no time to pause or take a break from the highway of life) but with added gems. The title of her third memoir refers to - no, not that – but to the struggle to heave an aging body out of the bath, one leg at a time. She had surfed from her holiday house in Biarritz for decades (“We have really good surf there. It’s almost as good as Bondi.”) - until she dislocated her shoulder at 96.

Robin reflected, “If you believe in reincarnation, I must have been pretty good in my last life. And I'm terrified of what the next one will be. Haven't been so good in this one.” In October 2000, she wrote to her old friend Steven Runciman, “I would hate to cope with boredom … at least you cannot say that any of your time has been wasted merely on frivolities …. Maybe you feel less old in the time sense than I do.” He never received the letter, dying two days later, at 97.

Robin, who was 79 at the time, has lived another twenty years –joyously; fearlessly; and rarely bored. As she says, “The reason I’ve had a good life is that I never say no.”