In the 1930s, as Robert Cutter, he sold more copies of “Hawaiian Paradise” than Bing Crosby. He performed before Katharine Hepburn and Clark Gable at the Academy Awards. He hadn’t quite finished divorcing his best friend’s sister when he fell for and married an older Hollywood femme fatale, also not quite divorced; at one point in the “scandalous circus” that ensued he was arrested and handcuffed mid-song at the glamorous Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles. On tour in Australia with a new band and a new name, Lawrie Brooks, he fell hard for this country and Sydney in particular, becoming part of bohemian life in the Kings Cross of the late 1930s and early ’40s. He embraced Australian culture, its “straight-from-the-shoulder” style, the “self-deprecation, the understatement and the irony” that made it so different from that of the United States.
During World War II, Brooks served in the Australian Army, performing for troops in the Middle East and New Guinea. In Sydney, he married and divorced his third wife, penned the wartime Aussie classic “Where’s That Old Cobber of Mine?”, and found his forever love, Gloria van Boss. He settled down with her in the suburbs and found regular work as a proofreader; his tenor voice now entertained listeners of the ABC and occasional audiences at Sydney’s State Theatre. The couple raised two adoring daughters – Geraldine Brooks and Darleen Bungey, author of this warm, lively memoir.
Lawrie Brooks had a volatile side, brought out by drinking, and once dragged a teenage Geraldine down the hall by her hair. Bungey writes about such episodes frankly but without a sense of lasting trauma. They were thankfully few and, seemingly for both his daughters and wife, outweighed by all that was good and loving about the man, with whom they nonetheless often went “toe to toe”. After his death, curiosity led Bungey to an unexplored tea chest full of faded clippings, photographs and letters, and then to other personal archives, interviews and printed sources. Unsurprisingly – since Bungey is the author of two critically acclaimed biographies, of painters John Olsen and Arthur Boyd – Daddy Cool is an accomplished, as well as affectionate, blend of research, observation and recollection. It is a fascinating study of fate, choice, transformation and identity, and a colourful tile in the mosaic of our immigrant history.
Allen & Unwin, 240pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 4, 2020 as "Darleen Bungey, Daddy Cool".
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