Tag Archives: LGBT equality

Beryl Guertner – décor queen

A Writer examines the home life of an Australian media pioneer.

SINCE the release of the Paper Giants franchise on Australian television screens, audiences have been exploring the groundbreaking stories of women in the print media.

But long before Ita Buttrose, Nene King and Dulcie Boling, a country woman, who was good with words and had great visual flair, was selected to spearhead a bright-coloured revolution in home decorating for a new magazine – Australian House and Garden.

Her name was Beryl Guertner. Behind her stellar career was the story of community-minded women who wanted to make a home for themselves in the leafy streets of Warrimoo.

As a tribute to a local magazine pioneer, this feature was first published in Blue Mountains Life in June 2010.

SITTING IN STYLE Beryl Guertner in the 1950s.
SITTING PRETTY Guertner at home.

Life with Beryl

The Warrimoo community remembers Beryl Guertner, Australian magazine pioneer and community woman.

Soon after WWII, residents of sleepy Florabella Street in Warrimoo noticed two women camping on a double block.

Ex-local Bruce Patman recalls: “The two ‘girls’ were befriended by our parents. On seeing them struggling with the elements, they were invited to sleep out on our verandah. There was a spare shed on our property which we cleaned-out. Beryl Guertner and Terri Margetts moved into that while they planned their house. Beryl was a journalist and she travelled to the city to work each day, while Terri (who I believe had garden nursery experience) grew gladioli flowers for market”.

BERYL GUERTNER
COMMUNITY WOMAN Beryl Guertner dancing with a neighbour at a local 21st birthday party, Warrimoo, 1958.

“No doubt as a result of the war, we had a number of women sharing homes in the village whom we regarded as ‘old maids’, Bruce adds. “Beryl and Terri were largely regarded as two girls pooling their resources for a dream of building a sandstone block house. I remember helping out at weekends with stonework in the gardens, and some of the heavy lifting.”

“Beryl got her first job when she settled here in the shed … with New Idea,” long-term local Elizabeth Leven recalls. “Then this opportunity came up to be editor of Australian House and Garden, and she applied for it.”

“I don’t think she was that confident she would get it,” Bruce’s brother Barry Patman reflects.

The new Australian House and Garden magazine opened its doors on Young Street, Sydney, in late 1947. The brainchild of publisher Ken Murray, the popular publication aimed to deliver low-cost décor to the average household, including monthly architects’ plans for small homes. Murray gave Beryl sixteen weeks to create the first edition from scratch.

“They were very excited when Beryl was accepted as the founding editor,” Bruce remembers. “Beryl was very enthusiastic with exciting ideas, and on occasion, she related them to us. She was very clever in her field.”

“I remember painting bottles with Christmas designs and making a lamp stand out of wine bottles as projects for the magazine,” Barry recalls.

AUSTRALIAN STYLE Early cover of Australian House & Garden magazine.
AUSTRALIAN STYLE Early cover of Australian House & Garden magazine.

From such humble roots, Beryl Guertner became widely known in the Australian media for spearheading the home design revolution of the 1950s. The continued popularity of home makeover media owes much to the groundbreaking vision of Beryl and her contemporaries.

Born in Sydney in 1917 to Eugene and Maude, Beryl was raised and schooled at Wagga Wagga. By the outbreak of the war she’d returned to the city and embarked on a series of journalism and public relations jobs for companies like The Daily Telegraph and Paramount Pictures.

Beryl’s German father Eugene was interned at Liverpool for most of the war. Whether it was the whole family, or just Beryl, who adopted ‘Guertner’ from ‘Gürtner’ is not clear. It remained her professional name throughout her lengthy career.

Why Beryl chose Warrimoo remains a bit of a mystery. The semi-rural community was the vision of property developer Arthur Rickard, whose advertisements in the Sydney media for his satellite suburbs on the city’s fringe cannot have escaped Beryl’s attention in the 1930s and 40s.

The pressures of putting a new magazine together while commuting seems to have put an end to Beryl and Terri’s vision for a sandstone house. It may also have ended their relationship. “Terri worked very hard on the start of the sandstone house, but then there came a split between them and Terri moved away. We were very sorry for her after all her hard work,” Bruce recalls.

Other locals remember how Beryl met Catherine (‘Kate’) Warmoll, a fellow commuter who worked as an accountant for Cinzano, on the train. The two eventually moved in together and completed the first stage of their home around 1949-50. In the process, Beryl and Kate became integral members of the Warrimoo community.

Elizabeth Leven still lives in Florabella Street – “We used to laugh about Beryl,” she relates. “She had quite a few men under her as editor, and I remember her telling me one day that she used the filthiest language when she was talking to them … because that was the language the men understood. She and Kate used to walk to the station, but they would walk in old shoes and carry their good shoes.”

Bronwyn Kilner grew up at Warrimoo and remembers: “Beryl was very blond, and very pretty, she always wore gorgeous clothes, floral patterned skirts and looked lovely. Kate wore jeans and shirts, and dungarees, but the two of them made a great couple.”

Elizabeth Leven’s daughter Margaret states, with a fond smile, that Beryl was: “Always overdone for Warrimoo.”

Over time Kate and Beryl expanded their home from a one-room cottage to include a second bedroom, garage, stylish ‘crazy paving’ chimney, patios hewn from local stone, a verandah overlooking the valley, and a stone bridge in the front garden.

Their garden in particular left its mark in local memories. “Beryl always reckoned we were in the tropical belt,” Barry Hickey recalls. “She had a map showing the different climatic regions, and she reckoned Warrimoo was a place you could grow almost anything.”

Neighbours to Beryl and Kate since 1958, Barry and Joan Hickey remember how keen the couple were on the red-flowered ‘Coral Trees’, which many believe they introduced to the region.

Warimoo endured regular bushfires in the 1950s and 60s, and Beryl and Kate were members of the bushfire brigade. “It was Beryl who got me into the brigade,” Barry recalls. “She never rode the fire truck of course, but it was important that the community support the brigade.”

Artist and ex-local Donna Hawkins recalls: “Sometime in the late 1960s I had the good fortune to spend an evening in Beryl Guertner’s beautiful home. I went there with my Brownie pack to learn about cake decorating and how to make marzipan fruits. Compared to my simple home on the other side of the railway track, Beryl’s home was quite exotic – the lush entry graced with tree ferns and garden lights, the elegant lamps in the lounge room created a warm atmosphere. Our little group felt welcome and important”.

ICING QUEEN One of Beryl's many books on cake decorating.
ICING QUEEN One of Beryl’s many books on cake decorating.

“We crowded around the table and followed her lead, shaping marzipan into tiny bananas, oranges and apples, then painting them with food colouring. It was an evening of creativity I will never forget … to discover that food could be a work of art was inspiring.”

Bronwyn Kilner remembers her mother asking Beryl’s design advice for their newly completed home. “I recall that the main living area of the house, and the hallway, had very light oyster grey walls, with chartreuse ceilings!” Bronywn says. “There was green ivy-patterned wallpaper in the dining room and the entry foyer. The spare bedroom had grey walls, almost a gun-metal grey, and the ceiling was painted a tomato soup red!”

Beryl and Kate sold their home in the early 1970s to fellow commuter Jack Maddock. Nita Maddock’s first response, when Jack suggested they look at the house, was to say: “I’m not living in Warrimoo!”

However, once she saw Beryl and Kate’s home, she decided they should buy it immediately. “It was just the happiest house,” Nita remembers.

Beryl and Kate retired to the Central Coast, where Beryl continued to write and edit in her field until her cancer-related death in 1981.

I recently visited Beryl and Kate’s home on Florabella Street, the residence of John and Sue Cottee for the past thirteen years. I asked Sue when she became aware of the designer heritage of her home.

“It was a local who said to me one day: ‘You know you’re living in the party house?’” Sue recalls.

When the Hickey’s stroll in from next door, Joan and Barry both recall what sounds like the biggest party of them all – an event for the magazine – possibly the twentieth anniversary in 1968, with “magazine people up from the city,” Joan remembers. An electrician by trade, Barry tells us: “I floodlit the trees for the night.”

BERYL'S WAY Beryl Guertner's house in Florabella Street, Warrimoo.
BERYL’S WAY Beryl Guertner’s house in Florabella Street, Warrimoo.

The Levens join us in the front garden for coffee, amongst the surviving stonework patios, pathways, bridge and pond designed by Beryl, Kate and Terri.

“There was a time when I was welcome in every home on this street,” Elizabeth Leven recalls, and it’s clear from this gathering of long-term Warrimoo residents that Beryl and Kate were too. “Generous people”, “arty and flamboyant”, “involved in the community” are common terms the locals use when remembering the couple.

John Cottee shares the plan for expanding and renovating the house, which has been altered extensively since Beryl and Kate left.

“We want to preserve the surviving stone work in the garden,” John outlines.

I get the feeling that Beryl would very much approve of the 21st century renovation of a house and garden that has been evolving ever since she came to Warrimoo. After all, it was her life’s work to empower Australians to transform their own homes, and she herself had started life on the same block in nothing but a tent.

PLUCK COVER copyThanks to Evelyn Richardson and Kate Matthew of the Warrimoo History Project, and all those who provided memories of Beryl Guertner for this article.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

This article appears in Michael’s eBook Pluck: Exploits of the single-minded

 

Writing my way out of the closet

GAY MESSIAH Graham Chapman in Monty Python's The Life of Brian.
GAY MESSIAH Graham Chapman in Monty Python’s The Life of Brian.

A Writer finally comes out.

THE late great Monty Python comedian Graham Chapman was the inspiration for my coming out.

In the year that homosexuality was decriminalised in the UK, he famously hosted a party for all his friends, introduced them to his male partner, then got on with his life.

The news didn’t reach our small town until long after my homophobic brother and his poofter-hating mates had come to revere Chapman and his cohorts as the best thing on their TV screens, but it was a great affirmation for me to discover that the Python’s camp humour had its roots in a living, breathing homosexual.

“Stony silence stretched out in many cases to more than a week.”

I wanted to find a similar way to tell everyone myself and thought seriously about hosting a coming out party at my very first house in the town of Katoomba in the Blue Mountains. But it became apparent very quickly that there was no way I’d get everyone I knew and loved in the same place at the same time – they had far too many ‘issues’.

A few very close friends, and my sister Jen, already knew. I’d told them in person after going through much angst.

I have always been much better at expressing myself in writing than any other form of communication anyway, so I embarked on writing to everyone in my life. Not just a few people, but everyone – I drew no line in the sand for my sake, or theirs.

The first step was to find a beautiful book of postcards, and I was attracted to a lovely set by Asian master print-makers. I took my time and wrote that I had come to terms with my sexuality, sharing the good news that this had given me a much-needed dose of personal happiness.

When the writing task was complete, I determined that I’d walk to the local post office, buy enough stamps for well over 100 postcards, and simply post my future out to the world.

It proved to be one of the longest walks in my life.

Katoomba is a very small community, and as luck would have it I met many people I knew along the way, some of them what I’ll call ‘Difficult Cases’ – people for whom my postcard news was going to come as something of a challenge.

I endured their meaningless chit-chat, and just internalised my resolve to keep going to the post box, through which I was convinced freedom from the closet was only days away.

The first phone call came from my cousin, whose instant, unquestioning support spoke volumes of acceptance. Great start.

Two family friends turned up. Over cups of tea this support lessened a little when the inevitable “I already knew” crept into the conversation.

If they already knew, why hadn’t they had enough courage to be inclusive when they’d asked, quite regularly, did I “have a girlfriend?” by adding just three words to that question, “or a boyfriend?”

REACHING OUT Coming to terms with sexuality is an internal journey.
REACHING OUT Coming to terms with sexuality is a journey out of oneself.

Stony silence stretched out in many cases to more than a week, followed by stilted phone conversations in which people forced themselves to utter what they thought they should say.

Some Difficult Cases needed a little encouragement, so I went to see them. One crossed the street when he saw me. One broached the subject with a weird question: “Why do all lesbians hate men?” as though I’d know the answer even if such an ignorant assertion were remotely true. One looked startled when I passed her at the supermarket, her face not altering as I smiled, made eye contact, said “hello,” and kept going, since obviously she had a problem.

One assumed my postcard was a suicide letter. Another misread the words “I am gay,” thinking I’d written “I am angry”. What can you do?

“I am gay too,” was an interesting response, from the married father of two. That was out of the blue!

But it wasn’t all bad or weird: “Got your lovely postcard,” said dear Sal, mentor, friend, superwoman and strong out lesbian who’d long inspired me.

And the phone call from my grandmother, who said that she would help me find a cure, because: “They can fix all kinds of things these days, you know”.

“But I’m not sick grandma, I don’t need a cure,” I replied.

“Oh thank goodness,” she said, quick as a flash, her total belief in the way I felt about myself eclipsed generations of people in her wake.

At her 90th birthday a few months later, she raised her arms in delight when I arrived, enfolded me in a hug as the shouted: “You are so special!” so loudly that it echoed off the ranks of Difficult Cases in the family, standing in maudlin, silent rows. Priceless, unconditional acceptance.

With all the consummate skill of a country woman Grandma had hand-made clothes for my dolls when I was a toddler. She never questioned my behavior, or shamed me, she just joined in the fun and made a safe place for a young gay boy to play.

The overwhelming majority of my postcard’s recipients I never heard from again – close family friends, people I grew up with, people who were welcome in our home and accepted by our family in the face of their own ‘scandals’, people who had cried on my shoulder when I shared the intimate details about our mother, their friend, as she died. People who should have known a lot better by the accepting example that she set.

Some Difficult Cases hung in there for a while, but fell away in the wake of me manifesting my first gay relationship. For many people it’s okay if you’re gay and single (and lonely!) but bringing a partner into their home creates a challenge of “What do we tell the neighbours?” proportions, poor things.

For someone who was sent-off from his community with a mass of support, I certainly came home to a resounding rejection.

But growing up in that community had taught me to help others, so it was with a great sense of validation that I later heard about another coming out.

“I’ve done a Mike,” one young gay family friend said to his loved ones as he got real a few years after I did, at a much earlier stage in his life.

That was all I needed to hear that I’d done exactly the right thing, the Difficult Cases be damned.

To anyone who is closeted, my best advice is to love whoever you want. If anyone has the guts to ask you what your sexual orientation is, reward their courage by telling them your truth. Forget coming-out – it’s just society’s outmoded and unnecessarily pressure-filled way of working out who is ‘normal’ and who is (to quote The Life of Brian) a “very naughty boy”.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

The Grim Reaper in the lunch room

PRINTING IMPRESSED A romantic vision of my first day job at a printing firm.

A Writer’s first day job.

IN my last year of school, I was gently encouraged into some kind of employment. Having illustrated a local history book, I had a contact in the manager of a local printing firm.

After writing to him reminding him of my illustrations, he called and offered me a job.

My mental picture of working on a printing floor was rather romantic. Perhaps there would be intelligent people, poring over inks, print quality and words; contact with working writers and artists; and great pieces of literature on the brink of being born?

I worked out how to get to and from work on the local bus, arrived at the agreed time, and entered the workforce with an enthusiastic handshake and an introduction to my first task.

Remember those notebooks we used when people actually wrote things by hand, the kind with the red gum strip holding all the pages together? Whoever knew that they were gummed in one stack and had to be separated by hand?

Well I did, by the end of that first day, after separating a stack taller than me (I was then and still am 6’2”), into note pads of the same thickness.

Being at the back of the print floor, as I worked I had a view of the rest of the staff. Apart from the boss, who spent most of his time on the phone or working as his own receptionist at the front counter, there was a kind lady typesetting in a small glassed-in office, sitting at an enormous blue metal machine, out of the side of which a continuous flow of type would emerge.

There were two printing presses near me, operated by polite men, one of whom dressed in a neat, ink-stained lab coat, and the other who reminded me of Rod Stewart, had he ever embarked on a career in offset printing. Then there was the man whom I was to spend the most time with and learn the most from – the layout artist. We’ll call him Terry.

“His unbeatable aura of great skill in his work was quickly tarnished by the reality of his narrow-minded bigotry.”

At that time, Terry would have been in his fifties. A great teacher, he took me under his wing and showed me everything he knew, from setting type, to creating photographic or illustrative bromides to be set onto each aluminium plate, which he’d create in lightening speed for every job.

A business card he could dash off in about five minutes. A booklet in about an hour.

It was Terry who called time on morning tea and lunch, with a kindly manner which set the tone of the whole establishment. He spied that I’d committed myself to gummed notebook duties without fuss, and each time the boss would put me on an old collating machine, or packaging duties, Terry would ensure I’d get to learn something new before I’d collated or packed my brain into oblivion.

For a young writer-illustrator, this workplace was an immediate introduction to the nitty-gritty of publishing. I got to do a decent amount of creative work – dusting off little images for business cards and corporate documents. I got to edit a small magazine because there was no-one else to do it, in fact the boss landed the job on the basis of having someone around who had innate editing skills.

My five dollars an hour was money that I saw increasing in my bank account weekly, as I’d take my cheque up to the bank every friday afternoon before heading home.

For a day or two I fanstasised that this was a career choice for me – that somewhere, someplace, a writer-artist-editor could stick around a printing floor doing odd jobs and creating bits and pieces, for money. It was a vain hope. I always have plenty of those hanging around.

UNEXPECTED COLLEAGUE The Grim Reaper made an appearance in the lunch room of my first workplace (Image unknown, but in the pubic domain).
UNEXPECTED COLLEAGUE The Grim Reaper made an appearance in the lunch room of my first workplace.

What burst my bubble was not the limited creative prospects that I laid-out for myself, but the workplace reality of coming face-to-face with other peoples’ opinions.

I was from a very sheltered community (independent schools tend to create those) nothing about which really prepared me for some of the stuff that came out in the lunch room.

The most sudden example was the ‘AIDS is happening because God Hates Gays’ booklet, complete with the Grim Reaper on the cover, which Terry slid across the table to me, in front of everyone, saying: “You should read this.”

I was cornered, managing to not open it, but also not wanting to signal any kind of negative response. It was a nasty little polemic, but the paper quality was good – Terry had taught me how to gauge such things.

Later, while collating the latest golf club members’ booklet, Terry made a general observation to me that it was women who were better at such mundane tasks as collating and notepad separating, before pointedly not asking me into his company that afternoon to learn more about plate-making.

It took me a while to understand these blatant messages, because I was just so naive.

When University Orientation Week hit my diary, I decided to leave the job that had, for a short time, given me pleasure.

The boss and his wife were very kind in giving me a lovely set of graphic design pens as a send off. Mum noticed that I’d resigned a good week before Uni started, but I was incapable of explaining why.

None of my adult colleagues had enough spine to tell Terry to keep his opinions to himself, especially in front of an impressionable teenager. They were keeping the peace, I suppose. I did the only thing I knew how to do, which was to leave.

That’s the thing about day jobs – they’re easy to let go of when there is very little of your ego invested.

It might seem fitting of me to say that Terry taught me some kind of important lesson, but his unbeatable aura of great skill in his work was quickly tarnished by the reality of his narrow-minded bigotry. He taught me that not all words are beautiful.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.