Issue Nine

KYD No. 9 teaser: Ruth Starke’s ‘The Renaissance Man: Don Dunstan and the Sexy Seventies’

by Stephanie Van Schilt , April 4, 201210 Comments

For our second sneak peek into  KYD No.9, Ruth Starke looks back at the ever-alluring Don Dunstan in a scintillating investigation into the sexier side of South Australian politics.

If this teaser leaves you wanting more, you can find the full text of this essay and more on our website in the coming weeks. Or to instantly satisfy your urges, you can pre-order here.

The ‘70s in New York smelt like sex,’ recalled American journalist James Wolcott, in Vanity Fair last September. But it wasn’t just New York. There was a similar vibe in little old Adelaide, where Premier Don Dunstan was setting a pattern for the rest of the country. Aboriginal land rights, equal-opportunity legislation, the easing of licensing laws and dress codes (those pink shorts in Parliament!), open-air dining, gay rights and abortion reforms, and the only beach in Australia where you could legally swim nude – Dunstan revolutionised social and cultural life in South Australia during the 1970s. As artist Barbara Hanrahan put it wonderingly: ‘Adelaide starts seeming like somewhere else.’

Dunstan was as sexy, trendy and liberated a premier as the times called for, and nowhere did his star shine as brightly as at the Adelaide Festival of Arts, a biennial feast of theatre, dance, art, opera, music and literature. (2012 marks the establishment of the Festival – which finished last month – as an annual event.)

‘Don “Diamond Light” Dunstan is tripping around town to everything in a different outfit every day,’ noted the Australian in 1972. Two festivals later, writer Morris Lurie was thrilled to catch a glimpse of ‘the great Don himself, in one of those snazzy outfits he wears so well, his arm around an absolute darling of a Chinese gal, walking calmly in the Adelaide night, smiling hugely, no doubt pleased with all he has wrought’.

The charismatic premier rode on the back of an elephant and recited Ogden Nash’s verses to Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals at the zoo; he read Henry Lawson in the Writers’ Week Tent and poetry to factory workers; he welcomed guests at wineries; he recited prose in Ancient Greek and Latin; he flitted from event to event in Nehru jackets, sharkskin suits, colourful caftans, batik shirts, and white safari suits with gold neck chains. ‘Beau Brummell himself could not have taken more pains with his appearance,’ noted Adelaide historian Derek Whitelock in his 1985 book, Adelaide from Colony to Jubilee: A Sense of Difference.

The frisson that accompanied the festivals of the 1970s, and their full attendances, were in a large part due to Dunstan. ‘He generated all that interest and all that excitement and all that sense that if we didn’t have a lively arts program then we weren’t really entitled to call ourselves a major city,’ recalls music critic Elizabeth Silsbury, in an interview stored in the Dunstan Oral History Collection in Adelaide.

In 1972, the stars of Writers’ Week were the beat poets Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Ginsberg set the ball rolling by saying ‘fuck’ at his airport press conference, and the word reverberated repeatedly around the Town Hall during the poets’ sell-out readings. Ginsberg brightened up evenings at the Festival Club with amatory advances on waiters and diners alike, and a maid at the Hotel Australia entered his suite and found the poet squatting naked on the floor with a flower in his ear, meditating. ‘He said Om,’ she told the press. Or Oooooooooooooooooom, as he later demonstrated on ABC television.

‘The whole city,’ theatre critic Murray Bramwell remembered in the Adelaide Review in 2002, ‘was given over to festivity, and peaceful, tolerant and inquisitive community. That for me, then and now, was at the very centre of what Don Dunstan and others had imagined for South Australians. Not just some of us, all of us.’

Ruth Starke supervises postgraduates in creative writing at Flinders University and is currently editing a collection of Don Dunstan’s letters.

Pre-order Kill Your Darlings No. 9, or subscribe to the journal here.

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