Sunday, February 19, 2012


Long before Zara the Spanish clothing shops opened, there was another Zara in the lives of
Australians of a certain age.

I just remember Prime Minister Menzies, or Pig Iron Bob as he was known. I wouldn't dare refer to him like that when I was a kid. I could not be so disrespectful. I do recall my father lambasting him for the early 1960s credit squeeze, which slowed the construction of housing, my father's business. Menzies received his nickname because he authorised the sale of iron to Japan before WWII, which the Japanese turned into guns and bullets to shoot back at us a year or so later.

Menzies retired in 1966 and was succeeded by Harold Holt.

Harold wife's name was Zara and the first I remember about her was she owned a dress shop in Toorak Road called Magg. Zara was a larger than life figure and certainly not a retiring Prime Minister's wife.

She was educated at posh private schools as her family, Dickens, were very comfortably off with their chain of grocers, S. E. Dickens. I remember Dickens grocers. Dusty timber floored and narrow aisles with groceries stacked on shelves either side. There was a certain smell about such grocery stores. I would know it straight away if I smelt it. It wasn't unpleasant, but very distinctive. I've just been reading about Dickens. Coles launched their food stores by buying Dickens in 1958.

Zara married Colonel James Fell but after having three children, one set of twins, they divorced. She then married Federal politician Harold Holt in 1947, who turned out to be the real father of her twins.

Harold Holt became Prime Minister in '66 and ye shall reap what ye sows. Harold was not very faithful to Zara, but she tolerated his dalliances.

One such woman with whom he dallied was a Portsea neighbour and in December '67 he was in her company with a couple of friends when he went for a swim in the sea at Cheviot Beach, Point Nepean. The water was very rough and he was not a good swimmer and he soon disappeared, either drowned, eaten by a shark or taken by a Chinese submarine*. Initially the public were told he was on his own at the beach, but it did not take long for that to be found out to be untrue. His funeral was attended Prince Charles and English Prime Minister Wilson, and United States President Johnston among other world leaders.

Zara was now a widow and two years later she married Jeff Bate, a farmer. My grandmother was quite critical of her forming such a quick relationship after the death of her husband. Zara did not retire from public life to the farm. She remained in the news in her own right. She had received a Damehood in the late sixties, but that didn't stop her from being in tv ads for Maxwell House coffee in the 1970s

After her third husband Bate drank himself to death, she retired to the Gold Coast where she died at the age of eighty in 1989.

I've done a bit of reading for this post and Zara doesn't sound like she was a bad sort at all. She was quoted on Harold:

"There were dozens of women in his life". "I loved him. I don't think he loved me. But I suited him. I ran my business well. I looked tidy and neat. I was a good public speaker."

Here is an anecdote I came across. Did anyone actually like President Johnson? Australian students of the time certainly did not. LBJ and Prince Charles met at Harold's funeral.

"Oh your Highness", gushed LBJ, "I thank you for coming so far to honour the death of my friend Harold Holt".

"On the contrary", said Charles, "It is I who should thank you. And indeed I do so on behalf of my mother who is Queen of Australia". Marvellous!

I am advised this photo is circa 1950. I doubt it. Her outfit looks very Hyacinth Bucket.

Talking to the authorities at Cheviot Beach as they searched the seas for her husband.

* The Chinese sub was of course nonsense, but the theory certainly received a good run in the media.


  1. Personally, I reckon the submarine story is true and that Holt later emerged publicly in the guise of Deng Zhao Ping.

    Only kidding!

  2. I was at an outdoor wedding on the day Holt disappeared in Dec 1967. It was blazing hot and as we were standing around waiting for the bride to appear, whispers started going around the crowd about the Prime Minister disappearing.

    How did people know? There were no mobile phones back then; we relied on great big trannies.

    Even though I didn't like Holt or his party, it was a truly shocking day in national history. Zara seemed very dignified.

    1. Anonymous11:36 am

      You are right - I had not realised previously that Zara does look like a large transsexual - " a great big tranny "

  3. Victor, around the restaurant dinner table last night, the matter was discussed and some younger types needed filling in on the history. One suggested Holt's eyes had some surgery and his hair dyed black. I chipped in with, yes and he became Deng Zhao Ping. Great minds think alike.

    Good question Hels. How did we find out about such things then? We seemed to. Dignified is a good word for Zara.

  4. She must have needed the money to endorse Maxwell House coffee. The only thing worse was Bushells. Or maybe Pablo. Or maybe they were all just as bad. No wonder we were still a nation of tea drinkers.

  5. My son worked part time on boats with the divers who told him stories about the day Holt went missing. They said the sea at Cheviot Beach that day was frightening and even though they were experienced divers, they wouldn't go in the water without ropes. Suicide or showing off or submarine, no swimmer with any sense should have been in the water that day.

  6. Anonymous5:00 pm

    Fruitcake, you forgot International Roast!

    Do you think naming a public swimming pool after a PM who drowned would only happen in Australia? V.

  7. I remember the newsflash on TV and the newsreader's voice - as if he could not believe what he was saying. I was the only one around, about 11 years old at the time. My parents had friends over so were busy in another part of the house. Then all hell broke loose. I had not realised that HH was not a strong swimmer. I thought he was - he had many photographs in the paper with him in his scuba diving regalia, surrounded by his pretty daughters in law. I really don't think that chinese submarines were the reason... too far south and it was Sunday.

  8. I remember that Harold Holt's body was never found. The disappearance is similar to the Beaumont children who also vanished into thin air. I suspect Australia has its own "Bermuda Triangle".

    @anonymous, I drink International Roast coffee and don't mind it at all. It's what I'm used to. I do load it up with sugar, but I only have one cup a day.

  9. FruitCake, then along came Nescafe and that became respectable. Well, I say that because it is instant coffee of choice. Pablo was the posh instant coffee if you include Pablo Caterer's Blend.

    Jah Teh, that is as I read it too. I didn't know your son worked on boats. Well, why should if you haven't mentioned it.

    V, Mother was trying to give us International Roast until about seven years ago. I think they have whacked the word memorial in now. So it is the Harold Holt Memorial Pool. Still, it is ironic.

    Christine, we are almost the same age, yet you recall it better than I do. Like you, I too thought he was a good swimmer, but he was not at all.

    River, I think the Beaumont children case has been solved, that is it is known who did it, but there is not the evidence. Glad we didn't call in on you last year if you would have given us International Roast. We always carry Nescafe on us when we travel anyway.

  10. Ha ha, I'd forgotten about the swimming pool!

  11. Anonymous11:51 pm

    I'm sorry River but I could never abide International Roast - but I don't really like any instant coffee! V.

  12. those instant coffees inspired a saying "a nice enough drink, but I wouldn't call it coffee". nescaf changed everything of course, because it had 43 beans in every cup.

    Dame Zara has a lot of style and her Magg was the absolute Last Word in the Sixties. I wonder if HRH The Princess Royal (who certainly met her) remembered the name for her own daughter Zara.

  13. Ann, in the sixties successful business women like Zara were unusual. Is the name that uncommon that the Princess would have picked it up from Australia? Maybe.

  14. Andrew, I keep a jar of Nescafe in the cupboard for visitors. Also teabags, herbal teabags, milo and (pretend) cappucino sachets, made by Nescafe.

  15. Andrew, I was a Canberra kid. Politicians were our neighbours along with assorted public servants, Mandarins, spooks and treasury officials. It was nothing to catch the bus ( 5c fare) to the stop at Parliament House and lurk about King's Hall polly spotting. So we took an interest. There wasn't much to do in those days!

  16. You are the perfect host then River.

    Christine, I can imagine there wasn't a lot to do in Canberra. I guess Canberra people are better informed about politics.

  17. The wonders of the WWW. I thought I'd left a comment on this post - but clearly not!!

    I've found that the answer to ANY trivia question about Australian Prime Ministers is always Harold Holt!!

  18. Red, I guess younger people would not know much about him. You advice noted, except not for who was Aus's first PM.

  19. maybe it's the answer to the question Who will be the next PM.
    Harold swims back in and flicks a wet towel at KRudd ...

  20. Em Stacks, you are wicked.