She never set out to be famous. She was just being herself. Conspicuously, arrestingly, unmistakably herself. It’s just that being Jeanne Little involved wigs, extravagantly false eyelashes and a wardrobe that was aiming for Hollywood glamour but somehow came out as high camp.
She was loud. She was flamboyant. There was no-one else like Jeanne.
“It was almost as if she came from another planet,” says friend and entertainment reporter Craig Bennett.
And she was like that all the time, says her only child Katie Little. “You try being woken up by Jeanne Little at seven o’clock in the morning to go to school and see how you like it,” she says.
For Jeanne, life was, literally, a cabaret. Until it wasn’t.
Until the loudest person in the room was struck silent. Until a person who never stopped talking was rendered mute. Until the laughter died and the vivid brightness faded into the illness of Alzheimer’s. And it wasn’t funny anymore. Then the world became a little bit more ordinary.
Mum-to-be to golden girl in two years
Jeanne’s descent was as swift and unpredictable as her ascent had been.
With not much more than a sewing machine and an outrageously infectious personality, she went from minding her own business making outfits for society ladies and drag queens in a dress shop in Sydney’s Paddington, to the highest-paid woman in television.
She crashed into television when she was eight months pregnant at the age of 36. Finding maternity clothes too boring, she had made her own far more fabulous frocks.
In 1974, a guest had dropped out of the top-rating daytime TV program The Mike Walsh Show. A panicking producer had spotted a photograph of outrageously dressed Jeanne in the Daily Telegraph and sent a taxi. From the first “hello daaarliiiings” she was a sensation.
“The country fell in love with the whole Jeanne Little catastrophe,” Katie says.
Two years later, she caused a show business upset when, in a cyclone of blue feathers, she won a Gold Logie, ultimately becoming, at $1,000 a week, the highest-paid woman on Australian television.
But like all great comediennes, she was never as ditzy as she pretended to be. It is harder than you might think to be that silly. That kind of shtick requires planning, control, timing.
“Mum was coming up with the ideas for the spots and the segments,” Katie says. “She was coming up with the questions that she’d give Mike Walsh to ask her when she was out there.”
Radio personality and comedian Wendy Harmer agrees.
“It took a lot of determination and ingenuity and cleverness to forge her way in the male-dominated world of comedy in the 70s. There was method to the madness,” she says.
“She didn’t just rock up and blather about anything. Jeanne would absolutely keep her eye on the issues of the day.”
Jeanne’s raucous voice, which by her own admission could strip paint, was not an affectation. It was the result of a crippling childhood stutter.
“The way she overcame that was learning to elongate her words, like daaarling,” Katie explains.
“She really tried hard to get over that and to try to pronounce stuff and overcome her stutter, she put a lot of work into being able to speak. I think she even went to a psychiatrist at one point.”
It paid off.
“People would just stop in the street and turn around, they knew instantly it was Mum’s voice,” Katie says.
Making fashion from sausages, milk bottles, garbage bags
Jeanne had grown up the youngest of seven children with a Glaswegian single mother, Catherine, who was a tailor.
“It was a poor household,” Katie says. Jeanne would make summer outfits out of tea towels. “Mum loved fashion and always wanted to look fabulous.”
But in those early years on The Mike Walsh Show, she was only being paid $25 a week.
“She’d rip photos of Hollywood movie sirens out of Vogue magazines and stick them on the wall,” Katie remembers.
“And she’d figure out how to do something similar on a shoestring budget.”
Katie says her mum looked for inspiration wherever she went — using clean industrial waste, balloons or garbage bags.
“I remember my father and I sitting there for two weeks flattening milk bottle caps,” Katie says. “Mum hand-stitched them onto this kind of tube dress and ended up looking like a beautiful mermaid. Things that you thought were rubbish or nothing at all she’d turn into a fabulous outfit.
“If we went to the supermarket she would go, ‘Can I keep that piecrust? I’ll fry them up and turn it into a fabulous hat’.”
Jeanne was known for her edible hats, as Ita Buttrose, a fellow panellist on the daytime show Beauty and the Beast recalls.
“She always made it seem like they were easy to do. But when you looked at them and all the intricate details, and the way she attached sausages, you realised a lot of hard work had gone into it,” she says.
Jeanne had been a dedicated party girl in Paddington, then a bohemian community, when she met her husband Barry Little, a larger-than-life personality himself. He had been a model, photographed by Helmut Newton.
Jeanne was wearing a clear plastic dress with plastic flowers stuck on it. As the champagne flowed and the party became hot and steamy the flowers melted off the dress and Cinderella was forced to do a hasty departure from her prince.
But Barry found her to be a “complete individual”. He knew a rare thing when he saw it.
“He took me for dinner,” Jeanne said in a 2006 episode of ABC’s Talking Heads program. “And I didn’t really ever like anyone else. I had always thought of Barry as being the only person I really adored. And it was just a mad, mad wedding.”
The Little household was like being in a sitcom for their daughter.
“I do really feel like I grew up in almost a theatrical production. I grew up in this big, tall terrace house and my bedroom was on the top floor with my mother’s sewing room. And down in the basement was my father’s interior design business. So we lived in this big crazy creative mess.”
A surprising ‘secret’ revealed
After her father died in July 2019 at the age of 89, Katie came across a box of love letters he had written. It slowly dawned on her that they were not to her mother but to a male lover, someone she had known as Uncle Colin, who had worked in the interior design business in the basement.
Barry had met Jeanne soon after they had broken up.
“I remember Barry saying to me that the whole reason he went from being a gay man to a straight man was because of the magic of Jeanne,” her good friend and entertainment reporter Craig Bennett says.
It had not been a secret; Jeanne had joked about it — “He saved me from being an alcoholic and I saved him from being gay” — but no-one had told Katie.
Katie says the revelation made her “rethink her whole family” and the world in which she grew up.
“It’s like my whole childhood and history is like this puzzle,” she says.
“But people have sat me down and said he never turned his eye to anyone else [after they met].”
Barry and Jeanne though understood each other perfectly.
“Barry so adored and protected Jeanne, and Jeanne adored and protected Barry. A more genuine, deep and astonishing love you’d be hard-pressed to find,” Craig says.
Alzheimer’s steals a star
Around 2010, when Jeanne was still doing her cabaret show, Katie started getting concerned phone calls from people. Jeanne was forgetting her lines on television, she was making wildly inappropriate comments
“I remember in those last years of Beauty and the Beast that she would say some really odd things, she’d say frankly offensive and crazy things, and that was not like Jeanne Little,” Bennett says.
Jeanne was still smiling, walking, talking, working, but she was losing her mind.
After she died, Katie would find notes in her handbags with little pieces of paper with names on them.
“We had people over for dinner and Mum was off in another room, maybe scribbling pieces of paper with people’s names,” Katie says. “She couldn’t remember our closest friends.”
She came to visit Katie and couldn’t find the front door. “You’ve been to my house on numerous occasions. How could you not know where the front door is?” Or she would walk out the front door, leave it open, and Katie’s young children would follow her.
Ita Buttrose — who is an ambassador for Dementia Australia — noticed that Jeanne would forget where she was. “But she was quite clever at hiding this.”
Jeanne was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at age 68 at the Royal Prince of Wales Hospital. Her specialist Tony Broe warned she would continue to deteriorate; she would have to retire and she would need to go into care. Barry said, “But we’ve booked shows into the New Year, we are going on a cruise.”
In denial, Barry protected her, as he always had. He didn’t want anyone to know, he didn’t want her to go into care.
At a dinner when Katie broached the subject. “It was like a bomb went off. I remember Mum sitting at the end of the table after I’d served dinner and everyone pretending things were normal. And watching my mother looking at a plate and finally picking up a piece of lettuce with her hand and thinking, ‘Mum doesn’t know how to use cutlery’.”
With a baby and a young child to look after, Katie had to cut herself off from her father and his friends for three months.
Barry wanted to keep Jeanne at home as long as possible but it became impossible.
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