Dymphna Cusack was a courageous social reformer in mid-twentieth century Australia and an activist for world peace from 1949 until her death in 1981. Her books and plays dealt with the dominant political issues of the times as they were refracted through the lives of ordinary people.
A 1925 Sydney University Arts graduate with honours in History and the new discipline of Psychology, Cusack taught in high schools across NSW for almost two decades. In 1936 she was appointed one of the first Vocational Guidance Counsellors at Sydney Girls' High School; from 1928 her plays (and poems) won prizes and were broadcast on radio; her first novel Jungfrau was published in 1936. Her "tall poppy" status inevitably brought detractors and in December 1939, following her victory in a groundbreaking Workers' Compensation case against the NSW Department of Education, Cusack was transferred to a supernumerary position at Bathurst High School. Her collaborator (Pioneers on Parade, 1939) and mentor Miles Franklin advised her to look at it as "a grand chance to turn the tables", which she did with her classic female staff-room bitchiness play Morning Sacrifice.
In 1944 Cusack's fragile health collapsed and she was pensioned out of the Education Department. She retreated to the Blue Mountains with her friend of undergraduate days, Florence James, visiting home after a decade in Europe. They did a test-run collaboration with a children's book before launching into their expose of Sydney during WWII, the thousand pound prizewinning novel Come In Spinner. In 1947 James returned to London; Cusack revised the manuscript, extracted the prize-money from the Daily Telegraph and in June 1949 departed for Europe. That September financial journalist and leading CPA member Norman Freehill joined her in London and they began a peripatetic lifestyle, writing, publishing and living on their royalties in England, France, Asia and Eastern Europe.
In 1954 Cusack's anti-bomb play Pacific Paradise caught the zeitgeist and was played internationally. In 1956 it took them to China where Freehill ran the Foreign Languages Press in Peking for three years. They returned to Australia to live in 1972 and in 1973 Cusack was awarded a life literary pension. In 1975 she founded the Manly branch of the Fellowship of Australian Writers. The autobiographical travelogue Dymphna by Norman Freehill with Dymphna Cusack was published in 1976, the same year Cusack refused an OBE. Increasingly disabled with multiple sclerosis symptoms she continued to travel to Asia and the Pacific, and to South America in 1980.
Manning Clark wrote to Cusack on 23 June 1980: "I hope by now a whole host of people has told you of their debt to you. I am one of your debtors, and you can think of the work in Australian History as being in part the product of your example." Cusack was awarded the Order of Australia just prior to her death on 19 October 1981.
For further details of manuscript holdings see Marilla North's Yarn Spinners : A Story in Letters Dymphna Cusack, Florence James, Miles Franklin (UQP, 2001).
Interview with Bruce Molloy (tape held QUT)
Awards for Works
Yarn Spinners : A Story in Letters : Dymphna Cusack, Florence James, Miles Franklin2001anthology correspondence biography From the correspondence between Cusack, James and Franklin across the years 1928 to the death of Franklin in 1954, Yarn Spinners: A Story in Letters has been shaped by a process of selection, editing, weaving and providing narrative links in order to develop a continuous narrative of the friendship, collaborations and inter-related lives of these three Australian women writers. The Prologue gives a biographical overview of each of their lives. Each of the five narrative Parts is briefly prefaced with its socio-historical context.
Part I:1928-1935 sets up the Cusack-James relationship as they write to each other as young women graduates: Cusack is teaching in remote rural NSW schools whilst James does the Grand Tour of Europe, finally settling down in London where she marries in 1933.
Part II :1938-39 establishes the friendship of Cusack and Franklin which develops during their collaboration on the scandalous sesqui-centennial satire Pioneers on Parade. In Part III:1945-47, Cusack and James, both burnt out at the end of WWII, set up a writing retreat in the Blue Mountains and collaborate on their prizewinning bestseller expose of wartime Sydney, Come In Spinner.
In Part IV: 1947-49, James returns to London and Cusack follows through the revisions demanded by the Daily Telegraph before they will award the thousand pounds prize money. Cusack is also researching her "tuberculosis novel" Say No To Death. All That Swagger is published by Angus & Robertson whilst Franklin endures her nephew's war neurosis and makes her final Will, providing for an annual [Miles] Franklin Award. In mid-1949 Cusack leaves for Europe.
In Part V:1950-55 the Cusack-Franklin-James friendships are now essentially carried through their correspondence; Come In Spinner is published to press acclaim in London, with Cusack's Say No To Death, Southern Steel and Caddie following in quick succession. Angus & Robertson finally began publishing the "Brent of Bin Bin" series. James, now divorced, rearing two daughters, begins work with London publisher Constable & Co as a reader and talent scout for Australian writers. Franklin and Cusack's friendship provides the emotional fulcrum for this final Part.
The Chronology (1879-2001) provides the facts of the lives and works; the Biographical Notes provide an inventory of most of the cast of characters who appear in the letters.
Come in Spinner1951single work novel The action revolves largely around the Hotel South Pacific where the girls and the 'occupying' American troops meet in the vestibule, while upstairs in the Marie Antionette beauty salon the attendants Deb, Guinea and Claire, each with her own complicated romantic entanglement, work long hours to disguise the shortcomings of their rich, fat clientele. A book sharply observant of the new era ushered in by WWII.