Joan Winfield (1918-1978) – celebrated violinist and actor


Above – Joan Winfield in 1942. Press photo, source unknown, in the author’s collection. 

Joan Marie Therese MacGillicuddy was born in Melbourne in 1918, the second child of Dr Maurice and Nell MacGillicuddy, important figures in society and the local charitable community. Joan and her older sister Mary Mauricette (born in 1913 and called Billie by the family) had grown up with a love of performance and music. Maurice ran a well known and successful medical practice in the city and Richmond. Both girls gained fame in Melbourne as musicial prodigies – Mauricette was an accomplished pianist studying at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, while Joan, still a student at Catholic Ladies College, was a skilled violinist.

Joan as violinist 1934Mauricette farewell 1936

Joan and Mauricette as they appeared in The Advocate, the Melbourne Catholic newspaper.
Note that Joan had won the Victorian Open Violin Championship for Under 25 years, not as is often claimed, “The Australian Violin championship.” All the same, it was a remarkable achievement for a 15 year old. The Advocate 26 July, 1934 and  The Avocate, 26 March 1936 via The National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Joan also enjoyed the stage, and took a leading role in several pantomimes performed for charity. In 1930 she appeared in The Doll’s House Tea Party, with another aspiring actress, Peggy Maguire, who she would later meet again in Hollywood as Mary Maguire. Joan apparently enjoyed this so much she played the same role again in 1931.

Joan and Peggy

Peggy Maguire is in the maid’s costume, 6th from the left. Joan MacGillicuddy appears to be in the centre, 8th from left. Via  The National Library of Australia’s Trove – The Argus, 16 June, 1930

Life changed in 1936, when the family decided to travel to Britain so that Mauricette could continue her studies in music. John Meredyth Lucas (Joan’s husband after 1951) suggested the move was also because Maurice had discovered he had terminal cancer and wanted to make the most of his final years. After numerous parties and farewell concerts, the family departed Melbourne in April. In July 1937, Mauricette, now making a name for herself in London as a musician, was presented at court. Joan was studying “dramatic art,” – it was later reported to be at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. The family resided for a time at the Duke Street Mansion Apartments in Grosvenor Square and then in June 1939 sailed to New York on the SS Normandie.  (Maurice’s sister lived in New York. He died there in August 1942)

Below right: Joan and another Warner Bros. starlet, Faye Emerson, in a typical wartime publicity shot. The film they appeared in together was actually Lady Gangster and the cups they were pictured with an obvious studio stunt. [Hollywood Magazine Jan-April 1942, Via Lantern]

Hollywood Jan-Dec 1942According to John Meredyth Lucas, it was in New York sometime in 1941 that Joan was spotted by a Warner Bros. scout and offered the standard contract  – the type that enabled a studio to “try out” new faces for up to seven years, but did not necessarily offer much in return. Merle Oberon described the studio system at this time as a “sausage machine,” an apt metaphor for its treatment of young stars like Joan. She was to be known professionally as Joan Winfield, a name plucked from Bette Davis‘ character in the 1941 film The Bride came C.O.D. It was claimed her spectacular swimsuit body made her a popular pin-up with allied troops, which is almost certainly another studio publicity story. After years of completely unremarkable B-films for the likes of Warner’s prolific director “Breezy” Eason, (see the rather underwhelming 50 minute Murder on the Waterfront for example), her career was confined to un-credited supporting roles, later in father-in-law Michael Curtiz‘s films. If this annoyed her or disappointed her, she never publicly said so.

Joan 1945

Above: Joan Winfield
as she appeared in The Des Moines Register (Iowa), 4 March 1945. Beauty, swimsuits and health were important features of Joan’s publicity, and for someone confined mostly to minor or un-credited roles, she enjoyed remarkable publicity. Via Newspapers.com.

This is probably because she found interests beyond acting. She became a US citizen and married Hollywood writer – director – producer John Meredyth Lucas (son of director Wilfred Lucas and Bess Meredyth) in 1951. They had met on the set of the wartime drama The Gorilla Man, in 1943. Together they raised three children and Joan increasingly worked for charitable causes, continuing to take small film parts until 1957.

east melbourne

Hotham St East Melbourne in 2020. The last MacGillicuddy home in Melbourne, the grey building on the right and now a private residence again, looks out on this streetscape that has changed little since Joan revisited it in 1960. Author’s collection

Joan returned to Australia in 1959, while John was directing and writing scripts for the TV series Whiplash, an Australian “western” starring Peter Graves. They visited the beautiful MacGillicuddy home in Hotham Street, East Melbourne. Much to her horror, it had become a scruffy boarding house. But her old school nearby, Catholic Ladies College, was still operating and some of the nuns who taught Joan were there to greet her. In his autobiography, John recalled being deeply moved by the welcome given to his wife in the school’s best parlour. Sister Bernard held Joan’s hand for the entire visit and recounted what had happened to her classmates and all of the nuns.

Apparently a heavy smoker all her life, Joan died after a battle with cancer, aged only fifty-nine, in June 1978.

A Doll's House Darwell and Melbourne

Above: Jane Darwell with Joan’s sister Dale Melbourne in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House c 1945. Author’s Collection.

In addition to singing, Joan’s sister Billie also took to acting, performing on stage in the United States in the mid 1940s, using the stage name Dale Melbourne. Independent producer James B Cassidy organised a tour of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House throughout North America in 1944-6 and apart from Billie in the role of Nora, it also featured well known actors Francis Lederer, Jane Darwell and Lyle Talbot (yes – the same Lyle Talbot who appeared in Plan 9 from Outer Space in 1957). Cassidy and Billie were married, until his untimely death in 1952.

Vancouver Sun 18 Nov 1944
Above: A Doll’s House advertised in the Vancouver Sun, 18 November 1944. Via Newspapers.com

In 1981 Billie married John Herklotz, a Californian businessman and philanthropist. She died in 1998 but remains well remembered at the University of California. The University’s Conference facility at the Centre for Neurobiology of Learning and Memory is named after her.

John Meredyth Lucas’s autobiography, with its entertaining accounts of making a pioneering TV series in Australia, was published shortly after his death in 2002. He is, of course, remembered for his own prolific and diverse body of work especially on television – which included writing, producing and directing Star Trek, The Six Million Dollar Man, Harry O and The Fugitive.

Note: Lucas’ parents, US actress and writer Bess Meredyth and director Wilfred Lucas, made three films in Australia in 1920-1 with Snowy Baker and local producer E. J. Carroll, one of which, The Man from Kangaroo has survived to the 21st Century. 

 

Nick Murphy
Updated July 2020

 

Further Reading

  • John Meredyth Lucas (2004) Eighty Odd Years in Hollywood: Memoir of a Career in Film and Television. McFarland and Co.
  • Ross Carpenter Legends of Australian Ice – Site also includes photos of Joan and Mauricette.

National Library of Australia, Trove,

  • The Argus, 16 June 1930
  • The Advocate 26 July, 1934
  • The Avocate, 26 March 1936
  • The Australian Women’s Weekly 5 Aug 1944  Page 11
  • The Argus (Melbourne) 12 Jun 1946

Newspapers.com

  • The San Francisco Examiner, 15 Oct 1944
  • Vancouver Sun 18 Nov 1944
  • The Courier-Journal (Louisville, Kentucky) 18 Jan 1945
  • The Des Moines Register (Des Moines, Iowa) 4 Mar 1945
  • The Los Angeles Times 27 August 1981

Lantern Digital Media Project

  • Hollywood Magazine, Jan-Dec 1942

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