Suzanne Bennett (1893-1974); From Walhalla to Broadway

Suzanne Bennett as she appeared in the New York Daily News, 18 May, 1928. Via Newspapers.com. The colour photo of Walhalla was taken by dsidwell (David Sidwell) in 2004-6, via Wikimedia Commons.

Suzanne Bennett is amongst the successful Australians who sought a career on stage in New York in the early twentieth century. She was born Susannah Catherine Evans in Walhalla, Victoria, Australia in January 1893, the second of five children of John Evans, variously described as a miner or mine engine driver, and Alice nee Whitlow, a local Walhalla girl.

Above: Suzanne Bennett soon after her arrival in the US. Chicago Tribune, 22 July 1923. Via newspapers.com

At the time of her birth, Walhalla was a bustling gold-mining town of 3000 people, set in a narrow valley in mountainous country. The town was remote and access was difficult. Even when the narrow gauge railway finally arrived in Walhalla in 1910, it still took 3 hours of slow train travel up steep gradients and around sharp corners to cover the 50 kilometres to Moe, the nearest mainline station. The surrounding eucalyptus forests were so dense that when a USAAF fighter crashed near Walhalla in March 1942, the wreckage was not found for seven years. Mains electricity finally arrived in the town at the end of the twentieth century. But in other respects the town was fortunate. When the last local mine closed in 1917, an extraordinary 55 tonnes of gold had been recovered from Cohen’s reef, that ran under the valley.

Brass band and procession in Walhalla, about 1905. Susannah Evans may have been in the crowd. Photo by William Harrison Lee. State Library of Victoria

Suzanne’s mother Alice died of pneumonia in Walhalla in 1901, four months after the birth of her youngest child, Arthur. Sometime around 1913 the Evans family began to move to Melbourne. In February 1913, Suzanne’s oldest sister Edith married Bert Guy, a Walhalla butcher and the couple relocated to Melbourne. John Evans, whose health had almost certainly been weakened by years of mining work, also moved to Melbourne in 1913. He succumbed to chronic pneumonia in August, aged only 48.

Suzanne’s own early experiences in Walhalla and Melbourne are lost to us today, but it is certain she and her siblings attended Walhalla Primary School No 957. On the other hand, it is difficult to verify that Madame Melba heard her sing as a child in Walhalla, or that she later attended Melbourne University, as has been claimed. However it is known that in 1915 she married Sergeant Oscar Bennett, who had just joined the Australian army and was about to be sent overseas. (She had adopted the spelling Suzanne by this time). It was a whirlwind romance and marriage – she was later to say she had only known Bennett a few weeks before he left for the Great War. Like so many Australian soldiers, he was not to return home until mid-1919. Suzanne lived through the war in a very grand looking boarding house at 20 Burnett Street, St Kilda – a building that still stands today. To support herself she sometimes worked as a typist, while appearing on stage at night – reportedly with the Rigo Grand Opera Company, later for Hugh D.McIntosh in the chorus for Tivoli shows. She also pursued her passion, a career as a singer.

A grainy image showing some of the Sydney Tivoli’s performers in May 1922. In this photo montage, Suzanne Bennett is standing in the powder box above “Irish” (really English) entertainer Talbot O’Farrell. Belle Leichner, sister of Leah, is at right. Sunday Times (Sydney), 7 May 1922, via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Unfortunately, Suzanne’s marriage was much less successful than her developing stage career. In October 1920 Suzanne attempted to divorce Oscar, on the grounds he had repeatedly “left her without support. At the time, this claim was apparently stronger grounds for action than his alleged adultery, and violence towards her when drunk. Her action failed, Oscar’s insistence that she “give up the stage” and “live a proper life” apparently found approval in the St Kilda court. Two years later however, Oscar was named as co-respondent in another suit and a divorce was finally granted. She had not given up the stage in the meantime, but it had obviously been a difficult seven years. One can only admire her stoicism in keeping on. She kept Suzanne Bennett as her name, in spite of all.

For a time a pupil of music teacher Grace Miller Ward (who had discovered soprano Gladys Moncrieff), it seems Suzanne had her heart set on a career as a singer. With Ward’s encouragement, she planned a future in the US, or Europe, and had saved enough to travel. She departed Sydney for California on the SS Niagara in October 1922. Also on board was Australian soprano Nellie Leach, with whom she “teamed up” for a while.


On arrival in California, Suzanne enjoyed a rush of publicity, apparently based on her part in the Melbourne Herald newspaper’s “Beauty Quest” competition. A woman from North Carlton called Betty Tyrrell had won it, Suzanne didn’t even place in the final six. On 22 November, the San Francisco Examiner told its readers the pretty Australian woman (accompanied by a large photo) had won the competition from a field of 500. A day later, the San Francisco Chronicle claimed she had won from a field of 1000. By July 1923, the Chicago Tribune was reporting that she had won numerous beauty contests. It was all extraordinary publicity for a 29 year old, although throughout her life she proved adept at handling the press. Another clue to her success might be found in the Niagara’s manifest. Here Suzanne listed Victoria White (Mrs Hyman White), formerly of Melbourne, as her contact in New York. Some of Victoria White’s extended family were immersed in show-business, and included writer/producer Bert Levy, now based in Hollywood, and actor Albert Whelan, working in Britain.

Above: Suzanne Bennett features in advertising for The Dancing Girl, The Philadelphia Inquirer 16 September 1923. Via Newspapers.com

The result of her efforts was a leading role in The Dancing Girl, following the departure of English actress Gilda Leary, to whom she had been understudy. Her career was well and truly launched and for the next six years she appeared in a string of roles in plays. The Broadway Internet data base lists 9 New York performances for her between 1923 and 1929, but contemporary newspapers show there were more – including shows that were toured through cities of the eastern USA. She was well known and extremely busy.

These productions were a mix of melodramas and musical revues. It would be nice to report that the reviews of this young Australian’s performances were all wildly enthusiastic, but the truth is, they were as varied as one would realistically expect. However, the performances did bring her into regular contact with influential and well connected figures in the theatre world. For example she appeared in Port O’London, a three act London underworld play, which also featured Basil Rathbone, who remained a life-long friend. The play ran for only a month in 1926 at Daly’s 63rd Street Theatre, despite very positive reviews.

A more important event occurred in her life in mid 1928, when she met the South Australian explorer Hubert Wilkins, fresh from his groundbreaking cross-arctic flight from Point Barrow, Alaska to Norway. Wilkins had already been given a knighthood by the British Government and on arrival in New York was welcomed as a celebrity. Simon Nasht‘s insightful biography of Wilkins explains the context of their first meeting – Suzanne was asked to attend a New York event to help welcome a fellow Australian. At first, she thought him rude and arrogant, until she realized he was just painfully shy. He came to several of her shows, they danced and had dinners, and they fell in love. The couple married in Ohio in August 1929, but not before Suzanne had suffered a debilitating bout of rheumatic fever. Nasht reminds his readers just how serious the disease was before the development of antibiotics, and it seems likely it also meant the end of Suzanne’s active career on the stage. Hubert was continuously by her side during her recovery.

Suzanne with Hubert about the time of their “quiet” marriage at a registry office in Ohio. Daily News (New York) 31 August, 1929. Via Newspapers.com

Wilkins’ life is very well documented although the importance of his work is only recently being appreciated in his homeland. A short summary of his extraordinary achievements and life-long interest in world-wide meteorological study is provided by the Australian Dictionary of Biography (here). But what role was there for Suzanne Bennett in this relationship? There were endless newspaper accounts reporting the amount of time the couple spent apart – and how she coped. It made for very good copy but the truth is probably found in a comment about the marriage cited by Nasht – that she made in a public address given sometime in 1937. “There are many drawbacks…yet there is always a fascination with the work that my husband has given his whole life to create… If in some small way I can be instrumental in helping him to achieve the ultimate goals, I shall not feel my sacrifice has been in vain.” With similarly inquisitive minds, a shared sense of self reliance and adventure, they were probably more suited to each other than reporters would ever know.

While continuing to sing and sometimes to perform, Suzanne took a great interest in supporting Hubert’s work. She unsuccessfully suggested a role for herself as cook on the submarine Nautilus in 1929. She wrote to, spoke to and perhaps even sang to Hubert via radio, travelled to Norway to meet him in 1936 and joined him on the first trans-Atlantic passenger flight of the airship Hindenburg in May 1936. Suzanne returned twice to Australia, in 1938 and again in 1955. Later in life she took up portrait painting with considerable success, and continued to show a keen interest in things and people Australian. When Indigenous Australian singer Harold Blair visited New York in 1951, she was on hand to greet him.

Above: Now with blonde hair, Lady Suzanne Wilkins in The Australian Women’s Weekly, 17 September 1938. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Lady Suzanne Wilkins died in 1974, at the age of 81, at a nursing home in Anaheim, California. Hubert had died suddenly in November 1958, living just long enough to learn that a US submarine had traversed the Arctic under the ice, as he had once tried to do. In both cases, their ashes were scattered by the US Navy at the North Pole, a testimony to the high esteem with which they were held in their adopted country.

Strangely, this writer cannot find any evidence that Suzanne or her husband ever became US citizens, although Hubert worked for the US government in a variety of capacities during World War II (and Suzanne talked of US citizenship in the late 1930s). While based for much of their lives in New York, it seems telling that in 1939, when she and Hubert had purchased a farm in a secluded corner of north-east Pennsylvania, they chose to call it Walhalla.


Note 1
After they were seen dancing together in New York in October 1924, several US newspapers associated Suzanne Bennett romantically with Edward, Prince of Wales. But this seems to be just another story – there is no other evidence supporting a romantic attachment to Edward.

Nick Murphy
28 August 2020


Further Reading

Film

Text

  • Malcolm Andrews (2011) Hubert who? War hero, polar explorer, spy : the incredible life of unsung adventurer Hubert Wilkins. ABC Books.
  • Stuart E. Jenness (2004) Making of an Explorer George Hubert Wilkins and the Canadian Arctic Expedition, 1913-1916. McGill Queen’s University Press.
  • Simon Nasht (2007) The Last Explorer: Hubert Wilkins Australia’s Unknown Hero. Hachette Australia
  • Lowell Thomas (1961) Sir Hubert Wilkins, His World of Adventure. McGraw Hill.

Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University


The Ohio State University Library holds all of Hubert Wilkins papers, and some created by Suzanne. The Collection inventory, held in the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center, can be consulted here.

National Portrait Gallery (UK)
holds five photos of Suzanne Wilkins that can be viewed here.

Walhalla Heritage and Development League Historic Walhalla.
[Contains a large number of resources and links on Walhalla]

National Library of Australia’s Trove
(Note- none of the Walhalla newspapers have been digitized by Trove yet and microfilm cannot currently be consulted)

  • Table Talk (Melb), 7 Oct 1915
  • The Argus (Melb), 6 Oct 1920
  • The Herald (Melb) 12 Aug 1922
  • The Herald (Melb) 19 Aug 1922
  • Newcastle Herald and Minder’s Advocate (NSW) 17 Nov 1922
  • Daily Mercury (Tas) 4 Feb 1937
  • Daily Telegraph (Syd) 4 Feb 1937
  • Sun (Syd) 5 Sept 1938
  • The Australian Women’s Weekly, 17 Sept 1938
  • Advocate (Tas) 4 Nov 1938
  • Daily Advertiser (Wagga) 5 Aug 1939
  • The Argus (Melb) 19 Sept 1944
  • The Argus (Melb) 1 Jan 1949
  • Daily Telegraph (Syd) 4 Oct 1954
  • The World’s News (Syd) 29 Jan 1955
  • The Argus (Melb), 21 Oct 1955
  • The Australian Women’s Weekly, 21 Aug 1963 [a Lady Wilkins portrait features in this article on Sumner Locke Elliot.]
  • The Australian Women’s Weekly, 19 Mar 1975

Newspapers.com

  • The San Francisco Examiner 22 Nov 1922
  • The San Francisco Chronicle 23 Nov 1922
  • Los Angeles Times, 17 December 1922
  • The Californian 22 Dec 1922
  • Chicago Tribune 22 July 1923
  • The Philadelphia Inquirer 16 September 1923
  • Daily News (New York) 18 May 1928
  • Times Union (New York) 31 Aug 1929
  • Dayton Daily News (Ohio) 6 Sept 1936
  • San Francisco Examiner, 11 Dec 1974

Lantern Digital Media Project

  • New York Clipper 11 July 1923 [Review]

New York Public Library FultonSearch

  • Variety, February 18, 1925.[Review]
  • The Billboard Feb 20, 1926 [Review]
  • The New York Sun 5 Aug 1926 [Review]
  • The Brooklyn Standard Union, 24 Dec 1927 [Review]

Original documents sourced from
Birth, Deaths and Marriages Victoria – Australian birth certificates
Familysearch.org – Shipping manifests
Public Records Office Victoria – divorce records


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