Joan Winfield – the celebrated violinist

Above – Joan Winfield as she appeared in the Australian Women’s Weekly in 1944. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove. 

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.
[Via Trove – The Advocate 26 July, 1934 and  The Avocate, 26 March 1936]

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

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

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 and 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.

JW2

Above: Joan Winfield in about 1944. Numerous photos of the actress at the height of career are in circulation. This one is from the Author’s collection.

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.

Hotham St East Melbourne

Hotham St East Melbourne in 2018. The old MacGillicuddy home on the left, now a private residence again, looks out on this streetscape that has changed little in 90 years. 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. Mauricette went on to perform and act on stage in California in the 1940s, using the name Dale Melbourne. She married John Herklotz, a Californian businessman and philanthropist, and died in 1998.

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. 

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.

Further reading from National Library of Australia, Trove,

Digitised Newspaper Collection