Australian Biography

Margaret Fulton - full interview transcript

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When your daughter was born, could you describe what that meant to you?

It's hard to think of how I felt when Suzanne was born. I ... I wasn't thinking of myself. I suppose I wanted everything to be right. And I didn't count her toes, and I knew she had all her toes. And I just felt I was going on a lovely adventure with someone that I was responsible for. It was a marvellous feeling. I wanted to be ... for example, I didn't want to have any aids to the birth. I felt that this was the one time I might hurt, but it was going ... it was for some cause, and some reason. I was absolutely interested from beginning to end, and when ... I remember when she was sort of lifted away from me, I saw the little vagina, and I said, 'Oh, it's a girl', and, you know, I was interested right from the beginning, and I've never lost my interest in her and her life and everything that she did, and everything that, you know, was ... was for giving her birth.

And yet you were facing, at that moment, a rather sort of difficult stage, where you were going to be looking after her. Your relationship with her father had broken down and you also had had urges back towards your career. So given that, you know, you were a young woman at a time when you'd already had demonstrated to you that a career was going to be difficult, what were you thinking about all of that and how you would manage it?

I think I always had faith in my ... in my mother's teachings, as it were, because people used to say to me, like my husband's aunt would say, 'Oh what's ... why bother about an education. Look you're just doing what the rest of us has done and had children'. And I said, 'But an education isn't just to be ... an education is for what goes on in your head, your mind, your way of thinking'. I have never felt that education or career in itself was some great virtuous thing. It was something that you wanted to do, because you knew that it did make a difference how you thought and felt. I didn't ever think it was necessary for the career or the financial situation. You see, I was brought up a time - I observed the Depression - but I was brought up at a time that once I was in the workforce, it was a full workforce. Everyone ... everyone who wasn't tied to something could get a job. So I was just ... I always felt this is what life was about. This is living, and I was taking my daughter with me on this ... this passage through. I didn't ever think that it was ... that I wanted a career, as such.

Why did you decide to reject the special exhibition, the scholarship, to go and do nutrition? What was behind that? It seemed like a great opportunity.

Look, I was a young, a girl, five foot. My ambition in life - I knew it was a dream fantasy - but I wanted to be a Bluebell Girl. You know, six foot tall, kicking my way across the stage in Paris. Of course I'm going to reject something serious like nutrition. There was a big, wonderful, exciting, glamorous, scintillating world out there waiting for me. I wasn't going to do nutrition. [Laughs] I can so nutrition when I'm seventy, but I can't ... couldn't have been a Bluebell Girl other than then. And of course, I couldn't have been a Bluebell Girl anyway, because of my wee Glasgow legs, and all of the other things. But, you see, I think dreaming and fantasy, is as much a part of life as, you know, the serious business of getting a degree. And yet I admire most of all ... now I admire the people who have got these brilliant minds that can shape and change the world.

After the baby was born, did you go back to work fairly quickly?

I knew I had to sort of earn my money, because my husband didn't think that I should have any money. Or he didn't think that was important. So I started doing a funny thing. Because I was a good needle woman, I started making babies' clothes, which is like sweatshop labour. And I used to lay Suzanne down, and I'd treadle away on this machine making ... putting little lace and threading ribbons through. It was the maddest maddest thing I ever did, because you got paid practically nothing. But I realised that I ... I had always been independent, and I suppose, yes I did a silly thing like that. But it was very soon after that, that I was offered a very good job, funnily enough in David Jones. It was when soft goods: you know, washing machines, dishwashers, and all of those household appliances were coming back into the market, and they had to get clever people to sell them. And I wasn't a sales girl as such, but I was showing people how to use these. So I went back to David Jones, you know, the big retail store, managing the ... this home service section they called it. Because service became a big thing then. And I could do that two or three days a week. Two days one week, three days the next week, with another person. So I was very soon back doing things at what I was, you know, quite good at.

This would have been an early example of job sharing then, which has now become a new big thing.

I suppose it was. It was quite unusual to do this, because I knew I couldn't ... I had left my husband at this time and I was living up with my sister and her clever husband, her lovely husband, who was a writer, up at the Hawkesbury River, and that was when I was making - what do you call it when you put your hand up and show your leg and get a lift, you know?


Hitchhiking. I was hitchhiking from Mooney Mooney to Sydney and so two days one week and three days the other week, just was enough money to ... to live on.

Provided you didn't have to pay fares.

Providing I didn't have to pay fares. It is awful. I ... I realise if the department of railways gets on to me that I had a ticket that had, you know, what week it was. And I used to smile at the ... or I used to hop off at a railway station, somewhere where there weren't very many attendants. It was the sort of country then. I think Mt Druitt. And I'd hop off and then I'd get on to the road way and hitch. But it was a ... it was a time when really I suppose things were pretty neat for me. When I say 'neat', there wasn't much room for a movement either way. Because I was living ... my sister and her husband didn't have a lot of money either. We had a great life, but not much money and they had said, 'Put everything you have ... Margaret, keep it and put it away, so that you can get established', and it was just marvellous. I was able to save all of my wages and then I said, 'Well, I can leave now. I can go on my own way', and ... which I did. But it was a marvellous time, but also a very ... I suppose if you like to look at it, difficult. But when you're young and when you're full of hope and when you're full of belief in yourself, nothing is really all that too difficult. There's a way to solve every problem.

So in fact, it was a period in which you were living fairly close to the edge in terms of money. And as someone who'd always liked nice things, and been brought up to appreciate those things, it was all in the future for you at this stage, was it?

Yes, but then I was ... I've probably ... I've probably never lived better in my life. We were having lovely fresh prawns taken straight from the river. Oysters that we knocked off the shores. Wild asparagus. Until the ... the awful thing happened to our life up there, was that New Australians came to live, to build the bridge on the Hawkesbury River and they too knew about wild asparagus and all of these things. So there was competition to get these things. We bred our own ducks, we bred our own goats. We grew artichokes before people had it. We had got some seeds for capsicums before they were ... we were living so well. And we had time to read, we had time to explore and when we got a good book by the one little lamp that we had, we used to take turns in reading the book to each other. It was a charming, marvellous existence. Even although we didn't have much money. But what you can do with a ... with a buoyant disposition and imagination and intelligence, and you know, hard work and milking the goats and things like that, it was all ... it was a marvellous time.

And how long did that last for, that you were living there?

I think it lasted until ... from the time my daughter was probably eighteen months until she was about three or four. It was ... it was a lovely time. And a lovely time to have with a little child and get to know ... know them. And you know the child, and get to know your own feelings, too. You do need time to be able to spend, when you haven't got much money to go off to the shops. And you know we, for example, one of the things I went to a book launch. It was for a book launch for the Garrulous Gourmet and this was bringing the world of Paris to Sydney. And we were reading how you make this marvellous pot au feu and it ... it told you that what they did in the fields in ... in France: they put this on in the morning, and then they went out and worked in the fields and then when they came home, dinner was cooked. And we'd be ... My sister and myself would be cooking away and thinking, when are we going to get, you know, out into the fields? Or, I think the book had said if you live in the city, you can go to a movie, but we'd be so busy making this one dish from this lovely French cookbook and that's the way we entertained ourselves. And you know, years later, when my first book came out and it ... it was an immediate success, I was in Perth and a little family came up to ask me to autograph my book and this little boy, a little boy of ten or eleven, was clutching the book. And his mother said, 'Oh, it was his idea that we get this. My young ... my mother has died and my young brother has come to live with us. He's studying for his final exams, and we only live in a two bedroom house, and there are six of us so we're going to have to be quiet so that he can do his study'. And they thought, what are we going to do? We can't turn the radio on, we can't turn the television on, and this little boy said, 'We could buy the Margaret Fulton cookbook and stay in the kitchen and cook'. And it ... I thought this is what I'm working for. It's working to bring a kind of a joy that I've experienced from someone else's book, into ... into their life. And I've always remember that little family, and I autographed the book to the family.

And did you stay in this David Jones job for a long time?

Not ... not very ... not very long. I suppose a couple of years. It was very ... it was very useful for me at that time. But the girl I was working with was rather jealous of ... of me. And the man who had backed me had gone to America, and he'd had a breakdown in America and he didn't come back for a long time. And this girl used to spend her time looking through the 'positions vacant' column and she would say, 'Here's a good job for you, Margaret, pastry sorter'. And I thought, oh you know ... But it did ... it sort of kept on. It got at me a little bit, because I realised she wanted to get rid of me. But then she was such a dope, because we'd be talking about things, reading. I remember one time we were discussing reading Ulysses and I said, 'I just can't come to grips with it. I can't quite ... I've got to reread', and 'Oh', she said, 'Margaret, of course, you ... you know, you aren't an intellectual. I read it in a whole evening and I just mopped it up', and everybody at the table was so aghast that this girl who could read Ulysses in one evening and mop it up like anything. So it was a funny period, and I was quite glad when it was over. Actually I ... I was with a ... a curator of the ... he became a curator of the New South Wales Art Gallery, but we were sitting around a grand piano with a bucket in the middle to catch the drips from the roof that fell above. I mean, it was a funny mixed existence. And he'd seen an advertisement for the job at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and I saw a job advertised, and somebody said, 'Oh, you won't get the job'. It was Hal Missingham. He became a very well known ...

He was director of the art gallery.

He was the director of the art gallery, yes. He ... he said, 'It's only going to be a tuppence ha'penny stamp', and so I said, 'I'm applying for this job and it's only going to be a tuppence ha'penny stamp', and we went together, and posted our letters, except I forgot to put the stamp on. And when they read that I was Scottish, and had forgotten to put the stamp on, they said, 'Oh, we must see this girl'. But it got ... yes, I moved on from then.

And so what was the next phase for you, in terms of your career?

My career, I ... the job that I ... I had seen advertised was for a cookery editor for a women's magazine. And I went along and applied for the job and a marvellous person interviewed me. It was Elizabeth Riddell, you know, the famous Australian. She was the editor at the time. But it was so funny about this job. It wasn't whether I could write or understood cookery all that much. But could I make brown rolls, brown bread rolls? Because the directors of the company had a board luncheon once a month and they liked handmade bread rolls. So I got the job on the strength of making handmade bread rolls and a few other things. But it started my career in newspapers and women's magazines, and writing about food and I used to write the daftest things, you know. How to have a cocktail party. And I'd been to one, so I knew how to do it. And ... and ... because people at that stage were very fascinated by cocktail parties and they knew it was the smart thing to do. And the kind of food you served. And I would be telling people to have ... how to have dinner parties, six courses, and the wines to serve with them. I mean, I'd never been to a dinner party that had six courses. But I was taken out by some people who ... some of the French who were in Sydney at that time. There were French wool buyers, you know, buying our beautiful wool, and there was a French, a man, who was the head of J.Walter Thompson's, a leading advertising agency. He was married to a French woman. And they wrote a marvellous book, Oh, For A French Wife. Anyway they discovered Margaret Fulton as a lively little person, and embraced her into their world and of course, then I did learn all about French cooking. And I did learn how to do things in that wonderfully sophisticated way of the French in those days. And of course, when I started writing about those things, I ... I could do with much more, you know, authenticity. I learned to make things like mayonnaise properly. And I also went to East Sydney Tech. [It] had a food school. And a lot of the ... the main chef was ... he cooked for the Shah of Persia, and he'd done ... he was a marvellous chef. A lot of those wonderful people in Europe who were servicing the high ... you know, the enormous wealthy and powerful, came to Australia and discovered they liked it and they stayed. And it was they who influenced the food, not to the world ... wide world, but to little people like Margaret Fulton, who then wrote about it. And I sort of brought this magic world of the French wives and French food and the way of doing things to the Australian public, in a way that they were just dying for. They just lapped it up and they loved it.

When you went to the classes at East Sydney Tech, what did you learn that you hadn't already acquired from all your other cooking experiences?

I learnt enormous skills. I learnt enormous skills in discipline. You see, I already knew how to make pastry and the kind of things for home cooking. But then I learnt the refinement ... the refinement. I, for example, I chopped vegetables for six months. I did brunoise, which is a tiny, wee little dice, and dice which are bigger, and cubes which are bigger. And I learnt to ... I learnt to control that knife, and it seemed awfully ... I used to get so cross, thinking all I'm doing is cutting up vegetables. But what I came out with was enormous skills with my knife, with the ... with my saucepans, with everything that I touched, because I was working with a person who had reached the heights and was taking us with him. And it was just lovely.

You always seem to approach whatever you were asked to do with great confidence. Where do you think that came from?

Oh, being loved from the time I was a minute old. Being adored by everyone that surrounded me. That gives you confidence. You know, when I say 'adored', it didn't stop them tying me up under a bed. My brothers and sisters were doing all kinds of funny things to me. But basically, I think love is so important and it gives you a feeling of self-confidence and assurance. And everything that you ... everything you do when people love you, is all right. And so I'd started my life that way. And so that anything that I ... I took on, I always felt I was going to be triumphant. You know, I can remember when my daughter was having a Brownies' day at Centennial Park, and then it was the mothers' race. And I was a wee, short, five foot. And you know, these gorgeous Australian mothers with long legs and oh, so athletic and I was never athletic. And it was the mothers' race, and Suzanne said, 'Oh Mum, you're not going to go in the race, are you?' and she went and hid behind the bush. And I thought ooh, the little monkey. And so they described me running this mothers' race, and my little legs were going like wheels, because they were going so hard. And I won the mothers' race, because you know, I felt how dare she think that I can't win the mothers' race! I mean if you'd looked at me and you'd looked at the other athletics Australian. But I think I've approached everything in life, that, of course, I can do it.

So you did this course at the East Sydney Tech, and you'd been exposed to the French influence and this improved your writing. Did you continue at the women's magazine?

I continued at the women's magazine, and then I met ... it was at a time when J. Walter Thompson said, 'Why don't you come and do ...'. They made me very quickly a copy chief, and also an account executive.

So you were approached by the advertising agency, J. Walter Thompson?

Yes, this man who'd married a French woman, he saw something in me, just as he saw something in his French wife. And they approached me and said, 'Come'. And it was marvellous those years, because I also learnt what ... what people really like to eat. Kraft Cheese, you know, was one of my accounts. And I also worked on the Kellogg's account. You learn marketing and you learn what's selling, and you learn ... you learn what real - when I say real people eat - you learn, yes, what people are really eating, rather than me telling them how to make a quiche lorraine or a beef wellington, or any of those fancy things. It was a very, very good training period for me. And also, when you work in advertising, you've got to ... it's not like writing a novel, or even a short story. You've got to get your message over in four or five words and it's got to sell, it's got to move that product. And I found that absolutely fascinating. And then I found it fascinating when I would have to be selling a campaign to these big multinational companies. And saying, 'This is the way we'll go, this is the we'll sell'. I had to do that with confidence so, I suppose, my confidence was important ... has always been important, right through my life, whatever I did.

Were all the accounts that you were in charge of, at the advertising agency, related to food?

Yes, I've only ever worked on food accounts. You know, things like ... one time they ... they ... Sugar, for example. The Queensland government was putting money into the sugar, and the cane farmers. And they said it was a time ... it's a time when a lot of the sugar used to be used for jam making. So it came out as a jam account. So I got the words ... or you know, look at all you can do with jam. So I was selling jam through the advertising pages. Yes, I only ever worked on food accounts.

Making the decision to go there from being cookery editor on a woman's magazine, was that hard for you to do?

No, it was very easy, because I had a terrible time at this, because my sister, twenty years earlier, had had a kind of a love affair with a ... with a journalist, who ended up to be chief of staff. And my sister and I are a bit alike, so when I walked into the offices, he ... he ... he got his eyes on me and he thought it was like having this love affair come back again as a younger sister. It was a dream for a man. But also his girlfriend worked ... she was the homemaking editor. I think he'd found her sitting up in bed with a little dimity night dress rather pretty. And he ... but she got very annoyed at this young girl coming in, who was reminding her boyfriend of, you know, the greatest love of his life. And he rather plagued me. He used to dangle me in front of the cameras and I really mean dangle. We had to walk up about a twelve foot ladder and look down at the food below being photographed. And he'd say, 'Look, lean over, Margaret', and he'd clutch me under my boobs, and I'd be dangling there. And she would be underneath holding a saucepan and it'd be shaking. And oh, it was, it was terrible. It was awful. It was sexual harassment. We didn't know it was sexual harassment. I just thought he was Jean's old boyfriend that was getting ... He would invite me ... I would get a call to his office to say, 'Oh, what are you doing here?' and I'd say, 'Well, you called for me, Mr. ...'. I won't say his name. And then he'd say, 'Oh well, now that you're here, as a matter of fact I have been watching you. You have got a ... I think you've got a great future ahead of you. Why don't you come to my office and we'll work on some stories', and I thought immediately, oh, this is the etchings thing, you know. 'Come and see my etchings, little spider to the fly'. So I was miserable. I was being plagued by this woman, who was the homemaking editor, and then she was put in charge of me, because every time this man wanted to walk out ... help me with my parcels out of the ... you know, I would be going the other way. No, it was awful. So I was very happy to get away from that.

Did you remember also that you'd been told, hadn't you, that - by the vocational guidance people, that advertising wouldn't be a bad thing for you to do. Was that at all in your mind, that advertising was something that had always been there as a possibility?

No, no. My clever brother-in-law, William Hatfield, had said, 'Margaret, go where the money is. It's the advertising that keeps a newspaper or a magazine going. Go closer to the source of money'. And of course, it's true. You know, without advertising going into these women's magazines or any kind of magazine, any radio station or television station ... It's the money that pays the wages. The money from the advertising that pays the wages. And by that stage I thought, oh, the ... yes, I'm being, you know, worldly wise, and I'm going to where the money is. So I went for that. And also it's that wonderful feeling of youth, of try something new.

But you had had rather a bad experience before, in the business side of things, with the incident at the hotel in Canberra and a sense that women were being kept out of business things. When, at the stage that you went to the advertising agency, and you were back in a position of control and power, managing accounts, was that an issue again, the fact that you were a woman?

I don't think women are ever in control, fully. I don't think I went from advertising or women's magazines to have more control. I don't think I have ever thought that I ... I would have control. You see, I wasn't really an early feminist, or anything else because I believed in myself. And there was no doubt in my mind that women could do things. It didn't occur to me that it was men doing this to me, or something else. I think at the back of my mind, I didn't like what happened to me. But I didn't ... but I thought it was letting somebody put it over you and not so much that you had control of letting someone put it over you, because you don't. It just happens.

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