Australian Biography

Margaret Fulton - full interview transcript

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In a way, all your books really ... [INTERRUPTION]

Given that your books, really, were in a way a kind of teaching, you know, like having Margaret Fulton teach you how to cook, and you'd always enjoyed teaching, did you do much teaching? Did you take classes at all at any stage?

At one stage I actually did cookery classes at Johnny Walker's Bistro Cellars and it was just lovely, because he had a round table, and ... We used to give people a glass of wine, which always helps to get through a cookery class and they would sit with their glasses of wine and their hats, and you know. The fashion of the day was to have a little hat on and I can always remember those hats, sort of sitting there. But it was lovely, because people were just dying to know. They'd started travelling overseas and they were coming back and they'd tasted marvellous things, and they wanted to be able to make these things. So it was a very ... a very happy time, teaching them. And the lovely thing about teaching anyone anything, you're actually, the person that learns the most is you because you're explaining to people why you're doing something, and what you're doing. And a lot of the things you do with food are, you've learnt it and you do it automatically, and you know it works but when you have to tell someone why you're doing it this way, it's ... it's making you think why are you doing it this way and why do we do this. So as a learning, a learning bend, I think I learnt more from my cookery classes than the people. But on the other hand, a lot of people say, 'Oh, I went to your bistro cookery classes, and you taught my wife to cook, and you did ...', you know, whatever it was. It was a lovely time. And it was early ... the early stage of people showing ... having a cookery class, who weren't just say the gas company, or you know, something like that. The gas company, later on, started having ... they learned from this, and started having international chefs come and cook because, of course, gas, you cook with ... if you cook with gas, they're selling gas, and it works. It's a nice ... nice round thing. But I loved the cookery classes. It was hard work and it was always at the end of the day. But it was just so exciting to see these rows and rows of smiling people with a glass of wine in their hand and then they'd put it down and get the pencil and write out. And it ... it was a great time.

Why did you stop doing them?

I kept doing cookery classes, really, for a very, very long time but then I suppose I began to get busy. I went also from ... Johnny Walker had this wonderful bistro, which was down in the cellars. It was near the stock exchange and he moved up to Angel Place. And I think I stopped, really, when Johnny got ... got ... got sick or got something happened. Oh, I'd had enough. You know, you can't keep on doing the same things right through your life. And then I think I got busier also with my books. And I felt I was reaching ... you know, I was reaching something more permanent. Teaching sixty people to cook is ... I felt that I what I could do through magazine work, through my books, I could teach a whole lot of other people out there, who couldn't get to the classes. You know, I used to have at one cookery class. A millionaire's wife used to fly her little plane. And this is way back in the sixties, sixties, early seventies. She would fly her plane down from Mudgee to a cookery class. It was always so funny, because here was wee Margaret Fulton, who you know, couldn't ... well, was a country girl. But here she was telling millionaire's wives how to live and how to cook dinner, and how to entertain, and how to do things. I always remember once in ... there was a book Always In Vogue, and this Edna Woodman Chase said, 'Here we were in the New York office of Always In Vogue. We were telling Mrs. Vanderbilt and Mrs. Henry Ford how to dress, and we didn't have the price of a pocket handkerchief between us'. But I think that's the lovely thing about ordinary people sometimes doing extraordinary things. It ... and that's how I felt. I felt it was great fun.

And did you ever take classes internationally?

I have never gone ... I have never gone to international classes, and gone overseas to do a class because basically that was a thing that came later. And I don't want to sound sort of smug or anything like that but when you have learnt cookery, learnt the techniques from one of the ... a real master, you've got those techniques in your ... at your fingertips. So what someone else was doing wasn't as intriguing to me as what ... what people, what women in countries were doing, the home cooks were doing: the clever things they were doing. I've always been a bit more intrigued by the clever, wonderful cooks that [are] country cooks and they might be cooking in Spain and in Mexico, or you know, in Greece. I was always a little bit more intrigued by what those clever people were doing, rather than the ... this new elite cookery school was telling you. At great expense, I might add. I'm a Scot, remember.

There's a photo of you giving a class in Hong Kong. Were you teaching the Chinese how to cook?

[Laughs] One funny time, I took a ... I took a gourmet trip to China, actually. But I went to Hong Kong and I did cookery classes at that YM ... YWCA. Yes, I have actually done cookery classes in the early days in Hong Kong and then I also went to Tokyo, and I did cookery classes with the Benedictine sisters, who ... They were in Peking, and during, after the ... when the war ... the big war was on in China, they had got out and gone to Tokyo. I'm forgetting that I had done that. You see, it's interesting that ... how things come back to you. But yes, I did take these cookery classes. But one time I had this gourmet tour in Shanghai - I think it was Shanghai or Peking - and the Chinese were very interested in sandwiches. And it seemed amazing. I showed them how you made a sandwich. And I always remember them, I cut it into four as we would do a sandwich. And they were eating it with a chopstick and I said, 'No, you don't eat it with a chopstick, you eat it with your finger', and that horrified the Chinese, because you don't touch ... chopsticks save you touching it with your hands. And they felt it was a very unhygienic way. So I said, 'Oh well, what you can do is have ... eat a sandwich and put a piece of paper', you know, the way the Italians [do]. Italians always eat their snacks with a piece of paper around it. Australians are inclined to just eat with their fingers. But it is ... it is funny when you travel, you learn from other cultures, the taboos and very often what other people do is very sensible.

Have you ever wanted to run a restaurant?

Running a restaurant is something that's never entered my thoughts. I feel myself that it's a very special gift that you have, that you, you know ... that it's lovely to be out, to be behind the scenes cooking but it's very, very hard work. I've done a restaurant, in Australia. The course that I did initially was a hotel restaurant cookery course but I've never felt I wanted to actually do that. I never wanted to actually cook for people. I don't mind telling people how to cook for people, but I've never wanted to do it myself, and ... and I've always felt that what I love doing is cooking, getting into the kitchen, knowing what makes a thing work, and then writing it down, so that I could send that out to the ... you know, to people. Because after all, magazines were wanting me to do that, and publishers were wanting me to write for people. And that's what ... that's been the strong thing in my life.

But you did, at one stage, with your husband, run a very high profile place at Berida Manor in Bowral.

That's right.

What was the story of that?

Berida Manor was an interesting thing, because I began to feel that good health was important and someone said to me at a - I think I was at a wedding or a cocktail party or something - someone said, 'Oh, Margaret, have you ever thought it would be nice to do this?' And he put ... we ... together we found the money to do this. We found this wonderful place, Berida. We called it Berida Manor. But it had been a stately home in the - if you can call that in Australia - and then it had been, the Red Cross had used it as a hospital. So we converted it back to a health ... a health resort. And that was marvellous. We ... we had said we were going to have the latest in French food and we didn't know where we were going to get the latest in French food but a woman walked in, a lovely little French woman, with her husband and a child. And she ... she had come out with the French ambassador. And she ... I said, 'But we've got to cook lean food. There's a new thing about lean food', and she said, 'Oh well, if you cook for those French, with their Yves St. Laurent and their Christian Dior clothes, of course you cook lean food. It's what I know best because the French ambassador's wife isn't going to, you know, lose her shape'. So at any rate, we put her on, and she was just absolutely lovely. So immediately we were opening, we had this lovely French chef, or this French cook who knew about keeping slim ... lovely slim bodies and it was a great hit. But a terrible, but a good thing happened to us. Malcolm Fraser, who was the Prime Minister at the time, he was entertaining the Commonwealth Heads of Government. And he, they ... what happens at these big CHOGM meetings, they go and they have their very serious discussions about policies and matters, with Commonwealth heads and then they go on a retreat. But there wasn't a sort of a thing ... in other countries there are big hotels and big places to go for retreats. But the place they chose as a retreat for these thirteen Prime Ministers, heads of government, was Berida Manor. Well we weren't ... you know, here we'd been open two months, and here the most important group of people ever to be entertained in Australia, were coming to my doorstep. And so, we had to ... we had to make Berida Manor into a place suitable for heads of government. And it was suitable, but it was a tremendous amount of work. And then a dreadful thing happened. It was the time of what became quite famous, the Hilton bombing. And there was a bomb, you know, dropped in a garbage outside the Hilton Hotel so there was this enormous scare. And these people were arriving. You can imagine. Desai, who was the Prime Minister of India, and, you know, a fifth of the world's population. And then Lee Kwan Yew, who was strong. All of their carers and their ... whoever the people are that look after these very important people, they were all ... it was a scary time. And it made an enormous difference to the whole thing that should have been a pleasant retreat. We were covered by the special police and it was a nightmare. In the kitchen it was a nightmare, because different Prime Ministers, they would have tasters, or somebody making sure the food wasn't poisoned, and making sure the food wasn't a whole lot things and it was a ... it was a very, very interesting time because, also, I wanted to showcase Australia's lovely, lovely food.

And everyone got behind me. It was a great experience really. And we wanted to showcase Australian. Malcolm Fraser had said, 'We want only Australian wines', and I had a friend, Anders Ousback, who was just so good with wines. And I called and said, 'Anders, would you come and help me', and oh, he was delighted. And so we were able to showcase the loveliest food, the loveliest wines, and in the loveliest area: Bowral is so beautiful. So, on the plus side was this ability to show off to thirteen heads of government, and showcase our lovely countryside and our lovely food, and our beautiful, beautiful wines. And so it was a lovely ... a lovely experience. But it ... it shattered me, because of the responsibility because if anything had gone wrong, it would have been awful, you know. And we didn't want to have upset tummies. But the nice thing about all of this was that the Prime Ministers' wives were coming and saying, 'Could we ... could we have an autograph, please', of me! And so I got their autographs, and they signed my visitors' book. And they went away with a Margaret Fulton cookbook, signed to ... you know, and they were delighted. I think it brought a human touch into what was a very high tense ... a high tense experience for our country, for our government, and for ... for all of the people.

And what happened to the venture at Berida Manor? Did it become very successful? What was the story?

It is very interesting about Berida Manor, but after the heads of government had been there, I went into a state of shock. I couldn't believe that I ... that I went away on a ... I went away on a cruise with my husband, but I didn't want to go back. And I couldn't understand why I felt so shocked. But I have learnt that the people from, say, the Hilton Hotel, they were all in shock. And anybody that does look after thirteen heads of government, it's such a big ... the enormity of what you've done descends on you and basically, I didn't want to go back to that place, because it had suddenly hit me. It's probably very hard to explain to anyone that having that kind of responsibility, when you're just a ... you know, you're just you know, Margaret Fulton, the cook. It sort of hit me. And ... but I know now, I've spoken to people say on P & O liners, and they've said when a Prime Minister is on board, it is very different to anything else. I've spoken to big hotel managers who've said exactly the same thing. It's an enormous responsibility to have the heads of you know, thirteen countries, and their wives, and their entourage, in your care.

But you'd made a great success of it. Weren't you ... a lot of people would think you'd just be basking in self congratulation and feeling like superwoman.

It's a funny thing. You think, yes, I ... I made a success of this but, I don't want to do it again, thank you very much. There's your lovely ... you know, girls have been giving engagement rings back to rich boys, or not rich boys and people have been saying, 'Yes, I don't want that', for a long time. And I'm no exception. I didn't want to do it again. I knew that what I really wanted to do was to get back to the thing I do best, which is writing recipes for people like myself.

No, that shows an enormous degree of self knowledge, that you were able to work that out. Where do you think you had the wisdom to realise that you should, like a good cobbler, stick to your last?

Well, I suppose, you know, it's a funny thing, as you say. I suppose, really, sticking, if you're a cobbler, stick to your last, if you're a tailor, you ... part of us wants to try new things but it's very easy to know, I don't want to do this. And I think it's lovely that I was able to say, 'Now I've had enough of this, I don't want it', when I knew what I wanted, what made me happy. I think you've got to make ... I think when you are happy in yourself, that you're going to be very happy. It's ... happiness is a kind of a thing that I don't expect every day to have a big smile on my face and be happy but you do know when you are at peace when you're happy, and when a thing is [what] you want to do. I don't think you should do things that you really don't want to do, and are unhappy about for too long. It's okay to give it a go, and see if you like it. You've got to do that. Human nature tells you, you know, I wonder what is around the corner. And we're always looking. But if you think it's better doing the things that you love doing, in the long run, it's going to ... it's going to work for you as a person.

You were in this venture with your husband. Was he happy to give it up when you felt that way?

My husband loved the whole Berida Manor thing. He ... he thought it was marvellous, because it was right beside the Bowral golf course, and he loved the life. But he hadn't really made a great success of his ... of his business or life. And he ... I don't really think the same ... I don't think that how I felt and how he felt, had anything to do with each other, because after all, I was sure of myself in what I was doing. He would have liked to have stayed there. But he wasn't terribly good at it. He ... he was ... I should hate to say it, but you know, when Fawlty Towers came out, some people used to say, 'Oh, he's just like Fawlty Towers', you know. And I think ... I hate to say it to him because he was, he's Irish, and he was charming but he was also a bit like Fawlty Towers, you know. It was good that he came with me and got out of it.

Can I ask you now about your second marriage. How did you meet your second husband, and what was the story of that?

My second marriage was just as stupid as my first marriage. I ... I was working at David Jones when we were trying to tell people how to use washing machines and the new things after the war. And one day they ... a girl was away, so I had to go down to the ground floor of David Jones and show how to use a potato peeler or some mad thing, and I'm doing this, and I was hopeless at ... I was hopeless at that kind of selling. I could sell big time, but I couldn't sell little time. And instead of giving the person their change, I gave them a carrot that I was peeling. [Laughs] And I put the carrot in the bag and gave it to the person, instead of the potato peeler and he was watching this, and he thought, oh isn't she lovely and he asked me out. And I thought, oh, well I was in Sydney a bit, because I was still living up at the Hawkesbury River at this time. And I was ... I was in Sydney for a week. And I thought oh, I could, I will go out with him, because if ever there's a person I could forget, it's him. So I went out with him, and I ... I thought well I'll forget you at the end of the week, goodbye. But he kept on following me home to the Hawkesbury River, and he kept on doing things. And he was a most unlikely person. But perseverance won out for him and I married him. You see, I've ... I've married most ridiculously, you know, without thought. Actually, what had really been happening, I lived with him. I ended up living with him. I had a dear little house in The Rocks area, which is now still there. It's got a plaque up. It's a hotel, and it's got a plaque up that says Margaret Fulton and her family lived here. But I lived there with him, and my daughter at this point wanted to come back from her ... come from school and I thought, well I can't have the two people in the house. My daughter shouldn't have to live with someone who is - I didn't know whether you called them lovers or whatever. And I said, 'We either get married or you ... you've got to leave the house. But Suzanne's coming home and you've got to leave or we'll get married'. And he said, 'Well, we'll get married'. So I got married. Again, for the ... I can't understand in life how I was so sensible about a lot of things, and I was so stupid about men but nevertheless, we had lots of fun. He was Irish and he was charming and we had ... we had a very ... we had lots of good times together.

He was drawn to you initially because of your incompetence. Was it a bit shock to him to discover what a capable woman he'd actually married?

I think that he ... he was fascinated by ... I think my husband was really fascinated by me, because it appealed to his Irish sense of humour, you know, giving a carrot instead of the product that the person had bought. But I think really ... I think people, you know, men feel, I think, secure with a person that they feel actually has something to say and something to do, and can get on with the job, and I ... I think he was appealed to me. I think that he ... I appealed to him, because yes, I probably was, underneath it, a capable person.

How long were you married to him?

I've never ... I've never thought about how long I was married. I can only just remember the beginning and the end, and the happy times in between. I think I divorced him around about 1979 or '78 or ... it always seems irrelevant. But he was really quite a rascal. A nice rascal. But at one stage I'd found that it wasn't working, and I just kept saying every day, 'This is not working. I think we should separate', and, 'Have you found a place yet? This is not working. Have you found a place yet?' and then one day I found him a place. Oh, one say I said ... see the terrible thing was when he started looking for places, he always got off with the girl in the real estate agent's office or the solicitor's office or something. He was a frightful womaniser. Women found him totally fascinating and a lot of people couldn't understand how I ever left him because he was so fascinating. But yes, it just depends on what side of the fence you're on. But at any rate, one day we found a place very nearby and he ... he wanted the same views as I've got, because I've got beautiful harbour views so he wanted beautiful harbour views. And we got it. At any rate, knowing that he was an Irishman, I knew that very soon he'd say .. he would want to sell it for the money and I said to him, 'You'll always give me the first offer'. And my sister's now living there. So she's just around the corner in the house that I really got for my husband. So ...

What sort of work did he do?

Real estate. He was an actor. He came from a long line of acting ... actors in London. George Doonan, and the Doonans, who ... they'd done command performances. And he had a cousin who was a very brilliant actor. And a lovely girl cousin who, you know, was playing the lead in Annie Get Your Gun. But I think, probably that's the thing, I've always fallen for rather colourful people. I haven't taken it seriously enough, you know. I ... I've felt isn't it nice to be entertained by this amusing person instead of the proper reasons for getting married.

And what do you think really, at the heart of it, was what was wrong with it? I mean there was a lot that was fun and that worked for you. But what, at the end of the day, made it not work?

Funnily enough I had met, thirty years before, a person in London, who I was quite fascinated by, but I was married. And I was quite unhappy, because ... I was very unhappy really. You can't be with a person who's such a philanderer, and really, you know, pretend it's not happening. And this person from London had sort of said, 'Why don't you leave and come with me?' and I thought, oh, all you men are the same. So that was my answer then. But he came back into my life, and he came home ... home to dinner one evening. He'd had a young girlfriend that he'd brought out from London ... that was from London. And he'd been kept on meeting my husband in pubs, and saying, 'When am I coming to dinner? When I am coming to dinner?' And I thought I don't want him. And one day he said he was going back to England, and I thought well he can come to dinner. I'll have him and this girlfriend for dinner and they came to dinner. And my husband was quite, behaved quite badly, you know. Like I said, 'Dinner is ready', and he said, 'I'm busy talking'. So at any rate I thought well if I can't have the one I love, I'm not going to have the one I don't love. So you know, I just said ... that was when I started saying you've got to go. But then, what really did happen, this fellow from London didn't go back to London and he stayed in Australia. And we got together. I said ... he said could he take us out to dinner. And I said, 'Well, it's only me now', and he was rather surprised and so he came and took me to dinner. And then I discovered all men are not the same. For the first time in my life I had companionship, and I had the kind of things that some women have all their lives. I had for eight wonderful, wonderful years, with a mentally alert person, with a person who enjoyed things that I enjoyed: enjoyed travel and enjoyed theatre. So I had eight years of life of going how it should be. And I'm terribly happy about that. The only thing, he smoked Gitane cigarettes, and in one day he was coughing, and the next day he, you know, was being told, sixteen weeks to live. So we went off and said goodbye to his friends in Hollywood and New York and London, and limped back to Sydney and yes, he died.

Of lung cancer?

Mm.

Who was he?

Michael McKeas. He'd been a child star, you see. I'm attracted very much to something glamorous. I suppose he'd been a child star. One of the things he left, and he wanted me to have, was a marvellous programme of the theatre in London, signed by Sir Lawrence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Judith Anderson. All of the greats. All of ... Alec Guinness. And he was ... he was the boy in ... in whatever the show was, for the National Theatre, going across to New York. So as a young boy, he ... he had this kind of thing, that love of the theatre, love of the sort of the show business thing. But it was a very ... it was a very happy time because it reassured me that relationships are important and are good. And it's all part of it. Until that I think I'd sort of think, oh, it's not the best thing in life. The best thing in life is working and writing recipes, and chopping and stirring and all of those things but I learnt that life shared with someone, the right person, is simply great.

What do you think it was that drew him to you?

You see, I ... I ... you never know what makes you attractive to other ... other people. I think what attracted me to him, he always said he admires talent. And when he was in Australia, he said, ;There's three women in Australia who have talent. One is Nancye Hayes'. He adored Nancye Hayes. And there was a girl called Geraldine Pascall, who was a food writer. And she, you know ... and there was me. And he said, 'Talent is the most precious thing anyone has'. You know, talent is the rarest and most wonderful thing and I think he felt that I had talent. So I think he saw ... yes, as he said himself, he admired talent. And it's a thing that I admire. When I see talent, I think oh isn't that lovely, in a young person, you know. When he died, I gave his money to a ... I gave the money he had to a young boy who had written poetry. He'd seen me on television getting my OAM, and he was so pleased, because I ... I said that I loved dingoes and he wrote me a poem about dingoes. And I thought, oh, isn't that lovely. Michael would like this young boy to have some money and I sent the money to him. My family said, 'Margaret, what are you doing?' and he put this money to a ... one of those computer thing. And I found that he was a very disadvantaged ... a very, very disadvantaged child, with a lot of problems. And I thought, and it made ... it turned this boy around. And so we've been friendly. And I send him things. And I've made life turnaround for this boy that had too many problems to almost mention. But he writes the kind of beautiful, beautiful poetry, and he feels the way I feel. He feels about things in the bush, he feels about Australia, he feels about life and he feels that, you know ... He wrote a lovely poem about a tree that was cut down, a big, big tree that used to shelter the Aboriginals and people used to sit under, when the council just removed it, you know. His heart goes the way my heart goes. And so it's been a ... my relationship with Michael has had lots of extensions to it. And I think that's the lovely thing about when things are right, everything goes right. When there's one ... when there are little things wrong, a lot of things go wrong. So it's been lovely that I got together with Michael and when he died, I did ... I admired talent as he did, and this young boy's life has been turned around. And the mother ... They're in outback, they're totally, totally isolated. It's another story. But it also reminds me that it's ... it's very good when you follow your heart.

[end of tape]

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