|Interviewer: Robin Hughes
Recorded: October 23, 1997
This is a transcript of the complete original interview conducted for the Australian Biography project. Each transcript page covers one videotape (approximately 35 minutes). There is also QuickTime video of the full interview available. To play the video, click on the icon in the right hand column. In addition, each question in the transcript is linked to the video. Clicking on a question will play the video from that point. (Help with this feature.) Optionally, you can download the video file for offline viewing (approx. 10MB).
The interview has been left it in its original state so that you can get a sense of how the conversation developed. The repetition of some questions, or a question followed by another question, is often due to the end of a particular tape or some other interruption, and has been indicated at the appropriate place in the text. There has been minimal tidying up of the text so that the flavour of the encounter has been kept.
If you had to sum up what it was that you'd done for Australia, in relation to their eating habits, how would you do it?
If I think of, say, the big change I made, someone said to me once, 'Margaret, you taught Australia to make mayonnaise', because before that, a lot of Australians, if they were having a salad, they would make ... the would have condensed milk and then they would add mustard and egg yolk and vinegar to it, and stir it up, and it would sort of go thick, and look like mayonnaise. My mother, who was better cook, used to have a prized dressing that she made, that she learnt from aunt somebody or other. But I had learnt to make mayonnaise, and so in this book there is a whole page devoted to how to ... what went into mayonnaise. You know, the egg yolk and then the little bit of mustard, and a little bit of salt and add the oil drop by drop. It seemed such a natural thing to know. But I was always ... I was always delighted at this woman saying, 'You taught Australia to make mayonnaise', so probably if I go down for being famous it's because I taught Australians to make mayonnaise, which is of course the most unctuous, marvellous, luscious, gorgeous dressing thing you can put on anything. It's a lovely thing to have been responsible for.
Now going back to the point in time when you working at Woman's Day. How did you come to go to work in advertising?
I was working at Woman's Day and I was a bit miserable, because my sister's old boyfriend's new girlfriend - it's very complex - was sort of trying to get me to go to his office and look at his etchings. He was actually trying to make me into a good journalist. He thought I had the makings of it. But I knew, because he'd said to his girlfriend, his current girlfriend, 'Every time I look at Margaret Fulton, I think of the great love of my life'. It was ... it was awful. It was sexual harassment. At any rate, I went to something and I met the head of J. Walter Thompson's, a man called Dick Coleman - he was an American - and we were chatting about something. And he said the sort of the classic words, 'There's a girl our organisation could use', and the next thing, I had an offer of a job at J. Walter Thompson's, in advertising. I was offered a job first of all in Melbourne, but I thought how can I go away and leave my friends? I love them all too much in Sydney. So I turned it down although I was miserable and I wanted to leave the situation I was in. But then they found a place for me in the Sydney office. And it was just lovely, because I ended up writing advertising, and, you know, thinking of cute things to say and bright ideas and it was a lovely sort of - I don't know how many - probably eight years of my life.
When would that have been?
I think I went about the mid-fifties, mid-1950s, and I think I left early in the 19 ... 1960.
And why did you leave it?
Oh, why I left that job, again it was a kind of a harassment. I had been a senior executive of ... an early woman senior executive in J. Walter Thompson's and it was at the time when television was bursting on the ... on the [scene], you know. And we ... they had a very clever filmmaker, they thought, in the form of Hans Von Adlerstein. He was a clever filmmaker, but he was a German, he was arrogant and it infuriated him that in the actual organisation I was more ... I was the senior person to him. But when it came to doing this new ... working on this new medium, we were working on the Kraft food account, and then the Kellogg's food account and one of the things I used to have to do was to go along and set up the scene for somebody eating Kellogg's Cornflakes or Rice Bubbles, but this day what I had to do was to put Rice Bubbles into a bowl ... into bowls, so that Bobby Limb and his wife could, you know, eat their Rice Bubbles. And I had an assistant who was also quite good at putting Rice Bubbles in a bowl. So the telephone rang, so I went to the telephone and I said, 'Oh Marie, just put the Rice Bubbles in the bowl', and then this Hans Von would call - I could hear yelling at that back of the big studio - 'Where's Margaret Fulton?' And this was Sally Baker. She was a wonderful journalist and she was saying, 'Margaret, we need you at Woman's Day. Will you come?' and I said, 'No Sally, I'm very happy where I am. I really am very happy', and then I'd hear this voice booming in the background, 'Margaret, where's Margaret Fulton?' And I thought, oh god, I wish he'd shut up. And then I'd say, 'Oh Sally'. But Sally said, 'But look, we'll give you anything, we'll pay you anything. We need you. Please come. We'd love you to come', and here's somebody telling me they'd love me to do something, and you know, and then this fellow in the background yelling out, 'Where's Margaret Fulton? Where's Margaret Fulton?' And I said ... finally I said, 'Sally, I'll come and talk to you'. I thought, oh who needs this? And, I think, it's been my attitude a bit. You know, who needs being harassed or ... and the thing is, it's quite simple, putting Rice Bubbles in a bowl. It's a bit more difficult Cornflakes, because you're supposed to find the biggest Cornflakes, but I think anybody can put Rice Bubbles in a bowl.
When you did find yourself in bad situations, you tended to leave them quite quickly, didn't you?
Yes, I think ... I think this is the thing that makes ... I think the thing that your background tells you that what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is bad. That's why I love dingoes. I love the way a dingo dog will train the little pups to ... you know, to survive. I think I had a very good survival lesson when I was young and if somebody starts harassing you, or making life difficult, yes, you ... you jump off pretty quickly. Otherwise you're going to get it for the rest of your life. And I think that's why I feel so sorry for people who are in a terrible situation, where they can't ... you know, they can't sort of jump out and leave it. I've always wanted to keep my ... unlike a clever dingo - I want to keep my sort of escape hatches clear. Yes, don't put up with nonsense, for goodness sake. You've got to ... you've got to do what the boss tells you. It's got ... it's got to be a workable program, but sometimes there's a difference between what works and what is harassment. And do learn to recognise it, is my ... is my motto and my advice to anyone.
Did you get this from your mother?
I got it from a long line of Scots. When you travel back to Scotland, and you know the history of Scotland, it is horrendous what happened to those Scots. It was passed on a bit from my mother. But I'm ... I'm a product of Scotland's history. And we are stoic, we are brave, we are fearless. We have our pride. No, I'm like a ... I'm just a long line of Scots.
How much did your mother mean to you as a person in your life?
My mother meant everything to me. I mean, apart from the odd boyfriend and the odd thing I had a crush on, or the odd whatever it was. But it ... my mother and I had the most marvellous, marvellous relationship. I did a lot of scampy things when I was young and I'm sure my mother knew what I was up to but she never said ... you know, she'd never ... she never said to me, 'Don't do that'. She set the pattern of behaviour which I could follow, you know. It ... when I was sort of sixteen and somebody ... We were ... we were having a party and there was a bottle of gin, and I thought, oh, that looks harmless. So I drank half the bottle, collapsed on the floor, and had to be walked around. And then I was told by this boy, 'Don't ... Keep quiet, because you're passing your house'. And I thought, oh I'm home, and I ran up the steps and ,other was the health and temperance person. You know, she was into that. And here was this drunken - she could only have recognised me as being drunk - but, you know, she didn't say anything. I got to bed and then I got sick, and I ran out and I had visions of passing mother and ... but the next day I got up and got myself dressed for Sunday School, and got to church and all my friends were saying, 'Oh, we're so glad to see you. We thought ... we didn't know what had happened to you last night'. But, you know, mother didn't mention anything, and I know that she was thinking: she'll get over it, she's learnt her lesson. But that was the ... the lovely relationship. I felt the guiding person was ... was there. But it never ... it never impinged on me.
She didn't sit in judgement of you?
She didn't sit in judgement. And I think that's one of the ... the nicest things about a person. Like mother set the pattern, she set the example of a wonderful person but she never sat in judgement.
What happened to her?
My mother, I think, is a ... what happened to mother happened to a lot of women. Neglect. She died of cancer of the uterus and she should have been saved. She should have been ... things should have happened. It has been a lesson to me, that if I'm not well, or if I'm bleeding from unseemly parts, or anything like that, tell someone. My mother ... her dignity didn't allow her to, or I don't know what it was. She didn't tell us what was happening to her body. She didn't get the doctor to look at herself. I think it was just a kind of a selflessness and I think it happened to a lot of women of her age. It was neglect, because at that time we were beginning to know that, you know, certain signs were ominous. Something should have been done. But for a woman who'd led a selfless life, at fifty-eight or sixty, you know, you ... you're not ... yes, it's terrible. It was neglect.
How old were you when she died?
I was ... I was about twenty-five.
Had your baby been born then?
No, Suzanne hadn't been born. My mother came to my ... my wedding, which was my first wedding. You know, that's the time my young nephew said ... everyone was so miserable about me marrying this terribly wrong person, but and young Billy saying, 'Oh, never mind, Grandma, never mind Mum, she can always get a divorce', which, from this wee boy was ...
Actually at your wedding?
At my wedding, yes. And mother ... mother again ... I think, it wasn't the happiest day of her life. But again, she didn't say anything. When ... when before my mother died, and I knew that she had cancer, and I was working, people would asking me, 'What is the best way to make fruit cake? Do you think it needs this?' and I thought, oh what the hell. My mother's dying, why should I be bothered about your Christmas cake? And for a long time it turned me right off because I thought how can we be so busy about these little details of life? But, you know, and then I ... after mother died and I sort of got back into the swing again, I realised that it was those little details that do matter in life.
And so you had your first baby without your mother. Was that hard?
Having my first - yes. Having my first baby without mother, yes, it probably ... it was hard. But don't forget I had been brought up by a woman who wanted to make me independent. So I didn't feel the loss, because I felt that what mother had given me was inside me and nobody could take that away. So whether she was alive, or whether she was whatever, she had given me the resources to have a baby on my own. Or she had ... she gave me the resources to do anything I wanted to.
You only ever had the one child. Did you ever think of having more children?
No, because I ... I always ... I had seen what had happened to women who'd had families, and were in impossible situations and could do nothing about it. I knew that with one child ... I knew that I hadn't made a good marriage [and] I knew that with one child I could manage. I knew that with another child, it would complicated matters. So I never wanted to have a second child. I think if I'd married a couple of lovely men I could mention I would have been happy to have had six children. But I didn't do it that way. So one child, and then of course with Suzanne, it's just lovely, because we ... we have ... I think we've got something of the relationship that my mother had with me. Suzanne tells me that when there's been a few hitches in her life, she said, 'Oh Mum, you're so marvellous. You didn't ... you didn't ... you sort of were there when I needed you, and yet you didn't panic and you didn't get excited, and you didn't say, 'Oh dear', and all of those things'. So I'm very happy that you know, through the line of Scottish ... the Scots, both male and female, there's something that's passing on to a little Australian family.
Looking back, Margaret, do you feel you've had a good life?
Oh, I've had the best life. I've had a wonderful life. Imagine ... imagine how I feel, you know. I've been able to tell people how to make things work. I've been ... been able to tell people how to be happy. I've been able to tell people to look around the corner, think of what the little Chinese people, and think of what they eat in India. I've sort of felt that people have come with me on this marvellous adventure that I've been on. And gosh, what is a good life but that.
[end of tape]