“There were no trees here at all,” says director Lee Lewis pointing along Burton Street in Darlinghurst. “It was dirt roads and no trees.”
It’s almost 7pm. The air is thick and humid. Lewis and composer Max Lambert are standing on a street corner having finished the day’s rehearsals for Darlinghurst Nights, a musical based on the colourful Kings Cross characters in Kenneth Slessor’s poetry from the 1930s.
Lambert looks up Palmer Street. “It’s always been a bit dodgy,” he says quietly. “Plenty of opportunity for the Palmer Street girls to work along here. Lots of boarding houses. At night it was known as ‘choker’s lane’. But in the day it was an ordinary street.”
Brothel madam and organised crime boss Tilly Devine lived on Palmer Street. Enormously wealthy, she made her money from the takings of a string of brothels in the area (she ran 18 of them) and selling sly grog. She owned extensive parcels of real estate, luxury cars and boasted she wore more diamonds than the Queen of England. “And better ones, too,” she was once quoted as saying. Lambert says: “She was the Abe Saffron of the day.”
Walking up the hill on Burton Street, Lewis and Lambert chat about the characters who once lived in the area, side by side with criminals on the street and those in the Darlinghurst Gaol (now the National Art School).
“It was always a mix of the very rich living in huge mansions and the very poor,” Lambert says. “They built mansions here for the colony to aspire to. But then so many of the mansions became boarding houses.”
We turn left into a little lane, Thomson Street.
“We say it’s Katherine Thomson Street,” jokes Lewis, adding that playwright Katherine Thomson wrote the book for Darlinghurst Nights in a small information booth next to the El Alamein fountain in Kings Cross.
“Max and Katherine are both nuts,” says Lewis. “Creative nuts.”
Darlinghurst Nights is “a very badly behaved musical, structurally and emotionally, but in the end it’s incredibly satisfying,” Lewis says. “There is a spirit of anarchy. The musical doesn’t follow any rules.”
First produced by the Sydney Theatre Company in 1988, Darlinghurst Nights was revived by the Sydney Festival in 2000. It draws on Slessor’s 1933 anthology of poems The Darlinghurst Nights, a slim volume subtitled, “47 strange sights observed from the eleventh storey in a land of cream puffs and crime, by a flat-roof professor.”
Slessor was a career journalist and editor at The Sun in Sydney, at the popular and sometimes ‘vulgar’ Smith’s Weekly, and later at the Daily Telegraph. He was described as a fastidious gentlemen, a city lover, who took great care choosing pens and paper for his work, and an excellent cook who loved books, art and fine objects.
In the musical, Kenneth (played by Sean O’Shea) recalls a gallery of vulnerable characters who once lived in the bohemian Cross area with the help of his bash-about friend Joe (played by Justin Smith).
“We might not know the poems but we know these characters,” says Lewis. “Like Mabel, the girl from the country. Honest to God, that was me back in the day. I know her, I was her. So many people have that memory of moving to the city and that first impression of, ‘oh wow’.”
Among the characters Slessor recorded are Cora, a sex worker, “rough as guts” and married to a bloke full of get-rich-quick schemes, and the wealthy fur-coat wearing Rose, who has come into money through questionable means. And the ice-man calling “Ice-O!”, who will soon be made redundant by the refrigerator. “We get these snippets of them in the poetry and it’s all woven into this tapestry of the inner city,” Lewis says.
Slessor’s Darlinghurst Nights poems predate his masterpiece, Five Bells. “You can hear him asking those questions all writers ask themselves: Have I written anything of worth? Does any of this matter?” says Lewis. “He doubted the value of his work so much. He was writing in a time when Henry Lawson was still current. But he hated Lawson. He was trying to find a different voice, a different way to write about the cities of Australia, the sophisticated city he knew and all its problems.”
Slessor was also one of the few Australian male writers of the time writing truthfully about women’s lives, Lewis says. “He captures women in beautiful and complex ways. It’s not that he makes tragic things pretty, it’s not that. But he sees the grime and makes a beautiful phrase out of it – ‘stars are reflected in quagmires’.”
As we continue our walk, it’s obvious Lambert finds Kings Cross lovely, too. He used to live in the area and retains a fondness for its streets and stories.
He leads us up Darley Street to point out Baz Luhrmann’s grand former home Iona, an Italianate nine-bedroom mansion built in 1880. Lambert was musical supervisor on Strictly Ballroom and made many visits. Luhrmann’s Oscar-winning wife Catherine always made the coffee, he recalls. “I heard it was sold for $16m.”
Along Darlinghurst Rd, we pass Victorian mansions that became boarding houses and are now apartments.
Perhaps these were the kinds of buildings a young woman like Mabel might have lived in, a woman who had chosen not to get married and have children, a woman who wanted a different life.
As we dally, two young men heft a load of IKEA flat-pack boxes through one of the front doors.
Moving on, we pass a Japanese restaurant, the Sydney Eye Clinic and a Domino’s pizza joint. Lewis stops to point out the opposite side of the street, close to the Fire Station.
“This side of the street was Craigend, the Mitchell Estate, with a huge house with Greek columns and enormous grounds with a vineyard and stables for the horses. Those stables are now Griffin Theatre,” says Lewis, who has been artistic director at Griffin since 2013.
The Mitchell Estate was the first to be subdivided in this part of the city. In 1837, it was sold and subdivided into 26 allotments which were themselves sold and divided into 70 lots. Constant upheaval and change is nothing new in the Cross, Lewis says.
“Now we’re waking up to news that even more million dollar apartments are being built up near the Bourbon and Beefsteak,” she says. “We are losing the culture of the Cross, the freedoms it gave people. One long-time resident told me, ‘we are becoming a suburb’. It was never a suburb! This was the place to escape from the suburbs.”
We approach William Street; the Coke sign glinting in the sun.
Lambert declares: “This is where you have to use a great deal of imagination.”
There are only two buildings standing that Slessor would recognise, Lambert explains. “One is the Fire Station, the other is the Kings Cross Hotel. It was a T-intersection back then. There was no road going over the hill. Instead it was a wall of shops and buildings. That’s where the Pink Pussycat strip joint used to be. When I was a kid my father would say, ‘get in the car we’re going to look at the lights’ and we’d drive up here.”
The gentrification of the area is nothing new. Arguably, it began when Woolworths opened a store in 1939 on Darlinghurst Road.
“Slessor wrote a lot about the loss of the Kings Cross he loved,” Lewis says. “He loved all the little restaurants. We’re losing the last of them now.” She points down Roslyn Street to where the Piccolo Bar once served late into the night. It closed in 2016.
On the same street, Baron’s, a bohemian late night refuge, closed in 2007. “It was the only reliable place you could get a drink after midnight,” says Lambert. “It was more a club than a bar. Everyone knew you and the bar staff knew what you drank.”
We walk past Porky’s Gentlemen’s bar where a wiry man in a red shirt and vest keeps watch. “There used to be spruikers and sex workers everywhere along this street,” says Lambert. “But you could always get a meal like one your mother cooked. I remember the Astoria. There was no choice on the menu – you just got the day’s soup, main meal and dessert – but it was good.”
On the corner of Orwell Street we pause to look at the magnificent Metro Theatre, headquarters of the filmmaker George Miller. “That theatre first staged Hair,” Lambert says. “Miller’s selling it now.”
“We need someone to buy it and make it a theatre again!” says Lewis.
At Greenknowe Avenue, Lewis leaves our walking tour to plot lights in the Hayes Theatre for Darlinghurst Nights.
“This show feels custom-made for the Hayes,” she says. “It’s sitting exactly where it belongs because it’s asking us really current questions: what we value about our past; what do we want to hold on to.”
At the tail end of our ramble down Macleay Street, Lambert points out music theatre legend Nancye Hayes’ penthouse apartment and the final home of Dame Nellie Melba. He points out 40 Macleay Street, previously the Sheraton Motor Hotel. The Beatles stayed there in 1964, he says. “This whole street was choked with girls wanting to see them.”
We pass 81 Macleay Street, formerly the site of a magnificent mansion, The Cairo, which was demolished to make way for the Chevron Hotel and its famous Silver Spade Room Nightclub where Frank Sinatra and Liza Minelli performed.
Finally, we close in on Cavendish Hall on Billyard Avenue in Elizabeth Bay. It’s where Slessor lived and wrote The Five Bells.
Would he recognise it? The house, certainly. The rest, perhaps not. When an apartment in the building was last sold (in 2016 and described as “a delightful time capsule primed for a contemporary makeover”“), it went for almost $2.5m.
“There were not so many families back then,” Lambert says. “There would have been single people, old married couples, lesbians and gay men, artists and writers in the area. It’s all changed now. But if I had all the money in the world, I’d buy an apartment here. Kings Cross is still a great place to live.”