LUNCH WITH KATE
IT is, perhaps, the most passionate and enduring relationship of her life.
The Australian actor Kate Fitzpatrick has had a lifelong fascination with the Phalaenopsis amabilis, or Moth orchid, so named by the great 19th century German botanist Karl Ludwig Blume. Its literal translation is “lovely moth”.
Today, the Philaenopsis is one of the most common of its species, famously adaptable, and the darling of amateur orchidists around the world. There are more than 50 species in the genus.
They have fascinated Fitzpatrick since her late teens, just as they must have entranced Blume’s predecessor, Dutch East India clerk G.E.Rumphius, when he arrived in Jakarta in the mid-1600s, and began the first real scientific documentation of orchids. He was so captured by their allure he never left Jakarta.
Philaenopsis’ have accompanied Fitzpatrick through decades of peripatetic travel. She has sent them as gifts to the bereaving. She has nurtured and propagated them in innumerable temporary homes. Through a remarkable career, friendships, affairs and relationships with the rich, famous and nondescript, late motherhood, single parenthood, court cases, public spats and countless colourful personal dramas, it is the orchid that has been her constant motif.
And unsurprisingly, they are with her again, these silent and loyal friends with their flat wing-shaped petals, at the start of her new life on Queensland’s Gold Coast.
“Phalaenopsis – it’s a Greek word for butterfly,” Fitzpatrick says, unthinkingly elevating the plant’s linguistic definition and beauty. A common moth they’re not. “I’m looking at them now by the window. I love them. There’s something about them. Such beauty comes out of such unprepossessing flowers…”
Fitzpatrick, 57, one of the country’s finest actors of stage and screen (with movies such as Goodbye Paradise, The Removalists, Heaven’s Burning and The Return of Captain Invincible to her credit) has quietly settled in the nondescript suburb of Labrador with her son Joe, 15. She lives in a townhouse beside her mother, Dawn, now 83. It’s a long way from a hugely robust and frenetic life that has included sojourns in London, her beloved France, Greece, Sydney and, as of last January, Melbourne.
She has, surprisingly, a brief Queensland pedigree. The Fitzpatrick clan once resided on the Sunshine Coast when she was a child. “I’ve lived in Caloundra,” she says. “All I remember about it is eating an ice cream in the water and it was raining, that’s how hot it was…”
Meeting her in Brisbane, she is immediately recognisable from a distance wandering through the Queen Street Mall in coat and scarf. Yet she has the air of a woman lost, a moth blown off its course and dropped into unfamiliar terrain.
On the Gold Coast, too, she appears even more remote, both fascinated and appalled by the beach city’s proclivity for flash and glitz. Its strangeness is constantly arresting her attention, and her frightening eye for detail.
“I had to get the bus,” she says on the day we meet for lunch at trendy Main Beach. “I got into a conversation with a young woman at the bus stop. By the end there wasn’t a thing I didn’t know about her life, and she knew nothing about me. It has been that way with me all my life. I don’t know why.”
And in the middle of a conversation something will catch her eye. “Sorry,” she says, “I’m just distracted by the way those palm trees are coming through the roof over there.” She gestures towards two huge palms around which has been constructed a tiled shop awning. “Thank God they did that…the only thing I want to say on the subject of palm trees, which I think there should be a lot more of around here, is that they always remind me of …do you know Harbour Town (a shopping centre at Robina)? They’ve got this giant…I thought it was a sewerage vent but in fact it’s a Telecom thing, this gigantic sort of pole that goes for 400 feet, and on the top of it are seven or eight palm tree fronds. It wasn’t a bad idea but they didn’t know how to do it…a tiny tuft on the top. It’s disproportionate. Proportion is something, don’t you think?”
In Tedder Avenue, she literally stops in her tracks to watch pass by a giant amphibious tourist vehicle fashioned into a duck.
“Did you see that?” she says. “Does it go into the water as well? Do you think it goes into the water?” She stands in the duck’s wake, genuinely puzzled.
And at Shuck restaurant, where Fitzpatrick is joined by her mother, there is an almost comical theatrical exchange with the waiter over oysters.
WAITER: The Sydney Rock oysters and the Pacifics are from Port Stephens…
KATE: What does that mean?
WAITER: They call them Sydney Rocks but that’s just a name, it doesn’t mean they’re from Sydney.
KATE: Did you know that the Sydney Opera House is built on an Aboriginal oyster midden?
WAITER: The Pacifics are…
KATE: It’s interesting, isn’t it? The midden?
WAITER: We had a customer once who found a little pearl in her oyster.
KATE: Really? From a little grain of sand…now tell me, is it the Pacifics that taste ‘creamy’?
This is the way it goes with Fitzpatrick. She can simultaneously run half a dozen conversational narratives at once, lose you, draw you back in, confuse and befuddle you, before neatly tying the lines together. Her insatiable curiosity means you can be talking about human love and death one minute and the feeding habits of magpies the next.
Her autobiography, Name Dropping: An Incomplete Memoir (2004), shared the same fractured style, mirroring her taste for digression, and unfolding like the preparation of an elaborate dish, with colourful spices, herbs and fresh ingredients tossed into the pot en route. The end result is a remarkably rich and well-written bouillabaise of a life story.
The final two lines of that book are: “There are many stories in the naked city. These have been a few of them.”
Airmail: Three Women/Letters from Five Continents, her new book, continues the moveable feast. It reveals volleys of correspondence between Fitzpatrick, her sister Sally, and mother Dawn, and the letters and postcards are glued together with more personal reminiscences and stories.
After spending time with Fitzpatrick, you begin to understand that she is her innumerable stories. That they encase her like a thick coat. Perhaps even protect her. Some actors never stop acting as a personal protective device.
It is not so with Fitzpatrick. Her stories are her cocoon. And while there are little gaps between them, through which she occasionally allows you to glimpse her real self, the stories fight to deflect your attention.
“So many stories,” she says almost wistfully. “And that’s nothing. Now I keep thinking, I wish I’d put this story and that story in (her memoirs), and a lot of my father’s stories. And I remember everybody else’s stories.”
But what is she doing here - one-time lover to actors like Jeremy Irons and Sam Neill, friend to sportsmen and businessmen such as Imran Khan and Kerry Packer respectively, wooed by screen great Jack Nicholson, intellectual foil to and favourite of Nobel laureate Patrick White, and theatrical contemporary of everyone from director Jim Sharman to actor Max Cullen, - on the Gold Coast?
As she says in the new memoir: “As much as I like the weather and love the magpies who visit, singing loudly for their supper three times a day, using their beaks like chopsticks, there isn’t much to do on the Gold Coast other than write.”
What does a person like Kate Fitzpatrick do in suburban Labrador, away from the great, thriving sources of her life stories?
EVEN today, it’s possible to catch the vestiges of the Adelaide convent schoolgirl (St Aloysius College) that Fitzpatrick was in both her intermittent English accent and the occasional coquettish facial expression.
Born in Western Australia to her geologist father Brian and artist mother Dawn, she was the oldest of five children. The Fitzpatricks soon settled in Adelaide alongside well-established relatives..
At school Fitzpatrick showed precocious talent, particularly in art. She was particularly fond of drawing plants. She writes in Airmail of her father’s long absences mapping terrain in the Australian bush, and subsequent home life: “As soon as Dad left, and was once more safely ensconced in the middle of nowhere, our chaotic creative life would resume. The dining table and every inch of our living room floor were used as studio space.”
Dawn had a foolproof method of teaching the children how to paint and draw. If it wasn’t good enough, it was destroyed. “As a teaching aid it worked like a charm. We could draw anything.”
Fitzpatrick showed so much ability she was chosen to represent South Australia on a painting tour of Japan announced by “Phidias” (the pseudonym of the great painter Jeffrey Smart) of the ABC’s popular radio and television series, The Argonauts.
The budding artist wrote to her parents from the Palace Hotel, Tokyo: “Dear Mum and Dad, You will never guess what I am doing now – well, I am sitting on my bed leaning against the most exquisite, modern, luxury Japanese room you have ever seen (or not as the case may be) watching Dr Kildare on television speaking Japanese perfectly!”
Her father toyed with the idea of his oldest daughter becoming a psychiatrist. Too lazy for academia, she enrolled in the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) in Sydney and was accepted.
The moved not only fitted her perfectly – though she may not have realised it at the time – but seemed to cast her future lifestyle. As she reveals in Airmail: “During my first years away from home I changed address a lot and never seemed to have any money.” Only last year she was quoted as saying she had never had “a brass razoo” throughout her career.
Famous for her lack of ambition, Fitzpatrick’s nonchalance may indeed have made her stand out at the nation’s holy grail of acting, aside from an effortless ability to perform. During a NIDA graduate performance of The Legend of King O’Malley by Bob Ellis and Michael Boddy (which later successfully toured the country), she caught the eye of writer Patrick White, and from that moment was enveloped in the Sydney literary and theatrical intelligentsia.
She was instantly in work in theatre, film and television, from the TV series Boney to Jim Sharman’s incredibly successful Rocky Horror Picture Show to Peter Weir’s first film, Homesdale. By the late 70s Patrick White had written a play for her.(Big Toys) after she had dazzled in his other play, The Season at Sarsaparilla.
And still acting seemed to just facilitate an interesting life full of interesting people, rather than being a career focus.. She has starred in more than 40 plays and 20 films.
“It has just been easy,” she says now of the craft. “I’ve never had any ambition, really. I just like working. If you travelled like I did…it’s not like I sat around in my flat and waited for someone to ring. I’d just piss off. Usually I’d be brought back (to Australia) to do something. Acting - it’s not rocket science, as the ones with any brains will tell you. There are some things I’ve been shocking in and some I have been good in, and that’s it really.
“I’ve never really had that permanent need to perform in front of an audience, either.”
Her numerous letters and postcards from overseas, as they appear in Airmail, are tangible evidence of Fitzpatrick adhering to that old adage – she worked to live, and not vice versa. Brother Ben and sister Sally were already traversing the globe by the early 70s.
Fitzpatrick took off too, travelling to Jerusalem, Athens, London and then Moscow, where she and director Tom Cowan showed their film The Office Picnic at the Moscow Film Festival. It was the beginning of her love affair with Europe.
“I’m a bit more circumspect when I’m in Europe,” she says. “I don’t think I change, but I’m not usually taken for a foreigner. In Europe I’m most at home I think. I like a lot of things about it. I just can’t afford it. Even village life. I like village life. I’m really happy there. I like knowing all the shopkeepers and the fact that they know you. Wherever I’ve gone, until now, I’ve always had this. But I’ve moved so many times.”
Fitzpatrick was perennially touted as Australia’s next major movie star export, but it never really eventuated. She was professionally courted by the likes of Norman Mailer, Warren Beatty and Al Pacino, but Hollywood eluded her.
When Name Dropping was released last year, much fuss was made over her love life and its cast of famous names from the sporting, acting and legal fraternities. (Her son Joe’s father, Jose Albertini, is a French architect). It also fanned some old fires amongst the women in her life.
A spat with actress Robyn Nevin ensued after publication, which eventually played itself out in a string of comical letters in the Sydney newspapers. There was, too, her hilarious falling out with the formidable feminist academic Germaine Greer, with whom Fitzpatrick was briefly living in England shortly before the birth of Joe.
“I came to believe that pregnancy, pregnant women and babies are not within her field of expertise – too messy, unpredictable and uncontrollable,” she writes of Greer in Airmail. “On the first night Germaine cooked a wonderful meal of chicken, vegetables and couscous. It was a very pleasant and welcoming introduction. The only cloud was introduced by her free range cats, who gave me the mother of all asthma attacks. At one moment she kissed one of them very near its bum and I remember thinking no woman who kisses a cat on the arse is going to kiss my baby.”
Fitzpatrick lasted three days, and retreated into the arms of other friends. On her admission, and to highlight her restless nature, she had “nine moves in six or seven weeks and in three countries up to eight months into the pregnancy”.
Airmail ends poignantly with the death of her father in 1995. She writes of a morsel of advice he gave her when she was a child. “Always remember that everything in the universe – meteorites, diamonds, even you – is basically carbon.” Fitzpatrick was eight years old.
The final piece of family correspondence reproduced in the book is from Kate and Joe in Fiji in 2001. “This really is a big piece of Paradise,” she writes.
After that postcard, there is nothing.
Back at Shuck restaurant on the Gold Coast, Fitzpatrick is engaged in a long, circuitous argument with her mother just as the entrees have been completed. Fitzpatrick is still going on the oysters, and has regaled the table with so many anecdotes she has forgotten there’s still a single Sydney Rock nestling in its shell.
“She reads everything in Morse Code,” Fitzpatrick says of her mother, Dawn, seated across the table. “It’s something she learned in the war. She joined the RSL here recently and talks to blokes there completely in Morse. It’s like she’s a savant. Mum, what’s Shuck in Morse?”
“Dee dee dee dah dah….” Dawn responds instantly.
“Can you understand what I’m saying now, Ma, in Morse?”
Dawn smiles and shakes her head. “You wouldn’t have made it (in the war). You wouldn’t have passed the Morse exam. You’d have ended up in the kitchen.”
Dawn, an accomplished and respected patchwork quilt artist, studies the proof copy of Airmail at the table. The cover features a montage of photographs of her and her two daughters.
FITPATRICK: Have you read all the letters from me and Sally?
DAWN: I’ve read some of the letters.
FITZPATRICK: But have you read any of the links between the letters?
DAWN: No, I haven’t read the links.
FITZPATRICK: You’re going to be shocked.
DAWN: Am I going to be shocked?
FITZPATRICK: What I don’t understand about Morse Code is whether the dee’s and dah’s suggest the word in your mind first, or the actual words suggest the dee’s and the dah’s.
DAWN: You would never have passed. You don’t understand it at all.
FITZPATRICK: No, I think it’s a fair question. What I want to know is…”
Their verbal play proceeds this way for some time, and it’s not hard to picture the big family home in Adelaide, or later on the harbour at McMahon’s Point in Sydney, filled with these curious dialogues between these tirelessly curious people.
Fitzpatrick refuses to be interviewed or photographed at home in Labrador. There is a hint of embarrassment, perhaps not over the actual physical homes themselves, but the overarching reality that she is living in a place she had not expected to be living in. A place that she has yet to fit into.
Sister Sally says from her home in San Diego, California, that she is thrilled about Airmail, but concerned for Kate on the Gold Coast.
“I don’t know that she will survive there,” Sally says. “Kate’s great love are the big cities – Sydney or Melbourne. She’s there on the Gold Coast out of necessity really. She had no work in Melbourne and it was difficult to survive. It’s not a matter of being there to look after Mum at this stage in her life I don’t think. Kate has always looked after Mum.
“Kate is dying in Labrador. She needs the stimulus of a big city. She says she’s possibly looking to Brisbane. I hope it works out for her.”
There is, too, the question of her sister Kate’s skin, as delicate as an orchid petal. Fitzpatrick’s face was once described as that of “a fallen angel”.
Sally laughs at the thought of her sister in the fierce Queensland sun. “It’s why she has always looked so good – she’s hardly ever been out in the sun. I remember she used to say she’ll be buried looking as good as she was when she was 16. Whatever it takes. She probably will.”
As for Fitzpatrick’s personal life, the topic of such interest and debate last year, she is not expansive on the subject. She writes in the penultimate paragraph of Airmail: “As for me, I still love cricket. I’m still going to live in Paris – or New York. I’ve never married and have fallen in and out of love only once since Jose – probably for the last time.”
Does she mean this? For the last time?
“I can’t imagine it ever happening - I never meet anyone,” she says. “I was asked to marry many times for very odd reasons, I thought. That marriage would fix up a situation. It made me kind of feel trapped, to be honest. The idea of it made me feel claustrophobic.
“And then I read about people who lived in adjoining flats or houses and I thought maybe that would work. As long as I had my own bathroom. My own bedroom perhaps. Also, being such a free agent, I’ve realised over the last 15 years (raising Joe) that it’s enough to look after one person let alone lots of other people. I say in Name Dropping that I was proposed to eight times, but it really was, I suppose, ten.
“I once had an asthma attack on Victoria Street (in Sydney) when I was proposed to. I seem to attract control freaks. There’s something about me. And jealousy. I have never done the dirty on anyone. I’ve always been absolutely monogamous, even if it was just for a week (She laughs.) But there have been some terrible jealousies. I just find that so bad. But not now, I don’t expect people to be interested in me.”
She laughs at the attempts of friends to “set her up with a man”.
“I think that some people are needy, that they find me interesting, and others sniff that I’m a bolter,” she says. “It drives them mad. They just want to reign me in. But I can look at a man across the table, get engaged in my mind, married, have kids, then divorced, all in the space of half and hour, and it’s all over.”
As for permanent life on the Gold Coast, she remains uncommitted.
“I hope, I feel, it could be the beginning of something in that I think it’s turning me into a writer, do you know what I mean?” she says. “There isn’t any or much (acting) work. If you do want to get what’s around you don’t come to live on the Gold Coast because there ain’t any here.
“But I’m an old bird, you know what I mean?”
She does, at least, have her Phalaenopsis amabilis. Interestingly, the more you study Fitzpatrick, and the story of her life thus far, she and the Moth orchid share startling metaphorical similarities.
The orchid has been a symbol of luxury and beauty for many centuries. The Greeks considered them a symbol of virility, and they have been used as aphrodisiacs. They are fought over by collectors.
Their survival, too, has been assured by their phenomenal ability to adapt to their environment and attract a huge range of pollinators, from bees to frogs and snails.
Back home in Labrador, Fitzpatrick reports that the plants she relocated from Melbourne are doing remarkably well in their new Queensland environment.
“The gardenias are twice the size they’ve ever been,” she says happily. “And the orchids are blooming beautifully.”
* Airmail: Three Women/Letters from Five Continents by Kate Fitzpatrick is published in October by Wiley Australia, $29.95.