The Witch of King’s Cross

Symbiosis: Institute for Comparative Studies in Science, Myth, Magic and Folklore

THE WITCH OF KINGS CROSS:
ROSALEEN NORTON AND THE AUSTRALIAN MEDIA

By Dr Marguerite Johnson

Rosaleen Norton is among the most misunderstood women of 20th Century Australasia. Born in Dunedin, New Zealand during a violent thunder storm on 2nd October 1917, Rosaleen entered the world dramatically but left it quietly, dying of colon cancer on 5th December 1979 at the Roman Catholic Sacred Heart Hospice for the Dying, St Vincent’s Hospital, Sydney.

Her birth was the subject matter of her own memoirs, but her life and death were the preserve of the Australian media. Dubbed ‘The Witch of Kings Cross,’ Rosaleen lived with frequent and usually intrusive reporters keen to exploit, ridicule and incessantly misunderstand this ‘eccentric, decadent, exhibitionist, crank, genius, witch, [and] freak.’[1] This obsessive interest in her life or, more accurately, her lifestyle, transformed an acutely intelligent, artistically gifted and philosophically profound woman into the antithesis of the Australian wife and mother – an ideal firmly entrenched in the national psyche of the first half of the 20th Century. In the conservative environment of the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and even the ‘swinging sixties,’[2] Rosaleen was presented as society’s scapegoat, the witch on the outskirts of the community, a demon required to reinforce family values and Christian morality.

The construction of ‘The Witch of Kings Cross’ was not a difficult task, even for the most intellectually challenged of journalists, for Rosaleen was a unique woman in a somewhat drab, middleclass Sydney. Like her bohemian contemporaries, Rosaleen had two options open to her: to leave Australia and head to England or find a safe haven where she could be herself. She opted for the latter and thereby set the scene for a life of intense creative output, esoteric study and practice and, inevitably, court cases, censorship, outrageous publicity and eventually, self-imposed isolation. The ‘decision’ to stay and its results symbolise the dichotomy that is Rosaleen Norton: while arrogantly defying the outside world, she occasionally courted its chroniclers then expected a private life of urban aestheticism.

Rosaleen sought the safe haven of Kings Cross, the perpetually dark mecca in the heart of Sydney, sometimes ‘located’ between ‘the convergence of William and Victoria Streets and Darlinghurst and Bayswater Roads.’[3] Literally a crossroad, a no-mans-land, a place without a postal address until 1965,[4] the Cross was seen as a frightening environment full of prostitutes, drug dealers and murderers. Little has changed and most Australians now, as then, visualise the Cross minus the painters, poets, actors, assorted bohemians and average urbanites who call it home. Rosaleen moved there in the 1920s and she, like it, became the stuff of tabloid legend until one was literally synonymous with the other.

Rosaleen’s first taste of media sensationalism was as a result of an exhibition of her work shown at the Rowden-White Library at the University of Melbourne. The exhibition attracted ‘considerable press coverage, most of which … dwelt on the extraordinary subject matter of … [the] works, her bohemian lifestyle and occult interests.’[5] This reception fuelled public outrage and the Vice Squad confiscated several pieces, regarded as profane. Rosaleen went to court on obscenity charges, the first such case against a woman in Victoria. So began her life as a pornographer and enemy of the public, with the power to corrupt morality by exposing the innocent to paintings with titles such as Witches’ Sabbat, Lucifer, Triumph and Individuation.[6]

While Rosaleen was acquitted of the charges, she had been set on an inescapable path of notoriety by the media who, in hindsight, refused to let go of a source of inexhaustible stories for the next 30 years. Her reaction to the press at this time did not help. In an infamous comment to the Daily Telegraph, she proclaimed: ‘This figleaf morality expresses a very unhealthy attitude.’[7] The publicity surrounding the court hearing also had a ruinous impact on the exhibition, which closed quietly with few paintings sold.[8]

In the years following the Melbourne trial, the media’s passion for Rosaleen was accelerated by a further series of scandals between 1952-1956. The first of these resulted from the publication of a limited edition book entitled The Art of Rosaleen Norton in August 1952. Financed by Wally Glover, an unofficial patron of Rosaleen and her companion, the poet Gavin Greenlees, the book contained her artwork, Gavin’s poems and one poem, accompanying the work Black Magic, by Rosaleen. By the end of August, Glover and the book’s printer, Tonecraft Pty Ltd, were charged with producing an obscene publication. Glover was eventually found guilty and charged £5 plus court costs,[9] while Tonecraft was fined £1.[10] As a result of the hearing, certain pages were to be blacked out of the remaining copies and the book was subjected to a Customs ban, ‘the only Australian art book ever to suffer such a prohibition.’[11]

The media’s role in this incident is as serendipitous as it is powerful. Glover had made contact with Rosaleen and Gavin upon reading a small report in the Sydney Morning Herald, which described the arrest of the pair on the charge of vagrancy. As the media ironically united the trio, it also instigated their downfall, as reports of the book were accompanied with screaming headlines such as the one appearing in the Sunday Sun, which read: ‘Witches, Demons on Rampage in Weird Sydney Sex Book.’ ‘Several newspapers ran stories in which they goaded irate citizens into denouncing the book. Some called for it to be banned, although one worthy woman decreed that ‘Burning isn’t good enough; all copies should be burnt and the plates destroyed.’[12] In the era of Robert Menzies, the ultraconservative prime minister, who reigned supreme in the 1950s with his anti-communist manifesto and harsh stance on censorship, such headlines fed the political and social mean-spiritedness characteristic of the Sunday Sun‘s readership. The media beat-up, not surprisingly, contributed to calls for the book to be banned and, therefore, to the subsequent arrests, charges and bowdlerisation.

By this time the title ‘The Witch of Kings Cross’ was firmly attached to Rosaleen and she was frequently the target of police raids and media scrutiny. In September 1955 a Sydney vagrant by the name of Anna Karina Hoffmann accused Rosaleen of inducting her into a coven and making her participate in a Black Mass. Although Hoffmann later denied the charges and was sentenced to two months gaol, the damage she did to Rosaleen’s reputation, already tarnished beyond redemption, left an indelible mark. The incident sparked a series of stories on satanism in Kings Cross. One particularly spectacular headline from the Australasian Post read: ‘A Warning to Australia: DEVIL WORSHIP HERE!’ and was accompanied by a photograph of Rosaleen in pagan dress kneeling before a painting of the god Pan.[13] This appeared less than a month after the Hoffman incident and close on the heels of the theft of photographs depicting Rosaleen and Gavin in occult rites of a sexual nature. The article was allegedly based on an interview with Rosaleen who, according to the journalist D. L. Thompson, willingly posed for the Post‘s photographer. In view of the current climate, which culminated in a raid and charges against Rosaleen and Gavin on the basis of the stolen photographs, it is almost unthinkable that she would be declaring herself not only a witch but also a devil worshipper and posing in such confronting regalia.

The article is perhaps the most sensational coverage of her during the 1950s and it reads with a distinct tone of unreality. While it is conceivable that the story was fabricated and the images part of the stolen ‘treasure,’ it is impossible to prove. Alternatively, the exclusive may have been a well-planned manoeuvre to invade Rosaleen’s flat late at night when she would be vulnerable. It was widely known that Rosaleen used hallucinogenics to assist her trances and heighten psychic energies, and while it is unknown how regularly she partook, there is evidence to suggest that the practice became regular. During the court case regarding the photographs, which coincided with the article, for example, Rosaleen had to leave, having been found by a psychiatrist to be experiencing the after-effects of dexedrine, methedrine and other substances.[14] In view of her state in October 1955, therefore, it is hardly surprising that Rosaleen was more than capable of making such outrageous statements to a journalist well trained in posing the ‘right’ questions. The result was that she appeared exactly as Thompson had intended (presuming that the interview did take place): satanic, obscene, boastful, dangerous.

The get-rich-quick scheme of the two small-time crooks who had stolen from Rosaleen is indicative of the press’ obsession with her. Had the men not expected to make a small fortune through the sale of the cache, which was offered to The Sun newspaper for £200, this invasion of Rosaleen’s world would not have taken place. The incident also reveals the police crusade against her and the co-operation between the two bodies in ultimately achieving their moralistic, misguided goal: to punish this witch on the basis of some substantial charge. The Sun, unable to print the material, sent it to the New South Wales Police in an act illustrative of their reciprocal relationship: Rosaleen would be served-up to the cops and the newspaper would hopefully get an exclusive for its trouble. But this plan paled into insignificance compared to another find: a series of letters describing pagan rites and sex magic, which had been appropriated by a senior crime reporter for the tabloid and handed to the Vice Squad. These were to prove more newsworthy than the photographs, having been written by Sir Eugene Goossens, the renowned composer and conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. As the correspondence revealed, Goossens had been a participant in rituals at Rosaleen’s flat, and had been having a sexual relationship with her, largely based on practices akin to the magical system developed by Gerald Gardener. Goossens’ biographer, Carole Rosen, explained his involvement in the rituals in empathetic terms:

For the majority of participants, the ritual worship of Pan had provided sexual excitement that was both erotic and illicit. But for Eugene it was something much more, a search for the mystical truth that was the fount of artistic inspiration and enlightenment.[15]

What had begun as witch-hunting by The Sun had disastrous effects, not only for Rosaleen and Gavin, but for Goossens: in March 1956, unaware of the events, he arrived back in Australia after an overseas trip to find officers waiting to search his luggage – an almost unheard of occurrence at this time. He was subsequently charged with importing prohibited goods, including ‘indecent works and articles, namely a number of books, prints and photographs, and a quantity of film’.[16]

The media had a field day: Goossens was besieged at his home day and night for six weeks after the event, headlines screamed and additional scandals were manufactured. On 11th March the Sunday Telegraph reported:

BIG NAMES IN DEVIL RITE PROBE. Police investigations have disclosed that “black masses” and other devil worship ceremonies have taken place in luxurious homes on the North Shore. A banker, a lawyer, and one or two radio artists are said to be among those involved. Police disclosures followed an intensive Sydney wide check on practising of Satanic rites. The extent of devil worship in Sydney amazed police. They are expected to make shock disclosures soon.[17]

Goossens pleaded guilty in absentia at the hearing at Martin Place Court of Petty Sessions. Rosaleen suffered at the hands of the media and Gavin, who had a history of mental illness, had been admitted to Callan Park Hospital the previous year (7th October 1955) as a result of the unending pressures. The order of events leading to this scandal is difficult to ascertain owing to divergent accounts. What is clear, however, is the close collaboration between the police and The Sun. The detective who headed the operation, Bert Trevenar, worked closely with journalist Joe Morris, who had supplied the letters. Morris organised the surveillance of Goossens in London by Fleet Street contacts and, in exchange, was guaranteed a scoop by Trevenar on Goossens’ return. Morris and his contacts worked hard and were able to provide the detective with specific details of Goossens’ departure time as well as the airline and flight number.

Coverage of Goossens and Rosaleen continued into the late 1990s with the Sydney Morning Herald revisiting the great man’s fall from grace in a feature article in 1999 by David Salter. ‘The Strange Case of Sir Eugene and the Witch’ is summarised with the following blurb:

The brilliant career of conductor Sir Eugene Goossens came to an abrupt end in 1956 with a scandal over dirty photos. What the public didn’t know was that his downfall was the result of his sexual obsession with a Pan-worshipping witch. [18]

While Goossens is rightly championed as a renowned, highly respected and outstandingly talented man, Rosaleen is referred to as ‘not just an artist, but the notorious, Pan-worshipping Witch of Kings Cross … “a person known to the police” through two prosecutions for obscenity.’[19] Salter merges the woman and her environment; Rosaleen personifies the sleazy, contaminated world of the Cross – a macrocosm evoked in the microcosm of her abode:

Contemporary photographs of the run-down flat Norton shared with Greenlees show the walls decorated with occult symbols and a makeshift altar used in her covern’s rituals. But it seems Goossens was far from repulsed by these tawdry surroundings.[20]

The article is presented as investigative journalism but its author has not progressed beyond the style of the 1950s, complete with misogynistic slurs, in his blithe description of the wicked witch. In 1999 Salter would have his readership believe that the ruination of a man was the direct result of his relationship with a woman. This is even more astonishing when one reads Salter’s account of the man’s boredom, his enjoyment of pornography, his lifelong interest in the occult and the fact that it was he who contacted the woman to arrange a meeting. One may well have advised Salter that investigative journalism in this instance may have been better served by a series of questions relating to arcane legislation; police corruption; widespread, bigoted conservatism and the journalists themselves in furnishing an explanation of Goossens’ public humiliation.

Until her death and even after it, Rosaleen was the subject of stories and, during the late 1950s and early 1960s she continued to portray herself as a witch to an exaggerated extent. Rosaleen’s death in 1979 was covered in less detail and significantly less interest by the Australian newspapers compared to their lust for stories concerning her while she was alive. The Sydney Morning Herald published the most restrained coverage; a small, two column statement with the heading ‘Controversial Cross artist dies at 62’ printed on page 21.[21] The tabloids were more graphic, repeating details that had been repeated on numerous occasions previously and already entrenched in the Australian psyche. Her complex and devout beliefs were not detailed nor were her talents as an artist. The closest the press came to acknowledging Rosaleen’s creativity was the references to her study at East Sydney Technical College and her time spent as a model for Norman Lindsay. The Mercury, a paper based in Hobart, described the modelling as an example of her ‘notoriety’ – not Lindsay’s.[22] The accounts maintained the ongoing stereotypes applied to her; she was a witch, a bohemian, an inhabitant of the Cross. The Mercury‘s conclusion epitomises the media’s disdain for her:

She died a lone pensioner, forgotten as one of Sydney’s most colourful characters, after contracting cancer 18 months ago. But her life-long commitment to black magic – remained intact – even though she died in a Roman Catholic hospital.

The media obsession with Rosaleen Norton reflects the Victorian-like puritanism and anxieties characteristic of Australian society during the first half – and well into the second half – of the 20th Century. Rosaleen represented a sexual freedom and religious individuality and rebelliousness that enraged yet enticed her opponents who focussed on her sorcery and perceived proclivities because that was as far as their understanding of her psychology, sexuality and spiritualism could extend. The journalists and photographers so intrigued by her found an outlet for their own confusion, sexual repression and misogyny by invading her world – by metaphorically getting ‘INSIDE ROSALEEN NORTON’ – as the headline of an article in the aptly named Squire magazine put it so precisely.[23] In so doing they were given a vicarious glimpse of the ecstasy experienced by Goossens, the ultimate victim of their campaign. They waged a witch-hunt against her, becoming the Australian version of those frustrated priests of the Inquisition whose masturbatory fantasies of wild women copulating with the devil fortified their beliefs but exposed their own demons. Fortunately for Rosaleen they could not burn her and her belligerence remained with her till the end as reflected in her well known closing statement: “I came into the world bravely; I’ll go out bravely.”[24]

SLIDES

i) Witches’ Sabbat [later re-titled Black Magic]:; ‘ In court in 1949, Rosaleen was asked to explain the work and described it as ‘symbolic’ with the female figure, resembling the artist, being a magic practitioner and the panther personifying the powers of darkness. The embrace represents the initiation of the practitioner into the ‘infernal mysteries.’ (Drury 40). Included in The Art of Rosaleen Norton, it was accompanied by one of her poems.

Black Magic

ii) Lucifer: In Judaic legend, Sammael, the twin of archangel Michael, criticised God’s creation of humanity and was banished from Heaven. Sent to earth to torment its people, he adopted the name Lucifer, and has waged a constant war with us. In view of Rosaleen’s interest in the Kabbalah, it is not surprising that her interpretation of the figure is akin to the Judaic heritage as opposed to the Christian one. In one version of Kabbalistic lore, Lucifer, is linked with humanity as both have experienced a fall: he from Heaven and us from paradise. Rosaleen depicted Lucifer according to this mythology, not worshipping him as the devil, but acknowledging him as humankind’s adversary; he reminds why we are here and thereby operates as a psychic gauge that curtails ego.

Lucifer

iii) Individuation: Based on her study of Jung, Rosaleen borrowed this title from his term for ‘psychic unity’ or ‘inner wholeness’ (Drury 124). The work is also indebted to the Kabbalistic tradition, essentially through Jung’s study of alchemy and the Kabbalah. Jung interpreted alchemy as a metaphor for the unification of mind, body and spirit, which is linked to the Kabbalistic philosophy symbolised by the notion of the ‘Return to Paradise.’  (Also included in The Art of Rosaleen Norton).

Individuation

iv) D. L. Thompson, ‘DEVIL WORSHIP HERE!’ Australasian Post, Sydney, 6 October 1955: 4. Also included in: Rosaleen Norton, ‘I Was Born a Witch,’ Australian Post, January 3, 1957: 5. Final page of the article. Caption reads: ‘We asked Rosaleen Norton, “Have you ever seen the Devil?” She replied: “IF you mean the being whom I know as the God Pan, I frequently have that privilege.” A huge painting of Pan dominates her Sydney flat.’

Devil worship

v) David Salter, ‘The Strange Case of Sir Eugene and the Witch,’ Sydney Morning Herald (‘Good Weekend’), July 3, 1999.


[1] Rosaleen Norton, ‘“ I WAS BORN A WITCH,”’ Australasian Post, Sydney, 3 January 1957: 4.

[2] In Australia, the 1970s were really the beginning of the ‘swinging sixties;’ in the 1960s, the nation was still under the influence of the Menzies government.

[3] Mandy Sayer and Louis Nowra, Introduction, In the Gutter … Looking at the Stars: A Literary Adventure Through Kings Cross, Australia, 2000: xvi.

[4] Sayer and Nowra.

[5] Richmond.

[6] Nevill Drury, Pan’s Daughter: The Strange World of Rosaleen Norton, Sydney, 1998: 40. Cf. Figures i-iii.

[7] Anon, Daily Telegraph, Sydney, 4 August 1949. Her words were repeated, cf., for example, ‘SHE HATES FIGLEAF MORALITY,’ People, Sydney, 29 March 1950: 26 (the quotation is the headline).

[8] Richmond.
[9] Drury 1988: 68.
[10] Richmond.
[11] Richmond.
[12] Drury, ‘Introduction,’ The Art of Rosaleen Norton, Sydney, (1952) 1982: 15.
[13] Cf. Figure iv.
[14] Drury 1988: 85.
[15] Carole Rosen, The Goossens: A Musical Century, London: 366.
[16] Drury 1988: 86.
[17] Anon, Sunday Telegraph, Sydney, 11 March 1956.
[18] David Salter, ‘The Strange Case of Sir Eugene and the Witch,’ Sydney Morning Herald (‘Good Weekend’), Sydney, 3 July, 1999: 16. Cf. Figure v.
[19] Salter 17.
[20] Salter 17.
[21] Anon, The Sydney Morning Herald, 8 December 1979: 21
[22] Anon, The Mercury, Hobart, 8 December 1979: 18.
[23] Anon, ‘INSIDE ROSALEEN NORTON,’ Squire, Sydney, April 1965: 41.
[24] Drury 1988: 102.

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