No one exemplified the famous publishing firm of Angus & Robertson more than editor Beatrice Davis who ended her career there in 1973 just as I was beginning mine at the University of Queensland Press. Seven years later I travelled down to Sydney to meet this legendary book editor.
I was keen to talk with her about Xavier Herbert, whose controversial novel Soldiers' Women she'd insisted be cut in half before it could be published. I flew to Sydney and stayed at a small hotel in Hunter Street, just a block from Wynyard Station. The Grand Hotel had been recommended by a Brisbane friend and I walked from the station along Hunter Street looking for what I imagined would be a high-rise building. Instead I discovered an old five-storey hotel that seemed anything but grand.
I spent my first afternoon in the Mitchell Library exploring some of Beatrice's editorial correspondence in the A&R archives before meeting up with Frank Moorhouse at the Marble Bar of the Hilton. Over cocktails he told me stories of Sydney's literary life in the 1960s which didn't seem very different from the era of Henry Lawson and A.G. Stephens, Norman Lindsay and Louise Mack. When Frank heard I was visiting Beatrice Davis next day, he told me a few stories about her that had circulated during his early years as a journalist.
One of her last campaigns as A&R's chief editor had been her attempt to dissuade A&R's recently installed publisher Richard Walsh from taking onThe Americans, Baby — Moorhouse's collection of sexually explicit short stories. It was a book my company had reluctantly turned down after the manuscript was read by our university vice-chancellor, the eminent jurist Zelman Cowen, who decided it was too hot for UQP to handle.
The following morning I hailed a cab for the twenty-minute journey to Beatrice's art deco house at Folly Point overlooking Middle Harbour. Its curvaceous white walls and single porthole window gave the impression of a P&O liner moored against a rocky hillside. The entrance hall was as elegant as Beatrice herself, and over a cup of coffee she began to reminisce about the halcyon days of Sydney publishing in the 1950s and 1960s.
Her stories about Xavier Herbert were especially entertaining. 'I got to know him fairly early in the war when he took me to lunch at Sydney's famous watering place, the grand — and very expensive — Hotel Australia in Castlereagh Street,' she told me.
'I'd suggested the first floor of the Hotel Australia as the nicest place to go. We sat down, and Xavier started to talk. This was about twelve o'clock. And he talked and he talked, and waiters hovered about, and still he kept talking. By half past two I was getting a bit exhausted. Finally Xavier said, ah, we better have some lunch. And the very nice, dignified head waiter came over to us and said "I'm very sorry sir. Lunch is orf". '