Nobody could smoke a cigarette quite like Teresa Brennan. Only Bette Davis in ’Now Voyager’ came close. With mesmerizing elegance Teresa used a cigarette to indicate how she was feeling about what was being said or done, or as a weapon when arguing a point in any debate. It was the first thing I noticed about her, her hands. They were very beautiful. I can still see the patterns the smoke created as she gesticulated, emphasizing whatever needed to be emphasized.
I first met Teresa Brennan during a Sydney University Orientation Week function put on by the Students’ Representative Council for freshman undergraduates. It was 1970 at the beginning of the academic year. Teresa gave the welcoming speech and introduced Barry Robinson, President of the SRC, who was later to be best man at my wedding. Bet, my mother, Ruth, my sister, and I settled down for what we expected to be a turgid night of boring speeches. We couldn’t have been more wrong. It was a night that would determine the direction that my life would later take and, ultimately, the person with whom I would share that journey.
Teresa was a voluptuous woman with cream pot skin and only the occasional sun kissed freckle, a mouth that was always threatening to break into laughter, and eyes that twinkled with amused devilment. She was never happier than standing in the middle of chaos, delight dancing across her face, calmly and elegantly smoking a cigarette, as all around her went to the shithouse. She was as Irish as Paddy’s pigs, potatoes, shamrocks, Guiness and leprechauns.
The first two speeches were as expected – dire. I whispered my apologies to Bet and Ruth for dragging them off to this. The next speech was given by an overly large under-grad whose name I recall was something Clarke who looked like he could have done with one or two turns in the Hoover washing machine set on heavy duty.
His was an outrageous speech, full of expletives undeleted and deliberately confronting. No sensitive subject, from drugs to group sex to final bloody revolution, was left untouched. Parents were on their feet shouting at the stage; others were noisily exiting while Bet, Ruth and I sat there and cacked. We were the only ones in the entire Union Theatre who applauded. It was one of the more entertaining meetings we had ever attended. All the time Teresa stood quietly smoking at the side of the stage as pleased as punch, while the audience’s veneer of middle class politeness and pretensions was stripped away, leaving outraged mayhem. Our response did not go unnoticed.
At the end of the meeting we went to leave and she smiled. So we met. She met a family of Evatt women, and I met my mentor during my university years and my friend. She was fun; had a frighteningly brilliant intellect; was difficult, demanding, loyal, stimulating, and I loved her.
Three weeks after I had first met her I was attending one of her parties. Teresa threw the best parties. You would always meet the most interesting people and engage in stimulating banter, usually political mixed with heavy doses of slanderous gossip. At this party I remember meeting for the first time Jim Spigelman, later to be Chief Justice of NSW, was then Editor of Honi Soit, Percy Allen, later Head of NSW Treasury, was then standing, ultimately successfully, as President of the SRC, and the man I would eventually marry, His Nibs. There was an entry to student politics although that never interested me as much as Labor politics. Even at the beginning of the 70s student politics was too polite. Labor politics was more combative and I like blood sports.
Memories are like archaeological artifacts. Some shards instantly bring back a whole story with cast and context; others require digging into the memory to piece together fragments of your remember when.
My memories of Teresa are all from the former category; clear, crisp reenactments, complete with vision and surround sound. The reason is Teresa herself. She was such a dynamo and stories about her, and we have a gigillion, where His Nibs and I were either unexpected participants or spectators, are the full 3 act dramas, tragedies or absurdist comedies.
When 4 Corners rang us requesting an interview for the piece on Marcus Einfeld, we refused. His Nibs had introduced Teresa to Marcus and that much we confirmed. I did make the comment to the show’s researcher that the real story wasn’t Marcus it was Teresa, and the mysterious manner in which she had been killed.
At last! A book has been written in which the suspicious circumstances surrounding her death are raised – ‘A Tragedy in Two Acts: Marcus Einfeld and Teresa Brennan” by Fiona Harai, published by Victory Books and is released today. An edited extract appeared in the SMH’s Good Weekend, 27 August 2011, under the banner of ‘It happened one night’.
The debacle that resulted in Marcus Einfeld’s demise fits nicely into the absurdist theatre category. Speculation about how Teresa would have reacted to the kerfuffle is still revisited. Silly, I know! My view? I like to think that she would take a long elegant drag on her fag, eyeball you with eyes twinkling then throw her head back and cack with laughter.
I would love to talk to you about your tribute to Teresa