Allen & Unwin, Australia, 2020
I must admit I was taken by surprise by this book. It is truly a beautiful, deeply personal work by an awarded biographer known for her writing about two of our most beloved artists – Arthur Boyd and John Olsen.
Daddy Cool is much more than a biography of the man who was first Bob Cutter, top night club singer in the USA, and then Lawrie Brooks, suburban father and proof-reader in Australia. This is a search for the unspoken parts of her father, a pilgrimage to the secret lives of her parents. And it moved me to tears more than once.
Darleen Bungey is a skilful wordsmith, a thorough and perceptive researcher and a superlative story-teller. Much of her father’s life, indeed, reads like a fictional drama – his fractured childhood, his rise to fame and the trappings of wealth through a popular singing career, his four marriages and the scandal surrounding some of them, his re-invention in Australia, his desire to be a writer, ‘the one’ big love story with Gloria (Darleen and sister Geraldine’s mother), his struggles with alcohol.
In the telling of this man’s story, her desire to unearth that which had been little spoken of – or not spoken of at all – Darleen Bungey also paints a fascinating picture of the times – in particular the period from the thirties to post WW11.
Tracing the family story as far back as Bob Cutter’s great grandparents, she shows us the origins of a musical life and a prodigious vocal talent and the harsh conditions under which many struggled during wars, The Great Depression, the Spanish flu. She also reveals, with sparkling insight, in more recent times and the Australian story, the character and life of her wonderful mother and something of her own childhood and early adult years.
In true historical researcher style, the author not only trawled through the contents of a tea chest of papers and photographs, but also visited the places where these lives had taken place, searching out memories and stories wherever they could be found.
She describes the process as similar to the experience of Alice in Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland tale, her much loved childhood story, where she identifies both with Alice and the White Rabbit and cites the Mad Hatter’s wisdom: ‘Time cannot be frozen’. She races after the elusive as we all do with age, always a moment late to catch what we seek.
I have held onto some of Darleen Bungey’s beautiful turns of phrase long after finishing this book – ‘the cat’s cradle of memory’, ‘that sweet man, my father’; ‘It is as simple as it is complicated. It had been the means by which a man contrived to stay with a woman, in a place they both called home.’
The resonant joy of reading this book was that it could very well have been sensationalist given the story of Daddy Cool, but in fact in the end it was something with which I could identify – that longing for what has forever past.
Many thanks to Allen & Unwin for sending me a review copy of Daddy Cool.