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IN 1950s Sydney it was illegal for men to wear women’s clothes. However, if you wore men’s underpants it might have been considered fancy dress. Even if you didn’t, provided you kept one foot on your own doorstep when standing in the street, you were deemed not to be ‘in public’, and the police had no power to arrest you.

Dawn O’Donnell knew better than most how the game was played.

“When it was illegal it was all the more fun,” she said.

A lesbian in this fledgling drag underground, she was well-known for her regular ‘bail-out’ police visits, striding in with a roll of ten-shilling notes to liberate drag queens who, if left to police mercy, would have their nails snapped off and their hair cut short.

“There’s nothing worse than a drag queen with his beard coming through at 11 o’clock in the morning in jail,” O’Donnell said.

Fiona Cunningham-Reid’s documentary Croc-A-Dyke Dundee traces O’Donnell’s life from its beginning. She started out with nothing. O’Donnell’s mother — who had four different husbands — rarely saw her, and she was brought up by her Nan.

As a tearaway child she ended up in convent school, but it was a chance opportunity at an ice-skating rink that gave her direction.

“It’s gay! It’s glamorous! It’s gorgeous!” read the promotional poster. She was hooked.

It led her to Sydney’s underground scene where she developed her astute business sense. She made her first investment buying her Nan’s house and renting out the rooms. After an ice-skating accident ended her career, she tried marriage and traditional retailing.

But her love of parties saw her move permanently into entertainment. Purple Onion, Ruby Red, Capprichios and Jools: her venues became synonymous with her reputation. Police and politicians mixed with revellers as O’Donnell hosted the Supremes and Eartha Kit, while Nina Simone was turned away.

But O’Donnell, and her legend, was separated by a dark underside. Rumoured as “the closest thing we have, according to reputation, to being an organised criminal”, she supported the queer community in part because they made her wealthy.

And she voraciously fed the rumours. She divorced her husband and ‘married’ a woman. When that ended she met the love of her life, Aniek, and they travelled the world together — living off O’Donnell’s fortune.

Rumours abounded: did she own a chain of brothels? Had she shot a rival in business? Did she torch her own clubs for insurance money when business declined? The expensive costumes always seemed to be elsewhere when the fires began, and she didn’t disparage drag queens in the same ‘renovated’ clubs when they challenged punters: “What’s the definition of frustration? Dawn O’Donnell with a wet box of matches.”

Cunningham-Reid’s documentary combines previous interviews with O’Donnell — who doesn’t shy away from questions and eyes the viewer head on — and her friends and business associates. None satisfactorily separate fact from myth — many are keen to embellish — and all seem careful about what they say; damning with faint praise is the closest they get to criticism.

O’Donnell’s funeral in 2007, after she died at 79 from ovarian cancer after battling for years, ended a reign that lasted over 50 years but left a legend intact. While she bequeathed an indelible legacy to gay Sydney, she saved the biggest surprise of all for Aniek.

INFO: Croc-A-Dyke Dundee closes the Mardi Gras Film Festival on February 23, 7:30pm.

DETAILS: queerscreen.org.au

 

 

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