By Elisabeth Wynhausen
Aunty Pearl Martin doesn’t look her age and doesn’t see any reason to reveal it to the world. But what she will say if the question arises is: “I’m the oldest Maori lady in Bondi, love.” Sometimes Aunty Pearl agrees she must be a Maori elder if only because she’s old enough. Other times she’ll remember telling some people who wished her to play the part of a tribal elder: ‘I didn’t come to Australia to be a Maori – I came for the sport for my kids.’
“Which I did, love,” Pearl told me when we talked.
I had arranged to meet her after hearing that she worked as a maid at Bondi’s Hotel Astra in the early nineteen-eighties, which was a bit like being able to meet with a housemaid who worked at the Lexington Hotel in Chicago when Al Capone had a suite there. In short the Astra was then notorious.
Before she got to that part of the story, all in good time, Aunty Pearl recalled a little of her own eventful life. We had met at the small flat in Bondi she shared with her son, who works shifts on a maintenance crew and was asleep in the next room. Pearl spoke softly so as not to wake him, gasping for breath between words, as she explained that she had been an activist in the old days, back home in New Zealand.
“We sat against the government in Auckland for 500 days,” she said, wheezing a little before adding that her two brothers and some cousins had been among the instigators of the drawn-out occupation of traditional Maori land the government was handing over to a developer. The protest would draw attention to injustices against the Maori, but that came several years later: by then, Pearl had left New Zealand behind, landing on these shores a few days before Christmas, 1980, with her husband, four children and two suitcases.
When she said so I glanced around, half-expecting to glimpse what they had brought with them thirty-something years ago. The spotlessly clean living room looked as if nothing had ever been thrown away. Figurines, pictures, old cups, sports trophies and other treasured objects covered every surface. An exercise bike was tucked into a corner, next to shirts on hangers hooked on a shelf.
There were a few chairs and a card table spread with the bits of jewellery Pearl likes to make; clearing away shoeboxes that held more of her jewellery, she lowered herself cautiously into a chair. Her health is not what it was and she gets about these days with the aid of a walking stick but she has the ready laugh of a person full of life. The laughter resounded as she remembered starting work at the Astra in nineteen-eighty-one . She was doing shifts as a cleaner at the Bondi Beach Public School by then, but it was only a casual job; hearing that the Astra was advertising for kitchen staff, she was up there in a flash.
“I went there as a cook. I couldn’t cook for nuts, love,” Pearl confided. “I thought I’ll go and have a look anyway. They said ‘do you know how to cook?’ I said, ‘oh yeah’. Then Mrs Bullivant, the manager, came along. She was a little lady, but very elegant. She dressed beautifully. She came over to me and said ‘did you work in hotels before?’ I said ‘back home I did. I was doing the beds – a housemaid…’ She said ‘you can start up at the house’.
Anyway, I started there.”
The Hotel Astra on the corner of of Sir Thomas Mitchell Road and Campbell Parade overlooked the southern curve of Bondi Beach. A hotel called the Cliff House had risen on the very spot in eighteen-eighty, when there was a dance hall across the street but so little else that picnickers venturing to the beach let the horses that had been harnessed to their carts graze on the scrubby hill behind the hotel. In the nineteen-twenties, the Cliff House was replaced by the building that became the Astra.
Though grand in its day, towards the end the Astra was as renowned for the rock stars who played there as for the foils of heroin lined up on the window sills of the pub downstairs. Bondi itself was seedy. Dealing was rife and after muttering about it long enough, people from Sir Thomas Mitchell Road got together to write about life in a neighbourhood where the dealing went on even in the vestibules of their buildings.
The Sydney Morning Herald picked it up and the television people descended in droves to scuffle up syringes in nearby gardens. One local found a detective from Waverley waiting at her front gate, she told me not long ago. He asked her to come to the station to make a statement before he added: ‘you know people have ended up with concrete boots for saying what you said’.
Despite the mayhem in the bar of the Astra, the guests upstairs included elderly folk who lived in the hotel. Pearl would remember a distinguished gentleman they all called The Professor and a lady by the name of Mrs Bird with more beautiful hats than a hat shop. The old people had their own lounge. The musicians had a lounge downstairs “That’s where you’d see them snorting and having it, you know,” said Pearl.
The Astra was owned by Cyril Maloney who owned a string of hotels and doubtless didn’t know there were police acting as if they were in his pocket; the licensee Sylvia Bullivant had other things on her mind. So intent on her football team the Astra Knights that she coached the team herself, Mrs Bullivant might be seen rushing up and down the nearest sideline, blowing the whistle on Maori boys who could have picked her up like a toy.
At the Astra, meanwhile, Pearl had rapidly been initiated. “Well darlin’,” she said, “my first OD, I went into a room, there was this bloke, laid out on the floor, you know. The Astra Hotel was five floors. The top floor was a ballroom. I was on the third floor and I goes running down the stairs to the office…” Pearl imitated herself, wailing as if pursued by banshees. “I goes screaming, ‘oooooooh someone’s dead’. I didn’t know what was going on. The office lady says to me, ‘never mind Pearl, don’t worry, Pearl.’
“Then these two people come up with a stretcher and that. He wasn’t dead. He was just OD’d, love. But darling, by the time I left the Astra Hotel, you know what I used to do – kick them under the bed and carry on workin’. ‘Well off you go under there, mate, while I fix up this room’.”
The pub closed down a few years later, after the local council, spurred by residents, approached the Licensing Board and Mr Maloney declared he would turn the building into aged care apartments. Pearl was there to the end, which came in the mid-eighties.
By then the New Zealanders streaming into Bondi since the nineteen-seventies were streaming out again, because rents were rising out of their reach. For a time squatters magisterially calling themseves the Maori Self-Help Housing Group occupied a big derelict building on Gould Street, a block from the beach. Soon they, too, were gone.
Pearl nearly suffered the same fate. The building where she lived last year was being redeveloped: she and her son had to move from a small flat to a smaller one. With everything still in boxes there, Pearl and I met the other day at a café at the Junction, before heading towards Bondi Beach to take a look at the Astra.
Though she lived a short bus ride away, she hadn’t seen it in years. The building looked as she remembered it, she said. It was when she was home again, resting a bit after the outing, she told me later, that she became emotional, thinking about the place in the old days, with Mrs Bird and her hats and Mrs Bullivant, looking after the boys from INXS and Hunters and Collectors. “I’ve still got a t-shirt that belongs to one of them,” she said. There was a silence. I pictured her in her little flat, looking around at all the boxes. “Somewhere,” she said.