Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Beatrice 'Bea' Miles (1902-1973) - Wealthy Sydney Eccentric Individualist, Bohemian and Free Thinker

Bea Miles (at 29) after a Swim at Coogee, a Sydney Ocean Suburb

'I am an atheist, a true thinker and speaker. I cannot stand or endure the priggery, caddery, snobbery, smuggery, hypocricy, lies, flattery, compliments, praise, jealousy, envy, pretense, conventional speech and behaviour upon which society is based.'
To a Sydney Morning Herald journalist, 2nd June 1965

It has been claimed that, in pre-World War One Sydney, Bea Miles was more famous than the prime minister. Her fame was as an eccentric individualist, bohemian and iconoclast.

She has always appealed to me - super big time. And yesterday I began wondering whether it was cos she was out of the mainstream, as gay guys can be. Or whether my interest was a more personal thing - cos I am or have been at times just the tiniest bit eccentric. I have the creeping feeling that this is going to be one of those posts where I reveal more about myself than I am in fact intending at this very moment!

So first let me tell you some stuff about Bea Miles. And make some parallels with my own life.

Bea held views and moved in social circles that were generally not considered those of the wealthy conservative middle class to which she belonged.

For example, she took her father's pro-aboriginal and anti-British stance.

And the pacifist position, considering 'religion was the cause of so many wars and so much misery'. At 12, she wore a non-conscription badge at a rally during the Conscription Referendum of World War One. And described the Gallipoli Campaign as a 'strategic blunder' long before this interpretation was widely adopted.

Now my family is also a pretty conservative bunch - my father was a surgeon and later Head of Medical Services for a large maternity hospital in Melbourne, nine of his uncles were doctors and all my mother's brothers and sisters were. The dreaded matriarch was an economist. All were aligned to the conservative side of politics and their platforms. The matriarch once famously complained about a trade union protest march for higher wages down one of the main streets of the city, wondering why the marchers couldn't do it in the botanical gardens where they wouldn't get in anyone's way! Kinda missed the point!

Not me! When I first went to uni, I took philosophy, English, French and Fine Art - very bad indeed. And got involved in radical sexual politics - broadcasting on 'Gaywaves' radio, writing crabby articles in dissenting faggoty journals and strenuously protest marching - much much worse!!!

Bea was the friend of artists, writers and intellectuals, at the time not necessarily thought of a suitable milieu for someone of her social standing.

As I was too. My first boyfriend/lover/whatever (what IS the right word?) was a Sicilian sculptor - I was 14. Best friends were all artists, musicians and ... drag queens and transsexuals. I remember the first drag queen's dressing room table I ever saw - strewn with more bottles of nail polish, wigs, sequins, false finger nails, bangles, rings, feathers, fishnet stockings, perfume bottles ... than you could ever imagine could possibly fit onto a 4 by 2 surface.

Bea Miles's personal eccentricity was legendary.

Though well-off and independent through an inheritance from her paternal grandmother, she lived like a bum for many years in a drain in the inner Sydney Rushcutters Bay, not far from me.

And loved riding on the bumper bars, running boards and bonnets of cabs/taxis ...

... often refusing to pay the fare. Though not from need - she did pay a taxi driver 600 pounds to take her to Perth to study wildflowers, a journey of 2500 miles. A great wad of one pound notes stuck through with a safety pin fastened to the inside of her jacket.

She was very well-known as a soapbox orator with often controversial views, such as the advocacy of free sex. And as a public reciter of 'great' literature - in a green tennis shade, tennis shoes and a scruffy greatcoat, she would walk around the streets, with a sign around her neck advertising her 'wares' and their rates ...

Bea Miles was a great patriot - enrolled in arts at the University of Sydney, but stopped after a year 'because they did not teach enough Australian stuff'. But reading was essential for her - consuming three books a day in the State Public Library ... before being banned, as you would expect.

Ok, now to a potpourri of my eccentricities.

At school I would breed white mice in my book locker - and sell the off-spring to eager classmates ... only to be discovered when large parts of my geometry book were destroyed by my furry friends in maternal nest making frenzy. I thought this exhibited the approved capitalist tendencies the school was trying to instill - the masters thought otherwise!

I filled my notebooks with drawings of naked men - mainly sucking and fucking stuff, as I recall. There was more than mild consternation when one of these explosive little volumes got into the hands of a group of school super butches.

As a teenager at the height of summer, I used to go to our yacht club dances wearing a thick white polo neck jumper, bright red jeans and white patent leather shoes - and reveled in the obvious discomfort of the startled members.

When I was 18, I inherited from my grandfather - and spent much of my twenties traveling round the world - through Asia, Russia and the Eastern Block countries, and Europe and the Middle East. The best investment I ever made in my life, and certainly the best prerequisite for university. But not the conventional route.

Later in life, Bea Miles abandoned her atheism and was received into the Roman Catholic Church.

I wonder what I'll do later on in this respect - Buddhism is more likely!

Bea Miles died in 1973. Her coffin was strewn with the Australian wildflowers she loved and, at her request, her coffin inscribed with the following quotation from Shakespeare's 'Measure for Measure' ...

Reason thus with life: If I do lose thee, I do lose a thing that none but fools would keep

I have not tried to compete in any way - it's just that Bea and I seem to be in a very similar space. Or so it seems to me. And her life is one with which I strongly empathy!


  1. Nick, me mate

    Long time no commenting (real life sometimes can be a bitch and one that gets in the way of all the things you want to do...), but now I am back to reading your Organ and ..doing something to/with/looking at your cute hairy blond guys(not revealing it here!) I could not resist thanking you for broadening my (admittedly very limited horizons).
    I love Bee, I relate to her, I have looked up everything I could about her.



  2. peter me mate, missed your comments - blog didn't seem the same without them. life can be a bitch no mistaking it. glad you could respond to Bee - she was truly her own person - i left out stuff about her and her institutionalisation due to mental problems - there is a parallel with francis farmer - Bee was 'rescued' due to the intervention of a magazine. did you find out anything more about her? weel my friend, very glad you are still around and in contact. hug hug hug!!! take care. comment soon! nick

  3. I hope you do none of those two later.

    even though I have to admit that as a buddhist you would at least still be a little bit atheist.

    maybe I could live with the idea that there is no god above me, but that I am myself a god. one not yet quite ready, but anyway ;-)

  4. Fascinating stuff. Eccentric is a GOOD thing my friend.

    Alan down in Florida

  5. hey conceptual. good to hear from you. think i'm not guilty of either, well i hope. and that things spiritual are within rather than 'above' is pretty much much position. take care. nick

  6. hey alan, i think it's good - seems to be living authentically - in that jean paul satre sense. no 'mauvaise foie' going on here!

  7. Her name was BEA Miles, not Bee Miles.

  8. thanks anon. always been a lousy speller!