Bruce and Coral


Bruce Bligh Turnbull was born in Tumut in 1926, the only son, indeed only child, of Frederick Bligh Turnbull and Mary Agnes Turnbull, née Brown. He left school aged 15 and apprenticed himself to an electrician; later on he became a hotel broker, selling pubs and their fittings. His son recalls that his first job was counting beer glasses for his father, whom he described as witty, amusing, and light. I’m probably a bit more serious. He was a very good father. He was a very intelligent man. He did not go to university, which he regretted. He had a very simple sort of morality which I inherited. Rather an old-fashioned concept of honour and manliness and principle. It can make you a bit unbending. One thing he believed was that you should never take a backward step. His father also taught him: no cigarettes, no motor bikes and no single engine planes; which is of course ironic because Turnbull senior was to die in a plane crash. Bruce struggled financially most of his life but in his late 40s started to make a few bucks, started to acquire some success in the sense that he was able to buy a flat that we could live in, ‘cause we’d always lived in rented accommodation or in the flat in Vaucluse that was basically owned by my mother. He had some investments in hotels and things started to go well for him. My father had this great love of the bush and horses. He loved riding. He used to go riding in the Snowy Mountains. He used to borrow horses, young horses from friends of his who were camp drafters and break them in, in Centennial Park, and had a few exciting accidents there as a result. He was a little bit of a cowboy, really. Anyway, he looked around for years and years for a property to buy and he finally found this place which he bought in 1981, just between Aberdeen and Scone in the Hunter Valley. He had a great time, enjoyed all the work with the cattle and the fencing and all of it. He just loved the country life and riding around. A year after he bought it he was in a light plane flying from Scone to Casino, which crashed over the Barrington Tops and he was dead in December, 1982. He was 56 years old. Malcolm inherited his father’s farm; he said he could never sell it because Bruce is buried in the front garden.

Coral Magnolia Lansbury was born at St Kilda, Melbourne, in 1929, second child of Australian-born Oscar Vincent Stephen Lansbury and his English-born wife May, née Morle. Her great uncle, George Lansbury, was a Cabinet Minister in Ramsay MacDonald’s government and leader of the British Labour Party until succeeded, in the 1930s, by Clement Attlee. He had been a Communist, a supporter of the Suffragettes and a Pacifist. Coral’s parents were London stage actors who toured New Zealand and Australia in 1928 and 1929 with a production of The Vagabond King before joining the cast of Show Boat; hence Coral’s second name, Magnolia, after the heroine, Magnolia Hawks. After the cast disbanded in Sydney in December 1929, the family settled there, and Oscar took a job as a radio sound-effects man with the Australian Broadcasting Commission. Coral once told an interviewer that she detested her mother and revered her father, who introduced her to Dickens and Thackeray to keep her quiet backstage during shows. Coral Lansbury became a child actor in J. C. Williamson productions; her first role, aged ten, was as a fairy in a Christmas pantomime. She began regularly performing in radio serials and, while she was still a teenager, had one of her scripts accepted for production by the ABC. She attended the University of Sydney (1947-50), where she completed the requirements for a BA Honours degree, majoring in English and History, and winning the Maud Stiles and George Arnold Wood Memorial History Prizes; but as an unmatriculated student, she wasn’t allowed to graduate. In 1948 her verse play Krubi of the Illawarra, about an Aboriginal girl who was transformed into a Waratah flower, won the Henry Lawson Prize for poetry. She took the lead role in its radio production in 1949 and went on to write a number of other well received radio plays. From 1953 to 1963 she was a feature and drama writer with the ABC, winning a number of awards for her work. During the same period, she wrote an enormous amount of soap opera material which, while profitable, was of dubious literary worth. Portia Faces Life was one of the many radio shows she wrote for. It isn’t clear where and how Coral Lansbury met Bruce Turnbull. It was to be the second of her three marriages.The first, on 20 February 1953 at the registrar general’s office, Sydney, was to 64 year old actor and producer George Harold Edwards; it was his fourth. He contracted pneumonia and was hospitalised two days after the wedding; six months later he died. The following year, in October 1954, Lansbury’s son, Malcolm Turnbull, was born; she married his father on 29 December 1955 at Campbell Street Presbyterian Church, Balmain, when their child was a little more than one year old. Lansbury did not want to make the move into television; she chose academia instead. In 1963 she was appointed lecturer in History and Australian Studies at the University of New South Wales; it was there that she met John (Jock) Salmon, a New Zealand-born specialist in French History who was the university’s foundation Professor of History (1960-65). 1963 was the year Malcolm enrolled at Sydney Grammar School; it was also the year his parents’ marriage ended. From then on, he lived with his father. He was an Eastern Suburbs boy. He swam at Bondi and fed ducks in Centennial Park, things that take no account of your bank balance. He recalled a surf club acquaintance with a man whose calloused hands were used, in a rather emphatic manner, to collect debts for bookies.

In 1966 Lansbury joined Salmon at the University of Waikato in New Zealand, where he was Professor of History and Dean of Humanities (1965-69). She was a lecturer in History and a senior lecturer in English and, at the same time, a graduate student at the University of Auckland (MA, 1967; PhD, 1969). Social contexts and the novel’s symbolic role in cultural inventions were themes central to her academic work. Her postgraduate research was published as Arcady in Australia: The Evocation of Australia in Nineteenth-Century English Literature (1970). In it she argues that Samuel Sidney, Charles Dickens, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, and Charles Reade transferred the myth of a happy English rural life to Australia with huge success, evoking however a new Australia that bore only passing resemblance to the country as it existed. She traced the masculine origins of the bush mateship myth that figures such as Henry Lawson, ‘Banjo’ Paterson, and William Guthrie Spence popularised. When Salmon joined the faculty of Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania, in 1969, Lansbury accompanied him to the US. She was an associate professor of English at Rosemont College (1970-73) and a visiting professor of English and History in the graduate school of Victorian Studies at Drew University (1974). Appointed associate professor of English at Rutgers University, New Jersey, in 1974, she was promoted to Professor in 1976. She published works on Elizabeth Gaskell’s life and novels, and on Anthony Trollope’s language and structure. A socialist rather than a feminist critic, she combined both in The Old Brown Dog: Women, Workers, and Vivisection in Edwardian England (1985). She and Salmon divorced in 1981. That year she was appointed distinguished Professor of English and co-adjutant Professor of History at Rutgers. Three years later she became Graduate Dean and Director of Sponsored Research. Famously, in the mid-1980s, Coral’s second cousin, the actress Angela Lansbury (Murder, She Wrote), challenged her to write something more interesting than academic prose. She wrote and published four novels: Ringarra: A Gothic Novel (1985), Sweet Alice (1986), Felicity (1987), and The Grotto (1988); a fifth, Opium, despite the editorial efforts of her son, was not completed. Three have Australian settings. Her colleagues dubbed her The Dean of Dazzle: green-eyed, coppery-haired, and theatrical; tall, glamorous, very funny, and highly successful; quick-witted and a fierce competitor on the squash courts. Lansbury traveled regularly to Australia. Her son recalled that she was a fairly outrageous character who did not much care what people thought of her; she was often wrong but she was never in doubt. He nursed her in the weeks before her death in Philadelphia from bowel cancer on 2 April 1991. And afterwards found amongst her papers letters from his father, scolding her for so often letting the boy down. He was expecting you for his birthday and you didn’t come, one of them said. Malcolm sat on the floor and cried. In the early 1980s, he’d bought a home for her, down the road from his own place in Sydney’s Paddington, in the hope that she would one day come to live near him. But that, of course, never happened.


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