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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Campbell, Jean May (1901–1984)

by John Arnold

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Jean May Campbell (1901-1984), author, was born on 20 May 1901 in Melbourne, fourth child of Scottish-born John McNeil Campbell, bank manager, and his Victorian-born wife Louise, née Bollinger. Jean was educated at Presbyterian Ladies’ College, East Melbourne, where she headed the debating team, edited the school magazine, acted in school productions, and achieved honours in the Leaving certificate. She briefly attended the University of Melbourne as a non-degree student, completed a licentiate of Trinity College of Music, London, and a teaching diploma from the London College of Music and then began instructing in the `much abused art’ of elocution.

In 1921 Campbell became the mistress of John Rose Gorton, businessman, whose son, John, was later prime minister of Australia. She was accepted into the family, often joining them at their property at Kangaroo Lake, near Kerang. While at Oxford the younger Gorton helped to place the manuscript of her first novel with Hutchinson & Co., London. Brass and Cymbals (1933) studied the strains experienced by a Jewish immigrant family in Melbourne, and was soon followed by three other novels: Lest We Lose Our Edens (1935), Greek Key Pattern (1935) and The Red Sweet Wine (1937). They were notable for detailed urban settings and (as observed in a review) their `remarkable maturity’ in handling `racial and religious admixtures’.

In 1937 Hutchinson’s offered Campbell a £60 advance for three novels but only The Babe is Wise (1939) appeared. The outbreak of war, the subsequent shortage of paper and the decline of circulating libraries put an end to her market. Yet between 1943 and 1945 she wrote 14 anonymous pulp-fiction romances (such as Sailor’s Sweetheart and Passion from Pekin) while also working (1942-45) in the publicity censorship division of the departments of Defence and later Information. In 1947 she was awarded a £400 Commonwealth Literary Fund fellowship to work on a novel about a neglected Melbourne adolescent boy. The manuscript, entitled `Runt’, was praised by an American publisher in 1951 but never published.

Described by a journalist as `tall and Junoesque’, Campbell took pride in living by her wits. She performed in productions of the Little Theatre, Melbourne, and was later employed as its secretary. Active in PEN International and the Victorian section of the Fellowship of Australian Writers (secretary 1950; president 1954-55), in 1951 she was invited to prepare a script for a concert hastily convened to include Aborigines in the Commonwealth jubilee celebrations, following protests by the pastor, (Sir) Douglas Nicholls, that no thought had been given to their representation. `Out of the Dark’ proved a great success. With Lina Bryans and Andrew Fabinyi, she organised the first Moomba Book Week in 1955, an event that became a feature of the annual Melbourne festival.

In 1958, in a court case that attracted considerable publicity, Campbell sued Bettina, the wife of Senator John Gorton, for shares (in the family company) then in Mrs Gorton’s possession, which Campbell alleged had been given to her by Gorton senior before he died in 1936. Despite irregularities in the company minutes, the judge ruled in favour of Gorton, doubting Campbell’s reliability as a witness, given her 20-year `wait and see’ attitude.

Over the following years Campbell continued to undertake freelance journalism, to teach English to immigrants and to visit relatives in Queensland. She appeared in five films, including three by Paul Cox, who also made a short documentary, We Are All Alone My Dear (1975)—with Campbell narrating— about life in the retirement village where she spent her last years. Campbell died on 10 December 1984 at East St Kilda and was cremated. The first of two portraits painted of her by Bryans, `The Babe is Wise’ (1940)—held by the National Gallery of Victoria—has been frequently reproduced. Wearing a hat insouciantly dipped over sardonic blue eyes, Campbell is presented (in Gillian Forwood’s words) as `an icon of the modern woman’.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Forwood, The Babe Is Wise: The Portraits of Lina Bryans (1995)
  • Herald (Melbourne), 8 Nov 1933, p 18, 12 Dec 1938, p 16
  • Australasian, 4 Mar 1939, p 39
  • People (Sydney), 27 Jan 1954, p 30
  • Age (Melbourne), 25 Oct 1958, p 6
  • J. Campbell papers (National Library of Australia and State Library of Victoria).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

John Arnold, 'Campbell, Jean May (1901–1984)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 2 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2020

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • McNeil, Jean

20 May 1901
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


10 December 1984
St Kilda, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence