Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Casey, Ethel Marian (Maie) (1891–1983)

by Diane Langmore

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

Ethel Marian Sumner (Maie) Casey (1891-1983), writer, artist and flyer, was born on 13 March 1891 at Brunswick, Melbourne, younger child of Victorian-born parents (Sir) Charles Snodgrass Ryan, surgeon, and his wife Alice Elfrida, née Sumner. Rupert Ryan was her brother. Raised in Collins Street, Melbourne, where her father practised, she was educated privately by a Swiss governess and then with the four talented daughters of Sir Edward Mitchell. One of them, Nancy, admired her chestnut ringlets, her large blue eyes and her delicate skin, invariably protected by a hat and veil. Maie’s childhood was peopled by gifted artistic and professional relatives including her aunt, Ellis Rowan, her father’s cousin Janet, Lady Clarke, and the Le Soeuf brothers, scientists and zoo-directors, as well as the Chirnside and Grice families.

In 1907 Maie was sent to England to board at St George’s School, Ascot. Her formal education was completed at a finishing school in Paris and she returned to Melbourne in 1910. To her disappointment, her father’s colleague (Sir) Richard Stawell advised against a university education, as his brilliant sister Melian had suffered a breakdown at Cambridge. In England at the outbreak of World War I, Maie volunteered for work at (Sir) Douglas Shields’s Hospital for Wounded Officers and then with Vera Deakin’s Australian Wounded and Missing Inquiry Bureau. After the war she acted as hostess for Rupert in Germany, where he was working for the Interallied Rhineland High Commission.

Living in London from 1924, Maie Ryan renewed acquaintance with Richard Gavin Gardiner (Baron) Casey, whose family had been part of the same small Melbourne élite as her own, and who was working as Australia’s liaison officer to the British government. They were married on 24 June 1926 at St James’s parish church, Westminster. David Marr, the biographer of her friend Patrick White, described her wedding photograph as revealing `a saucer jaw and the eager carriage of a pony about to bolt’. The Caseys’ daughter was born in 1928 and their son shortly after their return to Melbourne in 1931. On 21 December that year Richard was elected member for Corio in the House of Representatives. More attuned to British than Australian politics, they opted to live in the capital rather than the electorate.

In Canberra, Mrs Casey, who had studied at the Westminster School of Art, London, found time to paint. Occasionally she attended classes at the art school run by Arnold Shore and George Bell in Melbourne. While in England in 1937 for the coronation of King George VI, both Caseys had their first experience of flying and, on their return, with characteristic whole-heartedness, took lessons, gained their licences, bought a primrose yellow Percival Vega Gull, and laid out an airstrip at Edrington, the property at Berwick, outside Melbourne, that Maie and Rupert had inherited from Chirnside relatives. With their new-found mobility they divided their time between Berwick, Canberra, where—following Casey’s appointment as treasurer in 1935— they supervised the building of a ministerial residence, and East Melbourne, where they had bought a small town-house, once the home of Eugen von Guerard.

(Sir) Robert Menzies’ decision to send Casey in 1940 to the United States of America as Australia’s first diplomatic representative was almost certainly the result of the intervention of Maie Casey, whom Menzies dubbed `Lady Macbeth’. Ambitious for her husband, she had been disappointed when he failed to succeed Joe Lyons as prime minister. In Washington she was a popular hostess and a good ambassador for Australia, furnishing the legation with Australian timbers, fabrics by the Melbourne artist Frances Burke and paintings by Rupert Bunny and her friends from the George Bell school, (Sir) Russell Drysdale and Peter Purves Smith. When Casey was appointed British minister of state in Cairo in 1942, his wife’s quick intelligence impressed the cavalcade of distinguished military and political visitors to their home. She threw herself into war work, visiting the wounded at the 9th General Hospital, Heliopolis, travelling with the Hadfield-Spears Mobile Hospital and chairing the St Dunstan’s Unit, which helped blind servicemen. Casey’s appointment as governor of Bengal, India (1944-45), brought his wife new duties as vicereine, which she ably fulfilled while collaborating with her husband to free the office of Imperial anachronisms.

Back in Melbourne from 1946, as her husband pursued his political career, Maie Casey found herself in demand as a public speaker. Acquaintance with the educated women of India had convinced her that Australian women should be more active in public life, and she said so to a wide range of audiences. When engagements permitted she indulged her passions for art and flying. As well as continuing to paint, she became a patron for young Australian artists such as (Sir) Sidney Nolan. She was delighted to be named in 1950 inaugural patron of the Association of Women Pilots of Australia and to be accorded in 1954 membership of the Ninety-Nines, an association of American women pilots founded by Amelia Earhart. In October 1953 she flew her Miles Messenger in Australia’s first all-woman air race. That year a book on which she had collaborated with (Sir) Daryl Lindsay, her brother-in-law Dermot Casey and others, Early Melbourne Architecture, was published.

Lady Casey (her husband was made a life peer in 1960) won increasing recognition as a writer. Her account of her forebears, An Australian Story 1837-1907, was published in 1962; a book of her verse (with illustrations by Frances Burke) appeared the following year; in 1965 she collaborated with Margaret Sutherland on the creation of a one-act opera, The Young Kabbarli, based on the life of Daisy Bates, and in 1966 her memoir Tides and Eddies appeared. Her verse was kindly received, her libretto drew severe criticism, and her memoir, although rich in exotic settings and luminaries (she was an inveterate name-dropper), was superficial. Her best work was An Australian Story. In it, her love of her native land shone, and so did her capacity for evocative description and her artist’s eye for the revealing detail.

Small and trimly built, with grey wavy hair and intense blue eyes, as wife of Australia’s sixteenth governor-general (1965-69), Lady Casey performed her vice-regal duties with poise and élan. She converted Yarralumla into a salon for artists, musicians and writers while dutifully entertaining the dignitaries who came with the job. In retirement at Edrington, she continued to write verse, which she pressed on her friends, to correspond with the vast circle she had cultivated, to travel with her husband (the `Casey season’ in London remained an annual event), and, much to the alarm of her intimates, to fly her Cessna.

Maie Casey was a woman of paradoxes. Possessed of charm and wit, she could be manipulative and ruthless. A steadfast friend to many, she was a cold and inattentive mother. Although bohemian in her private life, she was a snob. Not conventionally beautiful, she attracted, and was attracted by, a host of men and women, but she remained a devoted wife to Richard Casey, channelling much of her formidable energy into promoting and supporting his career. A friend, Lady Drysdale, judged that she was `napoleonic’.

After Lord Casey died in 1976, she withdrew into bereavement. She was made a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in 1979 and was appointed AC in 1982, but she became increasingly absorbed in the past as she planned a book on her husband’s life. She died on 20 January 1983 at Edrington and was buried beside him at the Church of the Good Shepherd, Macedon. Her children survived her. A memorial service was held at Christ Church, South Yarra, on Australia Day.

Select Bibliography

  • W. J. Hudson, Casey (Melbourne, 1986)
  • D. Langmore, Glittering Surfaces (Sydney, 1997) and for sources
  • Maie Casey papers (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

Diane Langmore, 'Casey, Ethel Marian (Maie) (1891–1983)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/casey-ethel-marian-maie-12296/text22081, published in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 28 August 2014.

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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014