Cusack, Ellen Dymphna (Nell) (1902–1981)

by Marilla North

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

Ellen Dymphna (Nell) Cusack (1902-1981), author, was born on 21 September 1902 at Wyalong, New South Wales, third of six surviving children of James Cusack, storekeeper, and his wife Bridget Beatrice, née Crowley. Nell’s parents, of Irish-Catholic stock, were born in New South Wales. She was a frequently ill and fractious infant; her mother’s childless sister, also called Nell, and her husband Tom Leahy, took over her upbringing in 1905. She lived at Cooma, Narrandera and Guyra and attended St Ursula’s College, Armidale, as a boarder. In 1920 she won an exhibition and Teachers’ College scholarship to the University of Sydney (BA, 1925; Dip.Ed., 1926); her academic mentors included George Arnold Wood and Henry Tasman Lovell. Sydney University Drama Society took Cusack into the world of `little theatre’. Her début play script, `Safety First’—a feminist drama with themes of illegitimacy, middle-class hypocrisy and the liberated `New’ woman as heroine— was one of the final dozen selected in the 1927 competition of the magazine Triad.

After teaching (1926-27) at Neutral Bay Girls’ Intermediate High School, in 1928 Cusack was posted by the Department of Education to Broken Hill High School, where she wrote her first (unpublished) novel, `This Nettle, Danger’, a rite-of-passage, Joyceaninspired, `portrait of the artist’ as a young woman. Cusack returned to `the drama’, convinced that her true talent lay there, and her plays Shallow Cups (1933), Anniversary (1935), and Red Sky at Morning (performed 1935; published 1942) were well received.

After six years’ country service, teaching at Broken Hill, Goulburn and Parramatta, Cusack was posted in 1935 to Sydney Girls’ High School. Her second novel, Jungfrau (1936), about three young women and their views on abortion, was runner-up in 1935 for the Bulletin’s S. H. Prior memorial prize. In 1938 she was recruited to the executive of the Fellowship of Australian Writers (president 1968-69). Her controversial radio documentaries challenged social orthodoxies. By 1939, when Angus & Robertson published Pioneers on Parade—her first collaboration with Miles Franklin and an irreverent pasquinade of Australia’s celebrations of 150 years of British colonial settle-ment—she had taken on too many `sacred cows’ for the liking of the Department of Education. Moreover, after a fall two years earlier, she was pursuing a workers’ compensation case against the department. In December she was summarily transferred to Bathurst High School. Appointments at Parkes and Newcastle followed.

Her revenge in exile was the prize-winning play Morning Sacrifice (1943), set in an all-female staffroom in a girls’ high school. Another play, Comets Soon Pass (1943), was her personal catharsis and artistic reprisal for the defection of her former lover, the novelist Xavier Herbert, and payback to the `asparagus king’ Gordon Edgell, who had tried to damn her publicly for her activism on behalf of unemployed youth. She also indulged in another satirical collaboration with Miles Franklin in the play Call Up Your Ghosts (1945).

In 1944 Cusack’s always perilous health broke down and she was pensioned out of the Department of Education. To economise she pooled resources with a friend and fellow-writer, Florence James, with whom she shared a cottage in the Blue Mountains. They worked together on a children’s book, Four Winds and a Family (1946), before rigorously planning and writing their classic wartime epic of Sydney, Come In Spinner (1951), which won the £1000 prize in the novel competition run by the Sydney Daily Telegraph in 1946. Come In Spinner’s satirical exposé of low life and `high’ society in wartime Sydney bordered on the carnivalesque. The potential for libel action, latent in the authors’ descriptions of locations, the vice industries specific to them, and the rich caricatures of those who had profited through wartime corruption, caused the Daily Telegraph to hesitate about publication. The authors reclaimed their manuscript with the aid of the solicitor Marie Byles, and published it in London. Come In Spinner was a best-seller.

Late in 1948 Cusack consolidated a long-term if intermittent relationship with Norman Randolph Freehill, then chief-of-staff of the Communist Party of Australia’s newspaper, the Tribune. As the Cold War gained momentum, the Australian political situation became increasingly dangerous for communists. In 1949 Cusack, and later Freehill, sailed for Europe. When health permitted, she worked on the manuscripts that she had taken to London, including Say No to Death (1951), about a young woman with tuberculosis, Southern Steel (1953), set in Newcastle, and Caddie (1953), the autobiography of a barmaid which Cusack edited and introduced. She wrote The Sun in Exile (1955), based on the racism she had witnessed on her voyage through the Caribbean and in London. Freehill negotiated her publishing and publicity schedules. From 1951 to 1956 they travelled each winter to the south of France as London’s cold exacerbated Cusack’s illness. After several months of near-paralysis in 1954 Cusack dictated Pacific Paradise (1955), a play protesting against atomic weapons. It made her reputation in countries of Asia, Eastern Europe and the Pacific, and led to an invitation to Peking (Beijing), where she and Freehill stayed for eighteen months. While in China Cusack researched and wrote a collection of social documentary pen-portraits, Chinese Women Speak (1958).

In the winter of 1958-59, en route to London from Peking, Cusack happened to witness a Nazi SS officers’ reunion and the beginnings of the neo-Nazi cult in Germany. The result was Heatwave in Berlin (1961), also widely published and translated. From 1959 her works had found a popular audience overseas: in eastern European countries she was given untransferable royalties. This resulted in a nomadic annual schedule as, with Freehill, she lived on literary earnings and wrote, out of the cultural experiences, books including Holidays among the Russians (1964) and Illyria Reborn (1966).

On 21 June 1962 Cusack married Freehill, then a 70-year-old widower, in the register office at Crowborough, East Sussex, England. They returned to Australia as Picnic Races (1962), a small-town comedy, was published. Cusack became friendly with Faith and Hans Bandler of the Aboriginal rights movement, and wrote Black Lightning (1964), in which she experimented with free indirect style and multiple voices.

Heatwave in Berlin was staged and televised across the Soviet Union as part of the 1965 celebrations of the twentieth anniversary of victory over fascism, at which Freehill and Cusack were official guests. During the next few years Cusack researched and wrote The Sun Is Not Enough (1967), which was thematically linked to Heatwave in Berlin. She returned to Australia in 1967, the year of the referendum that gave citizenship rights to the Aboriginal people. The Half-Burnt Tree (1969) incorporated themes of deracination, misguided paternalistic social welfare policies, the Vietnam War and individual emotional isolation.

Cusack’s experiences of a sister’s battle with alcoholism resulted in A Bough in Hell (1971). In 1973 the Australian Council for the Arts awarded her a literary pension. An International Women’s Year grant seeded the production of Caddie (1976) as a film. Freehill wrote a biographical travelogue, Dymphna Cusack (1975), based on years of taped dialogues which they recorded as they travelled. Although frail they continued to travel and write—Fiji and Noumea (1976), Hong Kong (1977), South-East Asia (1979) and finally South America (1980)—using their preferred mode of transport, the cargo ship.

In 1978 medical tests had confirmed that Cusack’s lifelong `dog’s disease’ was multiple sclerosis; by December 1980 she was completely paralysed. She had refused appointment as an OBE earlier because of her republican beliefs, but was appointed AM in 1981. She was small, with a fine-boned face framed by a coronet of braided hair. A committed social reformer, she interpreted history through the lives of ordinary people and used various forms of popular culture to entertain, inform and educate. She regarded herself, in Jean-Paul Sartre’s phrase, as an `écrivain engagé’—one for whom the pen was mightier than the sword. Despite constant illness, she was a brave and prominent anti-nuclear activist in the World Peace Movement during the Cold War era. Survived by her husband (d.1984), she died on 19 October 1981 at Manly and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • M. North (ed), Yarn Spinners (2001)
  • R. Nile and B. York (eds), Workers and Intellectuals (1992)
  • Meanjin Quarterly, vol 24, no 3, 1965, p 317
  • Independent Australian, vol 3, no 4, nd, p 3
  • H. de Berg, interview with D. Cusack (transcript, 1964, National Library of Australia)
  • V. H. Lloyd, Conscience and Justice (MA thesis, University of Queensland, 1986)
  • D. Adelaide, Australian Women’s Literature (PhD thesis, University of Sydney, 1991)
  • series A6119, items 315, 1555 and 2486 (National Archives of Australia)
  • Cusack papers (National Library of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Marilla North, 'Cusack, Ellen Dymphna (Nell) (1902–1981)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cusack-ellen-dymphna-nell-12385/text22259, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 26 June 2016.

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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2016