Australian Dictionary of Biography

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

Dekyvere, Nola Laird (1904–1991)

by Mark McGinness

This article was published online in 2019

This is a shared entry with Marcel France Dekyvere

Nola Laird Dekyvere (1904–1991), charity worker and socialite, and Marcel France Dekyvere (1913–1997), wool broker, were wife and husband. Nola was born on 1 July 1904 in Sydney, only child of Walter Laird Kerr, jeweller, and his wife Florence May, née Dive, both Sydney born. She was educated at St Catherine’s Church of England Girls’ School, Waverley, and Ascham School, Edgecliff, where she was known as ‘one of the beauties’ (Sydney Morning Herald 1991, 4). While still at school, she was mentioned in the social pages of the Sydney press and would frequently feature there over the next seven decades. On 6 March 1928 at St Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Sydney, she married Alan William McGregor, a partner, with his brothers (Sir) James Robert and Harold Waddell McGregor, in the family wool-broking firm, J. W. McGregor & Co. Alan died suddenly, aged forty-two, on 1 December 1938. The following year, the widowed and childless Mrs McGregor, wearing black, resumed the social and charitable round. On 19 October 1940 at St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, she married Marcel Dekyvere; they were to remain childless.

Marcel was born on 27 November 1914 in Adelaide, younger son of Victor Adolphe Dekyvere, a French-born wool buyer, and his New Caledonian-born wife Beatrice Mabel, née Laurie. After the family moved to Sydney between 1915 and 1916, Marcel was educated by the Jesuits at St Aloysius College, Milsons Point, and later at St Ignatius College, Riverview. He took part in the Head of the River contest in 1932 as a member of the St Ignatius College eight. On leaving school, he joined his father and elder brother, also Victor, in the family business.

Early in World War II Victor Dekyvere junior was called up by the French government to serve in Indochina (Vietnam). Marcel paid for flying lessons and, in the face of French government opposition, enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force on 27 May 1940. Qualifying as a pilot, he was commissioned in January 1941 and sent to Britain the next month. He flew briefly with No. 257 Squadron, Royal Air Force (July-August), and No. 129 Squadron, RAF (August-October), before joining the Air-Sea Rescue Flight at Hawkinge, a component of No. 277 Squadron, RAF, from December. Piloting Spitfires, for spotting downed aircrew, and Walrus flying boats, for rescuing them, he saved many lives and showed ‘outstanding leadership and initiative as a flight commander’ (NAA A9300); he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. In November 1943 he was posted from the squadron and ordered back to Australia. From April 1944 he was an air-sea rescue staff officer at RAAF Headquarters, Melbourne, his duties requiring extensive travel throughout the South-West Pacific Area. He was promoted to acting squadron leader in November. His RAAF appointment terminated on 7 March 1946.

From 1951 to 1954 Marcel was an honorary aide-de-camp to the governor of New South Wales, Sir John Northcott. His role included serving Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip during their tour of Australia in March–April 1954. The prince must have forgiven, or forgotten, their first meeting in Sydney during the war when, as a young sailor, he had been introduced to the Dekyveres as ‘Philip of Greece’ and Marcel had responded ‘and I am Marcel of France’ (Lawson 1990, 202).

The international demand for Australian wool post—World War II brought prosperity to the family business. When sales fell after the Korean War, Marcel sought new markets, travelling often and widely. He pioneered exports to Poland, Czechoslovakia, Albania, China, Pakistan, and India. Nola travelled with him. The women’s pages of Sydney’s papers published reports of their race meetings, famous encounters, dress shows, lunches, dinners, and shopping. Marcel was constantly at Nola’s side, but he preferred her to shine. Nearly a decade younger than his wife, six foot (183 cm) tall, with an olive complexion and matinee-idol looks, he was an excellent dancer and for years the Dekyveres regularly occupied a banquette near the dance floor at the fashionable Prince’s restaurant in Martin Place.

Nola’s charity work began in the 1930s. Historically, this role had been the preserve of the daughters and wives of pastoralists, plutocrats, and knighted professionals but she took her place among such women with good humour, kindness, flair, and evident ability. She was an enthusiastic member of the Peter Pan Committee, which raised funds for a free kindergarten in Sydney; however, her main charitable focus was the blind. In 1936 she helped to form the White (later Black and White) Ball Committee, which held an annual ball for the Royal Sydney Industrial Blind Institute (later the Royal Blind Society), serving as the committee’s president from 1952 to 1970. ‘Charmingly autocratic’ (Sydney Morning Herald 1991, 4), she had a fondness for being in charge and a genius for fund-raising that accounted for her long reign. She also served as an executive member of the Red Cross Special Appeals Committee during World War II, president (1959–80) of the Ladies Committee of the Sydney Opera House, and president and patron of the Royal Prince Alfred King George V Appeals Committee among other charity work. Appointed MBE in 1958, and elevated to CBE in 1972 in recognition of service to the visually impaired, she was dubbed ‘Sydney’s queen of charity’ (Hill 1987, 8).

In May 1962 (Sir) Frank Packer had engaged Nola to write a weekly column for his Sunday Telegraph to increase the paper’s readership on Sydney’s North Shore. Over the next eight-and-a-half years ‘My Week’ gave readers insight into the social life of Sydney’s elites, Nola’s encounters with prominent visitors to the city, her church, and the antics of her two poodles, Gigi and Jean. This was the only job for which Nola was ever paid. She generally avoided controversy, except for a disagreement with Patrick White in July 1962 over his play The Ham Funeral. Feeling sorry for the playwright’s mother, whom she knew, Dekyvere lamented: ‘I couldn’t bring myself to like Mr White’s strange play. In fact I hated it. To my mind, the play was in very bad taste, with its sordidness and bad language’ (1962, 51). Meeting each other at a gallery later that week, White refused to be photographed with her. In his next play, The Season at Sarsaparilla, he named a character after her, Nola Boyce, the wife of a sanitary worker.

Suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, Nola died on 13 November 1991 at Lulworth House, Elizabeth Bay, a nursing home that, ironically, had once been the childhood home of Patrick White. Marcel, who retired from full-time work in the 1980s, continued to surf and play golf until his death at Darlinghurst on 2 February 1997, the result of a car accident.

Research edited by Rani Kerin

Select Bibliography

  • Dekyvere, Nola. ‘My Week.’ Sunday Telegraph, 15 July 1962, 51
  • Hill, Robin. ‘When Charity Began at the Trocadero.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 14 February 1987, 8
  • Lawson, V. Connie Sweetheart: The Story of Connie Robertson. Port Melbourne: Heinemann, 1990
  • McNicoll, D. D. ‘Broker Loved by High Society.’ Australian, 14 February 1997, 17
  • National Archives of Australia. A9300, DEKYVERE M. F
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘Helping Others a Life’s Work for Charity Queen.’ 14 November 1991, 4

Additional Resources

Citation details

Mark McGinness, 'Dekyvere, Nola Laird (1904–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/dekyvere-nola-laird-27741/text35433, published online 2019, accessed online 14 December 2019.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2019