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Elliott, Sumner Locke (1917–1991)

by Jill Roe

This article was published online in 2014

Sumner Locke Elliott, by Lorrie Graham, c.1977

Sumner Locke Elliott, by Lorrie Graham, c.1977

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an21935834

Sumner Locke Elliott (1917-1991), writer and playwright, was born on 17 October 1917 at Kogarah, Sydney, only child of Victorian-born Henry Logan Elliott, an accountant then serving with the Australian Imperial Force, and his Queensland-born wife Helena Sumner, née Locke, a writer. Orphaned by Helena’s death the day after his birth, and effectively deserted by Logan, who had been posted overseas in February, he was taken in by the eldest of his mother’s six surviving sisters, Lilian Locke Burns, and her husband George, Labor activists who were themselves childless. Sumner’s earliest years were spent in their austere but loving household in southern Sydney, along with two other Locke aunts, Agnes, a Christian Science practitioner, and Blanche, an actress. His mother was always referred to as ‘little dear.’

Initially Logan, Lilian, and a family friend, Ernest Ewart, were to be Elliott’s custodians; but London-based aunt Jessie Locke moved quickly to obtain a deed of guardianship from Logan to replace him as a co-guardian, with Blanche as her Sydney stand-in. Blanche proved unsatisfactory and in 1921 Jessie returned home with the intention of taking custody of the child. Elliott’s status as an only child and a Christian Science upbringing probably helped him through the ensuing tug-of-war. Given a toy theatre, he began to create plays. But his world was increasingly fractured by the shared custody arrangement (from which Ewart had withdrawn), and his schooling was drastically affected. Home taught by Lilian at first due to Jessie’s objection to local schooling, he briefly attended preparatory schools in the eastern suburbs, a Jessie initiative against which he rebelled in mid-1927. This led to a custody case launched by Jessie, and a compromise, whereby he reluctantly became a boarder at Cranbrook School, completing primary school there as a day boy in 1929 following Jessie’s death. Back with the Burnses, from 1931 living at Cremorne, he passed the Intermediate certificate at Neutral Bay High (second attempt, 1933).

Self-contained, sharp-witted, and amusing, Elliott seemed set for a career in theatre. Even as a schoolboy, he was writing and producing plays, attending acting and elocution classes, and taking parts in radio with the George Edwards Players. In 1934, having taken classes in journalism and typing to improve his chances of employment, he gained a foothold with J. C. Williamson Ltd. By then his plays were being produced around town; he had helped form a theatre company; and he had introduced himself to the grande dame of Sydney theatre, (Dame) Doris Fitton, who took to him. Probably by then he also realised he was gay (Clarke 1996, 96).

In the bohemian world of Sydney theatre in the 1930s and 1940s, the lively and talented young Elliott was a rare phenomenon, with a diversity of skills garnered in radio and theatre and what he later felt was brashness and an undue self-confidence. He earned a good living churning out radio serials for Edwards by day, and filled a variety of roles at Fitton’s Independent Theatre outside working hours. Between 1937 and October 1948 the Independent staged seven of his plays, beginning with The Cow Jumped over the Moon and concluding with the now classic near-documentary Rusty Bugles, set in a World War II army supply camp at Mataranka in the Northern Territory, where the playwright served in 1944, and briefly banned for allegedly offensive language when first performed in October 1948. Regrettably, he never saw the play staged, having left for the United States of America two months earlier, but (with minor modification of objectionable words) it played to enthusiastic audiences nationwide over the next two years.

Elliott had begun full-time duty in the Citizen Military Forces on 5 January 1942. He served in ordnance depots in New South Wales (1942-43) and the Northern Territory (1944), then in Sydney with the 1st Australian Broadcasting Control Unit. When discharged from the CMF on 4 April 1946, he was a staff sergeant in the 1st Australian Entertainment Unit. During his service, he had come to appreciate ordinary Australians for the first time; the war showed a more sexually relaxed world was possible. But he found post-war theatre in Australia dull and, like his mother before him, he looked to the United States. When the breakthrough came it was in the new medium of television, which needed people with his skills. Reaching New York in 1949, he became a leading scriptwriter: between 1949 and 1962, he wrote or adapted some fifty plays for mainstream television. In 1955 he took out American citizenship.

By the early 1960s, when writing for live television drama was more or less over, Elliott realised that unless he moved to California and did screen work, it would be hard to go on working as a scriptwriter. He decided instead to write a novel. Of the ten novels published during his lifetime, five revisit his Australian experiences. The first, Careful He Might Hear You (1963), about his early years, won the Miles Franklin prize that year with a successful film version produced by Jill Robb in 1983. Water Under the Bridge (1977), with its memorable portrayal of 1930s Sydney and rich characterisations, especially of Aunt Shasta (based on Blanche Locke), was made into a mini-series for television in 1980. Well regarded also are Eden’s Lost (1970), which opens up a confused period in a young man’s life, and Waiting for Childhood (1987), drawing on the history of his mother’s family. Fairyland (1990), his last novel, is a significant ‘coming out’ narrative; he had not previously declared his homosexuality publicly. Radio Days (posthumous, 1993) also has documentary value. By contrast, Elliott’s American novels have not been highly valued and now seem dated and slight.

Having come to feel distanced from Australia, Elliott nevertheless maintained an affection for his own country. Except for a brief trip in 1950, he did not return until 1974 when he attended the Adelaide Festival of Arts. In 1977 he received the Patrick White literary award; numerous interviews indicate he was increasingly appreciated as an outstanding expatriate writer. Through his writing he attained a balance between past and present, and in later years, the happiness he always yearned for with his partner, Whitfield Cook. Believing in life’s immensity and infinitude, he faced ill-health and death bravely. He died of cancer on 24 June 1991 in New York.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Baker, Candida. Yacker 2: Australian Writers Talk about Their Work. Sydney: Pan, 1987
  • Clarke, Sharon. Sumner Locke Elliott: Writing Life. St Leonards: Allen and Unwin, 1996
  • Elliott, Sumner Locke. Interview by Hazel de Berg, 5 May 1970. Transcript. Hazel de Berg collection. National Library of Australia
  • Jennings, Kate. Trouble: Evolution of a Radical. Melbourne: Black Inc., 2010
  • National Archives of Australia. B884, N188
  • Sumner Locke Elliott papers, Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, Mugar Memorial Library, Boston University
  • Williams, Sue. ‘An Australian.’ Sun-Herald (Sydney), 26 May 1996, 22.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Jill Roe, 'Elliott, Sumner Locke (1917–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/elliott-sumner-locke-14903/text26094, published online 2014, accessed online 14 December 2019.

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