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Gellert, Leon Maxwell (1892–1977)

by Gavin Souter

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

Leon Maxwell Gellert (1892-1977), by May Moore, 1920s

Leon Maxwell Gellert (1892-1977), by May Moore, 1920s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an11253492

Leon Maxwell Gellert (1892-1977), soldier, poet and journalist, was born on 17 May 1892 at Walkerville, Adelaide, third child and elder son of James Wallis Gellert, an Australian-born clerk of Hungarian descent, and his wife Eliza Anne, née Sutton. A sturdy child who was indulged by his mother and 'flogged' by his Methodist father, Leon eventually acquired enough knowledge of self-defence from the Young Men's Christian Association to throw the astonished parent on his back. He remained grateful to his father for introducing him to books, starting with Coral Island, but resented James's refusal to sponsor his education beyond Adelaide High School.

Leon became a pupil-teacher at Unley Public School. Financially assisted by an uncle, he attended University (Teachers') Training College, and passed modern European history and education (1912) and English language and literature (1913) at the University of Adelaide. Gellert taught physical education at Hindmarsh Public School until, eighteen days after the outbreak of World War I, 'dancing and singing', he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force. In his troop-ship in the Aegean he diverted himself by writing verse. As a lance sergeant with the 10th Battalion, he landed at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915. Wounded by shrapnel, and suffering from septicaemia and dysentery, he was evacuated to Malta in July and thence to London. He was diagnosed as having epilepsy, repatriated and discharged medically unfit on 30 June 1916. In November he re-enlisted in Adelaide, only to be discharged almost immediately, but the suspected tendency to epilepsy was not borne out in later life. He returned to teaching, at Norwood Public School.

Meanwhile, Gellert revised and added to his overseas verse. Songs of a Campaign (1917) was hailed by the Bulletin as one of the best verse collections to have 'come out of the war to the English language'; it won the university's Bundey prize for English verse, and, before the year was out, Angus & Robertson Ltd published a third and enlarged edition, illustrated by Norman Lindsay. Australia's closest approximation to a Brooke or Sassoon, Gellert looked the part, particularly in Lindsay's 1918 depiction of him as a knightly seraph. He was of strong build and middle height, with a fair complexion, grey eyes and light brown hair; sometimes, to his annoyance, his features were described by the press as 'sensitive'.

In the best of his verse Gellert used everyday language to express what would later be termed 'a perplexed disillusionment with the soldier's lot'. But he did not maintain the impetus. The Isle of San (1919), a cycle of 120 poems published as a limited edition, again illustrated by Lindsay, dealt with 'Youth's eternal awakening to the failure of ideals'. There were few reviews and H. M. Green subsequently declared that Gellert's 'best verse is almost all in his first book'.

Poetry gave way to journalism, and in due course to expected disillusion. Soon after his marriage to Kathleen Patricia Saunders on Christmas Day 1918 at St Margaret's Anglican Church, Woodville, she joined him in Sydney where Gellert taught English at Cleveland Street Intermediate High School until 1922. He took over a column, 'The Man in the Mask', in Smith's Weekly, and was introduced by Lindsay to an artistic and literary circle which included Sydney Ure Smith and Bertram Stevens. When Stevens died in 1922, Gellert replaced him as co-editor of Art in Australia and became a director of Art in Australia Ltd, which also published the Home.

The company was acquired in 1934 by John Fairfax & Sons Ltd. Ure Smith and Gellert retained their co-editorships until the former resigned in 1938. Gellert was sole editor of the Home from that year until its closure in 1942. He was then put in charge of the Sydney Morning Herald's magazine and book pages. Although deprived of the magazine pages in 1945, he retained the title of literary editor and wrote a graceful column, 'Something Personal', for the Saturday book pages; from 1949 he contributed a widely read humorous column to the Sunday Herald (later the Sun-Herald) and, following his retirement from Fairfax in 1961, the Sunday Telegraph. His Sunday columns, republished in Week after Week (1953) and Year after Year (1956), were usually set in Burran Avenue, Mosman, where he had built a cliff-top home in 1922. They portrayed him as a bespectacled curmudgeon—a far cry from Lindsay's angelic dry-point or Norman Carter's courtly oil painting of 1923.

The Gellerts' only child and grandchild had died in childbirth during the 1940s. After his wife's death in 1969, he returned to Adelaide and spent his last years with a beloved pet dachshund in a house at Hazelwood Park that he called Crumble Cottage. He died on 22 August 1977 at Toorak Gardens and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Limb, History of the 10th Battalion A.I.F. (Lond, 1919)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 23 Aug 1977
  • K. C. Harper, Leon Gellert (filmed interview, 1975, Australian Council Library, Redfern, Sydney)
  • audio tapes (University of Queensland Art Museum)
  • Gellert papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Lionel Lindsay papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Ure Smith papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • John Fairfax Group Pty Ltd Archives, Sydney.

Citation details

Gavin Souter, 'Gellert, Leon Maxwell (1892–1977)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/gellert-leon-maxwell-10288/text18201, published in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 31 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

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