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Jacoby, Elsa Antoinette (1910–1994)

by Jan Roberts

This article was published online in 2018

Elsa (also Elza) Antoinette Ruth Jacoby (1910–1994), actress, opera singer, and fund-raiser, was born Eliza Antoinette Ruth on 2 May 1910 at Neutral Bay, North Sydney, fifth surviving child of English-born Edwin James Stenning, builder, and his New South Wales-born wife Leah, née Gutterridge. After attending North Sydney Girls’ High School, Eliza began her first career, in Australia’s embryonic film industry. At the age of eighteen, in 1928, she starred—under the name Elza Stenning—in The Devil’s Playground, a film produced by the Australian company Fineart Film Productions Ltd. The movie was set in the South Pacific, and featured cannibals and unethical white characters. She played the romantic lead, Naneena. Although the rights had been sold overseas, the film was banned for export because of a scene in which Naneena was whipped. The Devil’s Playground would not be seen in Australia for nearly forty years. Even then, it aroused controversy at its first showing, at the unlikely venue of the crowded St Mark’s Anglican Church hall, Avalon Beach, in 1966. By then a celebrity, she was much amused by the movie.

On 24 May 1930 Stenning married the Sydney-born sculptor Lyndon Raymond Dadswell in a Congregational service at Windsor, Melbourne. While her husband worked on sandstone panels commissioned for Victoria’s Shrine of Remembrance, Elza continued her performing career. She had a minor role in Frank Thring Snr’s successful film Harmony Row.

By 1933 the Dadswells were living in North Sydney. Their son Paul Anthony was born that year, and at the end of the year Lyndon won the Wynne prize for his sculpture Youth. Their future seemed promising. Then tragedy struck. On 25 February 1934 baby Paul died from injuries received in a car accident while his Dadswell grandfather was driving and his grandmother was nursing him in the front seat.

Working as a model to pay for singing lessons, Elza gained experience in her second career, as an opera singer. In January 1935 the Sydney Mail proclaimed her ‘a very great success’ (1935, 9) as Adele in Johann Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus. With her marriage under strain, she left Sydney to pursue her career in London, Lyndon following later. The couple subsequently divorced.

Lyndon and Elza both met new loves in London, but while he was unknown and impoverished, she was neither. As Elsa Stenning, from 1935 to 1939 she sang grand opera at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and she also performed in pantomimes. Singing soprano, she was known as ‘the Australian nightingale’ (Another Popular Artist 1938). She was at the height of her London operatic success when she met Ian Mathieson Jacoby, a married Australian financier who was as dynamic and adventurous as she, and who also loved music. Jacoby divorced his wife Hilda, a violinist, and on 17 December 1943 Elza, who had returned to Australia, via South Africa, after World War II broke out, married him at the office of the government statist, Melbourne. She gave troop concerts in Australia, England, and South Africa, and appeared in support of war bonds and comfort funds, so beginning her third and last career, as a volunteer fund-raiser.

After the war the Jacobys settled in style on Sydney’s harbourside above Hermit Bay, Vaucluse. Their house was to be Elsa’s home for the rest of her life, and the centrepiece of her high society existence. She continued her performing career, and also her fund-raising activities for organisations, including the Sydney Opera House ladies committee, the Friends of the Australian Ballet, the Elizabethan Theatre Trust, the Arts Council of Australia (New South Wales division), and the Sydney Dance Company. An initiator and leader in a wide variety of sporting and cultural organisations—including the Australian-American Association and the Royal Motor Yacht Club of New South Wales—she hosted lunches at home, singing if requested, and spoke at countless city and country functions.

Society columns in Sydney and Melbourne newspapers told a story of Jacoby’s high life during the 1950s and 1960s. She also had her own radio show, and Sir William Dobell painted her portrait (Seated Lady in a Blue Dress, 1967). In reality, her marriage and life were falling apart. Tragedy struck again when her second son, nineteen-year-old James, died on 27 May 1967. He committed suicide while awaiting trial for manslaughter following a fatal car accident the previous year. Ian had a stroke and returned to live in his hometown, Perth. Elsa divorced him for adultery in January 1970.

Once again, despite personal adversity, Jacoby continued her public life. She wrote a cookbook and her memoirs, and planned to launch a nightclub entertainer enterprise. In 1970 she played Baroness Bronoski in The Set. The film was an exposé of Sydney’s eastern suburbs high society, and was partly filmed in her house. It was ‘the first Australian feature with homosexuality as a central theme’ (Kuipers n.d.) and, although it had limited release, it became a cult movie.

In January 1972 Jacoby was appointed MBE for services to the community (she dieted and went to England so she could receive the award from the Queen). She later said:

I work to help young artists, and all forms of art—ballet, opera, theatre, etc—for the physically incapacitated, for the very young and very old and those less fortunate than myself. My work load is heavy, but I would rather wear out than rust out! (Lofthouse 1982, 251)

Her daughter remembered her as ‘a very warm and generous person,’ as well as ‘an astute business woman,’ who, by the time of their respective deaths, was wealthier than her former husband (Frank, pers. comm.). As well as opera, she enjoyed ballet, theatre, boating, swimming, golf, and horse racing. Survived by her daughter, she died on 25 March 1994 at her home, and after a funeral service at St Michael’s Anglican Church, Vaucluse, was cremated. A room at the Point Piper clubrooms of the Royal Motor Yacht Club of New South Wales was named after her.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Another Popular Artist, from Royal Opera House, Covent Garden: Elsa Stenning the Australian Nightingale. Film. London: [Pathe Studio], 1938
  • Frank, Toni. Personal communication
  • Kuipers, Richard. ‘Curator’s Notes.’ Accessed 1 June 2016. http://aso.gov.au/titles/features/the-set/notes/. Copy held on ADB file
  • Lofthouse, Andrea, compiler, based on research by Vivienne Smith. Who’s Who of Australian Women. North Ryde: Methuen Australia, 1982
  • Prior, Sheila. ‘Charity’s Faithful Songster.’ Australian, 4 April 1994, 12
  • Stapleton, John. ‘Elsa Jacoby, the Last Charity Queen, Dies.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 28 March 1994, 1
  • Sydney Mail. ‘Grand Opera in Sydney.’ 2 January 1935, 9

Additional Resources

Citation details

Jan Roberts, 'Jacoby, Elsa Antoinette (1910–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/jacoby-elsa-antoinette-19483/text30871, published online 2018, accessed online 23 February 2019.

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