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Maxwell, May (Maisie) (1876–1977)

by Sally A. White

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

May (Maisie) Maxwell (1876-1977), actress and journalist, was born on 8 October 1876 at Sandhurst (Bendigo), Victoria, eldest of nine children of David Johnston Moorhead, a stockbroker from Ireland, and his Melbourne-born wife Madeline, née Hannah. Baptized Mary and known to her family as Maisie, she took music and elocution lessons, recited in public from the age of 10, and attended the Corporate High School.

About 1895, yearning for the more vibrant life of the city, Miss Moorhead left Bendigo for Melbourne to try her luck on the stage. She earned money for lessons with the actress Mrs G. B. W. Lewis by working as a nursery governess and as a lady's companion to 'impossible women seated on high chairs with skirts all around them, drinking tea with their gloves on'. More to her spirited taste were the lessons she herself gave in elocution or swinging the clubs at a shilling a time. Adopting the stage-name 'Maisie Maxwell', she toured as a soubrette, ingénue or comedienne. She played with A. E. (Bert) Bailey and William Anderson's company at the Lyceum in Sydney and the Theatre Royal, Melbourne.

In mid-1907, while on tour with Anderson, Maisie began writing regular contributions for Perth's Sunday Times and soon realized that journalism was a more stable career than the theatre. After a season at the Theatre Royal, she changed her name—yet again—to May (more suitable for a by-line) and took a substantial cut in pay to join Table Talk at ten shillings a week. In 1910 she was invited to edit the Melbourne Herald's weekly page for women, which had been started by Katharine Susannah Prichard. At the end of 1921 (Sir) Keith Murdoch asked her to make the page a daily feature.

Maxwell wrote with independence, intelligence, good sense and an impatience with silly social niceties. Her journalism was characterized by initiative and plain talking. Although she covered the high-society round of balls, parties and royal tours, she insisted on writing her notes openly, and on being allowed to wear evening dress and to mingle with guests at Government House. She interviewed female prisoners, campaigned to have nurses' training cut by one year, and championed those women in public life who did more than go to parties. Throughout her twenty-four years with the Herald, she was closely associated with the National Council of Women.

In 1911, within four months of its foundation, Maxwell had joined the Australian Journalists' Association as its second female member. She served (1925-27) on the A.J.A.'s Victorian committee and became an honorary life member (1960). In 1969 she was awarded the British Empire medal for her services to journalism. But the honour that must have pleased her most was the rare printers' rally she had received at the Herald when she retired in May 1934.

After leaving daily journalism, Maxwell continued to work as a freelance writer and broadcaster for radio-stations 3XY, 3UZ and 3KZ. On the eve of her 100th birthday—still sharply alert but having long given up her trademark red wig for a cap of silver hair—she wrote in longhand a cheerful and candid column of reminiscence. The Herald published it next day, virtually unedited. She died on 24 July 1977 at Jolimont and was buried in Box Hill cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • House News (Melbourne), May 1934
  • Age (Melbourne), 27 June 1969, 6, 9 Oct 1976
  • Herald (Melbourne), 1 Mar 1973, 8 Aug, 12 Nov 1974, 7 Oct 1975, 8 Oct 1976
  • Australian, 8 Oct 1976
  • Maxwell papers (privately held).

Citation details

Sally A. White, 'Maxwell, May (Maisie) (1876–1977)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/maxwell-may-maisie-11093/text19751, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 17 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

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