Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Menzies, Dame Pattie Maie (1899–1995)

by Diane Langmore

This article was published online in 2019

Pattie Menzies, News and Information Bureau, 1963

Pattie Menzies, News and Information Bureau, 1963

National Archives of Australia

Dame Pattie Maie Menzies (1899–1995), prime minister’s wife and charity worker, was born on 2 March 1899 at Alexandra, Victoria, eldest of three daughters of locally born parents John William Leckie, farmer, manufacturer, and politician, and his wife May Beatrice, née Johnston. Pattie rode her pony to the local one-teacher school until she was eleven when, following the death of her mother, she was sent to board at Presbyterian Ladies’ College, East Melbourne. After eighteen months she transferred (1912–17) to the smaller Fintona Girls’ School, Camberwell, where she completed her education, in her final year becoming a prefect and playing in the school tennis team. Between 1917 and 1919 her father served as Federal member for Indi as a ‘Win the War’ Nationalist. Although not interested in politics, Pattie enjoyed accompanying him on electoral tours.

In 1919 Pattie met (Sir) Robert Gordon Menzies, then a rising barrister; they married on 27 September 1920 at the Kew Presbyterian Church. For the following years much of her energy was devoted to raising two sons and a daughter in their Kew home, while her husband took silk (1929) and served in the Victorian legislature (1928–34). But, despite her domestic preoccupations, she demonstrated early her capacity to give him strong-minded advice on his career. She successfully urged him in 1934 to reconsider Prime Minister Joseph Lyons’s offer to make him attorney-general should he agree to stand for election to the Federal parliament. He had declined, not wanting to be exiled from his family during his regular visits to Canberra.

Having lost a child at birth, Pattie became active in charity work for the (Royal) Children’s and Royal Melbourne hospitals while her husband served as member for Kooyong, attorney-general, and minister for industry. In the wake of Lyons’s death in 1939, she was in the gallery of the House of Representatives when, on 20 April, Sir Earle Page made an intemperate personal attack on Menzies. She walked out and never spoke to Page again. There was a steely strength behind her slight form, smiling blue eyes, and vivacious manner.

Becoming prime minister’s wife in 1939, Pattie later admitted that she had been ‘terrified’ (Menzies 1990). She did not see it as a public role: her main duty, she believed, was to provide a restful and comfortable home for her husband at the Lodge, which, under her supervision, was substantially refurbished (1941 and 1949). Menzies’s decision to fly to Britain to discuss wartime policy prompted her again to offer politically astute advice. Following the government’s poor showing in the 1940 general election, she counselled him to stay in Australia, anticipating that dissatisfied colleagues would plot against him in his absence and that he would lose office within weeks of his return. Her predictions were accurate, and he lost office in August. Moving back to Melbourne she resumed her charity work, mainly with the Women’s Hospital; she served on the board of management (1941–49), and was president of many hospital auxiliaries.

After she again became prime minister’s wife in December 1949, Pattie accompanied her husband on almost all his domestic and overseas tours as well as to local political meetings. She had a humanising effect; one observer called her Menzies’s secret weapon. Menzies maintained that a common reaction was: ‘She can’t be Bob Menzies’ missus … she’s much too nice’ (Herald 1976, 4). She also undertook many public commitments in her own right, speaking with a naturalness and humour that engaged her audiences, but she always remained circumspect about political issues. The only interventions she acknowledged were a suggestion about housing for the elderly, which resulted in the Aged Persons’ Homes Act 1954, and a plea for footpaths in Canberra, a city to which she was fiercely loyal. Privately, she continued to offer her husband down-to-earth advice and to serve as a sounding board or, when necessary, a debunker. In 1954 she was appointed GBE. Menzies remarked: ‘No man ever had a more marvellous co-worker’ (Argus 1954, 3). Over her husband’s long second term as prime minister, she perfected the self-effacing, supportive role of prime minister’s wife, in the manner expected at the time. On Menzies’s retirement in January 1966, the head of his department, Sir John Bunting, judged her to be ‘the classic prime minister’s wife’ (1968, 49).

Dame Pattie welcomed the return to private life at Malvern, Melbourne. From 1972 she devoted herself to caring for her ailing husband after he had suffered a stroke. On his death in 1978 she moved to Kooyong. The Dame Pattie Menzies Liberal Foundation was launched in 1987 and in 1989 she accepted an outstanding service award from the Liberal Party of Australia. In 1992 she returned to Canberra, where her daughter lived. She died on 30 August 1995 at Woden Valley Hospital and was cremated; a state memorial service was held at St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Forrest. Predeceased by her two sons, she was survived by her daughter.

Research edited by Malcolm Allbrook

Select Bibliography

  • Argus (Melbourne). ‘“She’d Replace Me …”—Menzies.’ 3 July 1954, 3
  • Bunting, Sir John. ‘Dame Pattie.’ Australian Women’s Weekly, May 1968, 49
  • Henderson, Heather. A Smile for My Parents. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2013
  • Herald (Melbourne). ‘Strict Rule No Talk of Politics.’ 1 December 1976, 4
  • Langmore, Diane. Prime Ministers’ Wives. Melbourne: McPhee Gribble, 1992
  • Menzies, Dame Pattie. Interview by author, 20 November 1990
  • Menzies, Robert Gordon. Afternoon Light. Melbourne: Cassell & Co., 1967
  • National Library of Australia. MS 4936, Papers of Sir Robert Menzies, 1905–1978

Additional Resources

Citation details

Diane Langmore, 'Menzies, Dame Pattie Maie (1899–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/menzies-dame-pattie-maie-27340/text34803, published online 2019, accessed online 20 November 2019.

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