It was impossible, probably, to be anywhere in Sydney’s gay scene in the past twenty years without at some time meeting Dawn O’Donnell. For me it happened in Newtown on several occasions. She was a living history of the times, some of them very colourful indeed.
…Arriving at yesterday’s funeral service at St Canice’s in Elizabeth Bay, O’Donnell’s partner, Aniek Baten, carried one of the couple’s dogs, Lady, and led the other, Bella, on a leash.
The dachshund and doberman were well behaved throughout the 75-minute service, barking only three times, once to the Tchaikovsky waltz. Among the 400 or so mourners surrounding the yellow rose-covered coffin were drag queens, including Carmen and Carlotta, the artist Margaret Olley, the former lord mayor Lucy Turnbull, denizens of the demimonde, including a row of black-eyed men in black, and a pew of 40-something ladies with hair cropped in the style of O’Donnell…
Born in Paddington, she left school at 15, taught at the Glaciarium ice rink, was once married to a policeman, Neville Irwin, but took on a butch manner after working in her own butcher’s shop in Sydney’s east.
Her face was always free of make-up and she favoured men’s shirts and Fletcher Jones trousers. She wore a skirt three or four times in her life, once when appearing before a magistrate during a licensing hearing.
O’Donnell met Aniek Baten in 1977, when she was 49 and Baten was 26. They later married, both wearing white for the wedding…
David Penfold, who produced shows for O’Donnell’s club Capriccio’s, said, “Dawn was very well connected in high places”, and on good terms with police.
She controlled dozens of gay venues around town, many with the late French restaurateur, Roger Claude Teyssedre.
Before the era of O’Donnell and Teyssedre, gays hid in discreet bars and toilet beats. As one speaker said yesterday, “Dawn gave us a place” to come out…
As Capriccio’s themed shows, such as Star Whores, gained fame, they attracted visiting stars such as Debbie Reynolds, Robert Helpmann, Lauren Bacall and Sammy Davis Jr.
Williams was the last person to interview O’Donnell – a year ago, for the Gay Pride Project. He wouldn’t repeat her comments. “Some of the things she talked about were confrontational,” he said.
No doubt they were discussed yesterday at her wake – held, of course, in Oxford Street, at the Midnight Shift.
Which is where Malcolm’s will be too.