Australians are honest, trustworthy people, without exception. Well… maybe a few exceptions. Here are some of those rare Aussies in history who occasionally tried to tell a few fibs about themselves (including, in one case, lying about being Australian). Naturally, the rest of us are perfectly reliable…
1. Arthur Orton
Born into a wealthy English family, 24-year-old Roger Tichborne vanished in 1853 while on the Bella, a ship bound for Jamaica. Though the Bella had clearly sunk, his mother refused to let the matter rest, certain that he was still alive. Following her husband’s death in 1865, she advertised in newspapers around the world, offering “a handsome reward” to anyone with information on Roger, suggesting that he might have been rescued by a passing vessel. The advertisement also mentioned that he was heir to his deceased father’s estates.
This drew the attention of Arthur Orton, then heavily in debt and living in New South Wales under the name of Tom Castro. Every one of the Tichborne family’s old servants, now living in Sydney, verified that Castro was indeed Roger, though greatly changed. “Changed” was right. Roger had been educated in France and spoke excellent French. Castro, upon his arrival at the Tichborne estates, spoke no French – and seemed to have lost his memory of his early years as well. Desperate to believe he was her son, Lady Tichborne accepted him, giving him an allowance of 1000 pounds a year. After her death in 1868, however, “Roger” was taken to court by the rest of the family. The trial dragged on for a year, obsessing Australians as much as the O.J. Simpson trial would obsess Americans over 120 years later. Though Orton found 100 witnesses who were prepared to identify him as Tichborne, the family won. He was charged with perjury and jailed for 14 years. But he still found it hard to break out of character. Though he confessed all to a London newspaper, his headstone would read: “Sir Roger Charles Doughty Tichborne, born 5 January 1829 [Tichborne’s birthdate]; died 1 April 1898 [Orton’s passing].”
2. Marcel Caux
There have been many cases of people faking their war records to make themselves look better. But how many servicemen pretend that they had never served – and how many would go to the extent of changing their names, destroying all records… and pretending to be French? According to his son, Harold Katte was “a lovely, funny guy” who “lied a lot”. Like many youths, he lied about his age to enlist in World War I, claiming to be 18 when he was only 16. He was wounded three times in France, and his knee was shattered at the Battle of Amiens. Shaken by the horror of war, and wanting to sever ties with his family (who, he said, badly treated him), he decided to leave it all behind. According to his niece, it was a family legend that he “just disappeared”.
By the time he married his first wife in 1929, he had taken the identity of Marcel Caux. According to the marriage certificate, he was born in Brest, France. As his wife was Belgian, he must have been a brilliant actor. Though there was no record of a divorce, he remarried in 1949, this time claiming he was a French-Canadian named Marcel Cause (and shaving six years off his age).
Over 50 years later, he was exposed as a World War I veteran, which came as a shock to his new family. He confessed that, yes, his real name was Katte and he had fought for Australia. Though he had never attended a veterans’ service, he started to attend them regularly from 2001. In 2004, he was one of only two World War I survivors to join the veterans’ march on Anzac Day (Australia’s main day to commemorate soldiers). He died later that year at 105.
3. Merle Oberon
Back in the 1930s – many years before Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett, Nicole Kidman and other actors were born – it was already considered classy and exotic to be an Australian film star. So when Merle Oberon became the star of British and Hollywood films like The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), The Dark Angel (1935) and Wuthering Heights (1939), much publicity revolved around her birthplace: the Australian state of Tasmania (also the home of Errol Flynn, one of Hollywood’s top stars of the time). She stuck with this story for most of her life. No birth or school records existed, but she claimed that they had been destroyed in a fire.
She visited Australia for a film promotion in 1965, but she claimed illness and left before making her scheduled stop to Tasmania. In 1978, however, she was invited home by some proud Tasmanians for a Lord Mayoral reception, and seemed unfamiliar with the town where she was allegedly raised (and where a theatre had even been named in her honour). Locals blamed that on the passage of time… until she admitted that she had not been born there after all. Instead, she spun another story: she had merely spent some of her childhood in Tasmania.
After her death in 1979, it was conclusively revealed that she was born and raised in Mumbai, of Welsh-Indian parentage – an ethnic background that she believed would ruin her career if it was ever widely known. As far as we can tell, she had never set foot in Australia until 1965.
4. Ern Malley
In 1944, Max Harris, editor of the highbrow literary magazine Angry Penguins, was excited by the discovery of the poems of Ern Malley, a mechanic who had died before his time. Harris believed that Malley’s poetry had “tremendous power”, and a “cool, strong, sinuous feeling for language.” Ern’s sister Ethel had sent him the poems, and he was so impressed that he dedicated a special edition to the work of this tragic poet.
The truth was, Ern and Ethel didn’t exist. They (and the poems) were concocted by two poets, James McAuley and Harold Stewart, aiming to expose “the gradual decay of meaning and craftsmanship in poetry”. The poems, with their obscure meanings and impressive vocabulary, were slung together from passages in other books. A manual for malaria control, for example, gave the poetic opening lines: “Swamps, marches, borrow-pits and other / Areas of stagnant water serve / As breeding grounds… Now / Have I found you, my Anopheles!” The revelation would adversely affect not only Harris’s career, but also Australia’s modernist literary movement.
To add to Harris’s woes, he was then prosecuted for publishing one of the poems, which was considered too smutty by the South Australian police, even though it was actually nonsense. “The whole thing is indecent,” said one detective. “The word ‘incestuous’ I regard as being indecent. I don’t know what ‘incestuous’ means. I think there is a suggestion of indecency about it.” Despite the flimsy evidence, Harris was found guilty of indecency and fined.
At the Australian Twist Championship in 1962, held in a Sydney department store, the male winner was a young man named Ricky Staccato. The female champion, dancing the twist soon afterwards, was a pretty girl called simply Carlotta. The amazing connection: they were the same person. After winning the male category, Staccato (real name: Richard Byron) had rushed into the restroom, thrown on a dress and disguised himself as a woman. He was so convincing in this role that nobody noticed or suspected. The next year, as “drag queen” Carlotta, the 19-year-old became one of the original and most famous stars of the long-running Les Girls cabaret show, whose cast was comprised entirely of cross-dressing men. Her celebrity, oddly enough, kept her safe from the law. At the time, in conservative Sydney, it was illegal to dress as a woman on the streets. As a popular performer (regular Les Girls visitors included British pop singer Shirley Bassey, who kept trying to borrow Carlotta’s frocks), Carlotta was free to live life as a woman. She is still a well-known figure today.
Mark Juddery is an author and historian based in Australia. His latest book, Overrated: The 50 Most Overhyped Things in History (Perigree), is already causing a stir. You can order it from Amazon or Barnes and Noble. You can see a slideshow excerpt from the book, and you can argue with Mark's choices (or suggest new ones) on his blog. Mark offers one tip: If you want to say "This book is overrated"... it's been done.