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Shirley Fitzgerald - The Life of Juanita Nielsen, 2010

Lee Rhiannon 21 Mar 2010

Dr Shirley Fitzgerald, a City of Sydney Historian and Adjunct Professor at UTS , spoke about the life and times of Juanita Nielsen at the 2010 Juanita Nielsen Lecture on 21 March 2010. 

Juanita Nielsen went to Abe Saffron’s Carousel Club in Kings Cross on July 4, 1975, and was never seen again. It’s that building with curved glass windows at the corner of Roslyn Street and Darlinghurst Road. It’s now a hotel.  Famously it was home to Les Girls, in the 1960s a very up market and risqué drag queen cabaret.  As well as attracting the suburban voyeurs, it was the haunt of thugs and standover men, a place frequented by criminals and bent police. And half the time, who could tell the difference?  

Her murderers have never been charged.

In the considerable literature about her, Nielsen usually gets described as an ‘heiress’, a reference to the Mark Foys family.  She had connections and the family had money.  She ran a small newspaper in Kings Cross, where she lived in a small terrace in the lovely, but at that time run down, Victoria Street.  NOW as it was called was filled with local newsy articles and supported by local advertising. But then the local news started to heat up in the cauldron of political activity of the green bans in the early 1970s, Nielsen chose not the society route, but the community route, and became a serious campaigner for urban conservation.

The developer Frank Theeman had plans to demolish most of the historic Victoria Street and erect high-rise apartments, some of them up to 45 stories. The City Council and the state government planned to let him do it.  The Builder’s Labourers Federation, along with several other unions working with locals, placed a ‘green ban’ on the project.  

One of Theeman’s sons, Michael, who had been managing the real estate, buying up the properties along the street, now turned to some different activities.  Eviction notices were served, and thugs were employed to smash windows. Loos were blocked, water was stopped and electricity was ripped out. Many residents retreated in fear. Green ban supporters moved in to some places to squat, keeping up the pressure on the developer.  Juanita became a revolutionary through connecting with this local issue with immensely wider importance, and she increasingly put her newspaper to the service of the cause.   

This was the most brutal of all clashes with developers in these green ban years. Thugs vandalised the buildings and terrorised the residents. One activist was kidnapped and then returned too scared to ever say what had happened to him.

Another died, suspected of deliberate poisoning, and Juanita, who had found her life’s cause and was using her little rag to support the green ban and the locals’ battles, was murdered after being lured to the Carousel to allegedly discuss advertising copy for her newspaper.  

Who did it? Many say it was James McCartney Anderson, manger of the club.  He was on good terms with the police and the Theemans, and large sums of money changed hands between Frank Theeman and Anderson at this time.  Anderson said that he was in Surfer’s Paradise around that time. He blamed Detective Sergeant Fred Krah, but only after he was safely dead.  Around 2000 Loretta Crawford, who had worked at the club at the time claimed that she had seen Juanita dead in the storeroom, and she named three other who were present. A few years ago Abe Saffron’s son Alan told the press that he knows who murdered her, but is too afraid to say.

He also said that they cut her up into pieces and packed her into weighted sacks that were dumped in the Harbour. Other stories have her buried under various buildings, in the Blue Mountains or under one of the runways at the airport. Everyone has a theory of how she died and where she was buried, but no –one has ever been brought to justice for the crime.

Since 1975 investigations have generated a curious lack of interest in high circles, and too many people have been content to claim that we will never know.  In 2004 there was a segment on the 7.30 Report that resulted in the police saying that the case would be reopened, and last week in parliament Sylvia Hale asked a series of question to the Minister for Police as to whether this had stalled, where it was up to.

Simple things like actually establishing the location of Anderson on the day in question seem not to have been sorted out. Questions need to be asked as to whether recent advances in forensic investigation might mean that tests could be done on Juanita’s handbag, which was found after the event.  The National Crime Authority has castigated the police for ‘investigative ineptitude’ which implies, though it does not quite say ‘cover up.’

Thirty five years after the event, this story still resonates. (9th lecture.) Juanita Nielsen has become a symbol of two things.

The first is freedom of speech. It was just a little rag, but how difficult it was then and still is to transcend the approved voice of the press. [As an aside: I was asked this morning on the ABC why Juanita Nielsen had been seen as such a threat, and I answered by preferring to the narrowness of the press at that time. I said something about the internet and new media providing more outlets for variant views today.  In retrospect I wish I had been able to think more swiftly and answer differently. 

Because the ABC - our ABC - rang me at the arranged time, then backed off.  Was it a fundraiser, they asked? No I didn’t think so. It was a lecture. They said they had best check. And would I not mention the Greens?  I suggested that the point of the interview was to let listeners know about this lecture. Yes, yes, the host would mention it – which he did, but without giving a location, a time or the name of the lecturer.  And without mentioning the Greens. Freedom of the press is a precious thing, and an elusive thing to secure.

The other thing that Juanita Nielsen stood for was citizen power against the forces of blind, profit motivated urban development that does not pay attention to what is important in maintaining either the built fabric or the social fabric of our city.  Her story is inextricably bound up in the green ban story. It is a story that needs to be told and retold, over and over, as an inspiration to those who feel oppressed and defeated by the ongoing corrupt and inept planning and development scene in this city. It is a battle that people like Sylvia Hale, who is the speaker tonight, and her colleagues, continue to wage.

As one of the most recent books about all this says, ‘Juanita’s legacy transcends and inspires the struggle for the soul of Sydney.’  It was then, and it is now, a struggle worth being part of. 

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