Book Review: Eileen Stories from the Phillip Street courtyard

Living legend Eileen Kramer's new book shines a light on Sydney bohemia of the late '30s


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At 104 dancer and choreographer Eileen Kramer has published a book on her life in Sydney in the '30s

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EILEEN Kramer has lived an extraordinary life. 

She has travelled the world, danced for the rich and famous, mingled with glitterati, artists and politicians. 

At 104 she is most likely the longest-working dancer and choreographer in Australia, if not the world, and still takes to the stage every day to squeeze out every bit of experience and passion life has to offer.

Having travelled the globe for 60 years. Eileen came back to Australia for good in 2014 at the age of 99. She wanted to hear the sound of a kookaburra and smell a gum tree again.

Eileen didn’t have much money, but she splurged on a one-way ticket from Washington to Sydney – first class, bringing with her one suitcase filled with hand-made clothes, photographs, paintings and jewellery.

Eileen is a person for whom age does not exist.

Eileen is described by many as fast approaching “living legend” status and now to add to her many achievements, she has written a book about her life before she was a dancer, living in a bohemian artist community in Phillip Street in the centre of Sydney.

The memoir Eileen Stories from the Phillip Street Courtyard comprises thirty-three short stories spanning five years of her life as a young woman from 1936 to 1940, accompanied by hand-drawn illustrations and photographs.

The stories are a  fascinating social history of Sydney bohemia in the late 1930s with the lives of the close-knit group of artists living in the Phillip Street courtyard coming to life with clarity, wit and charm.

Those people written about include Rosaleen Norton, who would go on to become the ‘Witch of Kings Cross’, the intellectual and mysterious, Joan, and the beautiful model, Ann. These young women were professional artist’s models, sitting for Norman Lindsey and other modern painters of Sydney. Eileen’s first boyfriend, Richard, was a Freudian psychoanalyst and they would spend their Sundays at the Art Gallery of NSW and Speakers Corner at the Domain.

My family was made in that courtyard – with my friends. There we had freedom to talk about our feelings, our interests, our sexual lives and what was going on in the world of art... - Eileen Kramer

The photographs of the author in the book show what an sublimely attractive woman Eileen Kramer was in her younger years. Those looks have metamorphosed into an ethereal beauty which radiates grace and charm.

Eileen originally wanted to be an opera singer and studied at the Conservatorium of Music. She came to dance relatively late in life, joining the Bodenwieser Ballet company, Australia’s first professional modern dance company, in 1940.

Eileen left Australia in the 1950s, performing around the world and meeting contemporary artists who have gone down in history as legends. Among the many artists she met, such as Ella Fitzgerald and Chico Marx, she loved Louis Armstrong the best.

Eileen Stories from the Phillip Street Courtyard was launched at the Art Gallery of NSW to mark Eileen’s 104th birthday. Eileen danced with her paintings of the characters in the book accompanying her –projected onto a screen.

Eileen Kramer at the launch of her book with Ita Buttrose.

Eileen Kramer at the launch of her book with Ita Buttrose.

The book, which is co-authored by Tracey Spring, is published by Melbourne Books. It is available from bookshops RRP $39.95 

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