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Sheila Scotter – The Inimitable Queen of Style

April 22, 2012

Sheila Scotter AM, MBE

Rare is the felicity of the times, when you can think what you like and speak what you think.

— Tacitus,
The History, I.i

I first met Sheila Scotter when I was the cultural attaché at the French Consulate in Melbourne in 1988/89 looking after France’s $25 million cultural gift to the Australian Bi-Centenary. As part of these Bi-Centenary celebrations there were many official openings at the Melbourne Art Centre to which we would invite Sheila Scotter.

Alison WatersBeing a hat lover I would always admire Sheila’s evening hats as I often wore an evening bandeau. She told me about her bespoke milliner Marea Bright of Collins Street who would make these exotic evening hats for her with little diamantes that would sparkle when the lights went down at the opera or the theater. As she explained “I would be noticed by everyone, even in the dark” Sheila Scotter was certainly hard to miss.

Sheila’s deportment and elegant style was, funnily enough, not of the establishment English style. She was often referred to as ‘the silver duchess’ and that would have fitted well with her well modulated voice and imperious air, but she was far more like a fastidious, formidable, French aristocrat mixing in the salons of the Faubourg Saint-Germaine, in Paris. She knew all about etiquette, style, and ritual but apparently little about empathy.

Sheila Scotter Funeral - Photo via The AgeMarcel Proust the great French writer would have loved Sheila as a character in perhaps À la recherché du temps perdu Remembrance of Things Past and in fact Sheila Scotter was a symbol of the grandeur of the past and the world of genteel luxury, beautiful apartments, chauffeured driven cars, fresh flowers daily and fine dining – she herself was a good cook. But Sheila Scotter worked professionally for most of her long life. In fact she had a very strong work ethic that must have come from her family’s English military and Church background. I think the two great influences of the thirties in England and Europe when Sheila Scotter was a young adult were probably Proust and Freud. A student of Freud in the 21st century would have detected very quickly the discrepancy between the legend and the real women.

Sheila Scotter Funeral - Photo via The AgeSheila had charisma and sex appeal. When she walked into a room all eyes would be on her and she knew how to make the most of her entrances and exits. She certainly was fastidious in everything she did, things were always ‘to be done properly’. Sheila had an innate sense of discipline probably the result of being sent to boarding school in England at the age of four while her parents were still in India. She could be kind and supportive and her close friends speak of her loyalty. She also could be jealous and bitchy and very, very demanding.

Sheila ScotterA perfectionist right to the very end Sheila planned every detail of her funeral for 200 of her closest friends and associates. The funeral was held on Friday 20th of April in St Silas High Anglican Church, Albert Park. Born in India, a daughter of the Raj, her coffin was covered in white roses, gladioli and lilies and was appropriately draped with the Australian flag as befits an AM and a MBE.

Alan Jones and Ros PackerVeteran Age writer Lawrence Money, with a reputation for an incisive tongue, gave a moving and personal eulogy and the fiercesome radio journalist Alan Jones showed a ‘soft and caring side’ to his character as he spoke about his ‘dear friend Sheila’ and her support for such causes as the opera, ballet and her many charities. Jones also recounted Sheila Scotters years as a journalist, particularly as Vogue editor and founder of Vogue Living. Close friend Sylvia Bradshaw gave us a look at the naughty and playful Sheila, the coquettish Sheila and her enthusiasm for titled gentlemen. Former model and Vogue journalist Diane Masters spoke of her first meeting with Sheila at Myer Emporium in 1949 “there she was in a dashing black cloak and Spanish sombrero, a red rose tucked beneath the brim”

The WakeSoprano Tiffany Speight with David McNicol at the piano sang expressively O silver Moon the aria from the Dvořák’s opera Russalka. (this aria had been a great favorite of the revered Australian soprano Dame Joan Hammond and Sheila Scotter had been an active member of the Dame Joan Hammond Award). For sensuous, heart-tugging beauty, you do no better than this beautiful music and these words. The aria conjures up a magical world that you can believe in while the music takes you there:

Rusalka, singing to the moon, whose beams now light up the whole landscape.
It is a beautiful summer’s night –

O moon in the velvet heavens,
your light shines far,
you roam throughout the whole world,
gazing into human dwellings.
O moon, stay a while,
tell me where my beloved is! …
O tell him, silver moon,
that my arms enfold him,
in the hope that for at least a moment
he will dream of me. …
Shine on him, wherever he may be,
and tell him of the one who awaits him here! …
If a human soul should dream of me,
may he still remember me on awakening;
o moon, do not fade away!

At the wake afterwards we sipped on Mumm Champagne and nibbled delicacies from Peter Rowland Catering, with of course linen napkins. We all reminisced about our ‘Sheila moments’. I think Sheila Scotter would have loved it.

John Hoerner - Douglas Butler - Jan McGuinness

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