Synergy, history and nostalgia flooded the upstairs room at the Bellevue Hotel in Paddington on Tuesday night for the launch of The Wit of Whitlam, edited by James Carleton.

The pub used to be co-owned by the author’s mum, Susie Carleton, and Gough Whitlam’s first press secretary Eric Walsh. They were both present. Susie Carleton, wife of the late TV journalist Richard Carleton, hosted hundreds of book launches at the Bellevue and also at her previous pub, the Riverview at Balmain.

Gough and Margaret Whitlam attended many of those book launches, and Walsh always referred to the licensee as “the chatelaine”.

As a young Sydney barrister, Gough Whitlam acted as junior to Bill Dovey KC during Justice Allan Victor Maxwell’s royal commission into Sydney’s illegal liquor industry, when the Bellevue was declared to be “one of the most notorious sly grog pubs in Sydney”.

Gough married Dovey’s daughter Margaret and they had four children. The eldest, Tony, and his wife, Pip, were present at the launch representing the family.

Tony was the former federal MP for the south Sydney seat of Grayndler until he was ousted in a factional putsch orchestrated by Paul Keating, who didn’t want any obstacles to his burning ambition to become prime minister. The current member for Grayndler, Anthony Albanese, was also at the launch and received a mention in James Carleton’s speech.

Referring to his expulsion from the ALP 20 years ago, Carleton said that it had occurred in the very Bellevue room where his book was being launched. “Albo, who got me expelled, is here tonight, and he wasn’t invited,” Carleton quipped to raucous laughter.

The MC was Melbourne University Press publisher and CEO Louise Adler, who infuriated Whitlam with her stern adherence to MUP’s style book, which didn’t accord with his pedantry. Ever afterwards he referred to her as “the formidable Ms Adler”.

Historian Jenny Hocking spoke about Whitlam’s generous assistance during the writing of her two-book biography, a triumph in the genre of history-writing, and his acute sensitivity to the controlling influence of his parents.

Introducing Graham Freudenberg, Whitlam’s speechwriter, to officially launch the book, Adler revealed that “Freudy” had delivered his first speech in front of his mother at the age of 10 in 1945.

Freudenberg elaborated: “It is true. I had a copy of Winston Churchill’s speech announcing the end of the war, and I delivered a version of that to my mother. Of course, I didn’t deliver it as well as Churchill, but my speech was better than Winston Churchill could have written when he was 10.”

Freudenberg noted that after the Sydney Town Hall memorial for Whitlam, hundreds of well-wishers gathered in the basement. “It’s the only wake I have ever been to where the only topic of conversation was the deceased,” he said.

He applauded publication of the book of Whitlam witticisms — to which he has written the foreword — saying: “Whitlam had a great comedic gift. The secret is surprise.”

James Carleton spoke with passion about his own family and the Whitlam family, noting that the two were intertwined throughout his upbringing. He has his own comedic skills — somewhere between Jerry Seinfeld and Jon Stewart of The Daily Show — and his irreverence had the crowd in stitches.

He and fellow Sydney Uni student Andrew West, now host of the ABC’s religion and ethics report, founded the “Dewy-Eyed Whitlamites” in the 1990s. Gough proudly accepted the No. 1 membership ticket, which now resides in the archive of the Whitlam Institute.

Survivors of Whitlam’s closest inner circle were evident at the launch: Jim “Spigs” Spigelman, now ABC chairman, Brian “Spike” Johns, former ABC managing director, Eric Walsh, doyen of Canberra lobbyists, John Menadue, former boss of News Ltd, Qantas and ambassador to Japan, and Evan Williams, film critic par excellence.

After all that has been said and written about Whitlam, it was Freudenberg who summed up his patron and hero best: “To understand Gough Whitlam you have to know that he enjoyed being Gough Whitlam.”

Filming the event was a technical crew under the direction of Ruth Cullen, daughter of the late Peter Cullen, who was a policy adviser to Whitlam after the dismissal in 1975. Ruth Cullen, a distinguished filmmaker, is working on a biopic of Freudenberg, who wrote golden words for Whitlam, Neville Wran and Bob Hawke, although “Old Silver” thought he knew more about speeches than Graham.

As Eric Walsh observed: “Freudy is someone who definitely deserves to have a documentary made about him. He is the best speechwriter Australia has ever produced — by far.”

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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