Sandra Nelson, Sex, the Sixtiesbybrok©
Australia in the 1960s, looking back on it now, seems very like America in the 1950s. We were prosperous, rather parochial and motivated by a mixture of complacency and paranoia. On one hand, people were content and pleased with their day-to-day lives, but on the other we had an exaggerated idea of the menace of Communism and other foreign evils.
The Vietnam War was just beginning, and the Australian government was to introduce conscription in order to be able to send troops to fight beside the Americans.
One of the effects of this sort of attitude was an acceptance of such things as censorship. It is almost impossible to understand the climate of censorship if you were born after 1970 – you probably can't tune in to the mind-set of a generation who were used to seeing books, films and magazines routinely banned or emasculated by officials both elected and appointed. Authors as diverse as J.D. Salinger, Ian Fleming and Mary McCarthy had their books prohibited by state or federal authorities for obscenity.
We were still a rather provincial nation. There were no local films and very few local television producers. The first national daily newspaper The Australian was only set up in 1964, the same year the Beatles visited. The so-called Cultural Cringe was in full swing: a deep-rooted feeling that anything really important or significant had to come from "over there", from London or New York or California. We looked abroad both for our culture and our popular entertainment.
A significant exception to that was in the field of what were later called "men's magazines". Censorship of imported publications was almost total and copies of Playboy were still being seized from baffled foreign tourists at airports. Lovers of literature had to suffer parcels of books being routinely opened by the Customs Service.
We did have Australian publications that tried to fill the vacuum, pallid things with titles like Man, Adam or Gals & Gags. Weak beer though they were, they still ran into trouble with state censors, particularly in the conservative heartlands of Queensland and Victoria. The only books about sex were erudite volumes which used words like "coitus"; whole lines of cheap paperbacks (like the Carter Brown crime stories) were built on the idea of almost being daring and sexy.
London may have been swinging, but here things were stultifyingly conservative from big things like politics (right-wing) to petty things like what colour shirt you wore to work (white). It was a drab era to be going through puberty, especially outside the main cities where things were a little more progressive.
And then, like a sudden ray of sunshine on a dull winter morning, came Sandra Nelson…
Sandra did a striptease routine at a Sydney nightclub when such entertainments were much more sedate than today; photos of her act show her wearing a g-string and pasties, things unheard of in such circles today. She had looks, youth and a talent for self-promotion that swiftly made her known nationally. How, you ask?
Back in the 1960s there came along something called the topless dress and the topless swimsuit. You'd probably think the latter meant leaving off the top half of your bikini. Not so. The fashion business knew there was no money in something that simple and went through a brief phase of designing garments that were specially cut to expose the breasts in a style seldom seen since the days of ancient Crete. One of the best-known such dresses was popularised by a famous designer [Rudie Geinrich?] who later was responsible for the costumes in the television show Space 1999!
Wearing one of these dresses in public inevitably caused an uproar, usually ending with someone calling the police. So what did Sandra Nelson do in the sedate world of 1964 Sydney? Would you believe she wore one while travelling across Sydney harbour on the Manly ferry?
It was a sensationally successful publicity stunt. A report appeared in the mass-circulation weekly "Australasian Post" with photographs (though a discreet black bar in each picture covered the nipple area). This would not have been possible a few years earlier, and a few years later it would have caused little comment. It was a matter of being in the right place at the right time.
Sandra was off to a good start in the next phase of her career, which had started early. She claimed to be 18 at the time, but later it was revealed she was born in 1948, making her only 16 when she was earning a living dancing around in next to nothing.
The publicity probably did wonders for the Paradise Club where she performed, but this was a local effect confined to Sydneysiders. Her wider fame was to come through an enterprising publisher.
John Howard Reid was a film-buff and author active in Australian publishing for decades. At the time he was publishing a monthly magazine Continental Film Review that mixed highbrow film criticism with a selection of nude photographs from foreign films. This led to Reid and the ICA company publishing a string of magazines with titles like Dare, Topless, Australian Models and Gentleman's Choice.
These were very popular in spite of some of them being banned in three states; they were reasonably priced and well printed, mostly in black and white with occasional colour pages. Unlike later editors in the field, Reid used a lot of local talent rather than buying stuff from second-rate foreign magazines. Sandra Nelson appeared in nearly every issue of these titles, often as the cover-girl.
She also appeared regularly on the front page of the King's Cross Whisper which became phenomenally successful in the late 1960s with nothing but weak gags and blurry pin-up pictures. Actor Max Cullen, who worked there as an artist, later commented "The Whisper without Sandra Nelson (our first topless dancer) would be like Playboy without a Bunny!"
Ilona Komaresaroff, who became famous as the outrageous Madame Lash, recalled that she got her start in the business when a friend "took me to Sandra Nelson's AO Club in Sydney's Kings Cross. I had read about Sandra Nelson as a schoolgirl. I remembered her going topless on the Manly Ferry and having an affair with a politician. She was gorgeous with huge pneumatic lips. I had longed to be like her."
This constant parading of Miss Nelson's undraped form made her famous across the continent and she might be called our first home-grown sex symbol. For the first time we had a "blonde bombshell" of our own rather than looking to imported femme fatales such as Jayne Mansfield and Diana Dors. She became the exemplar of the "glamour photo" or "pin-up" picture for her time.
I suspect many men from my generation can visualise her even after nearly 40 years has passed. In crisp black and white photographs (the photographers' names were not recorded, alas) she would be pictured on the beach, relaxing in the bush or strolling through Sydney streets in that famous topless dress. It was all very realistic stuff, miles away from the anonymous studio backdrops or self-consciously "artistic" style of other nude photographs.
One of my favourite photospreads was shot on a boat out on a river. During the photo session, a couple of speedboats suddenly appeared and began circling, plainly intrigued by the half-naked blonde plainly visible. Instead of being alarmed or upset, Miss Nelson is laughing and looks on the point of waving to them as they tear past at speed.
The reader could see that this was a young woman who lived in the same world that he inhabited. It was an identifiably Australian world and it gave her a reality for us. She wasn't the girl next door, but she looked as though she could have been. Maybe, we thought, the world wasn't so dull and predictable after all if it contained a young lady like her.
She certainly had the looks of a pin-up princess. She had the curves that one expected in those days from a platinum blonde, although there are a few startling shots among her colour pictures that also show her with red hair and the most unusual blue-green eyes. I fancy the 43-24-36 statistics printed in captions were a publicist's fantasy, unless she was an exceptionally tall young woman.
True, her lithe body with its long legs and high breasts could have come from anywhere in the world, but there was something quintessentially Australian about her image – the smile seemed easy and unforced, looking candidly and frankly into the lens, often posing with a sort of kittenish expression that recalled a little-girl imitation of a sultry movie vamp. After repeated exposure to her, readers began to feel a sense of personal connection.
Years later, I could understand the feelings of the young man profiled by Gay Talese in the August 1975 issue of Esquire; back in 1957 America he had obsessively collected pictures of leading model Diane Webber. At least he was to find out what happened to her after she stopped modelling; for devotees of Sandra Nelson there was no such closure. Like many celebrities who experience a meteoric rise to fame, she faded out of the public eye with no explanation.
The pinnacle of her notoriety came in 1966 when one of her fans, the Malaysian High Commissioner, vanished for ten days and the media was awash with rumours that he and Sandra had run off together. He eventually re-appeared and Sandra's protestations of innocence (accompanied by some fetching photographs) appeared in the popular weekly Pix.
But as the 1970s approached, times were changing. The restrictions on imported men's magazines were being lifted and the local market was swamped by dozens of titles from the USA and UK. No more magazines featuring Sandra Nelson were to be had. Her name ceased to appear in the press as strippers lost their air of naughtiness in an increasingly liberated era. When half the world was reading The Female Eunuch there was something a bit old-fashioned about making a fuss about a woman running round on stage with no clothes.
Those of us who lived outside Sydney had no way of knowing if you still appeared on stage. Legal decisions had effectively deregulated the strip-club industry and the Kings Cross clubs were becoming increasingly raunchy. Somehow one didn't expect to find her featured in the more explicit magazines available under the R Certificate system. Soon she became just a memory to a whole generation of young men. Even an Internet search in later years would have yielded no information.
So it was with great interest that years later I came across an article in the Sydney press about flash-in-the-pan celebrity Sandra Hilder, which included a brief sidebar on her sometime colleague Sandra Nelson. ( There was a small photo with the article, taken from a three-quarter angle that emphasised her bustline at the expense of the smile that was never far from her eyes; it made her look very like the sex kitten of 1950s Britain, Sabrina.)
I read on with interest, learning that in July 1968 she had married Lee Ramsay, manager of the Paradise Club. Later a nightclub was named after her, the Sandra Nelson AO Club (which traded for many years as The Pink Panther). When Ramsay died in 1971, she left the strip-club business, married the owner of a health-food shop and moved to America. She would have been about 24 by then.
So now we know, I thought, after 25 years of wondering. She would have been about 45 then, I calculated, but I liked to think she would still have been a vital and attractive woman. Perhaps she still lived in the USA, her friends and neighbours never suspecting that she had once been the object of such notoriety in a distant country. Hopefully she was well and happy.
Many men my age must have read the same article and were similarly intrigued to find out what had happened to her. Perhaps they felt a little easier for having an old mystery solved at last.
Or perhaps they felt unsettled briefly, reminded of something half-forgotten, an infatuation that loomed large in that fragile time of adolescence. Though they may not have seen you in the flesh or heard your voice, in that twilight zone between puberty and childhood you seemed like a welcoming beacon shining brightly over a confused and turbulent sea that we were unsure we could ever learn to navigate.
Bless you, Sandra Nelson, wherever you are.