A Bohemian Wife: the Life and Death of Olga Penton
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Olga Penton died of heart failure at her home in Sydney one evening in 1973. She was found the next morning sitting upright in an armchair, with a plate of cold chicken half-eaten on her lap, a knowing smile on her face, and looking a lot younger than her 76 years. This is an image that captures the cheerful stoicism of her last twenty years of life. Fifty years earlier, another sedentary image captures an earlier self: the image is of Olga sitting naked in a bath, presiding over an intellectual salon of writers and free-thinkers in the Brisbane flat she was sharing with her new husband, Brian Penton. It is hard to be sure whether this second image exactly corresponds to reality neither of my informants was personally present at any of the bathroom salons, and both reported them as a spicy rumour rather than an observed fact but whether true or not, we can say that the rumour expresses the ambience of intellectual sophistication and sexual daring that seems to have surrounded her at the time. What I wish to do in this paper is to say enough about Olga Penton's early life to convey some sense of the kind of person she was, and also of the kinds of openings and obstacles to cultural self-expression she encountered in Brisbane when she was living and working here in the early 1920s. I think of her as a 'bohemian' figure (though not in any very strict sense), partly because she thought and spoke of herself that way, and partly to suggest a comparison with women like Bee Miles, Dulcie Deamer and Anna Brennan in Sydney in this same decade.
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