Hazel Hernsdorf

Hazel Hernsdorf was born in Brisbane, Queensland in 1923. She grew up in Brisbane and had an interesting secretarial career. She worked for the US Navy during World War II, the ABC at Toowong in its early days and concluded her career with a 20 year stint at the United Nations Secretariat. Along the way she met a number of famous people including former President Harry Truman and actress Lucille Ball. This is the story of her life and career:

While working for the United State Navy, Hazel learnt to take shorthand at very high speed which proved a valuable skill during her career.

“My first job was in the city at the legal office attending to citations, e.g. Silver Stars and Purple Hearts, etc. My next job was at the large Naval Hospital at Camp. Then I was sent to New Farm to work in the Office of the Judge Advocate General and did reporting on Courts Martial cases. I was trained in elementary para-legal work – investigating cases, preparing summaries.

The Camp Hill Naval Hospital was possibly the nicest, most enjoyable job I ever had because of the people there. There were only about 10 civilian staff and 3,000 Americans. A couple of thousand would be injured patients. They’d bring them down from the battle zones on ships up the Brisbane River. They set up operating rooms and every amenity possible which went up almost overnight. It was scary as we could have been bombed by the Japanese at any time, but there was such an air of excitement. The Americans seemed to have so much personality and plenty of food, like ice cream which we hadn’t seen here for a long time. We used to have lunch every day in the big mess hall. They treated us very well and if we did our work, we got promotions. I just worked in the Chaplain’s office and I loved it. We used to go around and visit the patients, take them Coca-Cola and books from the library. It was just an exciting wonderful place to work.”

Hazel then did a course that enabled her to do very fast shorthand.

“After the hospital folded up, I was sent to the Courts Martial at New Farm. It was also very interesting and wonderful people but that was really really hard work and I was only 21. I think I had my 22nd birthday there and I was out of my depth for quite a while because they expected me to be able to take dictation in the court room. So they gave me an advanced course, “Shortcuts to Shorthand” where instead of writing out the whole thing, like if you said something like “all around the world”, it’d just be a circle with a dot in the middle and so on. And “all along the line” would be “lll” and “beating about the bush” would be “bbb”. That’s the only way you could ever get it so fast. So it was because of that and the experience I acquired there that enabled me then to get excellent positions from then on. At that time, to have high shorthand speed was a great advantage.

“There were a number of interesting cases including several murders. One fellow murdered his Commanding Officer. I think it was in the Brisbane River and I remember his words in the court. They were trying to get him to plead for some sort of mercy and show some remorse but he didn’t. I think this fellow had something psychologically wrong with him. He was only very young and had the most beautiful face. He yelled out in the court about his commanding officer and said “He died like a dirty yellow maggot”. He told lots of tales about how the ordinary corps men sometimes suffered at the hands of the officers. He mentioned how, when the officers brought their girlfriends on board for a party, the corps men had to do all the dirty work. He said they had big buckets where they’d mix the drinks so they’d take their shoes and socks off and mix the drinks with their feet and then the officers and their girlfriends would be drinking it. 

“Because he wouldn’t plead for leniency or understanding and showed no remorse, he was sentenced to death. As they couldn’t hang him in Australia, they shipped him up to the islands somewhere and he was hung. That was a General case, but we had a lot of Summary Courts Martial cases which weren’t as serious. 

“It was a very interesting place to work too. They had all these girls coming in who were pregnant to some American sailor and they used to do these tests to find out whether they were or not. They were called “virgin rabbit tests”. They had female rabbits and they used to inject, I think, urine or something from the girl who claimed she was pregnant, and if the rabbit’s ovaries swelled up, that was the test they had then. There was a lot of that sort of thing going on. If the girl was expecting to an American, he’d get into a certain amount of trouble and they would try to persuade them not to marry, to wait at least six months, because they were afraid a lot of those marriages wouldn’t last. So we used to have to deal with some of those kinds of cases too. 

“During the war the social life was the best it’s ever been here. Every Sunday night, the whole City Hall Ballroom would just really buzz and they had some of the big name bands. I think Glenn Miller or Tommy Dorsey or some of those big bands would be playing and it really was a swinging time from that point of view. The Americans had these beautiful uniforms and seemed to have plenty of money as well as a special charm. Some of them of course weren’t sincere. You might be waiting for your tram, as they didn’t have many buses then and a good looking American might sidle up and say “Say, honey, what heaven did you drop from?” They had all these lines, and the looks and the uniform and the money. Of course didn’t this make some of the poor old Aussies who had these dreadful old uniforms and low pay resentful as they just couldn’t compete. So naturally there was terrible jealousy with some of them and some of that has even carried on to this day. 

“It was wonderful when the war finally ended. I was very sad at losing a lot of our lovely American friends, but jubilant that a lot of our own fellows were returning, but a bit perplexed, we got a bit spoilt, especially those who worked for the Americans. We got big money and promotions if we deserved it. It was so exciting. Certainly, it seemed to be very dull after that, and mundane and it took a lot of turning around and adjusting, and reorientating ourselves to a different life again.”

Hazel travelled by ship to America in the 1950s, meeting Harry Truman and Lucille Ball.

“I kept getting invitations from people in America with whom I was still in contact, inviting me to come over. So in, early 1956, I travelled there on the Orsova. It was a P&O vessel and it was its maiden voyage, so it was all brand new and very beautiful. It took about 23 days of wonderful cruising, stopping at Auckland, Fiji and Honolulu. Hawaii at that time was known as the “gateway to America” and I’d never seen anything like it. Australia was quite primitive in comparison. When some of us Aussies were ooohing and aaahhing around the place, some of these Americans said, “Well look, this is only the gateway to America, if you think this is great, wait until you get to Los Angeles and San Francisco.” 

“The ship went up to Vancouver, where we stayed a few days before coming down to San Francisco. My godfather, Rev. Robert John Baird, C.PP.\ S, was a Commander in the Navy and he’d been aboard the Bon Homme Richard a big aircraft carrier and he was disembarking at San Francisco. He came in with a big escort of ships and then disembarked. He came over to the Orsova and when the captain of the Orsova saw him in his commander’s uniform, he beckoned him to come aboard. He was the only person who wasn’t a passenger who was allowed to come on and people were looking at me as if to say “Who’s she? Who’s she?” Then all my luggage was taken off the ship and I didn’t have to go through Customs because I had this naval connection. 

“Then I went out to Missouri as I had a lot of friends in that area. I think I was about the only Australian many people there had ever seen and they marvelled that I could speak English. Some of them came up and touched my skin and said “Oh, we thought you were going to be black.” because it was very rare for an Australian to go into the centre of the United States, states like Missour-ã, as the Indian pronunciation is more like Missour-ã. I was treated like a queen. 

“I met Harry Truman there. I knew Harold Slater, who was the Editor of the St Joseph News Press. He said to me that they were great friends of Harry Truman and that he was a wonderful man and that Harry “loved Australia and the Australians” and would I like to meet him. I just couldn’t believe my ears, I thought “Oh gosh, would he want to meet me, little old me?” So they arranged all this and sure enough they took me down to Kansas City where Mr Truman was working as a lawyer. So when I went in, he greeted me in a most friendly manner and allowed somebody to take a photo which was immediately sent over and made the front pages of the newspapers here. Mr Bob Menzies was our Prime Minister at the time so he said “When you go back to Australia, be sure to give my regards to the Prime Minister and tell him how fond I am still of Australia and thank them for their war effort”. So that was a real thrill. 

“I also met Lucille Ball. My godfather had been a friend of De De, Desirée Ball, Lucille’s mother when she’d lived in Jamestown, New York. They were very friendly and so he knew the family extremely well. He was out in Los Angeles and telling Lucy about me and Lucy said “Bring her over.” At that time they were living in this beautiful house at North Roxbury Drive in Beverly Hills and so, I just couldn’t believe it. I remember I was really knocking at the knees. I thought “Oh what am I going to say.” But they put me very much at my ease and they were very natural, just people like anybody else and the children were just tiny at the time. They used to call them Little Desi and Little Lucie. I didn’t know them for very long at that time, but Lucy’s mother was a great letter writer and sender of cards, always for birthdays and Christmas and any special occasion. 

“When I came back to Australia, they kept up the correspondence, which rather amazed me. Sometimes they used to call me on the telephone and they said “If ever you get back to the States don’t forget to come and stay with us.” At that time, I didn’t think there was any hope of going back there until round about 1966, when I saw this ad in the paper to apply for a position in New York at the United Nations. Then often when I was on leave, they’d invite me to come out and stay at their place and quite often I stayed at the home of Lucille’s mother. She had a gorgeous little house in Brentwood it was just near where Marilyn Monroe lived. It was one of the very rich suburbs of Los Angeles with beautiful homes and gorgeous places and she had this beautiful little house and I had a big bedroom there. It had a little tiny white piano in the bedroom and De De said that used to be for Lucy’s brother, her son, when he used to visit. He used to love to play, tinkle on the piano, so she had this beautiful little white piano in this big bedroom where I used to sleep. 

“One time, when it was Lucy’s birthday, I got a big thrill, we all went down to Debbie Reynolds’s beach house at Malibu to celebrate Lucy’s birthday. I’ve got a lot of photos of that. It was written up in the Women’s Weekly here. Someone here heard about it and they wrote over and asked me to write an article about it and send over some photos. It was published in the old Women’s Weekly. I’m still very friendly with Lucy’s daughter. She sends me emails regularly, Lucie Arnaz Luckinbill. She’s about 55 now. She and her husband and their five children live in Katonah which is a bit north of the city of New York.” 

In the late 1950s when Hazel returned to Australia from her first trip to the USA, she began working at the ABC studios at Toowong, Brisbane while it was being constructed.

Photo: Kevin Bourke, Hazel on left

“That was a very pleasant experience. I loved working at the ABC at that time, as just about everybody did. That was a very exciting period. It was the late 50s, ’58 or ’59 round about that. TV hadn’t started in Brisbane yet. They were still building the studios at Toowong and I was one of the first employed there. My interview for the job was a bit dicey. It wasn’t so friendly when I started but it turned into a lovely job after a while. I had this interview with about four or five men and a couple of them looked rather forbidding. Later I got to know them and they were very nice and I found out the reason. Dozens had applied for this position as secretary to the supervising engineer and he’d probably be the main person working in television. He was the one that got everything going and the manager would always have to consult him because he was a very brilliant electronic engineer named Kevin Bourke, Thomas Kevin Bourke. Kevin knew my high qualifications and he loved to dictate long screeds and knew I’d be capable of handling it and typing it back accurately which was very essential and so Kevin hoped that I would get the job. He was one of the interviewers but these other three or four men seemed against me and I found out later it was because I’d been in America. At that time everything was very very “British”, BBC don’t you know. 

“I went for the interview wearing an outfit that I’d bought at Bergdorf Goodman or one of those classy stores, which was beautiful but fairly colourful. It was a floral top in autumn colours and the skirt was a beautiful rich, yellowy gold, woven sort of lineny material. But my big downfall was that I came along with the wrong chapeau, according to them. I had on a pillbox hat which was all the rage in America because Jackie Kennedy had made them popular, but the fashion hadn’t reached Australia yet. So I went along with my pillbox hat and my handbag that went with the outfit, the Americans used to coordinate everything. They’d never seen anything like this before. I got these awkward questions thrown at me “Why on earth did you go to America? Why didn’t you go to London?” and stuff like that. The penny soon dropped and I thought “uh oh”. So I started trying to talk with a bit of a British accent, play down the fact that I’d been in America. I didn’t find out till later that it was really the hat that almost cooked my goose. They’d never seen a pillbox hat, and they thought it was ridiculous and that my outfit was terribly inappropriate for a serious interview. 

“Later, one of the ladies who worked there, had heard on the grapevine about this woman that had been in America that the supervising engineer really wanted. This woman rang me up and said “Now come into town sometime and I’ll show you an appropriate outfit, a little black or grey dress with a little cream collar. You didn’t look business like and don’t wear those ridiculous, I think they’re called pill hats,” she said “Don’t wear a ridiculous hat”. So that was how it started, but it turned out to be a lovely job and I liked the people very much, but I almost missed out on it, except that Kevin stuck up for me apparently. 

“We started in the stables, at a building called “Middenbury”. It had been a big old estate there where the ABC was. They preserved some of the “Middenbury” cottage which is still there. It wasn’t just a cottage; it was a big elegant house. It was real fun working in these stables that they’d made into sort of make-shift offices. One day, they told me that, a young girl was going to come and assist me. They didn’t have photocopying machines at the time and you had to do these things called “stencils”. You cut these wax things on the typewriter, but that seemed modern at the time. There were hundreds of plans, schematics, maps, diagrams, and blueprints that had to be copied. It was a tremendous job, getting these on to the stencils but somehow we managed. I knew there were going to be a lot of men there at the time and I was the only girl in the department. I’d been used to being spoilt in the jobs I was in and I rather relished the position of being the only girl. Then I heard this young woman whose father was a big shot, Sir Douglas Wadley, who had a big legal firm and the head of Channel 9 was coming to work with me. I thought “Just my rotten luck, she’s probably gorgeous and I’ll have to do all the hard work and she’ll get it easy.” But as it turned out, we became wonderful friends and she was the most wonderful help to me and we’re still great friends. Anyway, between Patricia and me, we managed to turn out all these stencils successfully and the blokes were very pleased. 

“In the mean time, the construction of the studios down below was going on and they were excavating a lot of the beautiful grounds, destroying the natural level of the grounds, and doing away with so many of the most magnificent trees and gardens. That’s what they had to do to finish the studios and everything. At “Middenbury”, the kitchen was still there, so we used to make big tea pots of tea, scones and Tricia and I would struggle down to the uncompleted studios. Some of the early technicians were there and it was a huge job, installing all that equipment from fine wires, thinner than a human hair to cables as thick as your arm and most of that television equipment’s under the floor. The floorboards always had to be able to be pulled up in case they had to get in there any minute. It was also very dangerous, with huge volts of electricity going through. 

Photo: ABC staff about 1960

“We’d take down the tea for the fellows and then gradually we moved into the studios and a lot of construction was still going on. I remember breathing in cement dust and everything but it was a very happy exciting time. They started these big contracts. I always remember the first one was with AWA, E100 was the contract and we had lots of contracts with all the different big companies, ordering say all the clocks. We had a master clock and then all the other clocks slaved to it for when the news goes on. They all had to show the correct time at the same time. There were thousands of things. You learned all about the studio and telecine and wave form monitors and parabolic reflectors and how they send these waves. These technicians were working perfecting everything and then it’s concentrated, and sent up into a tower above the studios at Toowong. Because television waves hugged the earth fairly closely, in order to receive them, they had to be transmitted from a height. That’s why you’ve got your transmitters up on Mount Coot-tha. Then the parabolic reflector at Toowong would send it up to Mount Coot-tha and then on different mountains or buildings they’d have these things called links repeaters because if a high mountain or a building intervened, the signal can’t go through and it goes round. It forms like a circle and all the people in the shadow of that can’t receive it so every so often they have to have a repeater link to deal with it in the remote places or where there are a lot of obstructions.

“We’d get famous people coming in. I remember one day, Princess Alexandra came and there was a buzz about that, because at that time, royalty was sort of almost worshipped and idolised. It was great fun. We used to have the most wonderful Christmas parties and we’d have them in the outside broadcast garage. These vans used to go to the concerts to telecast them and they were kept in this big building at the back near the river. We’d let loose in there and have a marvellous party. I remember they’d order tremendous quantities of prawns, luscious prawns and things like that. We used to have a lot of fun and we were great friends. We still have a Christmas party every year. Apart from the US Navy at Camp Hill, I think it was my next favourite place to work. 

“The news was more or less the same sort of thing as now. They’d pick it up out of the newspapers or the police reports and whatever was topical at the time. It was interesting and exciting sometimes to meet some of the good looking announcers. Ron Brady, what a heart throb he was and Russ Tyson, Ross Symonds. Another chap that was extremely humorous, wonderful fellow, but unfortunately, died some years ago, Blair Edmonds. Blair had the most beautiful speaking voice. He was my favourite when it came to listening to him on the radio. He had a magnificent voice and he was very funny.” 

Hazel has suffered with cancer over the years and is still suffering now with cancer. She is not sure what to make of the current controversy about women working for the ABC who have suffered breast cancer.

“I’m amazed at all the people who have called me and said “Hazel, do you think there’s a connection with the cancers you’ve suffered from so severely, when you didn’t seem to be a ‘cancerous type’. Although I don’t know if there’s any such thing as a ‘cancerous type’.” I was amazed that I got cancer and so were a lot of other people. There were several others including one very beautiful young woman. I was absolutely staggered after I’d left to hear that she had died of a form of cancer, not breast cancer, I don’t think. Then the woman that took my place when I left the ABC is still here but she has very serious cancer of a different type. But you don’t hear whether any men got it. Why would just women get it? I don’t know what to think. 

 But they were great days. I have a soft spot for the days I spent at the ABC.” 

Hazel left the ABC to work for the United Nations Secretariat in New York.

“I think it was early 1967. A very nice man called Doug Schonell, was the manager at the ABC. He called me in to his office, and he put his arm around me and he said “Hazel, we don’t want to lose you. You’re one of our best employees. We don’t want you to go away.” He said “On the other hand, I’m not going to stand in your way if you get this job at the UN in New York. It’s too good an opportunity.” So he said “I’m going to give you 12 months leave and not cut off your superannuation and if, within those 12 months, you decide you want to come back here, you can just come back to the ABC.” So I thought that was lovely of him. But I loved New York so much and the 12 months went so fast. I wasn’t about to come back and ended up staying about 20 years. It seemed to go by in a flash. But that’s New York. 

“I was 62 when I left New York. The normal retiring age for everybody, men and women is 60. Even though I wasn’t a high professional or didn’t speak umpteen languages or wasn’t a qualified lawyer, they still found it difficult to get people that did stenography. So they passed a bill or an Act through the General Assembly and gave people like myself an extra two years, which was very unusual. So I ended up staying until I was 62. Then I stayed on in New York for about another 18 months. But once you left the UN you became just like an ordinary tourist or a visitor and you were there illegally if you didn’t take out a visitor’s visa. A lot of people just laid low and later a bill was passed where people that had been so long in America could get residency. But I was too honest and I went and told them and they renewed my visa, gave it to me for the first six months and then they renewed it twice for another year. I still wanted to stay there, but they wouldn’t renew it any longer. I had to go and pay a lot of money to a legal firm, to ensure that I wasn’t some kind of a criminal or something. Not long after I came back to Australia, I got all these letters inviting me to come back and saying that, this bill had passed and I could now get residency, but it would have been too much, and also I got very sick not too long after that and so I didn’t take advantage of it. 

“For me, one of the most amazing things was to find out just before I left America that I’d been adopted. I had no idea. I was 62 when my adoptive mother died in Australia and the lawyers conveyed this information which at first, I refused to believe. But it turned out to be true. At first I was extremely upset, just didn’t know what to think, crying and going on. But it’s turned out to be wonderful for me because I found both sides of my natural family and I still have all my wonderful adoptive relatives who aren’t a bit jealous and are friendly with some of my relatives. I found out my name was actually Margaret Fairweather and I was of very English descent, which was a tremendous surprise because I’d always grown up thinking I was half German, half Irish. I found these Fairweather relatives, and also my mother, who was Lillian Gilmour-Stubbs. They came mainly from Melbourne. Some of the Fairweathers have cattle properties out in Queensland. I’ve been out and stayed with them, which was a great thrill. When the Sydney Olympics were on, I found out I’m related to wonderful Simon Fairweather who won all the gold medals for the archery. I’m in contact with them and been invited to go down and meet all those people when my health is stronger. So sometimes things that look so black at the time turn out to be okay, if you can stick with it and not let it get you down.” 
(Hazel Hernsdorf was interviewed in January 2007).

Further information about the American Navy Camp in Brisbane can be found at: https://fleethospital109.com/
To listen to an ABC interview with Hazel Hernsdorf visit: http://www.abc.net.au/queensland/stories/s1348626.htm
Hazel Hernsdorf passed away  19 November 2014.