At Christmas 1933, the place to be in London was the palatial mansion owned by American romantic novelist Baroness von Hutton zum Stolzenburg in highly fashionable Clifton Court off St John’s Wood Road, a couple of straight drives away from Lord’s Cricket Ground. Except ‘Betsey’ wasn’t at home – she was “wintering” in Rome. Her vast abode was being rented by a free-spending New Zealander, Stanley East, and it was “open house” for a stream of parties eagerly patronised by, among many others, fellow Australian journalists and South African footballers. The South Africans quickly wore out their welcome, however, and after “bursting out into their war cry, some kind of Boer song” in the early hours of one Yuletide morning, an incensed East, his eyes bulging, bellowed at them, “I will not have German songs sung in my house. Out of the house, all of you, before I throw you out with my bare hands.” The interlopers duly obliged, unaided, but Australian cricket writers Arthur Mailey and Gilbert Mant stayed on to enjoy a few more quieter ales.
Stanley East was born at Addington in Christchurch on April 4, 1886, the son of the Church of St Mary the Virgin resident curate Herbert East, a one-time compositor with the Lyttelton Times. Stan East started as a journalist with the Lyttelton Times in 1909 and went on to work for the Christchurch Star until 1917, when he moved to the Evening Post in Wellington. He was also an advertising agent in the capital before packing up his trusty portable typewriter and decamping for Sydney in the early 1920s. Stan soon established a wide reputation for his love of throwing parties, as a prominent member of Sydney’s hell-raising Bohemian set in Bondi. To pay for this high life he worked for Daily Telegraph and was later chief sub-editor of The Sun on comparatively meagre wages. Yet, having discovered in 1915 P.G. Wodehouse’s immortal creation Jeeves, and his “gentleman’s person gentleman” relationship with Bertram Wilberforce “Bertie” Wooster, East had begun to harbour a surreal dream - of having his own, real life, English butler.
In July 1933 East and his second wife Milba May won £25,000 in the Queensland Exhibition No 2 Monster Casket, and Stan’s Jeeves dream suddenly became a reality. Stan had a flutter on a few faltering Sydney nags, bought beers for all his mates, handed over some of the cash to needy young lift operators, messengers and printers, and then set off with Milba and their 13-year-old daughter, Raukura Margery De Villiers East, for London. Once there, he immediately hired a valet called Watson (and Watson’s wife as a cook and chief bottle washer). In his October 1965 Nation obituary for Stan, Mant recalled his first encounter with Watson as a “baffling experience”. Watson, dressed in chauffeur’s uniform, arrived at Mant’s West Kensington flat at the wheel of a magnificent Bentley. After driving Mant and his wife to St John’s Wood, he quickly opened the back doors of the limousine and, without saying a word, sprinted to the back of the house. “In some bewilderment,” wrote Mant, “we walked to the front door and rang the bell”. It was opened almost immediately by Watson, by now dressed in immaculate striped trousers and a frock coat. “‘Please come inside, sir,’ he murmured respectfully. ‘The master is expecting you.’ The master, also playing his part to perfection, ushered me into his library (another fulfilled ambition) and flung open the door of a cupboard containing every conceivable type of alcoholic beverage.”
Having his own Jeeves wasn’t the only aspiration East achieved. He went to the races at Longchamps and travelled to the Riviera, Monte Carlo and the Alps. His big spend lasted a little more than six months, however, and Stan eventually had to find work with the Australian wire news service operating from The Times building. By August 1934 the Easts were back in Australia – having held on to a sufficient amount of their winnings to fulfil another of Stan’s stated goals - to buy a poultry farm. The Easts settled at Wiseman’s Ferry, Milba’s old home town, 45 miles north of Sydney in the Hornsby Shire. The loyal Watson and his wife came with them and moved in when the Easts in March 1935 settled in a restored old stone house (renaming it “Rawhiti”, Māori for East) beside the Hawkesbury River. But Watson didn’t last long. He was “out of his element there,” wrote Mant, and soon returned to England. Stan East, meanwhile, kept his hand in with his typewriter, writing articles about his European travels and the cost of prime Canterbury lamb in Britain for newspapers across Australia, including The Sun. Naturally, he was also president of the Wiseman’s Ferry Cricket Club.
By 1939 Stan was back in Sydney, as manager of radio station 2UE, and boldly predicting in The Sun that there would be no World War Two. He volunteered when war did break out, and in 1943 a role was found for him in a Federal Department of Information set up by Arthur Calwell, the minister in John Curtin's Labor Government. East retired in 1947 and became librarian and official historian for the Canberra Club, as well as helping produce a short-lived Canberra-published political and literary fortnightly called the Australian Observer. Mant said East “turned into a benign old gentleman, though subject to sudden outbursts of histrionics when he would cry out passionately, ‘Thank God, sir, there are such men in England today’. It was the punch-line from a play which East, in his younger days as an actor with Pollard’s Opera Company in New Zealand, using the stage name Owen Hardy (‘I was always owin’, and crackin’ hardy about it’), had been fond of reciting throughout his colourful life in Australia.
The great humourist Lennie Lower, still considered by many to be the comic genius of Australian journalism, is alleged to have based his 1929 novel Here's Luck on Stan East, “distorting the real into the truly comic” by disguising East as Jack Gudgeon (who with his feckless son Stanley goes on a wild rampage through Sydney's racecourses, gambling dens, pubs and cafes and hosts never-ending parties in their increasingly derelict home). Lower’s editor said the book “remains pre-eminently Australia's funniest book, as ageless as Pickwick or Tom Sawyer, a work of 'weird genius' … written by a ‘Chaplin of words’’’. Stan East died in Canberra on September 10, 1965, aged 79.