Stranger than fiction

‘I was once asked: “How do you know you are living?” and I said, “I create, so I know I am living.”‘ – Florence Broadhurst

While seeking inspiration for a character in my second novel I remembered my copy of Helen O’Neill’s Florence Broadhurst: Her Secret & Extraordinary Lives, tucked away on my bookshelves.

I’ve been a fan of Broadhurst’s celebrated wallpaper designs ever since I stumbled upon a tiny display of her work in the lower ground floor of Selfridges in London a few years ago. It wasn’t much, just a few panels floating in the middle of the homewares section, and yet they were enough to reel me in. I think it was The Cranes that particularly grabbed me – pink blossom and birds floating on a shimmering gold background. I scribbled down the designer’s name and went home to find out more.

What a cool, ahead-of-the-curve cat Florence turned out to be. Bolshy, mercurial, secretive and fabulous. She was an expert at reinvention: performer, dressmaker, painter, designer. She moved with the times, shifting to each new role with startling confidence and flamboyance. And oh god, her bedroom! In one passage near the end of the book it’s described as a ‘crimson-tinged boudoir … with its floral Arabian Garden wallpaper, matching curtains and custom-made bed, an extraordinary creation of hot-pink fuscia silk with a scallop-edged, half-moon canopy and a matching hot-pink headboard.’ This, for a woman in her ’70s. Yowzers. Even her violent death remains cloaked in mystery and intrigue: she was murdered in 1977 in her Sydney factory, the case still unsolved to this day (although many believe she was the first victim of Australia’s so-called Granny Killer).

Apparently Florence once wrote on a scrap of paper: ‘Life is like a game of bridge – only a dummy puts all his cards on the table’. I love that. Florence Broadhurst was clearly larger than life, stranger than fiction, and yet she never revealed her full story. What a strange and fascinating woman. What an inspiration. What a legend.

Oh the fabulousness of the hair and the peacocks.

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