'President Johnson was in tears': remembering Harold Holt

A prime minister drowning in rough surf is the stuff of movies, except it famously happened here. Fifty years on, Harold Holt’s niece recalls an awful day, a gentler time – and hitching a ride home on Prince Charles’ jet.

Sir Harold Holt spearfishing at Portsea, in Port Phillip Bay, Victoria shortly before his death.  Photo: Alan Lambert

Sir Harold Holt spearfishing at Portsea, in Port Phillip Bay, Victoria shortly before his death. Photo: Alan Lambert

In 1967, Sue Holt was a 21-year-old Australian living in a chaotic, 13-person share-house at the non-posh end of Chelsea. As with so many of her compatriots, she was fulfilling her dream of a year in London – spent waitressing and wearing miniskirts with greater impunity than was possible on the streets of Sydney's Pymble, where she grew up.

She drank red wine with her German boyfriend at The Sun in Splendour pub on Portobello Road. She partied with her Australian flatmates. She bought a bright yellow car and drove through France and Germany. She went shopping on Carnaby Street and took home a chocolate-coloured coat with white buttons. In 1967, Sue Holt was having the time of her life.

One morning in December, as she worked the early shift at the Royal Lancaster Hotel in Kensington, she served a gentleman who ordered bacon and eggs, sunny side up. He noted her accent.

"Oh, it looks like your prime minister has gone for one too many swims!" he quipped to the former Miss Holt, now Mrs Giugni, a 71-year-old grandmother of five who lives in an elegant Paddington terrace in Sydney.

"I looked at him quizzically, and said, 'What do you mean?'

"He said, 'Your prime minister's gone. They think he's dead’."

Harold Holt was not just the prime minister; he was also her Uncle Harry, the beloved brother and spitting image of her dad, Cliff, who had himself died of pancreatic cancer just nine months prior. Sue dropped her notepad and ran upstairs, where a Telex machine confirmed the news.

Most Australians of a certain age remember where they were when Harold Holt was lost in a rip off Cheviot Beach near the Victorian seaside town of Portsea, where he'd been staying at the family holiday home. But Sue Holt remembers that day, half a century ago, better than most. "For a prime minister to go in for a swim and drown was bizarre, but when you are related to him ... it was huge."

Harold Holt was prime minister for only 693 days, about a month less than Tony Abbott's period in office. December 17 is the 50th anniversary of his death, and last week Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull gave a speech in parliament commemorating it. The date will be marked by Holt's family and some loyal Liberals – the member for the local division of Flinders, Health Minister Greg Hunt, will host a small memorial service in the area.

Ever since that fateful day, Cheviot Beach has been known as the sometimes paradisiacal, sometimes turbulent patch of the Mornington Peninsula where 59-year-old Holt drowned – his body never found – making Australia a tragic curiosity, the only country to have ever misplaced a prime minister off its coast.

The family has never countenanced any of the conspiracy theories about his death. They don't believe he was assassinated by the CIA, kidnapped by the Chinese, or that he committed suicide. They believe Australia's 17th prime minister had a bad shoulder from too much tennis, and a fearlessness about his personal safety, and that on the day in question, the combination proved fatal.

They also believe that Holt's legacy has been over-shadowed by the manner of his death. "It is inevitable when you have a death in such dramatic circumstances," says Sam Holt, 78, the former prime minister's only surviving son. "With any politician, you have to keep reminding people of the facts, because people just forget the accomplishments."

Historian Tom Frame, who wrote a biography of Holt, The Life and Death of Harold Holt, published in 2005, says when he started researching his subject he "found someone who was far more complicated than most people had previously known".

"People thought of him as a two-dimensional man, a standard off-the-rack politician who was a time-server, and when rivals for the prime ministership fell away, his number came up and it was his turn," says Professor Frame, director of the University of NSW Public Leadership Research Group-Howard Library. "But that shows a deep misunderstanding. He was, for that time, our most progressive prime minister."

Holt was elected to parliament in 1935 and was appointed to Robert Menzies' cabinet in 1939 at 30, making him the youngest ever federal minister. He held a number of minor portfolios, underwent a brief period of wartime military training, then in 1945 joined the newly formed Liberal Party. Under Menzies' second stint as prime minister, Holt was immigration minister, minister for labour and national service, and treasurer. He was elected unopposed as Liberal leader when Menzies retired in 1966, and won a landslide election that year.

Yet he is not remembered for any of these things. He is remembered for his physicality, for his Hemingway-esque love of sports like spear-fishing, tennis and skin diving. Imprinted on the national memory is the famous photo of him in a wetsuit, surrounded by three women in bikinis, his daughters-in-law. It's the closest to James Bond that an Australian PM ever came. His name is immortalised in the Harold Holt Memorial Swimming Centre, in Melbourne's Glen Iris; the centre is nicknamed "Dead Harry's" by locals.

He's also remembered, sourly by many, for expanding Australia's commitment to the Vietnam War, and for standing next to United States president Lyndon B. Johnson on the South Lawn of the White House in 1966, telling him, "You have an admiring friend, a staunch friend that will be all the way with LBJ." The famous phrase, copied from Johnson's election slogan, was ill-received by many at home, where it was seen as dangerous and sycophantic. It came to define the low point of Australia's subservience to the United States.

Sam Holt argues that his father's commitment to the Vietnam War needs to be seen in context. "People today might scratch their head about Vietnam, but these political leaders commenced their political life when there was a war against fascism. Communism was seen as a big threat," says Sam, a retired Melbourne lawyer.

Holt with US President Johnson at the White House in July 1966: the pair enjoyed a warm friendship. Photo: UPI Cablephoto

Holt with US President Johnson at the White House in July 1966: the pair enjoyed a warm friendship. Photo: UPI Cablephoto

Frame says this historical scar eclipses Holt's other accomplishments and his progressivism. "He began the wholesale dismantling of the White Australia Policy," he says. "He thought we would be a richer and more textured country if we were not anxious about people coming from all over the world.

"He tried to say, 'You have nothing to fear from immigrants.' Despite the potential backlash, he thought it was something we needed to do. Outwardly he supported the White Australia Policy because it was politically expedient to do so, but he undermined the policy by consistent use of ministerial discretion."

Greg Hunt says Holt was "a great modernising figure" in Australia. "Because of the tragedy and mystery surrounding his passing, that has overshadowed the fact that on matters of race, of diversity, of currency, and gender equality, he played a huge role."

Holt's government called the 1967 referendum which asked if Aboriginal people should be included in the census and the Commonwealth given power to legislate for them. It was an important step towards Indigenous rights at a time when state laws meant many Aboriginal Australians could not move, own property or marry freely. It was a resounding success, with more than 90 per cent of Australians voting in favour.

He appointed the first woman to a federal portfolio: Annabelle Rankin as housing minister. Early in his career, he instituted the child endowment, which earned him the moniker 'Godfather of a million children', and as prime minister he visited a number of Asian countries. In 1968, after Holt's death, opposition leader Gough Whitlam said he "made Australia better known in Asia and he made Australians more aware of Asia than ever before".

Holt wanted to make high culture more accessible to Australians, so he set up the Australia Council for the Arts. He began the process of ending appeals to the Privy Council in Britain, and he stopped Australia's currency being pegged to Britain's.

As treasurer, Holt had caused a credit squeeze which plunged Australia into recession and nearly lost the Liberals government. But he also established the Reserve Bank of Australia, and presided over the conversion to decimal currency.

The transition was seen globally as a success, and many countries followed Australia's approach when moving from one currency to another. Menzies wanted to name it "the Royal", but after a public backlash Holt, who preferred "the dollar", won the argument.

But the months leading up to his death were marked by political failures, with Holt unable to discipline his party and public opposition mounting to the Vietnam War. At the half-Senate elections on November 25, 1967, his government's primary vote dropped eight points.

"Harold Holt may not have been a visionary or a profound thinker," according to his entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, an Australian National University online project, "but he had worked diligently in serving and celebrating his country."

Frame concurs: "I would best describe his prime ministership as a workmanlike performance. There are achievements and failures."

Sam Holt is one of twins born to Holt's wife Zara in 1939, only Zara was not his wife at the time. Holt was Sam and Andrew's biological father, but because they were conceived while Zara was still married to her first husband, a British captain stationed in India, Holt had to legally adopt them later, along with their older half-brother, Nicholas.

Harold and Zara Holt in 1956.

Harold and Zara Holt in 1956.

In 1957 he changed all three boys' names to Holt by deed poll. According to Frame, it was a "family secret" that Holt was the twins' real dad, but by the mores of the time it was never discussed. "That was never much of an issue, it didn't loom large," says Sam Holt. "He was the only dad any of us had known."

Sam says a journalist once came to him asking questions about "that side of things". "I gave him the boring answer of 'No comment'. Andrew gave the amusing answer of 'I have often wondered'. Nicky gave the smart answer, which was, 'It's a bit late for DNA checks now'."

Holt and Zara's union endured "ups and downs", says Sam, "like any marriage". Their relationship began with a volatile and romantic courtship worthy of an Edith Wharton novel. They met in 1925 when Holt was a law student at Melbourne University. Zara was creative and vivacious, Holt was diligent and strong-minded. He was schooled at Melbourne's Wesley College and Zara had attended Toorak College.

In 1930, she opened a boutique on Little Collins Street. Zara, who in 1968 published a (hugely unreliable, according to Frame) memoir called My Life and Harry, said there were "jealousies and arguments ... quarrelling, beguiling, passionate, deep affection and clashing of wills".

When Holt graduated in law the same year, the couple talked about marriage. Zara, who went on to become a fashion designer, was already a socialite and aspiring businesswoman. She had made some money from her dress shop and wanted to use it to marry, but Holt wanted to support them both and delayed any wedding. 

He told her to go overseas and spend her money while he established himself. There was a "violent row", Frame says, and Zara left Australia to travel, meeting Captain James Heywood Fell in England. Zara seems to have played the men off – returning to Australia and resuming her relationship with Holt, while holding over his head the prospect that she would marry her British suitor. On the night before Captain Fell was due to arrive in Melbourne to visit Zara, Holt proposed with a diamond and sapphire engagement ring.

"He told Zara that if she met that 'Indian type' the next morning, she would never see him again," Frame writes. "In what appears to have been an impulsive act, Zara married James Fell in Melbourne on March 2, 1935." Frame speculates Zara was angry because she had discovered Holt had been involved with another woman while she was gone (in another twist, that woman went on to marry Holt's own father).

A week later, Zara and her captain sailed for India. Holt may have told Zara he would never see her again, but he kept newspaper clippings reporting her marriage, and when she returned to Melbourne for the birth of her first son, Nicholas, he kept the story announcing that, too.

"She and Harold met soon after her arrival in Victoria. They spent a great deal of time together before James Fell came to Australia to see his son," Frame wrote. "Not long after Fell returned to India, Zara announced that she was pregnant again – with twins, conceived in August 1938."

Zara delivered the twins in Melbourne in 1939. James Fell came to Australia to see them, but returned to India alone. After a decent interval had elapsed, Zara divorced Fell in 1946 and married Holt the same year.

The volatility of their relationship continued. The woman on the beach with Holt when he drowned, their Portsea neighbour Marjorie Gillespie, is usually referred to as his lover. (Zara was still in Canberra that day; she would be rushed to the scene in an RAAF jet after hearing the news.) In 1985, Zara gave a candid interview to a documentary crew in which she said she had been "very aware" of her husband's affair. "I felt like telling Marj about the other half-dozen in the same position," she said.

We'll never know if her nonchalance was feigned. In 1968, Zara was made a dame, and in 1969 she married Jeff Bate, another Liberal politician. She retired to the Gold Coast after he passed in 1984, and died in 1989. She was buried at Sorrento Cemetery, the closest graveyard to Cheviot Beach.

Prime Minister Harold Holt and Zara Holt at Portsea in 1966.

Prime Minister Harold Holt and Zara Holt at Portsea in 1966.

On December 17, 1967, Sam Holt, 28, was swimming at Sorrento Beach, a few kilometres away from his father, who had spent his morning attending to some prime-ministerial business before heading for a swim with Marjorie Gillespie and others. Sam heard on a transistor radio that there was a missing VIP at Portsea.

"I noticed unusual traffic, ambulances and military vehicles and helicopters, all sorts of things," he says. "I had a feeling of foreboding about that. I could guess who the VIP might be."

Sam ran to the nearest phone box and rang the holiday home in Portsea where the Holts had decamped for Christmas. Their faithful housekeeper, "Tiny" Lawless, picked up. "She said, 'He's gone,' " Sam recalls.

For Sue Holt, waiting in Chelsea, the week following her uncle's sudden death passed in a haze. Initial hope that Uncle Harry would be found was soon extinguished in the relentless swell of Cheviot Beach. The search party, then the biggest in Australian history, was called off. A memorial service was organised for December 22 at St Paul's Cathedral in Melbourne. The British Labour prime minister Harold Wilson would attend, as would the Conservative opposition leader Edward Heath. The royal family would be represented by the 19-year-old Prince Charles.

Sue Holt alighting from the royal jet in Melbourne, December 1967, to attend her uncle's memorial service. Photo: Photographer unknown

Sue Holt alighting from the royal jet in Melbourne, December 1967, to attend her uncle's memorial service. Photo: Photographer unknown

Sue contacted the Australian Embassy, then overseen by High Commissioner Sir Alick Downer (now by his son, former Liberal politician Alexander Downer). "Downer said, 'Well I suppose it would be nice for you to go to the memorial service. I will ask Harold Wilson,' " Sue recalls. "Harold Wilson said, 'Of course.' He didn't flinch."

And so the young Sue Holt found herself boarding a VIP jet home, seated between Wilson and Heath in the middle section of the plane. The front was given over to the royal passenger who, as the Australian press reported slavishly at the time, was accompanied by a valet, a superintendent of the Special Branch, and an equerry. The press were in the back.

"Holt's niece gets lift in Charles' plane" read the headline in The Sun. "Pretty, mini-skirted Sue, 22, daughter of Harold Holt's dead brother Cliff, had been in London on a working holiday … when news of her uncle's terrible death overwhelmed her." The story ran alongside a report about an edict issued by Sydney's judges forbidding female barristers from wearing miniskirts in court.

During the flight, Sue remembers the "sheer kindness" of Harold Wilson. "He gave me some newspapers to read about what happened to Harold and I started to get weepy. Tears were flowing down my cheeks.

"He saw this, and he said, 'Sue, look out the window and look at those beautiful clouds,' and as I looked he slid the newspapers off my lap and said, 'She can read those later.' "

They took their meals with Prince Charles at a silver service table, where they were served turtle soup, roast pheasant, millefeuille, prawn cocktails, roast fillet of beef, fruit flan and cheese. "It was my first contact with grape scissors," says Sue.

Prince Charles and his grandmother, Elizabeth the Queen Mother, with Harold and Zara Holt.

Prince Charles and his grandmother, Elizabeth the Queen Mother, with Harold and Zara Holt.

The teenage Charles was shy. He talked about his time at Timbertop, the rural Victorian outpost of Geelong Grammar where the prince had spent a couple of terms as a 17-year-old. He spoke to Sue about her uncle, whom he had met during Holt's multiple official visits to the United Kingdom.

"In his terribly English voice, he said, 'I am so sorry.' He said Harold was a fine gentleman. He commented on how absolutely likeable he was, and what a distinguished man and prime minister. He was flattering and generous in his praise of Harold, and I remember thinking how nice that was."

The aeroplane stopped over at Gan in the Maldives, where they were greeted by a delegation of locals in traditional costume, and given cold drinks. Then it was on to Perth and finally home to Melbourne, where a huge crowd of dignitaries, press and public met them off the plane. Sue was photographed looking like a cross between Mary Quant and Jackie Kennedy. She was wearing a biscuit caramel-coloured suit with a cream top underneath to match her shoes, and carrying a white Oroton mesh bag. The glamorous niece of the lost prime minister was briefly of press interest.

She was greeted by a "rear admiral, or some sort of official like that" and whisked away in a black car to her grandmother's home. There she was reunited with her mother, sister and brother, all drawn together in grief for the sudden death of Uncle Harry, which brought back the tragic loss of his doppelgänger brother, their Cliffy.

British Prime Minister Harold Wilson meets American President Lyndon B. Johnson at Government House, Melbourne after the memorial service for Harold Holt in December, 1967.

British Prime Minister Harold Wilson meets American President Lyndon B. Johnson at Government House, Melbourne after the memorial service for Harold Holt in December, 1967.

The memorial was an enormous press event, with the then largest collection of VIPs and heads of state ever assembled in Australia. Two thousand guests attended and 10,000 members of the public listened on loudspeakers. US president Lyndon Johnson, Holt's close friend, was in tears.

Sue flew back to London on the royal jet the next day. A journalist tracked her down and wrote a piece on her for Australia's Woman's Day magazine. It was titled "The Holt Girl in London".

"Picture a dark, vivacious girl who dresses in the latest London style... and you've got Sue Holt," the intro ran. The accompanying photo showed her on Carnaby Street wearing a pink miniskirt and white go-go boots.

Holt was prime minister of a different Australia, which in the 1960s was largely insular and xenophobic. It was also innocent in a way that is unimaginable now. Our 17th prime minister famously drove himself from Melbourne to Portsea in his maroon Pontiac Parisienne. He hadn't even bought the car new – it was a demo model. The family beach place was a timber house that he and Zara had built themselves on a block of land which bordered the Gillespies'. It was never locked, and Holt had no security with him on the day he took his last swim. He was famously cavalier about his personal safety, including security threats.

"His view was, 'If someone wants to kill me, they will kill me,' " says Frame. "When he went home to Melbourne, he didn't want people hanging around. He never thought anything of it."

Notwithstanding the tendency to romanticise the dead, it is impossible to ignore how much Holt was liked. Even his Australian Dictionary of Biography entry notes his essential niceness: "This thoroughly decent man was genuinely liked and missed on all sides [of politics]".

Headlines reporting his death included "Basic niceness was Harold Holt's essence" and "He couldn't be ruthless". The Australian press of the 1960s undoubtedly treated politicians much more politely than today's media. It's difficult to imagine any of our recent prime ministers being described in equivalent terms.

Holt's friendship with Johnson was one of the warmest an Australian prime minister and American president have enjoyed. After her husband's death, Zara would still visit the Johnsons at their Texas ranch. Johnson called Holt a "good and gallant champion" – although historians note their friendship didn't help  Holt gain Australian export access to America's lucrative agriculture market.

Sue at home with press clippings about her uncle. Photo: Louie Douvis

Sue at home with press clippings about her uncle. Photo: Louie Douvis

Sue Holt returned to Sydney from London in 1968, was married in 1972 and had four children. She worked in pastoral care but is now retired – which is to say, a full-time grandmother. She's using boxes of clippings and photographs about her uncle to compile a book about him for her family, which she plans to self-publish. Next weekend, two of her sons, Peter and James, will accompany her to the memorial ceremony at Nepean Point.

When I visit, I admire the photographs of 21-year-old Sue in her marvellous '60s clothes. We gaze at pictures of her as if she's someone else. The overarching memory she has of her uncle, she says, is of his kindness. "He was a total gentleman and I loved his sense of social justice. He had great warmth and a smile that lit up the room. There was a bit of youth to him."

Later, I text her to ask if she kept any of the clothes: the Carnaby Street coat, the Oroton bag? "Nah. Long gone," she replies.