I first came across Lorraine Murray in a novel called Miss Jill, about a young Australian prostitute in China in the 1930s and 1940s.
Miss Jill was written by the American author Emily Hahn, and it was published in 1947.
The novel opens in around 1930 when Jill, a restless teenager, meets a wealthy Japanese man on a Sydney beach. He takes her abroad, they begin a sexual relationship, but then his wife’s powerful family has her kicked out of Japan. Passing through Shanghai on her way home, Jill is trafficked into prostitution and winds up in an exclusive brothel. After a while, a patron supports her to leave the sex industry, but she struggles to escape her past.
Emily lived in China from 1935 to 1943, and at first I assumed that Jill was a amalgam of people that the author had met or heard about during her time there. I thought that perhaps she had made Jill an Australian to avoid identifying her with an actual white prostitute in Shanghai – who, statistically, was far more likely to have been a European or a Russian or an American. Besides, Jill’s story sounded too exotic to be true – Japanese plutocrats weren’t exactly common on Sydney beaches in the 1930s.
But then I read Emily’s 1944 memoir China to Me, which features a young woman named Jean who in 1938 had had shared Emily’s house in Shanghai’s French Concession. This was a work of non-fiction, and it was clear that Jean was the real-life model for Jill: like Jill she had had an affair with a Japanese magnate and had been expelled from Japan because of it, like Jill she had worked in a high-class Shanghai brothel and like Jill she felt like an outcast because she had worked in the sex industry. And she was an Australian. But because Emily gave no details of her early life there was no way of discovering Jean’s real identity or tracing her origins. So she remained a mystery.
Then, four years later, I was working in the National Australian Archives researching a book (World War Noir) about unpatriotic behaviour in Sydney during World War II. Reduced to a kind of torpor by stuffy quiet of the reading room, I was following a somewhat overgrown path through 1941 when all of a sudden a rabbit dashed across in front of me and dived down a burrow; distracted, I followed it and popped up in 1954.
I found myself in a file kept by the Commonwealth Investigative Service, a now long-defunct counter-intelligence agency. It was the time of the Petrov Affair, a Cold War espionage scandal, and one CIS officer was complaining that he had been dragged into the scandal because, thirteen years before, he had been the handler of a female informant who had now been named in connection with the Petrov case. Describing the informant, he said that she had been a character in:
… popular books by the authoress Emily Hahn … based on the life of this lady in the East … related mostly to the sordid way of life in Shanghai, Hong Kong and Tokyo in the pre-war days …
The words seemed to leap up off the page. I had found the real Miss Jill.
At this point I still knew nothing about ‘Jean’ beyond what Emily had written – I didn’t even know when and why she had returned to Australia. But the CIS file gave two names for ‘this lady’: one was Lorraine Murray and now she had a married name as well: Mrs Lorraine Toeg. So then I went looking for these names in the collection of Emily’s correspondence held by the Lilly Library of Indiana University, Bloomington. This turned out to contain tens of letters between Lorraine and Emily, to which the Lilly Library kindly gave me access. These letters spanned a period of forty-three years, and they established that Lorraine and Emily had been friends not only in China in the 1930s but for decades afterwards as well. They also gave me a patchy chronology for Lorraine’s life in England from the 1940s through to the 1970s.
But this correspondence only began in 1938, and so Lorraine’s Australian origins were still obscure. However in one letter, written in early 1946, Lorraine told Emily that she was staying on a sheep station called ‘Gidgee’ outside the town of Cobar in the Far West region of New South Wales, which had recently been bought by her family. So my next breakthrough came when, with the help of a friend with a long connection to the Far West, I got in touch with some of the keepers of the town’s oral history. Cobar isn’t a big place and it turned out that one of these had actually known Lorraine’s mother, and another told me that sometime in the 1950s Lorraine’s brother John Murray had moved up to Queensland and gone into politics.
So then I went looking for John Murray. Fortunately, politicians leave a paper trail and I found out that he had first held the federal seat of Herbert, representing Townsville, before becoming a long-serving member of state parliament representing the Brisbane seat of Clayfield. After drawing a few blanks, I had the brainwave of contacting the electorate office for the current Member for Clayfield. Might they, I inquired, have a contact address for any of the illustrious previous member’s relatives? Astonishingly, there came back the Brisbane address of John’s son David.
I had now been on Lorraine’s trail proper for nearly a year, and so it was with some haste that I took myself off to Brisbane, and was soon having the first of several unfailingly cheering and helpful conversations with various members of Lorraine’s family. Lorraine had no children of her own but her nieces and nephews – she had sixteen of them in all – remembered their ‘Auntie Rainee’ as a fabulously exotic and kind lady. But understandably, she had not enlightened them about her short career as a sex worker. On the contrary, as one of her nieces put it, she ‘built up a wall the minute you began to ask questions’. Years later that wall was still there, but now there were some gaps appearing in it.
David had much to say about Lorraine, including memories of her taking him round the art galleries of London in the 1970s. He also me that his cousin Louise, the daughter of Lorraine’s younger sister Margaret, was in the way of being of the family historian, having published two books on the subject. One was a biography of John Murray called Journey to Tobruk, which recounted his war service drawing on letters between him and his and Lorraine’s mother, Laura.
Louise lived in Sydney, and soon I was knocking on her door, too. And to my delight she produced a cache of some two hundred letters between Lorraine and Laura – the Mother lode, as it were. Among her trove of material about were drawings of Lorraine by her husband Edmund Toeg – one of which is on the cover of Shanghai Demimondaine. And so Lorraine’s family gave me the material to flesh out the character first glimpsed in the works of Emily Hahn.
But there were still plenty of leads to track down, loose ends to tie up – rabbits to pursue through archival thickets. There were birth and marriage certificates, school records, immigration records, burial records. There were letters about the young Lorraine by her Japanese lover Tokugawa Iemasa, now held by the Grainger Museum in the University of Melbourne. A file on her compiled by the colonial-era Shanghai Municipal Police turned up in the US National Archives and Records, courtesy of the CIA. The National Australian Archives contained the testimony of people on whom she had spied, including the Soviet agent Rupert Lockwood. And pursuing the real Lorraine through this diversity of material was like stripping away the layers of paint from the portrait first encountered in Miss Jill, with each underlying image revealing her in a different, more complex, light.
Adding to the background were secondary sources. An essay by her Italian lover Luigi Barzini on the Italian social code dealing with mistresses, written decades after their affair ended, shed an interesting light on how he himself had treated Lorraine. Memoirs by people like the art historian Bernard Smith, the novelist JG Ballard, and novels by Dymphna Cusack and George Johnston – all these contributed to the mosaic. And this material helped me understand that Lorraine had been a witness to extraordinary times.
She lived in a period which, although still (just) within living memory, now seems like another era. Conceived on a sheep station on the banks of the Darling River, she went to within curtseying distance of the Queen via a Shanghai brothel. She was born just as the Model T Ford was coming onto the market; when she died Mark Zuckerberg was experimenting with instant messaging programs. On the way she saw a lot of things: a geisha house in old Tokyo, Shanghai ablaze under Japanese bombardment, wartime Brisbane thronged with American soldiers, the Riviera of Wallis Simpson and Rita Hayworth, and London’s progress from a bombed cityscape to the epicenter of the Swinging Sixties.
Emily chose to write about Lorraine because she had been a sex worker, but this background threw up plenty of other reasons to be interested in her – like her politics. She was sympathetic to the cause of Imperial Japan and Fascist Italy – right up to and after the outbreak of World War II. She was a foot-soldier in the counter-intelligence war in the years leading up to the Cold War. But above all, Lorraine – with her beauty, her mistakes, her loyalty to her kin and to her friends – was vibrantly and fascinatingly alive. The real drama of her life was an interior one, and at its core is the story of how her life-long friendship with Emily brought her back from a frozen self-exile.
It took me the best part of a decade to discover just how complicated the real Miss Jill was.