In wartime Australia, Shanghai was synonymous with sex.
In early November 1943 a trio of Hollywood stars arrived in Brisbane on the first leg of morale-raising tour of American troops in the region. One was Gary Cooper who, alongside Ingrid Bergman, had starred in one of the year’s biggest hits, the film version of Hemingway’s For Whom The Bells Toll. Another was Phyllis Brooks, who had appeared in Joseph von Sternberg’s 1941 noir classic The Shanghai Gesture, in which she played the character of Dixie Pomeroy, a down-on-her luck demimondaine whose louche appeal was proclaimed by her heavily-laddered stockings.
This was von Sternberg’s second take on Shanghai. In his 1933 Shanghai Express, Marlene Dietrich had delivered the immortal line: ‘It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily’, and his view of the city hadn’t changed since then. Shanghai was still a world of gambling, addiction, lust, betrayal and violent death, with transactional sex setting the emotional tone. Audiences loved it.
Also in Brisbane was Lorraine Murray, like Dixie Pomeroy a former Shanghai demimondaine. A few months earlier Lorraine had taken a job in Brisbane with the American Army; this was the beginning of a new start. During her two years in the city she would hone her skills, make new friendships and decisively put her scarlet past behind her.
In 1943 Brisbane was the headquarters of General Douglas MacArthur, supreme commander of the South West Pacific Theatre. There were 70,000 American servicemen in and around the city and 25,000 thousand Australian civilians, many of them women, were employed in clerical, administrative and labouring jobs in support of the Allied military. Quiet, provincial Brisbane had never seen anything like it. Wartime aphrodisia was rampant, the black market ubiquitous, opium and amphetamines freely available. Prostitutes and criminals flocked to the city. There was an explosion of Chinese restaurants, jitterbug competitions shook the dancehalls, and illegal gambling rooms popped up everywhere.
It was not quite Shanghai, but for a while Brisbane was the liveliest place in Australia and soon Lorraine, besieged by amorous Americans, was out on dates every free occasion. The excitement and the nightlife, she said, reminded her ‘very much of China’, meaning that the cosmopolitan atmosphere of reminded her of the six years she had spent there. The arrival of Phyllis Brooks would have underscored her memories. And four years later Lorraine’s own louche career in Shanghai would be immortalised by Emily Hahn in her novel Miss Jill.