With lust in her heart and a smok­ing gun in her hand, the femme fa­tale in­spired de­tec­tive fic­tion and noir films. Rose­mary Neill ex­plores how th­ese gun- tot­ing dames stack up against real- life felons

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

FROM the sirens of Greek mythol­ogy who lured mariners to their deaths to ex­e­cuted spy Mata Hari and the sin­ful se­duc­tresses of film noir, the femme fa­tale is an en­dur­ing archetype. With high sex drive and low morals, she at once ex­cites and re­pels us. She is brazen, beau­ti­ful and danger­ous to know.

She en­joyed her hey­day in the 1940s and ’ 50s when, with lust in her heart and a smok­ing gun in her hand, she an­i­mated de­tec­tive fic­tion and noir films. Ray­mond Chan­dler’s pri­vate eye Philip Mar­lowe fa­mously de­scribed the es­sen­tial femme fa­tale thus: ‘‘ I like smooth shiny girls, hard-boiled and loaded with sin.’’

But how do those dames com­pare with real fe­male felons? A new book and forth­com­ing ex­hi­bi­tion set out to an­swer that ques­tion by jux­ta­pos­ing im­ages of imag­i­nary bad girls with the gen­uine ar­ti­cle: crim­i­nals in­car­cer­ated in Syd­ney’s Long Bay jail when it was known as the State Re­for­ma­tory for Women.

The book, Femme Fa­tale: The Fe­male Crim­i­nal , by his­to­rian and cu­ra­tor Nerida Camp­bell, is a largely pic­to­rial work. It com­pares im­pos­si­bly glam­orous rep­re­sen­ta­tions of fic­ti­tious femmes fatales with pho­to­graphs of in­mates taken at the re­for­ma­tory be­tween 1914 and 1930. Star­ing at the cam­era with mourn­ful eyes and tight, grim mouths, the pris­on­ers seem far re­moved from the wicked glam­our girls of the sil­ver screen with their throb­bing red lips, cou­ture gowns and per­ma­nent at­ti­tude of de­fi­ance.

Some of the in­mates, who are pho­tographed in their civil­ian clothes, dress glam­orously ( or at­tempt to) in hats, stock­ings and furs; oth­ers look as if they haven’t washed in weeks. One young in­mate, a co­caine ad­dict, has filthy, parched skin and the bridge of her nose has caved in.

As Camp­bell writes: ‘‘ The charm of the French phrase [ femme fa­tale] dis­guises its true mean­ing, ‘ fa­tal woman’, just as the glam­orous ver­sion of fe­male crim­i­nal­ity por­trayed in lit­er­a­ture and cin­ema of the pe­riod be­lies the un­for­tu­nate re­al­ity of fe­male of­fend­ers.’’

Ac­cord­ing to Camp­bell, the types of crimes com­mit­ted by the Long Bay women also con­trast sharply with those of their chimeri­cal sis­ters. Bigscreen and pulp fic­tion femmes fatales tend to be tal­ented con­spir­a­tors and ar­dent adul­ter­ers.

Lana Turner schemes with her lover to kill her older hus­band in The Post­man Al­ways Rings Twice , while Bette Davis shoots dead her il­licit lover in The Let­ter . A de­luded Glo­ria Swan­son guns down her toy boy in Sun­set Boule­vard. In the clas­sic Dou­ble In­dem­nity, Bar­bara Stan­wyck se­duces an in­sur­ance sales­man into help­ing her kill her hus­band for his life in­sur­ance pay­out.

Femmes fatales also played defin­ing roles in clas­sic nov­els turned films ( The Mal­tese Fal­con , Farewell My Lovely , The Big Sleep ). From the ’ 30s to the ’ 50s, the lives and crimes of way­ward vamps were im­plicit in racy mag­a­zine and pulp fic­tion ti­tles such as Gun Molls , Deadly Wan­ton , Good Knife Sweet­heart and ( my favourite) When women go wrong, men go right af­ter them.

— Mae West Slaugh­ter in Satin . In con­trast, Camp­bell found that in early 20th-cen­tury Syd­ney, thieves were the most com­mon cat­e­gory of fe­male crim­i­nal. Still, her gallery of rogues in­cludes more ex­otic of­fend­ers such as bigamists, co­caine ad­dicts and mur­der­ers. Sev­eral of the in­mates were in­volved in abor­tion-re­lated crimes, as this pro­ce­dure was then com­mon but il­le­gal; two abor­tion­ists were im­pli­cated in pa­tients’ deaths.

Asked to name the most no­to­ri­ous of her Long Bay sub­jects, Camp­bell says without hes­i­ta­tion: ‘‘ It would have to be Tilly Devine . . . she was quite shrewd and tough and in­cred­i­bly vi­o­lent.’’ Devine was a pros­ti­tute turned madam in Syd­ney’s ’ 20s un­der­world. The press called her ‘‘ the worst woman in Syd­ney’’. She was of­ten at war with an­other un­der­world queen, Kate Leigh, a sly grog­ger. ( Their fe­ro­cious ri­valry was doc­u­mented in Ra­zor , a vivid crime his­tory by Larry Writer.)

‘‘ I think it was a re­mark­able pe­riod in Aus­tralia’s his­tory, with two fe­males the dom­i­nant fig­ures in Syd­ney’s un­der­world,’’ Camp­bell says.

Devine was well known to jour­nal­ists: late in her ca­reer, she held press con­fer­ences to up­date the me­dia on her comings and goings. But she could be vi­cious. In 1925, she was jailed for slash­ing a man with a ra­zor while he sat in a bar­ber’s chair.

The mug shot of her in Femme Fa­tale shows her to be a stocky, sad-eyed woman wear­ing a man’s blazer, de­mure long skirt and high-heeled shoes with elab­o­rate, jew­elled buckles. Tilly, in turn, was beaten by her hus­band, Big Jim Devine. ‘‘ Of­ten movies don’t cap­ture that, that th­ese women weren’t just crim­i­nals, they were of­ten also vic­tims,’’ Camp­bell says.

The au­thor says the most bizarre crime men­tioned in her book was com­mit­ted by Eu­ge­nia Fal­leni. Fal­leni was known as the ‘‘ man woman mur­derer’’ be­cause she spent much of her life ( with the aid of a dildo) pos­ing as a man. She killed her first wife in 1917 be­fore mar­ry­ing an­other woman. Only when she was charged and on her way to the cells did she re­veal her real iden­tity, caus­ing a me­dia sen­sa­tion.

Poi­son­ing, Camp­bell ob­serves, is a com­mon modus operandi for fe­male killers be­cause it can be con­cealed in food. Louisa Collins, dubbed the ‘‘ Lu­cre­tia Bor­gia of Botany’’, poi­soned both her husbands for their life in­sur­ance. She was the last woman to be hanged in NSW.

Her ex­e­cu­tion, in 1889, caused an out­cry, partly be­cause Collins was a mother, partly be­cause there was a view at the time that women, barred from vot­ing and sit­ting on ju­ries, should not be held ac­count­able to the same laws as men. ‘‘ There is that odd sense of chivalry,’’ Camp­bell says. ‘‘ The ex­e­cu­tion of a woman is al­ways a dif­fi­cult is­sue for so­ci­ety.’’ She agrees this un­ease runs counter to the age-old ten­dency to de­fine fe­male crim­i­nals as more evil than their male coun­ter­parts. Or as an Ital­ian proverb has it: ‘‘ Woman is rarely wicked, but when she is, she is worse than a man.’’

‘‘ Women’s crimes si­mul­ta­ne­ously ap­pal and en­tice us, ex­cit­ing an in­ter­est not gen­er­ated by male felons,’’ Camp­bell says. One of the rea­sons is that vi­o­lent fe­male of­fend­ers are rel­a­tively rare: ac­cord­ing to the Aus­tralian Bureau of Statis­tics, women com­prised just 7 per cent of the pris­oner pop­u­la­tion ( about 24,000) in 2006.

For her re­search, Camp­bell for­aged in the vast foren­sic photography archive in Syd­ney’s Jus­tice and Po­lice Mu­seum, a for­mer po­lice sta­tion built in colo­nial times and over­shad­owed by a grove of glass and con­crete tow­ers near Cir­cu­lar Quay. She con­sulted po­lice, court and prison records dat­ing back to the 1860s.

The as­sis­tant cu­ra­tor at the mu­seum, Camp­bell has the care­ful man­ner of a tax­a­tion lawyer. You’d never sus­pect her of procur­ing nooses used in ex­e­cu­tions for the Femme Fa­tale ex­hi­bi­tion, which opens at the mu­seum in March.

The fe­male crim­i­nal has spe­cial rel­e­vance to Aus­tralian cul­ture, she ar­gues, as about one in five First Fleet con­victs were women. A Bri­tish of­fi­cer’s no­to­ri­ous de­nun­ci­a­tion of th­ese women as ‘‘ damned whores’’ has dis­torted ideas about them, Camp­bell says. ‘‘ Most of the es­ti­mated 25,000 women trans­ported had been con­victed of theft, not pros­ti­tu­tion. But the pair­ing of crim­i­nal­ity and loose sex­u­al­ity be­came deeply in­grained in the colo­nial psy­che.’’

Nev­er­the­less, be­ing at­trac­tive to men seems to have played some role in the crimes and sur­vival skills of other home-grown fe­male crim­i­nals. El­iz­a­beth Scott was the first woman to be hanged in Vic­to­ria. Ex­e­cuted in 1863, she had been found guilty of con­spir­ing with two men — one was ru­moured to be her lover — to mur­der her hus­band. In an ap­proach that might have come from a noir film ( had they been in­vented then), the prose­cu­tion ac­cused Scott, who was good­look­ing, of us­ing her fem­i­nine wiles to talk her coac­cused into shoot­ing dead her hus­band.

The last woman hanged in Aus­tralia, Jean Lee, has been the sub­ject of a verse bi­og­ra­phy, post­punk mu­si­cal, doc­u­men­tary and CD. In 1952, this at­trac­tive red­head was ex­e­cuted for the mur­der and tor­ture of a 73-year-old book­maker. Two male ac­com­plices, in­clud­ing her boyfriend, were also hanged. It has been spec­u­lated that Lee ini­tially took the rap for her lover.

Crit­ics of her ex­e­cu­tion be­lieve Lee was pun­ished so se­verely be­cause — like fic­tive femmes fatales — she strayed from the path of ide­alised fem­i­nin­ity: she was di­vorced, a pros­ti­tute, as­so­ci­ated with crim­i­nals and left her child to be reared by her mother.

Ac­cord­ing to some es­ti­mates, there are as many women as men writ­ing crime fic­tion th­ese days. This means fe­male char­ac­ters in con­tem­po­rary crime nov­els are like­lier to hunt down the bad guys than join them. We now live in a world where women have more sex­ual free­dom than any gang­ster’s moll.

Have th­ese so­cial changes made the femme fa­tale re­dun­dant? ‘‘ To a cer­tain ex­tent, bad girls will al­ways sell movies,’’ Camp­bell replies. But she adds that in con­tem­po­rary pop­u­lar cul­ture, we rarely en­counter the clas­sic femme fa­tale who is hy­per-fem­i­nine and highly sex­u­alised and whose evil deeds are never ex­pli­cated.

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