3 April 2024

Hear the 'love' stories that shaped our nation - and a bit of racy goss

| Sally Hopman
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Woman with dog sitttting next to statue of John Gorton with his dog.

Founder of She Shapes History, Sita Sargeant. and her dog Nikki, with the statue of former PM John Gorton and his pup Suzie Q, one of the stops on the tour. Photo: Instagram.

Sita Sargeant has gathered a lot of gossip over the years. Juicy, political stories that she’s heard from people on her She Shapes History walking tours in Canberra, or from the research she does to prep for them.

Most of the saucy stories she’s been unable to repeat. Until now, that is.

“I’ve wanted to do a tour about Canberra love stories from when we started doing the other tours,” she said, referring to Spies in the Capital: Women in Espionage to Pride in the Capital: Canberra’s LGBTQIA+ story to the Badass Women of Canberra: The Women Who Shaped the Capital tours which have proved popular with locals and visitors since they started in 2021.

“While developing content for the other tours, I’ve come across some great love stories that I couldn’t put in the other tours – they needed their own dedicated tour.”

Enter the Love in the Capital: The Love Stories that Shaped the Nation tour, which will run every Saturday during April.

“I’ve heard a lot of gossip over the years doing these tours,” she said.

“I actually met three different women on the tours who said they’d all had a one-night-stand with a certain prime minister.”

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Anecdotally, there was also a door at Old Parliament House where such liaisons could be facilitated without the rest of the world knowing who went where.

But one of her favourite love stories was between Gough and Margaret Whitlam.

“When you start looking at their love story, it tells a lot about their character,” she said.

“He treated Margaret so well, their relationship was a very equal one. He relied on her.

“She was such a powerhouse; the fact that he adored her and treated her so well makes me like him even more.”

Sita said her favourite love story was how the Whitlams met.

Both being tall, their eyes met above everyone else’s across the room at a party at Sydney University.

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Sita said the relationship between Harold and Zara Holt was not well known, with his disappearance, believed drowned in 1967, taking precedence in stories about him and little about Zara.

“She was an amazing woman,” Sita said. “When he became prime minister, and they moved into The Lodge, apparently she hated the decor and refused to stay there. She insisted they move to the Hotel Canberra until they renovated The Lodge. So they did.

“Not many people know that she was also a self-made millionaire. She started a fashion boutique for short, plump women like herself who were not catered for in the fashion industry.”

Sita said one of the least known yet, in her way, one of the most powerful women in Canberra was Isabelle Southwell. She managed the Hotel Kurrajong for about 30 years and was rumoured to have had a special relationship with PM John Curtin.

“From all accounts, she saw it all,” Sita said, “as manager of the hotel for so long. But apparently, she preferred to live her life under the radar. She never married … the story goes that Curtin was the love of her life.”

She said another story she’d heard was of a relationship between a Labor chief of staff who had a fling with a Liberal Party chief of staff and, after that, with a member of a women’s liberation group.

Sita said about 70 per cent of the stories she has been told or researched “can’t be told”, but “what we say on the tour stays on the tour,” she laughed.

“Hearing all these stories about Canberra makes you see the capital in such a different way,” Sita said. “Learning all of this has made me feel more connected to Canberra, and I hope it does the same for others.”

The new Love in the Capital: The Love Stories that Shaped the Nation walking tours start in Canberra this Saturday, 6 April, from 3 pm and run throughout the month as part of the Canberra and Region Heritage Festival. More information is on the website.

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