From Australia’s Jewish Past: The story of Emily Nathan

July 21, 2021 by J-Wire Newsdesk
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Emily Nathan, born in Hobart Town, Tasmania, on 14 December 1858, was the third of seven children of Mark and Flora Nathan who had come to Australia from New York in 1853.

The family started life in Melbourne and then moved to Sydney.

Emily was associated with JC Williamson, the theatrical management company and, known for decades as The Firm.  For more than fifty years, Emily was a wardrobe mistress who began as a costumier with the company in 1881.  Responsible for all costumes in the company’s productions, her name appeared on their programs as early as 1884.  During that time, she dressed all their international stars and many local actresses.  In 1920, the Prince of Wales visited Australia and JC Williamson arranged a royal gala night, with the production of A Pageant of Empire being performed with the much-beloved Nellie Stewart, a well-known Australian actress and singer, known as “Our Nell” and “Sweet Nell“.  Nellie wrote that she went to consult Madame Emily Nathan, JCW’s Mistress of the Robes.

In 1887, Emily met Tom Grundy, a singer from England, when he was playing lead in a JCW season that began its tour in Brisbane.  They married in Melbourne in 1887 but he, unfortunately, died seven years later.

Following Tom’s death, Emily took over as JCW’s wardrobe mistress and two generations of leading ladies passed through her hands.  Emily would work from 7.00 am to  3.00 am so as she could see her costumes in daylight as well as with full theatre lights.  She was entrusted to buy materials for the costumes, often spending two hundred pounds at a time, often buying several hundred yards of cloth, for all the theatres in Australia under JCW’s management.  Emily was known as the Jubilee Plunger in the warehouse, as she was more than a keen bargainer with vision.

Whilst she had a team of between fifteen to thirty workers, there were things she liked to do herself such as sewing on hundreds of pearls and rubies in intricate patterns on gowns – which very often meant going to the theatre at dawn.  The theatre was her home and she had no desires or ambitions to be outside the theatre and, to her, it was the only way that anyone could make a success in the theatre.

She had a myriad of stories to tell, one of which she told the Sunday Sun Newspaper, when she recalled Dame Nellie Melba climbed six flights of steps to her workroom to discuss a costume, asking on her arrival.  What’s this? Heaven? Emily made costumes for Signor Frederici who unfortunately died off stage during a production of Faust.  As he had a heart condition, Emily always made his costumes with a tiny pocket in his jackets for his heart pills.

During all her years in the theatre, she took only one holiday and which city of the world would one expect a woman of her occupation to visit – yes Paris. This was towards the end of the nineteenth century.  She did everything that was done in Paris at that time and had a most fabulous time that she would remember for the rest of her life.

Emily continued to work well into her eighties.  After her retirement, she and her three unmarried sisters lived together in Bondi in a large house full of Victoriana.   She was a very generous woman giving to charity anonymously.  She was a very large lady for whom the theatre had been her life.  She passed away in 1948 at the age of eighty-nine.

The Australian Jewish Historical Society is the keeper of archives from the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788 right up to today. Whether you are searching for an academic resource, an event, a picture or an article, AJHS can help you find that piece of historical material. The AJHS welcomes your contributions to the archives. If you are a descendent of someone of interest with a story to tell, or you have memorabilia which might be of significance for the archives, please make contact via www.ajhs.com.au or its Facebook page.

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