Second chance Jack
The Australian Women's Weekly|February 2021
At 80, Aussie screen legend Jack Thompson treasures every moment: his first memory of his mother by the water; a film for which it was worth defying death; and the woman who captured his heart and has held it tight for 50 years. He shares it all with Samantha Trenoweth.
Samantha Trenoweth

His eyes betray his youthful heart: they’re bright, alert, sapphire blue. Yet his hands have seen ages: weathered and sometimes bruised, a side effect of chronic kidney disease. His voice is the same as ever: strong, resonant, with a hint of the larrikin; but there are also those measured vowels that suggest the store his parents put in education, and a penchant for reading poetry and debating in that long-ago childhood in a very different Australia.

Screen legend Jack Thompson is 80, and life has never felt more precious.

“Here I am,” he begins, sitting by a wide-open window. He surveys dewy garden, wooded hills, silver-white sand dunes beneath a blanket of scrub; pauses to hear the cackle of a kookaburra, the roar of the waves. “Here I am in this fortunate paradise by the sea. It’s a magic day.”

A year ago, the hills were ablaze behind this patch of paradise on the NSW mid-north coast. Jack and his partner of 50 years, Leona King, returned from Europe to find their garden strewn with charred leaves.

“Ten days later,” Jack says, “we were told to put everything we absolutely needed into a bag, and if the alarm came, we were to head east. If the fire had hit, we would have been standing in the Pacific Ocean with a little bag carrying, what I discovered in the end, was very little. What do you really need? All those things you’ve collected – the paintings, books, music – have to go. You realise that your life is much more important than the material objects in your life, although I was already well aware of that.”

That lesson was brought home to Jack powerfully in February 2018, when he was suddenly diagnosed with renal failure.

“According to the doctors, I was only 72 hours away from death,” he explains. “When I was in St Vincent’s Hospital, one of the doctors used to put his head into my room every morning and say, ‘Morning, Jack. You should be dead, you know.’ And I’d say, ‘Thanks to you guys, I’m not.’”

Now Jack hooks himself up to a dialysis machine for roughly five hours on three days of every week, which keeps him not only alive but apparently thriving.

“It’s like I have been given a second shot at life.”

Jack of the second chances. He has fallen on his feet more than once before – the first time when he was just a golden-haired four-year-old.

Jack was a ’40s child. His father, Harold, was a merchant seaman who spent Jack’s early years away at war. His mother, Marjorie, was young, affectionate, beautiful and worked at the popular Mark Foy’s department store in Sydney. Jack (who was born John Hadley Payne) and his younger brother, David, spent weekends with their mother in seaside Manly, but on weekdays they often stayed in what was called a boarding creche. Jack’s earliest memories are of eating icecream in hospital after he’d had his tonsils removed, and of his mother, who anchored his world in place.

“I remember being with my mother and an aunt on the Corso at Manly,” he says. “And I remember walking with my younger brother and an adult who I think was my mother, looking out over the harbour. David would’ve been two, so I must have been three.”

Jack’s mother died suddenly the following year, throwing the family into grief and the boys’ future into question. All he remembers is that “she went to hospital one day and didn’t come back.” Young Jack and David rolled with the punches. “There’s a thing about children,” he says. “Early on, you just accept life. It’s later in life that you might reflect on it and think, ‘That was tough’. But at the time, you do what’s required.”

Harold returned from the war unable or unwilling to care for two small boys. Their Aunt Beverley, who had been keeping an eye on them, had married a US serviceman. “She had a babe in arms,” Jack explains, “and was about to follow her husband to America. A whole ship was chartered and it was full of American war brides – most of them with babies. Before she left, she said to her father, ‘What are we going to do with Harry’s two little boys? We’ll have to put them in an orphanage.’”

Then they heard about The Children’s Seaside Hotel, or Lake House. A utopian experiment in residential education, it was set up by Irene Brown and Geyda Campbell – both teachers – the latter of whom had worked in England at A.S. Neill’s famous ‘free’ school, Summerhill.

Jack’s first memory of his father is of the day he and Aunt Beverley took the boys to Lake House. Immediately Jack had a sense that this would be a great adventure.

“Those women were motivated by the love of children,” he says. “No child was turned away. There were two kids with Down’s syndrome. A couple had learning difficulties. There were children who had been sent from Indonesia to relatives in Australia who had found they couldn’t look after them. There were children like David and myself who had come from broken homes; during the war, almost every home was broken. And there were day children whose parents were interested in this new form of education.”

With the Narrabeen Lagoon on one side and the ocean just across the road, there was plenty of fresh air and Famous Five-style outdoor exploring. Imagination and independence were encouraged, too. There was art and music, and Jack entertained other pupils with impromptu performances based on showreels he’d seen at the Saturday picture show.

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM THE AUSTRALIAN WOMEN'S WEEKLYView All

The real wild west

Exmouth is the gateway to the World Heritage-listed Ningaloo Reef and offers a swag of wild experiences, writes Carolyn Beasley.

5 mins read
The Australian Women's Weekly
March 2021

PIP COURTNEY “There's not a day I don't think of John”

As the ABC’s Landline celebrates 30 years of telling the stories of rural Australians, host Pip reveals it was those same people who helped her heal in a time of overwhelming grief.

10+ mins read
The Australian Women's Weekly
March 2021

Riding the wave

Surfing may be an individual sport but when faced with overwhelming inequality, a band of renegade female champions put aside any rivalry to fight for their rights. They share their stories of battling discrimination, bigotry and even violence with Beverley Hadgraft.

10+ mins read
The Australian Women's Weekly
March 2021

Modern money

Could a simple app hold the key to financial freedom? We investigate the top tech for your bucks.

3 mins read
The Australian Women's Weekly
March 2021

Fight or flight

When hang-gliding champion Helen Ross Lee suffered a traumatic brain injury after a crash, she had to learn to walk, talk, eat and write again. She shares her story of courage, resilience and love with Alley Pascoe.

10 mins read
The Australian Women's Weekly
March 2021

Finding “The One”

As a fortysomething woman in politics, finding a partner was tricky for Kamala Harris – until she went on a date with Doug Emhoff. In this extract from her memoir, the US Vice President goes back to the day she met the love of her life in 2013.

9 mins read
The Australian Women's Weekly
March 2021

Kamala Harris The People's Vice President

Kamala Harris was raised to believe in a just and equal world, even if she couldn’t see it. Juliet Rieden discovers how America’s new beacon of hope rose from segregation to the second-highest office in the land.

10 mins read
The Australian Women's Weekly
March 2021

Sylvia Jeffreys Beautiful Chaos

As she prepares to become a mother to two boys under the age of two, Sylvia Jeffreys tells Tiffany Dunk why she’s never been happier, both in life and in her marriage.

10+ mins read
The Australian Women's Weekly
March 2021

Murder In The Suburbs

After WWII, a crime wave washed through Sydney proving women killers can be just as ruthless as men. Sue Williams investigates a new book that uncovers the wives who killed their husbands and other inconvenient family members with rat poison.

7 mins read
The Australian Women's Weekly
March 2021

The Sweet Science Of Scent

Fragrance sceptic Genevieve Gannon had dismissed aromatherapy – until a lavender candle changed her sleeping habits forever and sent her on a journey of discovery.

10+ mins read
The Australian Women's Weekly
March 2021
RELATED STORIES

GOOGLE ENDS SALE OF ADS USING INDIVIDUAL WEB TRACKING DATA

Google says it won’t develop new ways to follow individual users across the internet after it phases out existing ad-tracking technology from its Chrome browser, a change that could shake up the online advertising industry.

4 mins read
Techlife News
Techlife News #488

The Power Grid: David Freedlander

Cuomo, Wounded Amid the governor’s scandals, his enemies are ready to unleash a decade of resentment.

6 mins read
New York magazine
March 1-14, 2021

THE ALT-CURRENCY MARTYR

BEFORE THE FEDS FEARED BITCOIN, THEY FEARED E-GOLD.

10+ mins read
Reason magazine
April 2021

No Sleep Till ‘Sidetalk'

Two NYU host the city's best 60-second talk show.

9 mins read
New York magazine
March 1-14, 2021

At Least There's One CovidProof Business Model in Art

Galleries are doing great. Museums? Not so much. By James Tarmy

5 mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
March 01, 2021

Five Quilts for Five Sisters

We thought we knew everything about our mother

3 mins read
Guideposts
February 2021

STEERING THAT IS FORGIVING

A challenge, as your o -road daringness increases, is how to keep your steering safe.

5 mins read
4LOW Offroad Magazine
February/March 2021

Tomorrow: David Wallace-Wells

Imagining a COVID Endgame “Should we be satisfied with just slightly speeding up the status quo?”

6 mins read
New York magazine
February 15–28, 2021

JACKIE FUCHS FREEZING FRAMES

On Thanksgiving three years ago, Fuchs received an unexpected invitation to Philadelphia that changed her career forever. She visited the Barnes Foundation with her daughter and a friend's family and fell in love with Modigliani's work. At this point in her life, she was not working with clay anymore; She thought to herself, I wonder if I can paint? And there it all began.

3 mins read
Art Market
Issue #55 January 2021

William Henry Jackson's West

The great photographer influenced the Western preservation movement and the creation of Yellowstone National Park in 1872.

6 mins read
True West
February - March 2021