"Australian Star Of Song"
Magda Neeld was once billed in the United States as the “Australian Star of Song”. I have just been reading her draft memoirs. She has had a very colourful life.
Magda had a conventional Catholic upbringing in Sydney. She believes that she was born with a super-sensitive ear that made her particularly gifted in music. But her leaving school coincided with the Great Depression of the early 1930s and there were few employment opportunities.
Magda’s big break came at the Sydney Operatic Eisteddfod. The judges could not believe that she had never had any formal musical training. She was soon employed in the Sydney music scene.
Magda sailed for Europe in 1935. While singing there, she came to the attention of New York based impresario Jack Hylton. He took the “Songbird from Australia” to the US, where she was to spend about a quarter of a century on and off.
The little girl from Nyngan and Coogee was to become an American celebrity. She was given the title “The Australian Star of Song”.
While performing in London in 1938, she developed back problems. Three discs in her spine disintegrated. Her medical treatment paralysed her down one side of her body. She was told that she would never walk again. She was sent home by ship, with her career finished, only three years after it began.
Madga’s arrival in Sydney attracted media attention because she was now far more well known than when she left. She notes” “I felt that in spite of all the suffering. God was somehow still working for me”.
Later on she comments: “I prayed fervently to God for faith and help with my back and hip, but it was hard to not feel at times the clinging dark clouds of the London doctors. These were the prophets of dooms, who promised nothing but a wheelchair for life and no hope of healing as far as they were concerned. The fear still clouded my dreams, especially as the twisted vertebras in my spine continued to cause great agony”.
Her healing was miraculous. It seemed to occur in one afternoon and the Sydney medical fraternity could not explain what had happened.
She resumed her musical career in 1939 with a tour of Australian and New Zealand cities. She remained in Australia during the war, performing at musical events.
She fell in love with an American serviceman and just before the war ended Magda made the dangerous journey by ship across the Pacific. She arrived in San Francisco in June 1945 while Allied governments were finalizing the United Nations Charter. Magda attended the conference and later composed a UN song which is sung at UN events.
Her husband had an important naval career but he was also an alcoholic. The US Navy helped him disguise the extent of the problem. She went to London in 1952 and resumed her musical career.
Later, back in New York, she effectively died. Her death came suddenly and the medical profession could not explain what had happened to her. During her near death experience she could hear the nurses discuss her lack of pulse. She herself was experiencing what she calls a soft light of infinite delicate colours. As she recovered, one of nurses fainted because she had already declared Magda to be dead.
Unfortunately Magda’s draft memoirs finish with her recovery and resumed musical career in the late 1950s. We need to know more about what has happened in the past half century!
Keith Suter, Consultant for Social Policy
Broadcast 12 January 2007 on Radio 2GB's "Brian Wilshire Programme" at 9pm.