1870-1935 | NSW | War correspondent, Journalist
Louise Mack was one of Australia’s most notable female war correspondents, and the most controversial. The flamboyant Mack was also a poet and novelist. Her hero was British newspaper baron Lord Northcliffe, for whom she wrote romantic serials. She was a columnist for The Bulletin until she left Sydney in 1901 for London where she wrote for the influential Review of Reviews. In 1914, in Belgium, she reported on the German invasion for Northcliffe’s Daily Mail and Evening News. Returning home, she toured Australia giving extravagant accounts of her war experiences. She also wrote for the early Australian Women’s Weekly.
Louise – or Louie as she was known to her close acquaintances – revelled in the largely masculine world of 1890s bohemian Sydney, mixing easily with journalists, editors, impecunious poets and eccentric artists.
At Sydney Girls’ High School, the vivacious Louise Mack and her friend Ethel Turner (later a best-selling novelist) edited rival school papers. Mack’s Girls High School Gazette cost sixpence and carried advertisements. Determined to be a writer, she submitted poetry and stories to the Sydney Bulletin where J. F. Archibald encouraged and published her as did influential literary editor A. G. Stephens. She also contributed stories and sketches to a wide range of other newspapers and magazines.
Her 1895 serial In an Australian City caused a rift with Turner because Mack wrote about their friends and acquaintances without sufficiently disguising them – as she did in her first novel The World is Round (London, 1896). Her lively school novels Teens (1897) and Girls Together (1898), both published by Angus & Robertson, found eager readerships.
Fascinated by the petite Mack, Stephens featured her poems on his Bulletin Red Page and published her book-length collection Dreams in Flower (1901). This flirtatious literary mentoring was resented by some other Red Page contributors, though not by talented poet Will Ogilvie who shared a warm friendship with both Mack and Stephens.
Louise, or Louie as she was known to her close acquaintances, revelled in the largely masculine world of 1890s bohemian Sydney, mixing easily with journalists, editors, impecunious poets and eccentric artists. She married a hapless Irish barrister but by decade’s end her hectic social life and his drinking contributed to the breakdown of their relationship. As a professional journalist, Louise frequently attended not just parties but also concerts and theatrical performances, art exhibitions and literary gatherings.
From 1898 until she left for London in 1901, Mack was on the Bulletin staff, contributing ‘A Woman’s Letter’ under the pen name ‘Gouli Gouli’. This brightly entertaining column had been written for eight years by Sappho Smith’ (Alexina Wildman). Though Ina Wildman died young, her brief career inspired women journalists such as Louise Mack and her sister Amy, later Women’s Page editor of the Sydney Morning Herald.
According to niece Nancy Phelan, who wrote The Romantic Lives of Louise Mack (1991), Louie was not involved with the early women’s movement “beyond writing stories for feminist magazines”. Mack knew women were often domestic slaves, but as her parents were intellectual equals she “never considered herself a lesser writer just because she was a woman”.
When she resigned from The Bulletin in April 1901, handing over her column to Agnes Conor O’Brien, Mack was farewelled by her friends the day before sailing for London. A. G. Stephens and other colleagues presented her with a purseful of gold sovereigns and Stephens profiled her at length on his Red Page.
Mack struggled to break into London journalism. Her autobiographical novel An Australian Girl in London (1902) recounts the plight of a starving writer looking for freelance work. She managed to charm Review of Reviews editor W. T. Stead and was soon a regular at his soirees and in the columns of his Review. When she began writing lucrative romantic serials for Alfred Harmsworth’s stable of newspapers, the handsome, ruthless Harmsworth (Lord Northcliffe) became her new sponsor.
From 1904 to 1910 Mack lived in Florence, writing for and then editing the English-language Italian Gazette, before returning to London and resuming her career as a novelist. She had dreamed of joining her Sydney friend, “Banjo” Paterson, as a war correspondent when the Boer War broke out in 1899. In the first weeks of World War I she travelled to Belgium to report on the German invasion for Northcliffe’s Daily Mail and Evening News.
By October 1914 Mack had returned from German-occupied Brussels to Antwerp where she sheltered from the expected bombardment in a hotel cellar with two other correspondents, including the Australian Frank Fox. After Fox and the other journalist fled the city, Mack wrote that the city’s houses were “shattered and locked and silent and deserted”. She walked the streets haunted by “the ghosts of five hundred thousand people”.
As media historian Jeannine Baker has commented, Mack’s claim to have been the last war correspondent to leave Antwerp was “as important to a journalist as having been the first to arrive”. In danger of being shot as a spy, Mack disguised herself as a mute hotel maid, witnessing the German invasion before leaving the city with a false passport and making her way to Holland and then England.
In 1916 Mack returned to Australia after the publication of her memoir A Woman’s Experiences in the Great War. The book was described by her sister Amy, who edited the manuscript, as “a mixture of sensational journalism and sentimental patriotism”.
A tireless traveller, Mack toured the country for two years, speaking about the war and raising funds for the Red Cross. Embellishing her Belgian adventures as she went, Mack discovered she could carve out a profitable career for herself as a lecturer. Her vivid imagination, and her narrative skills as a journalist and author of light fiction, kept her small-town audiences in thrall. In retrospect, her personal crusade can also be viewed as yet another facet of Northcliffe’s highly successful campaign of anti-German propaganda. Replete with atrocity stories, this new mass journalism was politically useful in driving enlistment.
Failing to secure permanent work as a journalist after the war, Mack moved around the Pacific giving travel and educational talks. After her return to Sydney, and remarriage to a New Zealand Gallipoli veteran, she contributed to the early Australian Women’s Weekly, including the regular column ‘Louise Mack Advises’.
Always a larger-than-life raconteur, Mack embroidered her life as she did her many works of fiction. She was well remunerated for her writing but quickly spent the earnings, and died in 1935 with little to show for her success. Her niece summed her up as “fair, pretty, extroverted, audacious, unpredictable – a genuine Bohemian who chose a life of adventure and insecurity”.
Craig Munro is a book editor, biographer and literary historian.
1897, by Hubert Newman. Courtesy State Library of New South Wales
A 2011 edition of Mack's war memoir
Kerry & Co, Courtesy National Library of Australia
‘Mack, Marie Louise (1870–1935)’, Nancy Phelan, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Melbourne University Press
The Romantic Lives of Louise Mack, Nancy Phelan, 1991, University of Queensland Press.
Australian Women War Reporters: Boer War to Vietnam, Jeannine Baker, 2015, New South Publishing.