Many of you here today can speak much more adequately than I can about the magnitude of Patricia’s contribution to the cultural and social life of this great city. And those contributions will, no doubt, be celebrated in public and private for years to come.
Suffice to say, however, that Melbourne could not have wished for a better citizen. Patricia regarded this city as her own. She made it her business to know what was going on – and, Lord knows, she seemed to know everything. She looked on any piece of bad architecture as a personal affront, and she rejoiced at any improvement.
I remember recently asking her how she was – which was a largely futile question, since she almost always deflected it – and she said that she had stood that morning and watched council workers planting magnolia trees, and that this was reason enough to be happy. It struck me at the time that she knew she would never see them bloom, but that didn’t matter to her. As in so many things she did – often secretly, always quietly – there was a true and rare selflessness in Patricia’s commitment to the greater good.
Appropriately, for a true denizen of this city, Patricia was very much the product of her multicultural heritage. Of course, the Italian contribution of the Vigano–O’Donnells has been justly celebrated. But she also liked to attribute to her Italian blood a certain disposition toward lawlessness. It is probably best not to elaborate on this quality in Patricia here today, but let’s just say, she did not have undue regard for insurance companies or building regulations. Increasingly though, she liked to stress her Scottish heritage – because she loved, and she exemplified, the Scots’ toughness, resilience and canniness.
Patricia was very generous with her money, and she would pay whatever it took to buy something beautiful, or get something done properly. But she also loved a bargain – and she couldn’t resist buying wholesale or in bulk. When, for example, she tracked down the supplier of her favourite green olives, she bought them in such industrial quantities that she was forced to distribute them thereafter to friend and foe alike.
Similarly, even fairly recently, she alerted me to a sale in a kitchenware shop that was closing down. She proudly showed me the three serving spoons she had bought, which were elegantly displayed, balanced on the lids of the three Le Creuset pots, tastefully arranged beside her stove. If there were stage directions at this point, they should read Pause Now for Laughter – because, as many of you would know, Patricia would no more cook than fly to the moon.
More seriously, Patricia’s canniness made her a great business woman. She had both a passion, and a gift, for commercial real estate, and though she grew up in a privileged home, she made her own way in business. She told me that her father said he would pay for his daughters’ twenty-firsts and for their weddings, and after that they were on their own. She put it to her father that she didn’t want a twenty-first, and she didn’t intend to marry, so she should be allowed to have the money for a deposit on a property. That first purchase was what some of us would know as the Rathdowne Street Food Store. When she first moved in she had to go down three flights of stairs to an outside loo, but she told me with fervour, ‘I loved that property – it was leased from the day I bought it.’ And the rest, as they say, is history.
These aspects of Patricia are well-known. But what I really want to speak of today is my sense of what an extraordinary individual she was. My affection for Patricia is matched only by my huge respect, and I count my friendship with her in recent years as one of the privileges of my life.
Patricia was no saint … And I say that not just in the interests of truth, but because Patricia made it very clear to me that she had no truck with eulogies that were mere hagiography. So, let it be said, Patricia could be cranky, fierce, impatient and exacting. She did not always suffer fools gladly. She could be withering in her judgements, and though she was keenly aware of her own shortcomings, she had no interest at all in remedying them.
But, in fact, these very qualities were part of the reason I loved and respected Patricia so much. Because their flip side was an extraordinary generosity, a great kindness, and the most intelligent and engaged thoughtfulness. My point is, Patricia’s profound decency came not from a benign disposition or a rosy view of the world, but from a deep commitment to the discipline and effort of goodness.
Like another great moralist, Jane Austen (a comparison I think would please Patricia), she understood that the manners and good form which were her hallmark were not simple veneer. They were the formalisation – and the vital underpinning – of her decency, her empathy and her compassion.
In many ways Patricia was the embodiment of sprezzatura, the concept exemplified by the image of a swan gracefully gliding across the surface, while invisibly paddling hard and powerfully underneath. As glorious as that creature might appear, you do it a great disservice if you underestimate the effort involved. Thus it was, for example, that Patricia was a consummate hostess and a gifted conversationalist, at the same time as she had the instincts of a hermit. Similarly, while she provided sumptuous comfort for her friends and guests, she lived very simply herself. And in order to be the self that Patricia wanted to be – and she was that, even to the very end – she habitually retreated into her own space, keeping the world at bay, until she was ready to make the effort once again.
There are three qualities in Patricia that I want particularly to acknowledge today – qualities that I think she had to a rare degree: her self-reliance, her self-belief and her intelligence. Patricia achieved a great deal in her life, but unlike most of us, she didn’t crave acknowledgement or seek affirmation. She typically let others take the spotlight, and her innumerable acts of kindness and generosity were always quiet, and often anonymous.
Perhaps, above all, Patricia was fearsomely intelligent. In much of her life and career she kept a lid on that – we spoke about that recently – but in the privacy of her home she was the most voracious reader, spurred by a curiosity and thoughtfulness that are rare, and in private conversation, she could be dazzlingly astute and wise.
Knowing how sick she was, I wanted very much to acknowledge that to Patricia, so recently I said, ‘You know, you get a lot of credit for your style, your grace, your cultural contributions – but I am not sure people know how really, really smart you are.’ (In fact, I didn’t actually say ‘really, really’ – but you get the drift.) She answered magnificently, ‘I’m the smartest person I know.’
I laughed, as she intended me to, and said, ‘Wow, that’s a big call, Trish. I think I’d at least concede that some people are smarter than me in certain ways.’ She just smiled and said, ‘Nup.’
One aspect of her intelligence is that she wrote like a dream – with the clarity, and grace, and precision that she brought to her life more generally. So, in an effort to give her some version of the last word, and to remind us – as if we needed it – of what we have lost, I’d like to finish with three examples of vintage Patricia from recent times.
On Brett Kavanaugh, Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, she wrote:
You would have heard Kavanaugh say something about the reputation he has worked so hard for? That always translates into a story of late redemption … admirable in those who admit it … contemptible in those who deny it.
On vicious social-media attacks on the Obamas, she trenchantly observed: Maybe the biggest mistake in history was insisting on universal literacy.
And, echoing with all her grace and reserve, in the last paragraph of her introduction to the reissue of Mietta’s Italian Family Recipes, she wrote:
Mietta died suddenly in 2001.We don’t speak of her death, not even of what it demonstrated of how much she was loved and admired, of how many lives she changed; although there was and is great consolation in that. We talk of her loveliness and her life, the joy of it and the good in it all.
In all, Patricia was formidable – formidably stylish, gracious, decent, tough, kind, generous, loyal, brave and intelligent. Fittingly, then, our loss is formidable. Rest in peace, Trish.
Pauline Nestor, 25 October 2018