My friendship with Patricia began in the then sleepy hamlet of Queenscliff in the late 70s. I was called upon to help with shaping the old hotel that she, Tony and Mietta had just bought.
Don’t imagine the place had any of the verve, style, or popularity it has today. Far from it, the town was a backwater, totally off the beaten track, not connected by ferry, of course, just a run-down watering hole. Buying it then was a masterstroke and a brave one.
I can still remember clearly my first visit to look over the hotel and the challenges that lay ahead. An ancient smell of matted and mingled piss, beer and smokes greeted the senses. Some actual relics of the hotel’s drinking days, leaning on the bar, turned their heads a little. Patricia swept her arm to lead us on.
This was all taken in the stride of Patricia Maria O’Donnell, third-generation aristocrat, restaurateur! She rose above it all. She outlined, gently and simply, her broad vision of a smart, comfortable, very characterful hotel. I was to think up individual wallpaper and furnishing ideas for bedrooms and front rooms. So began our working relationship of many years.
It wasn’t easy at first, for either of us. And if someone had said then that, in 40 years, I would love everything about her and regard her as my dearest friend, I would not have believed them. Not that it was mutual – I don’t assume that. We were polar opposites, perhaps. I was hard for her to tolerate – being mostly late, by hours or days, hungry always, ragged, and often even bringing along infant Arabella. She was serene, smooth, elegant, straight backed, well-groomed, and hospitable. Also intimidating when she needed to be.
Over the next months and years I did my work, given a free hand by Patricia, which was an enormous privilege and opportunity.
Most important of all, was to see her masterful transformation of the Queenscliff Hotel into its ultimate role as one of our most delicious places to stay. She had a clear vision at her fingertips. She tweaked everything with the right idea, right person, to the right degree. She nurtured every person of talent and gave them the full benefit of her great heritage – that of a well-educated, stylish, wise, sharp-minded individual. Her twin family origins of Milan, Italy, from her superb Vigano mother, and her warm, loving, Scottish father combined to give Patricia a distinctive, if not unique quality. Two remarkable grandmothers also shaped her persona.
Her self-discipline was extraordinary, as was her integrity, courage and warmth. She showered these qualities on the best of her staff and contacts, bringing out the talent in each of them. No detail escaped her eye. These fortunate people will be here today, lamenting the loss of their inspiring mentor. The elegant hospitality they all made possible, brought people from far and wide to stay.
Then hey-de-ho! Along came the ferry from Sorrento! The ‘Rip’ was conquered – no longer would the great West be kept from the beautiful East. In an hour, the two were linked and Queenscliff was the gateway!!! A visitor was greeted by a wide set of steps rising to a handsome door. When it opened, three beautiful portraits of infants: Robin, Mietta and Patricia softly and beautifully painted by their grandmother Teresa Vigano lined the wall. What style! And what a touch! Family portraits, painted by Patricia’s Milan-trained artist grandmother. Before your eyes then, a huge bowl of multi-coloured roses stood on a table in the centre of the hall. Brilliant, rich, gorgeous flowers became one of Patricia’s signatures.
After two decades, Patricia decided to move back to Melbourne. She took over another shabby, little old corner pub: the North Fitzroy Star. Again, I was fortunate to receive her summons to assist in its rejuvenation. This was a really ticklish one – it was cute yes, but not an obvious winner. In one sentence, Patricia said what she wanted it to feel like: ‘a gypsy caravan with a Japanese twist’, adding ‘with lots of wallpaper, colour and pattern, whatever you think.’ I loved it. What a refreshing, exciting brief, I thought. With Patricia’s touches, it all came together, and ‘the silk purse was made out of the sow’s ear’. Bravo again, Patricia.
She created a home-away-from-home atmosphere, welcoming everyone warmly and tastefully. She continued her support of people, places and organisations, as well as family, which was always at the centre of her thoughts. To me, it was a gorgeous place, and to share a lunch there with Patricia, Maria and friends was a lovely thing. The happy days continued for over a decade.
The huge feeling of love and admiration that so many people had for Patricia could be felt at her ‘Farewell to the Star’ party a couple of years ago. Many super people came, to celebrate her brilliance as a host and to thank her for her wonderful friendship.
Talking of friends, Patricia had the most and the best. So many have spoken of their huge love for her and their sadness at her death. For example, Isla Baring – whose mother Lady Viola Tait and Patricia’s mother Maria were lifelong best friends – wrote this to me: 'Dear Suzie, I’m completely devasted by the loss of our dear friend Patricia. I am so, so sad. She was a special girl and a really good friend for many long years. – With love, Isla.'
After the Star, Patricia’s centre of gravity crept a little Southwards to the vicinity of her house and caring for her mother. We spent some good times at Grub in Moor Street, and Marian in Gertrude Street. These were times when issues of all kinds were tossed around. Her knowledge and intellect were always there at the ready – along with her wonderful humour and her full laugh. I remember her talking about duty, and its importance in life.
Overall, I’m grateful, deeply so, for the long and fascinating journey I’ve travelled with Patricia. I’ve enjoyed, as so many people in this room have enjoyed, a great deal of affection from her. She has been wise for me, and encouraged, in particular, my painting deeds. I remember her telling me how her grandmother managed to paint throughout her life in spaces small and busy, whilst she was also part of their life at Mario’s, one of Melbourne’s leading restaurants. The self-portrait Teresa Vigano did in her old age is one of the most beautiful pieces in her work.
After all these ripening years of work then friendship, I find myself bereft without her. I know many of you do too. I loved everything about her, so I’ll list as best I can, my loved qualities.
1. Warmth. Wonderful smile. Deep red perfect lips.
2. Laughing beautiful green eyes.
3. Honesty, even when she told me she didn’t like my hair short. At all.
4. Style. She had it in spades. Distinctive, quality always. Loved the Missoni.
5. Elusive, secretive way; a beautiful mystery.
6. Her dedication to friends and family.
7. Imagination, vision and courage to carry it out.
8. Hard work and selflessness.
9. Unique perspective and sharp mind.
10. Commercial sense. I loved that so many times, she valued a woman’s financial independence.
11. Generosity. This is enormous and immeasurable.
12. Love is the greatest gift and she gave her all.
We celebrated our lives and joys in some memorable lunches, one last year, and one years ago. Patricia organised it all perfectly. She brought together many much-loved people from all parts of her life. These were happy times to share food and friendship. If I knew then, what I know now, I would have jumped on a chair and said, ‘Three cheers for Patricia!’ – and brought the house down. But it is the mystery and beauty of life, that we cannot see the future, and we cannot change the past.
Our thanks, and much love, Patricia.
– Suzie Forge, 25 October, 2018