January, 2001, St Mary Star of Sea, West Melbourne, Australia
Wendy’s friend Mietta O’Donnell died in a car accident in Burnie, Tasmania on January 4, 2001. Mietta’s partner Tony Knox was the driver of their car and was in hospital on the day a requiem Mass was held for her at St Mary Star of Sea, West Melbourne. Knox was later charged, and cleared, of negligence in the collision in which local man Glen Harman also lost his life.
I’m speaking on behalf of Mietta’s family today, and in accordance with their wishes I’m not going to speak about the professional milestones in her career, because I’m sure that we’ll be reading about those for years as people come to understand and unravel her remarkable legacy.
Instead I’d like to offer a personal memoir about the woman I knew and loved dearly and then I’d like to talk about the privilege I enjoyed in having Tony and Mietta as my friends for the past 15 years or so.
Over the last few days I’ve read various newspaper articles about Mietta and often I’ve found it difficult to reconcile the woman I’m reading about and the woman I knew.
A “Queen of Cuisine”, a “Grand Dame of Dining”, a “Cultural Figure”, an “Ambassador for Melbourne”… of course she was all these things…
But more than that, quite simply, she really was the most charming, warm, gentle and loving person you could ever wish to meet.
I have read that Mietta patrolled her domain in the upstairs dining room in expensive gowns, with a personal style variously described as “aloof”, “austere” or even “forbidding”, but for those of us who watched her night, after night, we came to understand that what we were seeing in Mietta was actually pure concentration in the pursuit of absolute perfection.
And night, after night, after night, year, after year that’s exactly what she achieved.
All around her was orderly and beautiful perfection.
Mietta had an eye for detail which was extraordinary.
It was almost like she had X-ray vision or extra sensory perception. She intuitively knew if the slightest thing was out of place.
Every evening she would walk through the room setting the stage … straightening a napkin here, removing a speck of dust from a glass there, adjusting a flower, until it was “just so” and then the performance would begin…
The lamps would be turned on, the lights dimmed, music would swirl through the room and as the first diner arrived, all the staff would strike up asymphony for the senses which was sustained until the last person departed.
No wonder Mietta understood the artistic temperament so well and surrounded herself withactors and musicians.
She, herself, was a maestro.
And in that way that all great artists have, she lived each evening through the eyes of every member of her audience. Her aim was that every person who walked through the door should have a sublime experience.
And if you think about it, why would Mietta want to dedicate her life to offering such an experience to people she had never met and may never meet again?
Certainly not for personal aggrandisement, but because, I think, Mietta understood that to experience beauty and perfection has the ability to uplift the human spirit. To feed the soul.
If we understand that the soul is nurtured by good food and music, wonderful conversation with genuine friends and memories which touch the heart, then Mietta was a truly soulful person.
And when Mietta’s was alive with opera upstairs, jazz and cabaret downstairs and poetry in the bar … And all around her was vibrant and humming with creative energy … Mietta’s soul sang.
As she says in her lovely book “Mietta’s Italian Family Recipes”, it was her Italian grandparents who were her inspiration .
She writes: ”They gave me a glimpse of the sort of pleasure that can be given and gotten through true hospitality - when you give of yourself, of what you enjoy and what you like to surround yourself with. If that is, as it was in my grandparents case, art and music, fine food and wine, gardens and animals and family, it’s not a bad life.”
In the past few days I’ve had many conversations with friends about Mietta and, invariably, they remember some great kindness she showed .
Perhaps it was a welcome home dinner or a birthday lunch, a farewell supper. Often I would get a phone call: “I think so and so needs cheering up so I’m having a dinner, can you come?”
And always you knew, if you were lucky enough to be given such a treat, you would walk in the room to find exactly the people you wanted to see … even if you had been away from town a long time. Just like today.
Except that today there is the profound sadness that Tony isn’t here because, always of course, always when you saw Mietta, there would be Tony.
What a remarkable double act, what an inspirational love story.
If Mietta was the maestro then Tony was the architect who built the stage on which she performed.
Tony and Mietta. Mietta and Tony. You always spoke about them as if they were the one person. It was hard to tell where one finished and the other began.
They moved as one. They were together 24 hours a day for 30 years and still fascinated by each other, still passionate about each other.
Of course they didn’t always agree!
At the table it would be an exasperated, “Oh come on Mietta, get real!” or a firm, “That’s enough Tony” and then in the next breath: “You know Mietta’s absolutely right about this” or “Yes, well ask Tony, he knows everything about that.”
In all the years I knew them I never saw them show any great physical affection … No extravagant kisses or cuddles.
But did you ever watch them eat?
It was such a truly sensuous experience that sometimes you felt the children should be sent from the room.
You felt you were intruding as they spoonfed each other, passed tidbits back and forth and nodded and murmured in their own private language.
In fact, after staying with them once, I wanted to buy them a gift and I went though all the options - music, books, wine - but ended up buying an antique silver set of salt and pepper shakers in the shape of two little wrens sitting on a branch with their heads together.
And I’m reminded here of a story …
It was the only time I ever got to cook for Mietta and Tony.
They visited my husband Brendan and me in Sydney and of course I was in a great state about what I could serve for lunch!
I decided on chicken ravioli and while I slaved over the sauce I sent Brendan into town to buy the handmade gourmet ravioli from a particular little shop.
I served up the dish and it wasn’t until we cut into the pasta that we realised that the chicken had gone off, it was totally rancid and vile and it was only then that Brendan realised that’s what must have been in that package he’d found under the front seat of the car after he’d come from a few hours surfing.
What a disaster! We were mortified!
However it so happened that also on the table was a pile of our tomatoes, still warm from the garden which Mietta and Tony ate for lunch with a bit of bread and salt and declared it “just what they felt like and one of the best meals they ever had”.
To this day I believe them because it makes me feel better, but also because they could have been telling the truth.
Tony and Mietta were two of the most unpretentious people you’d ever meet. Wherever there was fellowship and conversation, that’s where they were happy to be - whether it was in a five star French restaurant or fish and chips on the end of a pier.
And as friends, they were always thinking about how to bring joy into your life, how to honour the friendship.
They travelled to Sydney on Tony’s motorbike when our son was born and walked into the room when he was only hours old with a bottle of champagne. Tony brought his camera and took photographs of him breastfeeding because they thought it would be good to record his first experience of fine dining.
What an adventure they had … what amazing things they achieved … and what plans they had for the future!
Their partnership will always be remembered for it’s physical and intellectual energy; commitment to community and dedication to social change. There was certainly nothing “relaxed and comfortable” about Tony and Mietta.
A friend made a wonderful observation when he said that usually social change is affected by a movement, but in this case, in the cultural life of Melbourne, and indeed Australia, change was affected by just two people -Tony and Mietta.
That’s how dynamic and creative they were as a couple. That’s how powerful and transforming true love can be.
And while they were all those things to the outside world - dynamic, formidable, energetic and forceful - to all those who loved them and were loved by them they were just a blessing.
So today we close one chapter on a great love story. I know it will inspire people for years and, of course, will never be over while Tony is alive.
And it’s time to say farewell to Mietta.
I know that forever in my mind I will be walking through a door and see her there, her hands gently clasped, a perfect size eight in her little silk suit from Milan, her hair “just so” and her little golden Cretan bee earrings and pendant shining in the soft light of the lamps … and that enigmatic smile.
A bit like the Mona Lisa now I think about it.
And I’m also thinking that at last they have in heaven someone who truly understands seating arrangements. What an asset she will be.
Goodbye dear friend. I don’t expect to see your like ever pass this way again.
We will all miss you so much.
We do love you so.