Harold Holt had met Zara Dickins when he was a student. Unable to persuade Holt to marry before his income grew, she departed on a round-the-world cruise to England where Zara met & married British army officer James Fell in 1935. For the next four years they lived in India and had a son. After the birth in 1939 of her twins, she lived in Melbourne.
Because the family all knew the twins were Holt’s sons, the Fells were amicably divorced in 1946. In Oct that same year, she married Harold Holt, now a well established solicitor and Parliamentarian. Is it an exaggeration to say that he was already being touted as a future leader of the conservatives? Certainly he had well placed friends, including Sir Norman and Lady Mabel Brookes, and Robert Menzies, then Victoria’s Attorney-General.
In opposition from 1941-49, Robert Menzies was elected prime minister in 1949 and young Harold Holt became a high profile member of his cabinet. Holt held senior portfolios during the next 16 years of the Menzies government including Minister for: Immigration, Labour and National Service, The Melbourne Olympics and finally Treasurer. Holt was ready for the prime ministership in 1960, but he had a long wait. Menzies did not retire until 1966!
Harold Holt (right) with President Lyndon and Mrs Ladybird Johnson
Photo credit: National Archives
Channel 9 News wrote the definitive analysis of these events. It was a very hot day in Dec 1967 when the Prime Minister Harold Holt went for a swim, and vanished. A fit, keen swimmer and spear fisherman, he loved the rough waters off Victoria's Cheviot Beach behind Portsea, off Victoria’s Port Phillip Bay.
Holt's former Press Secretary and close personal friend, Tony Eggleton, remembered it was a very hot afternoon in Canberra when a phone call from a journalist came. There was a report of a VIP missing at Portsea. Eggleton phoned the Prime Minister’s Lodge, and the housekeeper at Holt's holiday home at Portsea, but noone knew anything. Finally he phoned the police in Melbourne who said they did believe that the missing person in the water was the Prime Minister.
Someone had to tell Harold's wife, Zara, who they tracked her down at a Christmas Party in Canberra. Soon Zara and Eggleton flew to Melbourne where police were lined up, providing them with a fast escort on the 200 ks journey to Portsea.
By this time the news that the PM was missing became public. Hordes of people on the Mornington Peninsula headed to the beach or lined the streets. All the media were waiting outside the army barracks. Zara was escorted down to the search zone, accompanied by her three adult sons.
Police divers, who leaped into the waters scouring the area for any sign of the Prime Minister, were joined by helicopters. Regular media conferences kept Australian and the world updated on the search. The search continued for 20 days but even by Day 2, everyone concluded that the tides had carried Holt out into the open ocean.
As the mystery deepened, another story emerged: that the PM had been at the beach with his lover Marjorie Gillespie. Mrs Gillespie later told the police that she looked back, wishing Harold would come out of the water. The water suddenly became turbulent around him and swamped him. She did not see him again and even Holt’s two personal body guards could add no useful information.
The Sun, 18th Dec 1967
According to the newspapers later, Holt was Australia's answer to John F Kennedy during the sexually permissive 1960s. Both men were spirited, charming, adventurous and handsome. Strangely, the PM's staff said they had never been aware of Holt’s affairs but Zara said she was very clear her husband was a womaniser. Nonetheless, she said, it was love that kept the Holts together. They had a nice holiday home in Queensland, and hoped to eventually retire there.
Because the disappearance was a tragedy Australia had never seen, conspiracy theories were rampant. Many people thought Holt was whisked away by a Chinese submarine near Cheviot Beach and had become a Communist spy. Others suggested that, at the height of the Red Scare, he'd been spotted in Russia as a defector. And there were many dark rumours of suicide.
Note that I have added published histories about Zara’s pregnancies and Harold’s many mistresses, in case there was a personal (as opposed to a political) element to the PM’s death. Note that Channel 9 News did not mention any personal misbehaviour by the prime minister or his wife.
Holt had been Prime Minister for less than two years when he vanished. He had campaigned for election on the basis of the Vietnam War, proudly declaring to his American allies that Australia was a staunch friend that would Go All The Way With L.B.J. It was a phrase that would go down in history. And Holt had formed a close personal friendship with Lyndon Baines Johnson.
Holt led Australia out of imperial measurements and into decimal currency. Plus he held one of the most historic referenda in Australia's history, guaranteeing Aboriginal Australians the right to vote. Most importantly he abolished the White Australia policy. The one thing the prime minister wanted to do (but died before he achieved it) was to visit European capital cities; he’d show that South-East Asia & the Pacific were going to be The Powerhouse Of The Future.
Holt's memorial service in Melbourne in Jan 1968 was an honour roll of world political leaders and heads of state. Soon after Zara left for a two-month world trip, during which time she lunched with the Queen at Sandringham and stayed with the Lyndon Johnsons at the White House. Her autobiography, My Life and Harry, was launched in 1968 and she was created a dame that same year. In February 1969 Dame Zara married another federal politician, Jeff Bate.
38 years after the disappearance a coroner finally ended all conspiracy theories in 2005, declaring that although his body was never found, Harold Holt probably drowned. A memorial plaque now lies on the sea floor in Cheviot Beach.