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Ramsay, Helen Patricia (1910–2002)

by Caroline Kades

Patricia Ramsay, by Harold Cazneaux, c1932

Patricia Ramsay, by Harold Cazneaux, c1932

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-vn4978477

"The most beautiful woman in Sydney", who was photographed by Harold Cazneaux and became famous as Atlantic Ethel — her exquisite face and streaming hair a Deco icon that graced billboards, posters and every Atlantic petrol station in the 1930s — has died in Sydney at 92.

Helen Patricia Minchin was born in Sydney, the daughter of Hugh Minchin, the Australian Harbour Master at Honolulu, and Dora, nee Donaldson, the great-granddaughter of the first premier of NSW, Sir Stuart Alexander Donaldson.

The first part of her adult life was a world of glamour, modelling and appearing in early Australian film and radio, although she was probably most widely known as Atlantic Ethel.

In 1931 Patricia became Miss Sydney — "The most beautiful woman in Sydney", the Daily Telegraph proclaimed — and her face filled the front page of the newspaper and the cover of The Home magazine.

In that same year, Harold Cazneaux photographed her. Portrait in Sunshine remains with the Cazneaux family, and was part of an exhibition of the photographer's work at the Art Gallery of NSW last year. The portrait also appears in the book The Cazneaux Women.

In the 1930s heyday of Australian cinema, Patricia played Dean Maitland's wife in Ken Hall's film The Silence of Dean Maitland, produced by Cinesound in 1934. According to ScreenSound Australia, she was amazed that another film, A Co-Respondent's Course, made in 1931, ever saw the light of day. The film featured the dramatic reunion of lovers on London Bridge. "I don't think we knew much of what we were doing in that film," she said, "but we had marvellous fun!"

Also around this time she met Frank Hurley, the Antarctic hero, adventurer and photographer, and with her friends used to scramble up the rough track to his log cabin at Avalon. Hurley, she said, made the most wonderful cocktails and served them on an enormous, beautifully polished, upside down tree root which remains in the heritage-listed cabin today.

Patricia also worked for three years with Ellis Price on ABC Radio's The Leaves of Memory, which ran at prime time, in those days on Sundays at 8pm.

But life was not easy for her. Her first battle came at only 18 when she contracted polio. At that time the "cure" was to cut the tendons behind the knees and plaster the legs. These patients never walked again. Her mother refused the treatment and cured her by maintaining a faith in God and massaging her legs daily.

Patricia married three times, first in 1935 to Ralph Doyle. He was many years older than she and had three children from his previous marriage. Doyle was the president of RKO Radio Pictures. RKO film productions were released under the trademark "Radio Pictures" to promote the connection between radio and the movies and featured the famous RKO logo of a gigantic radio tower atop the spinning Earth, transmitting signals to the universe.

Patricia travelled to England and Europe, visited her uncle the Bishop of Salisbury at Salisbury Cathedral, and heard Adolf Hitler at a theatre in Germany years before the war. Later she and Doyle travelled together and were photographed with Walt Disney and other film luminaries whose films were distributed through RKO.

She had two children with Doyle, Felicity and Jonathan, but after five years of separation the couple divorced.

After the war she travelled as the wardrobe mistress with a group entertaining Allied troops remaining in occupied Japan. There she met Charles Louis Kades, an American colonel who was responsible for drafting the postwar Japanese constitution under General Douglas Macarthur. A well-respected New York tax lawyer, Kades subsequently became Macarthur's personal attorney, the executor of his will and is recognised as a founding father of modern Japan.

In 1952, having married Kades, Patricia introduced Sydney silky terriers to America. She bred and sold the little dogs very successfully, particularly to apartment dwellers in New York.

A daughter, Caroline, was born in 1954. Patricia was stricken with hepatitis shortly after the birth and nearly died. She recovered, but always felt that the illness was at least partly responsible for the breakdown of her marriage.

In late 1959 Patricia left the US and returned to Sydney with her daughter. The battle for custody of Caroline made history for family law in Australia, including an application to the Privy Council in England. Patricia, against many odds and with strong family support, retained custody.

In 1969 she married a childhood friend, Ronald Ramsay, a grazier from Coolah in central western NSW. Both had been married twice before. (By coincidence, Ramsay had divorced a Phyllis and married Patricia, while Kades divorced Patricia and married a Phyllis.) After Ramsay died of a heart attack in 1975, Patricia returned to Sydney to look after her mother and aunt until they died at the great ages of 101 and 104. In 1984 Patricia moved to Leura in the Blue Mountains, to the house which has been in the family since 1908. There she threw her energies back into her first love, radio, helping set up Blue Mountains Community Radio. Upon returning to Sydney a few years later to be close to her family, she worked with Manly Warringah Community Radio as an announcer, teaching drama for radio and interviewing northern beaches locals such as Kay Cottee when she was circumnavigating the world on her yacht First Lady.

In 1991 Patricia returned to Leura and again enthusiastically embraced community life. In her late 80s, she became an activist trying to stop the sale of the Queen Victoria Hospital at Katoomba to the Maharish Yogi-linked group, Longevity Management Systems.

Patricia made friends wherever she lived. These friendships survived both the tyranny of distance and of time.

Of truly catholic tastes and a liberal thinker, Patricia sewed, knitted, sang, danced and loved.

She died peacefully and is survived by her three children, Felicity, Jonathan and Caroline, seven grandchildren, five great-grandchildren and her brother Devon.

Original publication

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 12 June 2002

Additional Resources

Citation details

Caroline Kades, 'Ramsay, Helen Patricia (1910–2002)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/ramsay-helen-patricia-13463/text24151, accessed 30 July 2014.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2014

Patricia Ramsay, by Harold Cazneaux, c1932

Patricia Ramsay, by Harold Cazneaux, c1932

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-vn4978477

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Atlantic Ethel
  • Minchin, Helen Patricia
  • Doyle, Helen Patricia
  • Kades, Helen Patricia
Birth

1910
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Death

2002
New South Wales, Australia

Occupation
Key Organisations