I was familiar with the name Rosaleen Norton long before I watched Sonia Bible’s excellent documentary about her, which takes as its title Norton’s long running nickname, The Witch of Kings Cross.
In an attempt to cash in on the upsurge of public interest in the occult that occurred throughout the west in the 1960s, the long defunct Sydney pulp publisher Horwitz Publications put together a number of salacious tabloid style non-fiction books on the so-called rise of witchcraft and Satanism in Australia. My favourite of these, which I wrote about on this site some years ago, the 1965 book Kings Cross Black Magic, was a direct attempt to piggyback on Norton’s fame.
Norton was also a semi-regular presence in the bachelor and barbershop magazines that proliferated on the shelves of Australia’s newsagents in the 1960s, titles like Adam, Man, Pix and Australasian Post. These magazines, incredibly tame by today’s standards, were once seen as very risqué. The activities of Norton slotted in well with their steady diet of stories about UFO sightings, white slavery, heroic Anzacs, shark hunting and out of control teens.
So great was interest in the occult in mid-1960s Australia that the subject even featured in a 1965 episode of the high rating locally produced Crawford TV crime show, Homicide. Written by long-time Crawford script writer & producer Sonia Borg, the episode concerns an investigation into a near fatal assault of an old woman that draws the Homicide team into the shadowy world of witchcraft in Melbourne’s outer suburbs, even featuring a semi-nude outdoor occult ceremony.
I have to confess I’ve always thought Norton had a touch of the carney about her in the way she parlayed her significant notoriety in mid-century Australia into a long running tabloid fascination. And what perfect tabloid fodder she was: an unapologetically bisexual libertine who openly practiced witchcraft and pagan rites. It helped she lived in Sydney’s Kings Cross, the main centre of Australia’s vice trade and alternative culture in the 1950s and 1960s, populated with everyone from gangsters and drag queens to bohemians and ‘new Australians’, as the European migrants who settled there after fleeing from Nazi persecution were referred to at the time. Bible’s documentary did not dissuade me from this view, but it does convincingly make the case she was much more than that, as well as highlighting her largely unsung significance in terms of Australian artistic and alternative culture.
New Zealand born, Noton’s early life was comfortably middle class, albeit mediated by the burgeoning self-awareness she was different to everyone around her, including stories of childhood visions and visitations. The family moved to Sydney in the mid 1920s and she fled to the inner city to study art as soon as she was able.
The first of many controversies involving her occurred in 1949 when an exhibition at Melbourne University that featured her paintings was shut down by city’s vice squad. Her art was confiscated and she put on obscenity charges (which she beat). She moved into a house in Kings Cross with bi-sexual poet and fellow occult devotee Gavin Greenless in the early 1950s. A proposed book featuring art by Norton and poems by Greenless landed its publisher in court and was prohibited. However, a copy ended up in the hands of Sir Eugene Goossens, who sought her out on the basis of its contents. Goossens, who came out from London to be the first conductor of the Sydney Orchestra, was a giant of the music and art world, and the toast of upper-class Sydney society. He also led a secret life as a bi-sexual libertine and occultist and was soon deeply involved in various sex and witchcraft ceremonies conducted by Norton and Greenless.
The police regularly harassed Norton and she was also the object of sustained attention from Sydney’s tabloid press. In 1956, one journalist even broke into her flat and stole letters between her and Goossens. These ended up in the hands of the police who detained and searched the conductor on his arrival back in Sydney from overseas. Images considered pornographic were found in his luggage and his relationship with Norton become public knowledge. Rumours also circulated that he was part of much wider occult circles in the UK and Europe. His career and reputation destroyed, he fled back to England under an assumed name, where he died in obscurity a few years later. Norton and Greenless faced another court case in which their private rituals with a group of devotees, including S&M, oral and anal sex, were publicly outed. They were exonerated of all charges, although the strain led Greenless, who had always had mental health problems, to have a nervous breakdown.
There is also much about Goossens’s case on the public record and The Witch of Kings Cross goes into further detail about it. What I didn’t realise, that Bible details, is that the tabloid witch persona Norton adopted from the beginning of the 1960s was very much a deliberate strategy on her part to try and wrest some control of the narrative around her from the media. I suppose this did give her a much greater sense of agency, but it is also interesting to speculate on the degree to which it also trivialised her and made her into a cliché. In some respects, it doesn’t matter, because while not wanting to overemphasis the extent of the changes sweeping Australia in the 1960s, the slow rise of the counterculture, the increasing acceptability of drug use, and sexual liberation, would eventually render Norton’s public persona pretty tame. She spent the 1960s and 1970s as a by all reports relatively contented recluse during which time she continued to make art. She contracted colon cancer in the late 1970s and died in 1979.
Bible rightly asserts Norton paid the price for being a strong woman who absolutely refused to apologise for any aspect of her lifestyle in the context of an Australia that was then still overwhelmingly conservative, white and Christian. Indeed, she was a lot of things before we had terminology for them: an early feminist, a proponent of gender fluidity and alternative lifestyles.
The Witch of Kings Cross tackles two other very important aspects of Norton’s life that to my knowledge have seldom got serious attention. The first is a long overdue appreciation of her artistic work, a style which would now be called ‘esoteric art’. Critics interviewed as part of the documentary are clear Norton had major talent and that her work could’ve gone onto achieve international renown had her career not been closed down by a narrow minded and conservative art establishment. An establishment that remained silent about Norton’s persecution even when her paintings were confiscated and burnt by police.
Second, the documentary includes a serious analysis of her witchcraft practices. Norton improvised her practices from a wide range of sources, not just the occult, but paganism, Jewish mysticism, Hindu and Buddhist beliefs, and aspects of Jungian psychology. She also practiced ‘sex magic’, developed by British occultist Aleister Crowley in the early part of the 20th century, which included the belief that one can harness one’s will to effect change on the universe through sexuality.
Bible wrote, directed and produced The Witch of Kings Cross. It contains a wealth of material, including previous unseen art by Norton and material from her personal diaries. It also features some wonderful talking heads, of whom painter, Kings Cross identity and friend of Norton, John Martensen, is a stand-out. I have always believed that Australia is terrible at chronicling the more esoteric and so-called marginal aspects of our cultural history, so this documentary really is to be applauded.