The Witch of Kings Cross Review
Rosaleen Norton was frequently in the news in Australia in the 1950s and 1960s. She was an artist living a bohemian lifestyle in Sydney, and an occultist with a particular interest in sex magic, which led to several brushes with the law and clearly the local media thought the scandals would sell their newspapers. One of them dubbed her 'The Witch of Kings Cross'. This documentary, written, directed and edited by Sonia Bible, tells her story.
Norton was born in Dunedin, New Zealand, in 1917, the youngest of three sisters. (The documentary is a little sketchy on biographical details and significant dates.) She came into the world at 4 in the morning during a violent thunderstorm, which she thought was clearly a sign. Another sign was her discovery of two blue marks on her left knee, which she later found out were traditional witch marks. In 1925, her family moved to Sydney. Roie (pronounced “Roe-ee”), as she was known, showed early talent as an artist, and was expelled from a Church of England girls’ school for drawing pictures of demons and vampires, which the teachers considered a potentially corrupting influence on her fellow pupils.
Following a marriage and divorce, Norton scraped a living as a writer and illustrator. She met Gavin Greenlees, and they shared a house in Kings Cross. That suburb of Sydney was then the city’s red light district and a haven for artists and writers, including many gay and transgender people. Greenlees was bisexual at a time when male homosexuality was illegal in Australia, as was the practice of magic. He and Norton became lovers and their relationship was one of kindred spirit outsiders. Harassment from the authorities continued, with a gallery exhibition raided. In 1952, a limited edition book of Norton’s artwork was banned and only allowed to be published with two pictures removed. One purchaser of the book was Sir Eugene Goossens, a distinguished orchestral conductor with a strong secret interest in the occult. He met Norton and became a participant in her sex-magic rituals. His career ended in disgrace in 1956 when he was arrested at Sydney Airport for being in possession of pornography.
Norton’s birthday party in 1955, which began one afternoon and went on into the afternoon of the following day, was raided by police. With the evidence of some photographs that friends had hoped to sell to the press, Norton and Greenlees were charged with “the abominable crime of buggery” (which, as painter John Martensen, who was at the party, points out, was the only law on the statute book to have an adjective officially attached). If found guilty, the couple would have faced 14 years in prison, but they were acquitted. Greenlees’s mental health collapsed and he went into a hospital. Norton led a reclusive life from then on until her death from cancer in 1979. She found it ironic that a lifelong occultist would spend her last days in a hospice being cared for by Catholic nuns but she said, “I came into the world bravely, I’ll go out bravely.”
This story is told in a mixture of interviews with now-elderly friends and associates and with art and cultural commentators making their claims for Norton’s significance as an artist. Plenty of that artwork is seen. There is also archive footage, including some of the real Norton, and reconstructions of some of her rituals. In these, shot mostly in black and white, Kate Elizabeth Laxton plays Norton, and also provides a voiceover for readings from her journals. Needless to say, this documentary is not for the easily offended.
Rosaleen Norton is a fascinating figure, seen from several perspectives: as an artist, an occultist, and a woman who in her own way was a forthright feminist quite likely persecuted more than she might have been if she were a man, at a particularly conservative time in Australian society. At just 75 minutes, The Witch of Kings Cross does a fine job of covering the basics of her story, though there’s clearly more about her out there if you wish to find it out.
The Witch of Kings Cross was released on VOD in the UK on February 9.