John Moyle profiles Dictionary by a Bitch, a new theatrical work about one of Sydney’s most fascinating characters – the late, great Bee Miles.
Sydney is a vast city with a rich history of eccentrics, many of whom live amongst us silently with little known about their background.
When they disappear, they are usually gone without a trace and their memories overtaken by the next in line.
This is not the fate of Bee Miles, a woman whose power of personality and intelligence became part of Sydney folklore that is told and retold to this day.
Now the fully-fleshed story of Bee Miles, Dictionary by a Bitch, is being brought to the stage three times a week at the State Library of NSW by Sydney writer and performer Vashti Hughes, who delves deeper into what made this wonderful Sydney eccentric so relevant in our politically correct and often artistically dull times.
“People know about her jumping on trains and getting a taxi to Perth and back and reciting Shakespeare, but I found out more about her life by reading her journals in the Mitchell Library and they paint an even deeper picture of her,” Hughes said.
Born into a wealthy family, Bee Miles would graduate from the exclusive Abbotsleigh Private Girls’ School on the North Shore before enrolling in medicine at University of Sydney, a rare achievement for a woman at that time.
Miles would later change her degree to arts – but would drop out from that citing “the lack of Australian stuff”.
She was an anti-conscriptionist from the age of 12 and by university was expressing opposition to the strict sexual mores of the age.
From early childhood, her home life was dominated by her father who appeared to have a pathological dislike for her.
After dropping out of university and hitting the streets, where she contracted encephalitis lethargica, her father swooped.
In 1923, he had his daughter incarcerated in the Gladesville Lunatic Asylum from which she would make frequent attempts to escape, until her case was brought to the attention of the newspaper Smith’s Weekly.
The headline would scream: ‘Society girl trapped in a madhouse’.
“She wrote very articulately about that and it is one of the few well documented records that we have of what these places were like in the 1920s,” Hughes told the Sentinel.
With the help of a small inheritance, Miles was now free and living in Kings Cross where she befriended Sydney’s ‘Queen of Bohemia’, Dulcie Deamer.
“She also had this very adventurous and curious nature where she explored Australia and documented that,” Hughes said.
With deteriorating health, from the late 1930s she was living on the streets where she spent the next 30 years before being admitted to a home run by the Little Sisters of the Poor, where she would die in 1973.
“I’m trying to capture her anti-authoritarian spirit as well as her humorous side. She was so subversive in her life that it is a lot of fun for an actor to play,” Hughes said.
“There’s a real sense of liberation with that, as she was so uncompromising in her lifestyle and she really enjoyed her life.”
Dictionary by a Bitch is being directed by Liesel Badorrek, a veteran of children’s theatre and a long-time collaborator with Hughes.
“We have been colleagues now for about 20 years but this is the first time I have directed Vashti,” Badorrek said.
“The challenge to one-person plays is that it can be diabolically boring just watching one person and one energy, but what makes this unique is that Vashti is playing two characters – Bee and a fictional character who is a librarian for the State Library – so we are watching two very different energies but focussed on one story.”
The performance takes place in the State Library of NSW, an appropriate space as Miles spent many years here reading, until she was eventually banned.
“We are exploring just how glorious eccentricity is and how it is not celebrated that much anymore,” Badorrek said.
Hughes has form in exploring inner city eccentrics, in works such as Piccolo Tales, about Piccolo Bar owner Vittorio Bianchi, and Mum’s In, the tale of Sydney’s two most dangerous women, Kate Leigh and Tilly Devine.
As for Bee Miles, Hughes said: “She was colourful character who chose to live in the streets.
“Something about her life Incapsulates so many different and interesting factors of Australia and the changes in society from the ’20s to the ’60s.”
Dictionary by a Bitch is performed at the State Library of NSW, Macquarie Street, Sydney at 7pm Thursdays and 2pm & 7pm Saturdays throughout June. Performances are one hour in length with no interval. Tickets ($20 to $25) are available from www.eventbrite.com.au/e/dictionary-by-a-bitch-tickets-154656693333.
Editor’s note: ‘Bee Miles’ is spelled ‘Bea Miles’ by most sources today – however the woman herself insisted during her lifetime that her first name be spelled ‘Bee’. The Sentinel has chosen to honour her preferred spelling in this article.