30 November 2023 7:57 PM
Legendary comedian Barry Humphries died in Sydney on Saturday at the age of 89 after complications following hip surgery

Barry Humphries was almost globally beloved as his vulgar, gladioli-waving alter ego Dame Edna Everage – and as the tributes paid to him today prove, almost globally beloved by peers and colleagues too.

He was ‘gifted and a gift,’ said Australian PM Anthony Albanese. His family remembered as a’ brilliant mind’ and a ‘generous spirit’ . A legend in the entertainment business, there was no more successful solo theatrical performer. 

Friends said that Humphries, who died aged 89 in hospital in Sydney was a kindly genius. Comedian Matt Lucas observed: ‘I wonder if all geniuses are as lovely as Barry Humphries. Thank you for delighting and inspiring us. Quite simply, you were the greatest.’

However, the Dame had a dark side. Married four times, he admitted addictions to alcohol and sex – which he said were superseded in later life by an uncontrollable thirst for rare volumes of poetry.

The blame for it all was laid at the feet of his mother.

Legendary comedian Barry Humphries died in Sydney on Saturday at the age of 89 after complications following hip surgery 

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Fourth time lucky: After three failed marriages, Barry Humphries has had a long and successful union with fourth wife Lizzie Spender since marrying in 1990

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Humphries second wife Rosalind Tong (above with the comic and their daughters Emily, left, and Tessa, would endure the brunt of his alcoholism which ended in a near death experience when he was 36. Their marriage ended the next year

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Humphries married Australian surrealist painter Diane Millstead, then in her early 30s, in June 1979 at London’s Marylebone Registry Office, but it would end in bitter divorce

Redoubtable Louisa Humphries, a sharp-tongued Melbourne housewife, was the model for Dame Edna. It was a spectacular act of revenge.

His mother never once came to see him on stage, and used to take catty pleasure in any poor reviews he got. She intuited that her much-rejected son had turned her into an international laughing stock.

The eldest of four children, he grew up detesting the bourgeois niceties of his upbringing. His father was an architect and builder and his mother – by his reckoning – a desperate philistine. She threw away his beloved collection of second hand books telling him: ‘You never know where they’ve been, Barry.’

Aged five, he informed Louisa that he was going to be a ‘genius’ when he grew up. He said later: ‘I couldn’t understand why I lived in that period, in that milieu, in that place, with those people.’

Nothing was enough for him. As he wrote in his first memoir More Please: ‘I never had enough milk or money or socks or sex or holidays or first editions or solitude or gramophone records or free meals or real friends or guiltless pleasure or neckties or applause or unquestioning love or persimmons.’

Louisa detested attention seekers – as her son became – and had a horror of food or décor which was insufficiently ‘nice’ – which he later sent up via Dame Edna, the housewife from Moonee Ponds. He said of his mother: ‘She was a deeply inhibited woman with a fetish about respectability.’

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Humphries said that his love of performing and touring as well as his alcoholism cost him several marriages and relationships with his children

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 He was ‘gifted and a gift,’ said Australian PM Anthony Albanese. His family remembered as a’ brilliant mind’ and a ‘generous spirit’

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The newly married couple ham it up for the cameras with Humphries dressed as Dame Edna Everage holding Millstead in his arms 

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Barry Humphries would describe his fourth marriage to Lizzie Spender  as ‘very lucky’. Above, comedian is seen with his sons Oscar and Rupert at his 2007 investiture for a CBE at Buckingham Palace 

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Barry Humphries had a public falling out with his son Oscar (above the two together) in 2018 when the young art dealer declared online he had been cut out of his father’s inheritance. He announced he was dropping his famous surname in favor of being called Oscar Valentine

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Oscar Humphries fell out with his father on the eve of his marriage to fiancée Sophie Oakley (above the couple in 2017). It caused him to drop the name ‘Humphries’ online – but the father and son have since had a rapprochement

Humphries said that Edna’s garrulity comes from the family housekeeper, and insisted that she is a composite of his mother, and aunts, and friends.

However he admitted that the ability to find a killer put-down came from his mother alone.

As a child he would save his pocket money to buy her a gift, only to be told: ‘You shouldn’t have wasted your money on this. Send it back.’

He once asked if she loved him.

The reply came: ‘Naturally I love your father most of all, then my mother and father, and after that you and your sister, just the same.’ It is surely a mark of how deeply he is scarred that he and Dame Edna seemed to co-exist in an oddly hostile symbiosis.

He would tell interviewers that Dame Edna was ignorant and uncharitable, puritan, small-minded and monstrous.

In turn, in a radio interview Dame Edna said that her creator was a ‘rather empty character’ who would have preferred to have recognition as an artist than an entertainer.

As he later reflected of his mother: ‘She was impossible to read and I was never quite certain if I was loved. I’ve been searching for love and security ever since, which I’ve only fairly recently found for the first time with (fourth wife) Lizzie.’

He added: ‘It could be my fault. Love is very easy to trample on and I was probably too immature with previous women. Parts of me grew up, but not the emotional part. I’ve had a closer relationship with an audience than I’ve had with a person.’

It’s an astonishing assertion, but his marital history suggested he might be right.

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First wife: Brenda Wright

Married: 26 October, 1955

Divorced: 1958

Second wife: Rosalind Tong

Married: April, 1959

Two children: Tessa Humphries, born 1963. Emily Humphries, born 1965.  

Divorced: 1971

Third wife: Dianne Millstead

Married: 17 June 1979

Two children: Oscar Valentine, born 1981, Rupert Humphries, born 1982

Fourth wife: Lizzie Spender

Married: 25 June 1990 

His first marriage to ‘exquisite young dancer’ Brenda Wright was undertaken mostly as a way of escaping his parents. His mother did not come to the ceremony. He was 21 and she 19.

In a memoir he wrote; ‘We had both been unfairly catapulted from a carefree adolescence into an irksome adulthood, with all its alarming responsibilities and daunting moral obligations. I chafed against them.’

And what form did this chafing take?

Well, it turns out that there was an incident in a bathroom at a party with an ‘exciting older woman’ – which was discovered by his wife. They were divorced within months.

No wonder the first ex-Mrs-Humphries exclaimed a few years ago: ‘My marriage to him was a long time ago and thankfully every year takes me a little further away from it.’

After the divorce, he left university without graduating and created Dame Edna, writing the character as a sketch for an actress who was too busy to play her.

In 1959 he moved to London with his second wife, dancer Rosalind Tong, who he observed looked exactly like Botticelli’s Primavera.

Once again his mother refused to come to the wedding. They had two daughters, Emily, and Tessa.

The union lasted 12 years, but broke up over his alcoholism which raged for a decade. He said: ‘I had intense feelings of guilt over the collapse of that relationship. Looking back I can see I wasn’t ready for it

‘My emotional growth was inhibited by my addiction to drink. Addicts don’t grow up. They are frozen at the time they start drinking seriously and when they stop drinking it takes a while for them to catch up.’ Tong remarried soon after and currently lives in Melbourne.

There were numerous disgraceful episodes during his alcoholic phase. The late Peter Cook once said that Humphries was the only man he had seen so drunk that he fell up a flight of stairs.

Humphries, who was twice admitted to psychiatric hospitals because of boozing, said: ‘I never battled with alcohol. I just joyfully admitted defeat.’

He stopped drinking on December 31, 1971.

In 1979 Humphries married Diane Millstead, an artist, with whom he had two sons Oscar and Rupert. Their union came under strain when she accused him of having an affair with sparky blonde Australian clothes designer Pru Acton. Humphries denied it, he and Diane renewed their wedding vows and soon after she fell pregnant.

However, just three weeks after Diane suffered a miscarriage he walked out on her for good – and immediately began co-habiting with Lizzie Spender, 12 years his junior. They were later married.

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Humphries and his wife Elizabeth Spender watch the racing from the Royal box at The Ladbrokes Trophy Day, held at Newbury Race Course

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Humphries pictured in character as Dame Edna in November 2013

In one interview, given while the wounds were fresh, Diane Millstead claimed that her husband had added insult to injury by draining their bank account and leaving her with a check for only £2,500 when he went.

She called him a ‘grade A card-carrying narcissist’ who suffered from an Australian malady called: ‘Walkabout Willy syndrome’ and was an ‘inveterate skirt chaser’.

Diane added that her husband had failed to give her proper credit for co-writing numerous shows and constructing both jokes and stage costume for Dame Edna.

Indeed, being married to Humphries had put her off men to such an extent that she later suggested she was going to have some hessian underwear made, as a failsafe.

(Unusually, she gave the interview just after having plastic surgery to help her recuperate from the experience of being dumped. She told her practitioner: ‘Take all the sorrow out of my face.’)

It is, though, not surprising that Humphries has had such a difficult relationship with women, given his problematic dealings with his mother.

As he once said: ‘I’ve had a very bad record in this matter, very bad. It’s a brave woman who’s married to me at present.’

He complained that the bitter court case and settlement nearly ruined him, but seems to have found lasting happiness with Lizzie Spender, a food writer, whom he married in 1990.

He said: `I knew people would take her aside and say I was a bad risk. I take our relationship very seriously. I cannot possibly fail again. When I met her I felt almost immediately that she was someone I’d been searching for all my life. She was the right height, had the right coloring but most of all had the face I’d always been looking for.’

By now though, Dame Edna was establishing herself as a ‘megastar’ and Humphries was touring for months on end.

Naturally, this took a toll on his children – all of whom lived with his ex wives and so didn’t see him often.

He said: ‘I think their abiding memories of their father are of a man surrounded by suitcases.’

Daughter Tessa said 35 years ago: ‘I saw him on and off through the years and he made a big impact on me when I saw him, but it’s hard to say how close you are when you have a parent who travels a lot.

‘In some ways I think we really understand each other, but it’s a sort of silent communication. We know we’re there, somewhere in the world he’s there and he knows I’m here and it’s like that really.’

Some years he spent up to nine months on tour, and he once said that he was at his happiest with a boarding card in his breast pocket. ‘I complain about it, but then I realize it’s the life I prefer. I suppose it is a sort of addiction. An addiction to moving on. Perhaps, staying in one place, one is confronted with too many worrying and challenging things.’

Son Oscar may well have been near the top of that list of worrying and challenging things. By age 11 he was living in Beverly Hills and seeing a therapist for depression.

He was sent to Bryanston boarding school in Dorset, but after a year left to go to Stowe in Buckinghamshire. He said that he was bullied at both school for his ‘precociousness.’ ‘You can’t really exhibit weakness at boarding school. It’s a bit like prison. It is dog eat dog. I never cried or ran away.’

In his teens he discovered drugs, and said: ‘because I am an addict, I took it too far.’ When he was 21 he trashed a hotel room high on cocaine and amphetamines; his mother checked him into the Priory for a month.

There was another crisis on Christmas Day 2002, when he tried to take his life with a handful of pills washed down with gin.

A Mrs. Robinson style affair with Tamara Mellon, the married heiress boss of Jimmy Choo followed in the summer of that year.

Oscar went into PR, and then into art, working for the Timothy Taylor gallery in Mayfair. He married Sophie Oakley, the daughter of explorer Timothy Oakley. Brother Rupert has enjoyed great success as the writer of the Grand Theft Auto video games. In 2017 they fell out, but they were reconciled long before his death. A rift with daughter Emily was also healed.

The family united to pay tribute to Humphries today, saying: ‘​He was completely himself until the very end, never losing his brilliant mind, his unique wit and generosity of spirit. ​With over ​70 years on the stage, he was an entertainer to his core, touring up until the last year of his life and planning more shows that will sadly never be.

‘​His audiences were precious to him, and he never took them for granted. Although he may be best remembered for his work in theatre, he was a painter, author, poet, and a collector and lover of ​a​​​​rt in all its forms.​

‘He was also a loving and devoted husband, father, grandfather, and a friend and confidant to many. His passing leaves a void in so many lives. The characters he created, which brought laughter to millions, will live on.’

Source : https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-12002587/How-troubled-genius-Barry-Humphries-laid-blame-struggles-firmly-mother.html?ns_mchannel=rss&ito=1490&ns_campaign=1490&rand=1270


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