Melbourne society is mourning one of the last of its grandes dames, Dulcie Slingback, fashion writer and arbiter elegantiarum to the wealthy and well-born for more years than anyone can remember. A striking figure in her signature colours of puce and tangerine with royal blue accessories, Miss Slingback ("never Ms!" as she once told an Age reporter) was believed to be 106.

Although she had previously enjoyed a reputation for well-bred reticence, Miss Slingback caused a flutter in social dovecotes when in the 1990s she published her memoirs What Would You Like For Breakfast? In it she revealed intimate details of her private life and named some of Australia's best known men, most of them public figures, with whom she said "I have enjoyed breakfast - and I am not an early riser." The names of these "dear dear friends" read like a who's who of the Australian establishment. Prime minister Billy Hughes, for instance, she described in her book as "a wiry little monkey with his hands all over the place, presentable except that he drank his breakfast tea out of the saucer". Another sometime prime minister, Stanley Melbourne Bruce, "never took off his spats, not even for a bubble bath before retiring". General Sir John Monash "surprised me by appearing at breakfast in a negligee". The gangster "Squizzy" Taylor "brought fifteen minders to breakfast and gave me a Georgian silver coffee pot that turned out to be 'hot'". Henry Lawson "insisted on lighting a camp fire and boiling a breakfast billy in the middle of my drawing-room carpet". The medical missionary Dr John Flynn ("Flynn of the Inland") "liked nothing better than a game of doctors and nurses before breakfast." Foreign minister Lord Casey was "very formal; even after a number of breakfasts he never called me anything other than 'my dear Miss Slingback'". Names were a difficulty for another politician, Sir Billy Snedden. "He could never remember mine. He must have had so many breakfasts - usually, I understand, in motels - though I think he often skipped that part of the proceedings."

Her comments on her famous breakfast companions were frank if not uniformly flattering. The aviation pioneer Charles Kingsford-Smith "was so handsome in his goggles and leather flying cap though his teeth could have done with a bit of work". He liked to have his breakfast served "on one of those horrible little plastic tray things they give you in aeroplanes when you're flying steerage - at least I've been told they do, I myself have always 'turned left'." Celebrated comedian "Mo" Roy Rene she described as "not too keen on soap and water" with "breath that would melt Ayers Rock". Peter Dawson "practised his singing all night, which became a bit of a bore. Every time I dropped off I'd wake within five minutes to 'The Floral Dance' or 'Boots boots boots, marching up and down again'. He was not asked to breakfast again." Australia's greatest dancer, Sir Robert Helpmann, was described in Miss Slingback's book as "very athletic and a bit Betty Bothways - in fact much more one way than the other - but willing to try anything". The mining magnate Lang Hancock "looked like a toad, though he had plenty of what counted".

For over half a century Miss Slingback contributed the column "What the Well Dressed Dowager is Wearing" to Vogue Australia ("and I never missed an edition," she used to boast over her trademark breakfast martini). Her passing certainly marks the end of an era.

11 April 2012

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