Watching Jeanne Little flap loudly across the shaky timber floor of her rustic holiday cottage, you realise that her overwhelming volume, energy and flamboyance isn’t just an act for the stage.
She’s looking coastal, as only Jeanne can, dragging the weight of a shell necklace she can hardly lift, a white toga with more fabric than a caftan, and her trademark eyelashes. Far from relaxed, she’s flitting around the house like a giant moth, occupying every corner at once.
“Come and sit down will you, Jeanne,” says exasperated husband Barry. “You’re like a bee in a bloody bottle.”
Jeanne’s finding it hard to wind down, having been on the road busily promoting her new cabaret show – a tribute to screen idol Marlene Dietrich, which starts touring nationally in February.
“It’s being discovered that I can do more than just say ‘Darling’ really loudly,” she says in her thick gravelly voice.
It is the first time in months that Jeanne and Barry have had time to visit the NSW central coast retreat they bought as a derelict shack about eight years ago. Set back from the beach in a lush and shady garden of deep greens, the cottage looks like a Balinese bungalow.
Jeanne left the interiors to Barry, who has 30 years’ experience as an interior designer. He was determined to retain the rustic charm, leaving original features such as the timber panelling up to dado level.
The cottage is a long way from the sparkling extravagance of Jeanne’s costumes. Made simply of fibro and timber with a galvanised iron roof, it sits on the original foundations of cement-filled kerosene tins. “The locals say this is the old way to build a beach house and it’s still the best,” Barry says.
Jeanne found a newspaper dated Christmas Day 1926 behind the original fuel stove and this leads them to think the cottage was the first built along the beach.
Their improvements included enclosing the unusually wide verandas and adding timber shutters to let the breeze flow through. Barry painted the old verandas and the exterior a dark bronze-olive green. “I wanted it to be a summer house,” he says. “I like things to blend in with the surroundings.”
In keeping with the summer theme are cane chairs from the Philippines with cushions covered in a tropical bird print. Swinging under the rafters are brightly painted birds from the couple’s travels through Mexico.
Birds are also a theme in the lounge, which has a triptych of squawking white cockatoos which Barry commissioned from a local artist with a request that the sulphur crest be left off. “Being an interior designer, he didn’t like the yellow,” Jeanne explains.
She laughs at similarities between herself and the aviary under glass. “I think Barry was influenced by that too, darling,” she says.
The settee, upholstered in Thai cotton, is covered in fruity coloured cushions. Rice bins from Burma make perfect coffee tables.
The original lounge was extended into the back veranda, leaving enough space for an Indonesian dining table and chairs. Barry included an element of fantasy with a Balinese wood coconut palm and one of his abstract paintings in which a luminous se green fades into a glimmering white. An ornately carved temple door from Bali makes an appropriate entrance to the cottage.
Barry and Jeanne’s only regret is that they no longer have the time to make the most of their beach house. “It’s just beautiful,” Barry says. “After the first day here, it feels as if everything has stopped.”
“It’s so relaxing,” Jeanne adds, “We’ve tried to work up here before, but usually wind up saying, ‘Let’s make a cocktail’.”
WHEN talk-back radio star John Laws chats on air about his country lifestyle at Cloud Valley Farm, he adopts a tone so full of warmth it almost belies his more provocative and dogmatic persona.
Off the air, in a denim shirt and brown leather strides, relaxing with an afternoon drink on the broad veranda of his Georgian-style homestead, Lawsy looks content and right in his element.
“I come here because I love it,” says John, the highest paid personality n Australian radio. “I really relax, even though I run around cutting lawns and trimming hedges.”
He and his “princess”, wife Caroline, spend half of their time at their other home in Sydney’s exclusive Woollahra, just down the road from Prime Minister Paul Keating’s new house. “We never really know where we’re going to be,” John says, but admits he prefers life on the farm.
John and Caroline bought the 400ha property in the Yarramalong Valley, north of Sydney, about 15 years ago. At that stage there was no house or electricity and the land was covered in blackberries and dilapidated old dairies.
The couple commissioned Sydney architect Espie Dods to design a simple Georgian-style weekender clad in non-combustible weatherboard. But maintaining the house, garden and farm proved to be more of a lifestyle than a retreat. “We didn’t know how the farm would take over our lives,” Caroline says. “As time goes by, it’s become another home to us.”
So the couple dramatically improved the home, adding a massive bedroom, two bathrooms and dressing rooms. A sense of permanence was achieved with a brick façade, bagged and painted with Porters lime wash, and sandstone floors and skirting boards.
“We also put monolithic pieces of sandstone around each door,” says Caroline, who fell in love with the material while holidaying in Tuscany.
Entering the house through beautiful timber 19th century Spanish doors and passing an antique marble-topped consul table and mirror, an air of opulence and refined good taste is evident. It continues as you walk into the drawing room, where a French limestone fireplace dating from 1710 is so perfectly placed it seems designed for the home.
“It just embraced the original fireplace to perfection,” says Caroline, who still can’t believe her luck in finding it.
Listening to Caroline and John debate the best place for a new painting, their passion for fine art and antiques is clear. They began their extensive collection before they married and point out proudly that all but one piece was bought in Australia.
Threads of the original upholstery hang loosely from some of the antique chairs, but not the chair Caroline had reupholstered for John’s birthday in a bright fabric alive with birds. “It’s the boss cocky chair, which sits at the head of the table where he can rule his dynasty,” she laughs.
Caroline’s daughter, Georgina Carless, helped paint the main bedroom with a trompe l’oeil finish resembling 18th century French panelling. Dusty pink muslin curtains with loosely tied bows sit around the French windows.
Caroline even went to the trouble of matching the painted metal in the doors to the bronze in one of the couple’s pieces by Rodin.
The bed is swathed in acid-yellow fabric impregnated with gold. “It looks more opulent than silk, but it is cotton, so it will last,” Caroline says.
The bedroom leads into John’s dressing room and bathroom of tumbled-marble tiles. The dressing room features a gilded marble-topped table sitting between two Louis 14th antique chairs. Typical of their time, the chairs have a layer of lacquer over the original yellow leather. In keeping with the attention to subtle detail throughout the house, John’s stylised initials form a decorative pattern in braid on the window pelmets.
Caroline’s dressing room is a long-term dream realised. She always wanted a mirrored wall, with another mirror in a gold frame hanging from a big pink fabric bow over the top. The dressing room leads into Caroline’s bathroom, which has a faux marble painted finish on the walls. “It has the feeling of the luxury of marble, but at the same time it has lovely warmth and is comforting and soothing,” she says. “I had the bath deliberately lifted to make it look like an 18th century tub.” Above the bathtub, Georgina has painted a scene from a Roman wall.
The other room featuring Caroline’s feminine touch is her boudoir, which is literally covered in rose toile with Australian floral motifs. The toile was adhered to wallpaper so that the print could be continued over the walls and ceiling. Caroline likes the way the ceiling slants over the original veranda, as when she closes the curtains she feels she’s on the third floor of a French chateau.
John too, has a room representing his own space. His library, lined entirely with bookshelves, was the couple’s main bedroom before the extension. Caroline says the colour scheme was inspired by John’s motor bike. “He had just painted his Harley Davidson cream and he wanted to paint his library cream, so he got it,” she says.
The immaculately maintained gardens feature in Caroline’s gardening book, The Laws of Gardening. Although she is known for her horticultural prowess, she insists that John is just as passionate about the garden. “He works all the time in the garden. He’s taken to gardening as if he was born to it,” she says.
“Originally, every tree I planted sent him into quite a rage, because I was spending too much money, but now he’s far more likely to spend money on the garden than I am.”
Nestled in the hills a tranquil but accessible distance from Sydney, Cloud Valley Farm seems an ideal place to retire. But John rejects the thought. “I don’t see myself retiring, ever,” he says.