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’.”