SHE was the Edinburgh festival’s first cause célèbres, starring in one of the most memorable moments in its history.
When Anna Kesselaar was wheeled in a trolley across the balcony of a city hall while wearing nothing but a smile she caused a moral scandal that ended in the courts.
The former teenage student – who is now a 68-year-old grandmother – has spoken for the first time in almost 50 years about how the episode which prompted many imitators in later festivals changed her life.
Not only was she denounced from the pulpit, her son was nearly taken from her, she was sacked from her job and she had to leave Scotland because of the notoriety. Her role in undermining the sexual taboos of the day will now be remembered during a 2012 festival event to celebrate the drama conference in which her stunt took place.
“I did it for art, and £4,” said Kesselaar, recalling how the then young artist Ricky Demarco – now a veteran arts impresario – handed the 18-year-old single mother what was a week’s wages at the time to take off her clothes in the avant-garde “happening”.
The city’s Lord Provost Duncan Weatherstone denounced it as the work of those “sick in mind, hand and heart” and she was front-page news.
“It was absolutely huge,” said Kesselaar. “The only thing that would have superseded it would be the outbreak of war. It was completely loony stuff.”
Kesselaar’s fleeting appearance on the organ gallery of the McEwan Hall made headlines world-wide, was claimed as a landmark of the sexual revolution in Britain, and saw the student charged with indecency in what became known as the “Lady MacChatterley trial”.
At the time, she dismissed her performance as “a bit of a giggle” but she was denounced from the pulpit of St Giles Kirk, fired from her job with Basil Spence’s architecture firm, and describes being chased by child protection crusaders trying to remove her infant son. She quit the city for a new life in London, where she still lives.
This year, publisher John Calder and Traverse Theatre founder Jim Haynes, both festival legends, will be celebrated for their role in launching the famously-contentious Writers Conference as part of the Edinburgh International Festival in 1962. But it was at Calder and Haynes’ follow-up event in 1963 – the Drama Conference – that Kesselaar made festival history.
Although Kesselaar and Calder were prosecuted for acting “in a shameless and indecent manner,” the lawyer and future Tory MP Nicholas Fairbairn got the charges thrown out by a judge. But Calder was barred from hosting similar events and the backlash helped push the festival’s director, the Queen’s cousin, Lord Harewood, out of his post.
“When you have a morality that dictates, you are in trouble,” Kesselaar said. “The morality of Edinburgh at that time was repression of everything: sexual repression, political repression, social repression.” It was a city, Calder remembers, “where you had never heard the word sex”, and where cinemas closed on Sundays.
When her picture was published around the world, her Merchant Navy boyfriend learned of the scandal when he found her picture pinned up in a service hut in Lapland, she said. These days, her grandchildren tease her about the nude pictures of their “nan”.
Kesselaar was the daughter of a South African immigrant to Edinburgh whose mother died at the age of four. She worked as a model at Edinburgh College of Art, she said, which still has a painting of herself and her son.
The drama conference drew big names of the day such as actor Alec Guinness and playwright Arnold Wesker. The theatrical “happening” at the end of the drama conference was organised by an American avant-garde director in an attempt by Calder to explore the “theatre of the future.”
“In those days, being an unmarried mother was not only shocking, you didn’t get any money,” Kesselaar said. “I went to the McEwan Hall at a given time and just took my clothes off. I was put on a trolley and wheeled across the gallery. There were splutterings from the audience and then I just got out the other side and there was somebody there with my coat. All of a sudden, a man said ‘there she is’, and it was me they were after.”
Most people, it appeared, had barely glimpsed Kesselaar in an appearance that lasted a few seconds, but salacious photographs taken of her backstage were shown to the Lord Provost. Kesselaar vividly remembers a minister at St Giles announcing that “any woman who has a child out of wedlock is not morally fit to bring that child up”.
“I have never forgotten those words,” she said.
It was at the door of the church, she says, that two uniformed men, she believes from the Royal Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, tried to remove her son. She fled to the student flat where she lived on Nicolson Street and a friend hid her baby carriage.
She also lost her job at Spence’s office: “He sacked me in a very nice way. He said ‘I’m so sorry to lose you, you are a very good worker but I have to think of the other girls – like I’d got something contagious,” she said.
Author and journalist Bernard Levin, in reporting the trial, saw it as the beginning of the permissive society in Britain. Her actions set the model for festival “outrages” for years to come.
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