Behind Barry Humphries’ flamboyant on-stage personas was a tangled personal life, wrought with the drama and conflict of a complex man.
Humphries died at 89 on Saturday, surrounded by family, after suffering complications from hip surgery.
In a statement, the family said: ‘He was completely himself until the very end, never losing his brilliant mind, his unique wit and generosity of spirit.’
They added that 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.’
Married four times, with a very bitter split from his third wife, Humphries once frankly admitted he was not a great husband in his first three marriages because ‘I didn’t know what to do’.
Humphries is survived by wife Lizzie Spender, his four children Tessa, Emily, Oscar and Rupert, and 10 grandchildren. He once described himself as an ‘on and off’ father.
He had a very public falling out with one of his sons, Oscar, who briefly dropped his father’s surname and angrily claimed to have been cut out of his inheritance. It was also reported this week that he had only recently ‘patched things up’ with his daughter Emily – who he had been estranged with for 20 years – before his death.
Humphries has linked the failures in his private life to his childhood, when he lived a suburban family life in the very British culture of Melbourne during the 1940s and 1950s, which was also the beginning of his comedic creations.
Humphries said his own mother battled mental health problems and often said ‘rather loudly at dinner parties, ‘We don’t know where Barry came from’.’
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
He was regarded as brilliant, but ‘odd’, which later enabled him to mercilessly satirise Melbourne’s stifling suburbia and his mother’s ways by creating Dame Edna Everage in the image of her and his aunts.
‘I would see the roots of that character in her and in her sisters: Melbourne suburban aunties in the Fifties,’ he later said, adding that his mother didn’t come to see him when he began publicly performing.
‘I don’t think she ever did. She would have said something like, “Why must you always draw attention to yourself?” Which is true.’
Bullied at his private boys’ schools, Camberwell Grammar and then Melbourne Grammar, Humphries’ was gifted in English and Art.
He spurned maths, sport, and shirked the army cadets, earning him the nickname ‘Granny Humphries’.
The burgeoning stage artist married his first wife, Brenda Wright, when he was 21, in October, 1955.
Weeks later, Humphries staged the first incarnation of what would become his best-known character in a sketch featuring ‘Mrs Norm Everage, Olympic Hostess’ at Melbourne University’s Union Theatre.
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 favour of being called Oscar Valentine
Humphries had been studying philosophy and fine arts at Melbourne University, but would drop out. He served for a period in the Australian Army Reserve, but was increasingly involved in the burgeoning absurdist Dada movement.
In 1957, Humphries and Miss Wright moved to Sydney. Humphries joined the Phillip Street Theatre, which would become known for its satirical revues.
Humphries’s star was on the rise, but his marriage on the wane, lasting less than two years and culminating in divorce in 1958.
He married his second wife, dancer Rosalind Tong in April 1959, and together they moved to England where she would become the mother of his two daughters.
During their 12 year marriage, Rosalind endured the brunt of Humphries’ alcoholism, which he later admitted would probably have killed him long ago if he hadn’t given it up.
Rosalind gave birth to their first child, daughter Tessa in 1963, followed by Emily in 1965.
They returned to Melbourne where, at the age of 36, he had a near-death experience with booze when, after a particularly heavy binge, he was found bashed and unconscious in a gutter.
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
He was admitted as a mental health patient to the Delmont Private Hospital, in suburban Glen Iris.
Humphries later recalled, on 60 Minutes in 2018: ‘It’s about 45 years since I had an alcoholic drink so I need to discuss this with my friends in the audience to remind me about what it was like.
‘You can move on and you forget really what a danger you have experienced. You’ve got out of the lion’s den so don’t go back for your hat.’
He said of the 1960s: ‘I don’t have a very vivid memory of that decade.’
Rosalind and Barry divorced in 1971. Humphries then took a break from married life.
He said he loved all of his wives deeply, describing himself as always ‘tripping and falling’ into love.
‘No one told me how to do it,’ he said of love and marriage. ‘We learn by example but my parents didn’t teach me anything about it.’
In the late 1970s, Humphries met Australian surrealist painter Diane Millstead, then in her early 30s.
They fell madly in love, marrying in June, 1979 at London’s Marylebone Registry Office.
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
The newly married couple ham it up for the cameras with Humphries dressed as Dame Edna Everage holding Millstead in his arms
Millstead had lived and worked in West Germany and England and like Humphries, she came from Melbourne.
Humphries fathered two sons with Millstead, Oscar Valentine Humphries, born in 1981, and Rupert, born in 1982.
In the early 1970s, Humphries made The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, a film starring singer Barry Crocker, followed by Barry McKenzie Holds His Own. He starred in many films as an actor.
In 1987, Millstead collaborated with him on a film project, co-writing Les Patterson Saves the World, with Humphries playing Sir Les and Dame Edna Everage in a plot which has the two characters fighting a global bio-terror attack.
The esteemed George Miller directed the movie, which was a flop at the box office and the forerunner to the end of Millstead and Humphries’ marriage, which ended in a bitter divorce while their sons were young.
Humphries spent more time in England in an effort to stay close to his youngest children.
His eldest child, Tessa, by now in her early twenties, was forging her own career as an actress, in the TV soap Sons and Daughters.
Fourth time lucky
So why did the first three marriages go wrong? ‘Because I didn’t know what to do. I was very clever in some areas and very stupid in others,’ Humphries said.
‘Most people would agree that I was not ready for marriage or early parenthood. But I’ve come round to it.
‘I’ve survived in health and career. I’ve lived a very happy life. I’ve got two little grand-twins now, too.’
In June 1990, after bonding over their mutual interest in music, literature and the arts, Humphries married Lizzie Spender, the daughter of British poet Sir Stephen Spender and concert pianist, Natasha Spender.
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
BARRY HUMPHRIES COMPLICATED FAMILY LIFE
First wife: Brenda Wright
Married: 26 October, 1955
Second wife: Rosalind Tong
Married: April, 1959
Two children: Tessa Humphries, born 1963. Emily Humphries, born 1965.
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
The couple moved into a terrace house in London’s West Hampstead, where they have lived ever since.
Of this union, Humphries said: ‘I have been very lucky with my marriage.’
His sons Oscar and Rupert appeared to happily mesh with their stepmother, with both young men taking up careers in the arts.
Rupert has become a video game voice actor and writer, and Oscar became a fine art dealer and journalist, unfortunately also taking after his father’s demons with alcohol.
After struggling with drug and alcohol addictions and having an affair aged 22 with 35-year-old Jimmy Choo tycoon Tamara Mellon, he went on to have a dramatic split from his father and Spender.
In 2017, he publicly declared that he was dropping his surname Humphries because he was angry at the way he has been treated.
‘Changing my name,’ he announced in a message posted online. ‘F*** you for disinheriting me. I never wanted the little bit of money anyway.’
Without explaining who ‘they’ were, he said: ‘They let me know twice: once at lunch and once at my engagement party.’
Oscar changed his social media name to just his first two names, Oscar Valentine.
He later deleted the post and said it was an in-joke with a friend. Oscar Valentine is still his name on at least one Facebook accounts, which he hasn’t posted on since.
Oscar Humphries fell out with his father on the eve of his marriage to fiancee 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
It appears father and son made up, with Humphries saying in late 2018 that he had been invited to Oscar’s wedding in March of that year
‘Oscar had this illness. Has it,’ Humphries said publicly. ‘And he’s doing very well. He’s an abstainer. I’m very proud of him.’
‘I’ve always been very close to him.’
Asked whether the brief fallout was hurtful, Humphries told Event Magazine, ‘It is hurtful.
‘You’ve just got to see it’s part of an illness, you know? I didn’t have a phone number I could ring to complain about my parents.
‘I didn’t have a young Rupert Murdoch to call up.’