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Eleanor Douglas Arrighi (1909–1973)

by Anne-Maree Whitaker

Eleanor Arrighi, 1934

Eleanor Arrighi, 1934

Eleanor Douglas Arrighi (1909-1973), dancer, model and socialite, was born on 19 September 1909 at her parents’ property ‘Gunnegawah’, Mudgee NSW.[1] She was the daughter of Douglas Cox, grazier, and Gertrude (nee Richardson), the granddaughter of Alexander Hassall Cox and great-granddaughter of George Cox.[2] Alexander Cox’s sister Amelia Una was married to Canon William Edward White, great-uncle of author Patrick White. It was through this somewhat tenuous connection that Eleanor and Patrick claimed ‘cousinhood’ during their long friendship.[3]

At the age of 16 Eleanor, sometimes known as Nellie, debuted at Mudgee’s Criterion Theatre in 1925 performing a ‘graceful and elaborate “pas seul”’ in a production of The Geisha.[4] One reviewer commented: ‘It was “poetry in motion” — a graceful and skilful exposition of a difficult art that merited the spontaneous encore it received. Given scope for her talent Miss Cox should achieve a large measure of fame.’[5] The show was produced by Mrs Arthur Hunter and the dancers were trained by Miss Minnie Hooper, both of J.C. Williamson Ltd, and it was these connections which gave Eleanor and her older sister Jean entrée into careers as showgirls and dancers for the Williamson company.[6]

By the early 1930s the Cox girls were touring with the Williamson company, and making friends with others including Margaret Vyner who later achieved worldwide fame as a model and playwright.[7] When Eleanor travelled to England in 1935 she shared a flat with Margaret, and soon gained modelling work for designer Victor Stiebel. London in the thirties presented Eleanor with exciting opportunities such as modelling in a private show for Marlene Dietrich and Douglas Fairbanks junior, and flying in a light plane to Goodwood for the horse races.[8] She paid a visit to Sydney in 1937 and was seen in her London fashions at the races at Royal Randwick, among other venues.[9]

It was on this visit that Eleanor met her future husband Ernesto Arrighi. The Rome-born diplomat was 32 years old, single and fond of sport. He had a doctorate of laws and had worked as a journalist before joining the Italian diplomatic corps with postings to Madrid and Los Angeles. He arrived in Melbourne in April 1937 to take up the post of consul, and paid a short visit to Sydney in August.[10] Eleanor returned to Europe where she modelled for the Paris fashion house Schiaparelli. The Sydney Daily Telegraph noted: ‘Eleanor is one of the most admired mannequins in Paris. Tall, dark, and dignified, she has a distinct flair for dressing, which, with her elegant figure and charming personality, makes her much sought after by famous Paris houses.’[11] For each of her mannequins Madame Schiaparelli designed an individual collection, which was shown exclusively by the one girl at the parades which were held twice a day.[12]

Eleanor and Ernesto were married in the church of San Andrea al Quirinale in Rome on 30 December 1939 by Cardinal Federico Tedeschini.[13] Australia was not yet at war with Italy but like all Commonwealth countries had joined Britain in declaring war on Germany in September. Fortunately Ernesto’s next posting was to Rio de Janeiro where their first child was born on New Year’s Eve 1940. They returned to Rome in 1943 before moving to Nice on the French Riviera. After the surrender of Italy to the Allies in September 1943 Ernesto was imprisoned by the Germans for alleged high treason.[14]

Eleanor spent the rest of the war in Monte Carlo, which was far from the glamorous place it used to be. Water, electricity and gas were cut off and food was hard to obtain. For two weeks after her arrival she lived on the ‘public soup’ which was handed out twice daily at soup kitchens. At the end of the war she returned to Nice to find that her home had been looted, and many of her clothes and valuable possessions stolen. She travelled by ship to Italy when she received the news that her husband was alive and waiting for her in Rome.[15]

After a year-long visit to Sydney Eleanor returned to Rome in 1948, leaving her daughters behind. They were reunited when she arrived back in Sydney in September 1949. She and her husband had spent the past 12 months in Rome where they visited antique shops and bought old paintings which they restored and resold for a handsome profit. Rome’s comfortable women’s fashions won her approval over Sydney’s: ‘Here one wears gloves and hats and stockings, but there one is completely comfortable in casual clothes, cool low-heeled sandals, bare legs, and cotton frocks.[16] When Eleanor’s designer clothes wore out she had copies made by an Italian seamstress at Kings Cross, Sydney, and continued her round of social engagements.[17]

On her return to Sydney Eleanor linked up with Patrick White and his partner Manoly Lascaris, who arrived from London in 1948 and purchased a house in Castle Hill. Eleanor was still tall and glamorous, but at the age of 40 somewhat too old to pursue her former occupations, so she became a real estate agent. She was the first Sydney hostess to invite White and his male partner to dinner as a couple. In return Lascaris provided the European link she missed in Sydney, advising her on where to purchase decent coffee, olive oil and other requisites.[18] White’s 1970 novel The Vivisector includes the character Boo Hollingrake who is based on Eleanor. They share the same tall, slim figure and hazel eyes as well as a mane of black hair with a natural white streak. Boo’s house with its sea view is based on Eleanor’s home in Vaucluse overlooking Sydney Harbour with its ‘chessboard’ tiled floor and oriental furnishings.[19]

Ernesto Arrighi was due to follow his wife to Sydney but died in Rome on 17 April 1950.[20] From then on Eleanor continued to divide her time between Sydney and Rome. Her daughters attended the private Catholic school Kincoppal in Elizabeth Bay. Luciana Maria Gertrude Carlotta Eleanora had been born in Rio de Janeiro on 31 December 1940, while Marcella Elena Niké was born in Nice on the French Riviera on 9 March 1947.[21] They lived in Vaucluse in the 1950s and early 1960s until Eleanor purchased a waterfront house in Double Bay in 1963.[22]

Later that year White sought her help in locating a property in Sydney, having decided to leave his country retreat at Castle Hill. Houses suggested in North Sydney and Woollahra proved not to meet his requirements, but Eleanor found a house at 20 Martin Road, Centennial Park which won his approval: ‘it will be like living in the country while only ten minutes’ drive from the GPO’, he wrote.[23] Patrick White is the only Australian to have been awarded the Nobel Prize in literature, in 1974. He and Manoly remained in the house until their deaths, and it was listed on the NSW State Heritage Register in 2004.[24] It is now in private ownership.

Eleanor died in Rome on 11 December 1973 at the age of 64. Her estate in NSW was valued for probate at $165,000.[25] Her daughters went on to pursue careers in modelling, acting and art, with Luciana winning an Oscar for art direction for the film Howards End while Niké (Marcella) is an award-winning painter.[26] Luciana’s daughter Alalia ‘Monster’ Chetwynd is a performance and installation artist based in the UK.[27]

[1] NSW birth certificate 39047/1909.

[2] Obituaries Australia

[3] For example Patrick White, Selected Writings, Alan Lawson (ed), University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1994, p 261.

[4] ‘The Geisha. Final Preparations’, Mudgee Guardian, 9 March 1925, p 9.

[5] ‘Musical Society presents “The Geisha”’, Mudgee Guardian, 16 March 1925, p 8.

[6] ‘In “Blue Roses”: well-known country girl’, Sun (Sydney), 30 January 1932, p 7.

[7] Allan Davis, ‘Obituary: Margaret Vyner’, The Independent (London), 4 November 1993.

[8] ‘Mannequin in London: Marlene Dietrich buys a coat’, Sydney Morning Herald, 8 July 1937, p 17; Margaret Vyner, ‘Three Weeks’ Tour of the Continent by Air’, Smith’s Weekly (Sydney), 24 August 1935, p 21.

[9] ‘Smart Fashions… Smart Punters’, Australian Women’s Weekly, 9 October 1937, p 29.

[10] ‘New Italian Consul: Dr Arrighi arrives’, Argus (Melbourne), 23 April 1937, p 12; ‘Il Cav. Arrighi a Sydney’, Italo-Australian (Sydney), 4 September 1937, p 2.

[11] Elaine Berkeley, ‘Eleanor Douglas Cox poses for Schiaparelli’, Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 27 April 1939, p 20.

[12] ‘Australian girl was a Schiaparelli model in Paris’, Sydney Morning Herald, 27 February 1947, p 13.

[13] ‘Sydney girl married in Italy’, Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 10 January 1940, p 9.

[14] ‘Australian girl was a Schiaparelli model in Paris’, Sydney Morning Herald, 27 February 1947, p 13.

[15] ‘Australian girl was a Schiaparelli model in Paris’, Sydney Morning Herald, 27 February 1947, p 13.

[16] ‘Chic cottons in Rome for summer’, Sun Herald (Sydney), 4 September 1949, p 10.

[17] David Marr, Patrick White: a life, Random House, Sydney, 1991, p 270.

[18] Marr, Patrick White: a life, p 270.

[19] Marr, Patrick White: a life, p 478.

[20] Death notice, Sydney Morning Herald, 21 April 1950, p 18.

[21] Sydney Morning Herald, 8 January 1941, p 10; Jeanne-Marie Cilento, ‘10 Question Column: Artist Princess Niké Arrighi Borghese’, Design & Art Magazine, 22 September 2014.

[22] Torrens title 6593-40, NSW Land Registry Services.

[23] Marr, Patrick White, pp 438-440.

[24] Item 01719, NSW State Heritage Register.

[25] Probate packet 4-772019, NSW Archives and Records.

[26] Luciana Arrighi page,; Niké Arrighi Borghese page,

[27] Monster Chetwynd Wikipedia entry,

Original Publication

Citation details

Anne-Maree Whitaker, 'Arrighi, Eleanor Douglas (1909–1973)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 14 June 2024.

© Copyright People Australia, 2012

Eleanor Arrighi, 1934

Eleanor Arrighi, 1934

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Cox, Eleanor Douglas

19 September, 1909
Mudgee, New South Wales, Australia


11 December, 1973 (aged 64)
Rome, Italy