Born in Kaeo in 1910, Freda Stark was the daughter of James Stark, a shopkeeper, and Isabella Bramley. She attended St Benedict's School and Epsom Girls Grammar School after her parents shifted to Auckland shortly after her birth. Her father encouraged her to learn dance, and she began to do so at nine years of age.
After leaving school, Stark worked as a clerical worker by day, and danced as "L'Etoile" during the evenings, and her repertoire included tap, high kicks, tumbles and hula. During the 1930s, she also learned classical ballet, as steps toward an advanced examination certificate at New Zealand's Academy of Dance, which she acquired in the late thirties.
In 1933, Stark joined Ernest Rolls' revue, and met a young dancer named Thelma Trott, and the two women fell in love. In 1934, Stark was in the chorus of the Duchess of Danitz, while Trott starred. At this time, Trott married Eric Mareo, their conductor. The relationship was cut short in 1935 when Trott took a fatal overdose of the prescription drug Veronal in unexplained circumstances, leading to Mareo being charged with her murder.
Mareo was tried twice for the murder of Trott, was twice found guilty, and was twice sentenced to death by hanging, (later commuted to 12 years in prison).
Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries 7-A14388. Freda Stark with Thelma Mareo at a picnic in 1935 (©15)
Freda Stark was a New Zealand dancer. In 1933, Stark joined Ernest Rolls' revue, and met a young dancer named Thelma Trott, and the two women fell in love. In 1934 Trott married Eric Mareo, their conductor. In 1935 Trott took a fatal overdose of a prescription drug, leading to Mareo being charged with her murder. During the Second World War, she was a famed exotic dancer at Auckland's Wintergarden cabaret and nightclub, a favourite of American troops and she earned the title "Fever of the Fleet"
Freda Stark & Thelma Mareo are buried together at Waikumete Cemetery. Freda Stark longed to be reunited with her long dead lover Thelma Mareo and her friends made sure that wish was granted after her death in 1999: Freda, who died at 88 in a West Auckland rest home, was cremated and her ashes were buried at the foot of Thelma Mareo's grave, under the words she put there long before: “Waiting till we meet again… Freda.”
Stark was a prosecution witness at both trials and had to endure being outed as a lesbian, and constant subsequent accusations that she had given either mistaken or selective testimony while under oath which were never proven either way. Nude photographs of Stark were reproduced during the trial, but Stark remained unperturbed, and was later described as a model Crown witness.
During the Second World War, Stark was a clerical worker at the Colonial Ammunition Company during the day. At night, she entertained New Zealand and American troops at the Wintergarden cabaret and nightclub. At times, she was clad only in a feather headdress, a g-string and gold bodypaint. The appreciative American Expeditionary troops bestowed the title "Fever of the Fleet" on Stark, and often booked out the Wintergarden specifically to attend her performances, hiring an accompanying band and floorshow at the same time.
After the Second World War, Stark relocated to London, where she met and married Harold Robinson, a New Zealand-born dancer (and himself a gay man) at Sadler's Wells. The duo starred together in New Zealand-born Robert Steele's art film, Curves and Contrasts (1947), before their marriage ended by mutual consent. They did not divorce until 1973 and remained close friends. Although based in the United Kingdom, Stark frequently revisited New Zealand, before she returned permanently in 1970, and became a secretary at the University of Auckland.
During the 1990s there was renewed interest in her days as a dancer, and her life was celebrated in a biography Freda Stark: Her Extraordinary Life and in Peter Wells and Stewart Mains' documentary, The Mighty Civic (1989). Stark died in the Abbey Heights Rest Home in Massey, Auckland, in March 1999.
Days of Love: Celebrating LGBT History One Story at a Time by Elisa Rolle
Paperback: 760 pages
Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; 1 edition (July 1, 2014)
Amazon: Days of Love: Celebrating LGBT History One Story at a Time
Days of Love chronicles more than 700 LGBT couples throughout history, spanning 2000 years from Alexander the Great to the most recent winner of a Lambda Literary Award. Many of the contemporary couples share their stories on how they met and fell in love, as well as photos from when they married or of their families. Included are professional portraits by Robert Giard and Stathis Orphanos, paintings by John Singer Sargent and Giovanni Boldini, and photographs by Frances Benjamin Johnson, Arnold Genthe, and Carl Van Vechten among others. “It's wonderful. Laying it out chronologically is inspired, offering a solid GLBT history. I kept learning things. I love the decision to include couples broken by death. It makes clear how important love is, as well as showing what people have been through. The layout and photos look terrific.” Christopher Bram “I couldn’t resist clicking through every page. I never realized the scope of the book would cover centuries! I know that it will be hugely validating to young, newly-emerging LGBT kids and be reassured that they really can have a secure, respected place in the world as their futures unfold.” Howard Cruse “This international history-and-photo book, featuring 100s of detailed bios of some of the most forward-moving gay persons in history, is sure to be one of those bestsellers that gay folk will enjoy for years to come as reference and research that is filled with facts and fun.” Jack Fritscher
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